Deconstructing How Environmental Groups Mislead on Organics

Organic farming at the Rodale Institute | Photo by Susan Sermoneta | Flickr | CC license
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GUEST AUTHOR: Øystein Heggdal

Øystein Heggdal is a Norwegian agronomist. He holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and natural resources. He is currently working as an journalist for a Norwegian farming magazine.


In July a new report by a panel of scientists under the banner IPES FOOD (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food System) received some press coverage from both The Guardian and Farmers Weekly. They will also be working in partnership with  in their EAT Initiative for their EAT Stockholm Food Forum.

The report entitled “From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems” and is penned by Olivier De Schutter, along with a whole host of independent food experts.

The report proclaims that we need a total and global reorganization of the way we produce food, we need to move away from the industrial mindset, monocultures and global markets, an over to to more local production, small inputs, and more coherent thinking. In fact exactly the same as Daniel and Nina Foundation, which paid for the report, said at the outset. What a coincidence.

I will not try to dive into all the points raised in the report, but let’s look at the most surprising, the ones that we most need to call attention to.

First, the iPES-report actually gives high-input agriculture credit for having managed to increase yields high enough that we have managed to feed the world’s growing population, which has increased from around two billion in 1900 to over seven billion today. Accomplishing this was not always seen as a given and was no small achievement.

This achievement, iPES alleges has come at a cost – in their view industrial agriculture is inherently destructive of soils due to a concentrated use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and intensive operation. This in turn has led to a collapse of the crops in several countries, documented by iPES in research report Recent Patterns of Crop Yield, Growth and Stagnation by Ray et al., 2012.

What the report actually states is that collapsing yields in the period 1961 to 2008 are to be found in following examples:
• Corn in Moldova
• Rice in Nigeria
• Wheat New South Wales Australia
• Soy in Congo.

It is further documented that yields have been stagnant for corn in Morocco and rice in North Korea.

If we ignore the extreme drought in New South Wales, what these countries have in common is war, corruption, and the total lack of democratic governance that is the problem in these countries, not modern agricultural practices. If modern agricultural practices were to blame, these problems would be widespread instead of concentrated in a handful of troubled nations.

Elsewhere in the Ray paper, we are also told which areas where crop yields have increased the most: corn and wheat in Minnesota, rice in Arkansas, and soy in Argentina. In other words, increased crop yields in the heaviest industrialized and most intensively-run agricultural areas in the world. The research presented by Ray et al. are actually telling us the exact opposite of the conclusions of the IPES report.

It should be pointed out and emphasized that LAND IS AN INPUT, often rendered invisible by accounts of the environmental impacts of getting the most productivity out of an area of land. The trade offs of minimizing the impact on the land that is farmed must be balanced against how much land is actually used, as the act of putting land into cultivation is the agricultural act of greatest impact.

On Organic Yields

Which leads to iPES next highly motivated conclusion. iPES purports that it is a myth that organic food production has lower yields than modern farming. To underline this point they refer to the organic advocacy group the Rodale Institute’s 30 years of field trials. But, no, Rodale’s attempts also show exactly the opposite.

First it is important to point out that organic advocate nearly always point to the Rodale field trials when making the case for the equivalency of organic yields to convention. What they ignore or obscure is piles of real world data showing that on operating, commercial farms the yield gap is consistently measured at around 20-25% on average.

But even the Rodale trials don’t really support the story that iPES is trying to tell.

The Rodale Institute | Photo by Mike Nichols | Flickr | CC license

The Rodale Institute have been running organic and conventional farms in side by side field trials. In the conventional trials they are cultivating corn – soybean – corn in rotation, and in the organic trials they have an eight year rotation of seven different crops until they are back to corn again. And as usual the devil is in the details.

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In comparing corn yields between organic and conventional in the Rodale trials there is a clever sleight of hand going on. In the organic trial there are years in the rotation where , and nitrogen-fixing legumes are plowed back into the fields to provide the necessary nitrogen for following years, but these entire years without a yielding crop are not figured into any metric of average annual productivity. Instead they simply are not included in yields. The comparison is simply a head to head comparison of one year’s organic corn yield to one year’s conventional corn yield and the organic comes out equal or even a little bit ahead. But if yields in crop years are equal but one out of every four years in the organic is a nitrogen fixing cover crop year, then system yields of the entire rotation cycle will be 25% lower, if you are doing an honest accounting. Put another way – even if crop yields were equal, you would still need 25% more land to produce the same amount of food over the period of the eight year rotation.

