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 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.
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.