We also don’t get an accounting of how the other crops in the organic rotations might compare to their conventional peers. Another consideration is that they do not count the carbon footprint of the cows which produce manure for the organic fields. And neither do we know what strategy they are applying in the conventional fields for fertilizing, dusting or tilling. What would be very interesting is to see the Rodale organic trials compete against the best practices in conventionally with presisjon- and biotechnology applied.

The Rodale trial has been around for some years, and those who has looked at the numbers conclude that over the eight year cycle organic has 30 percent lower yields than the conventional fields.


Carbon Emissions

Next iPES tells us that agriculture is one of the main sources of CO2 emissions in the world with somewhere between 19 and 29 percent of the total. The source of this is Vermeulen et al., 2012. But the iPES has a bit strange focus on what we need to do to reduce these emissions. They seem to worry a lot about emissions associated with the production of pesticides and fertilizers, which separately account for between 4 and 1 percent of ag-related greenhouse gas emissions.  

What they fail mention is that enthric fermentation from ruminants accounts for 40 percent of ag related emissions, and that conversion from forest to fields also accounts 40 percent of ag related emissions.

So if we stop using pesticides and fertilizers the ag related emissions will hardly change at all, but if that in turn forces us to plow more, cut down more forests and increase pastures with more ruminants emissions will increase somewhat violently.

But the Vermeulen report also points to where in the world the largest agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions come from; Sub-Saharan Africa emits 1.5 billion tons of CO2 every year, while the United States and Canada emit 500 million tons of CO2. It’s not the high-tech, intensive and export-oriented agriculture in North America which is the problem, it is agricultural with low technology, low knowledge, and production that barely reaches subsistence levels in Africa which is the problem. The real tragedy being that so little is produced while generating such massive impacts.

The great tragedy of the IPES report is the missed opportunity. While, iPES aimed to illuminate an incredibly important issue; how feed 10 billion by 2050 without contributing to climate change or destroying precious wild habitats; they egregiously failed in their diagnosis as well as their prescriptions. It was evident to anyone sufficiently versed in these issues that they either hadn’t read the research they were using to justify their analysis or they were counting on others not to notice. This is the problem when organizations start with conclusions and work backwards to justify them. The challenges we face are too large for advocacy groups to continue on in this backwards approach.

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8 Comments

  1. That’s an excellent piece. I spotted the problem in Rodale’s math years ago, and it always surprised me that people didn’t seem to understand that.

    Well done.

    • People that, “want to believe” don’t do the math.

      I could add oats into my corn-soybean rotation, and there would probably be some useful weed management benefit associated with that rotational choice.

      Since we no longer use draft horses on the farm, oats aren’t worth much as a cash crop. Not enough people eating oatmeal for breakfast. About $2.00/bushel. In my area (Central IA), a 100 bushel/acre oat yield would be considered good. So my income would be $200/acre.

      Problem is, good farm ground here rents for $270/acre. So I would be $70/acre in the red from the get-go, and I haven’t even bought seed or nutrients, not to mention the cost of planting and harvesting. So the prospect of losing say, $145/acre all-in with seed, planting and harvesting cost isn’t that attractive when I have more modern (i.e., herbicidal) weed control options available.

      Times change, crops change. Back in great-grandpa’s day and grandpa’s day when Percherons were the prime movers, it took about 35-38% of our farm’s acreage to grow horse fuel.

      • ack in great-grandpa’s day and grandpa’s day when Percherons were the prime movers, it took about 35-38% of our farm’s acreage to grow horse fuel.

        This sounds about right. A rule of thumb during the Civil War for feeding mules was “A mule eats his load every seven days.” In other words, if you were planning for a week’s worth of supplies make sure you include a load of fodder per mule.

        • There is a really fascinating history of horses and mules in U.S. (and other countries’) military history.

          My grandpa on my mom’s side was a Cavalryman in WWI. I have his field notebooks from his training – really cool stuff. Pencil sketches of horse anatomy as part of his short course in field veterinary medicine and stuff like that. I really should scan that stuff and share it.

          There is a pretty strong community of military vehicle collectors, but no cavalry (horse or mule) people that I know of, and that’s a shame. I do know some people that collect old ag equipment from the horse-drawn days, though.

          Standard row spacing for corn used to be 38″. That was because of the width of the flank of draft horses. It took a couple of decades for spacing to change to 30″ after mechanization…

          • I can’t remember his name — should have written it down — but there’s an elderly gent in Las Cruces who is the son of a pre-WWII cavalryman (who took part in the mass slaughter of cavalry horses ordered by McArthur. That had to result in a few cases of PTSD).

            Anyway, he gave a talk at White Sands that was part of the pre-march festivities at the 2015 Bataan Memorial Death March. He was wearing his dad’s uniform and had all his kit displayed.

  2. Great article! What’s most disturbing is the failure of some scientific organizations (looking at you IPES) to critically review and fairly report this.

  3. This article should be required reading for any non-farmer interested in agriculture.

    Thank you, Mr. Heggdal! And the FAFDL people, too!

  4. On behalf of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), I would like to provide the following clarifications about IPES-Food’s report ‘From Uniformity to Diversity’ and the data we reference. While we welcome robust scrutiny of the data and arguments we use, some of the claims made above are highly misleading:

    CLIMATE CHANGE & ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS. The author argues that industrial agriculture has relatively positive impacts in terms of GHG emissions, referring to data from the Vermeulen study showing that agriculture in the US and Canada accounts for 500mt of annual CO2 emissions, compared to 1,500mt from agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the Vermeulen study also states that nearly half of the emissions in Sub-Saharan Africa are indirect, meaning that they are often due to the loss of carbon sinks as land (e.g. forests, peatlands) is brought into agriculture. The comparison with North American agriculture (where there is very little land use change and the figures reflect what the agricultural system systematically emits) is therefore of little relevance. Furthermore, the production of agricultural raw materials such as animal feed is often ‘outsourced’ to developing countries, thereby outsourcing the related GHG emissions. The virtual land area required by the EU is estimated at 35 million hectares; most developed countries are net importers of biomass for human consumption, animal feed and industrial raw materials. These import requirements are one of the drivers of the aforementioned land use change in developing countries. In other words, the environmental efficiency of a region’s food and farming system cannot be judged by looking only at its domestic agricultural emissions.

    A further issue with this comparison is that C02 emissions are only part of the picture. Large-scale industrial feedlots or ‘CAFOs’ generate huge emissions of another greenhouse gas: methane. Meanwhile waste outflows from CAFOs combine with agro-chemical run-off to create dead zones at the mouths of major rivers, e.g. the Mississippi Delta, downstream of the US corn belt. Industrial food systems – from CAFOs in the global North to industrial animal feed production in the global South – are highly inefficient and highly polluting on a global scale.

    Regardless of the C02 data, claiming that North American agriculture performs better than African agriculture is hardly a robust defense of industrial agriculture. In many parts of the developing world, with farmers lacking access to land, resources, credit, technology and much more, agriculture yields too little food at too high an environmental cost, and farmers often remain mired in poverty. The relevant question is whether these systems should transition to industrial agriculture – or to something else. The relevant comparison, and the one IPES-Food makes, is between industrial agriculture and diversified agroecological systems, and what each could deliver on multiple fronts (productivity, environmental resilience, social impacts) in the same place with the same resources. IPES-Food’s report clearly states that a transition to diversified agroecological systems is needed whether the starting point is industrial agriculture or low-tech, under-mechanised subsistence agriculture.

    PRODUCTIVITY. The author focuses on yield collapse, arguing that industrial agriculture performs solidly apart from in unstable countries. IPES-Food’s reading of the data confirms that most historical examples of yield collapse have occurred in politically unstable environments. Nowhere in IPES-Food’s report is any claim made to the contrary. However, what IPES-Food underlines, and what the author ignores, is the problem of yields now stagnating (not collapsing outright) in many core production areas. The 2012 Ray et al. meta-study found that in 24-39% of areas growing maize, rice, wheat and soybean, yields either failed to improve, stagnated after initial gains, or collapsed. According to this meta-study, only slightly more than half of all global rice and wheat areas (57% and 56% respectively) are still seeing yield increases. The areas where yields have stagnated include more than one third of the American wheat acreage (mostly in the Great Plains), more than a third of the Argentine wheat crop, and all across Europe. Rice yields are meanwhile plateauing in California and most European rice growing areas. Rice yields are also stagnant on around 80% of the production area in China and Indonesia –two of the world’s major rice producers. Another meta-study referenced in the IPES-Food report, by Grassini et al., found that while low and stagnant yields continue to plague developing regions, yield plateaus at higher levels are now being observed in intensive industrialized systems, affecting 33% of global rice and 27% of global wheat production.

    This may only be the tip of the iceberg, given the extent to which productivity relies on environmental resilience, particularly in a context of climate change. Land is being degraded at alarming rates, with industrial agriculture often the cause. Meanwhile, pests, viruses, fungi, bacteria and weeds are adapting to chemical pest management faster than ever- requiring increased pesticide use that brings mounting costs for farmers, as well as further environmental degradation. The vast environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, and their threat to productivity, is explored extensively in IPES-Food’s report (see pages 15-22).

    It is on the basis of all of this evidence (and more than 300 sources cited across the report) that IPES-Food draws the conclusion that industrial agriculture is facing fundamental threats to its long-term productivity and viability. Given that these threats relate to the core characteristics of industrial agriculture (specialization, uniformity, reliance on chemicals), simply tweaking these systems without challenging the core assumptions is unlikely to work. It is for that reason that we conclude that a fundamentally different model of agriculture must be considered.

    The author also questions the validity of data used in the Rodale study to compare the productivity of organic and conventional systems. However, it is IPES-Food’s understanding that, contrary to the author’s claims, the Rodale Farm Systems Trial did include a marketable crop in every calendar year. The comparison of maize crops of course only concerns the years where maize was grown in both systems. Comparing diversified organic rotations like for like with conventional systems is indeed complex, given that diversified systems by definition produce a range of different and changing outputs. Indeed, the most viable way to compare a long rotation with many different crops with a simple short rotation may be to compare the overall economic performance. The Rodale report finds an average net return for the organic systems of $558/ acre/year compared to $190/acre/year for the conventional systems. The author also argues that the carbon emissions of producing manure for organic systems should be accounted for. However, it is IPES-Food’s view that current food systems produce enormous quantities of manure which cannot be easily disposed of. Reusing this manure to provide organic fertilization does not therefore entail additional carbon emissions. It simply requires food systems to be reorganized in ways that allow for these mutually beneficial flows. Overall, IPES-Food considers that the Rodale study provides a useful insight into the long-term benefits of farming systems that nurture soils by diversifying production.

    IPES-Food’s report ‘From Uniformity to Diversity’ can be consulted here: http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/UniformityToDiversity_FullReport.pdf

    The sections on the productivity and environmental resilience of industrial agriculture can be found on pages 15-22 (Land use: page 17; GHG emissions: page 19).

    The sources used and mentioned above:

    Grassini, P., Eskridge, K.M., Cassman, K.G., 2013. Distinguishing between yield advances and yield plateaus in historical crop production trends. Nat Commun 4. doi:10.1038/ncomms3918

    http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms3918

    Krausmann, F., Gingrich, S., Eisenmenger, N., Erb, K.- H., Haberl, H., Fischer-Kowalski, M., 2009. Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century. Ecological Economics 68, 2696–2705. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.05.007

    Rodale Institute, 2015. The farming systems trial.

    http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/

    Ray, D.K., Ramankutty, N., Mueller, N.D., West, P.C., Foley, J.A., 2012. Recent patterns of crop yield growth and stagnation. Nat Commun 3, 1293. doi:10.1038/ ncomms2296

    http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms2296

    Vermeulen, S.J., Campbell, B.M., Ingram, J.S.I., 2012. Climate change and food systems. Annual Re- view of Environment and Resources 37, 195–222. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-020411-130608

    Witzke, H., Noleppa, S., 2010. EU agricultural production and trade: can more efficiency prevent increasing “land grabbing” outside of Europe?

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