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    Six Reasons Organic Is NOT The Most Environmentally Friendly Way To Farm
    By Steve Savage | April 24th 2013 12:18 AM | 84 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    Contrary to widespread consumer belief, organic farming is not the best way to farm from an environmental point if view.

    The guiding principal of organic is to rely exclusively on natural inputs.  That was decided early in the 20th century, decades before before the scientific disciplines of toxicology, environmental studies and climate science emerged to inform our understanding of how farming practices impact the environment.  

    As both farming and science have progressed, there are now several cutting edge agricultural practices which are good for the environment, but difficult or impossible for organic farmers to implement within the constraints of their pre-scientific rules.

    There was one window during which the rules for organic might have been adjusted to reflect a more modern understanding.  In 1990 the US Congress charged the USDA with the task of setting a national standard for what products could be legally sold as Organic.  That agency was inclined to include more science in a definition of “what is safest for us and for the environment,” but the organic community of that day was adamant that the rule should only reflect the purely natural definition embraced by their existing customer base.  Long before the final Organic Standards were published in 2002, it was clear that the industry preference had prevailed and that the rules of organic would still reflect their pre-scientific origins.  That is why the following six environmental issues exist for organic farming. 

    1. Less Than Optimal Fungicides

    Copper Sulfate

    Organic farmers use pesticides, but only those qualified as sufficiently natural.  Thus, copper-based fungicides are among the few options available to an organic grower for the control of fungal plant diseases.  These are high-use rate products that require frequent re-application and which are quite toxic to aquatic invertebrates.  There are much more effective, and far less toxic, synthetic fungicide options without environmental issues, and which, unlike copper, break down into completely innocuous materials. Organic growers can't use those fungicides.  Similarly there are many environmentally benign, synthetic insecticides and herbicides which cannot be used.

    2. A Surprisingly High Carbon Footprint for Compost

    The greatest original contribution of the early organic movement was its focus on building soil health.  One of the main ways that organic farmers do this is by physically incorporating tons of organic matter into the soil in the form of composts.  Unfortunately, during the process of composting a substantial amount of methane is emitted which means that broad use of this soil-building approach would be problematic from a climate change point of view.

    3. Practical Barriers to Implementing No-till Farming

    No-Till Field

    The best approach to building soil quality is minimizing soil disturbance (e.g. no plowing or tilling) combined with the use of cover crops.  Such farming systems have multiple environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limiting erosion and nutrient movement into water. Organic growers frequently do plant cover crops, but without effective herbicides, they tend to rely on tillage for weed control. There are efforts underway to find a way to do organic no-till, but they are not really scalable.

    4. Difficulties Implementing Optimized Fertilization

    Fertilizers are associated with many of the biggest environmental issues for agriculture because of the challenges in supplying all a crop needs without leading to movement of those nutrients into surface or ground water or to emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.  The best practice is to “spoon feed” the nutrients through the irrigation system at levels designed to closely track the changing demands of the crop throughout the season.  

    Drip Irrigated and Fertilized Grapes

    This requires water-soluble forms of the nutrients and that is very expensive to do for the natural fertilizer sources allowed in organic.  Since the plants absorb those nutrients in exactly the same molecular forms regardless of source, this cost barrier is a non-scientific impediment to doing the best thing from an environmental point of view. Organic fertilizers like composts or manures are also much less practical for variable rate application, an environmentally beneficial option for rain-fed crops in which different amounts of fertilizer are applied to different parts of the field based on geo-referenced soil and yield mapping data.  Finally, the organic avoidance of "synthetic fertilizers" would mean that these growers would not be able to use what appear to be promising small-scale, carbon-neutral, renewable energy-driven systems for making nitrogen fertilizers. 

    5. Lower Land-Use-Efficiency

    The per-acre yields of organic crops are significantly lower than those for conventional.  This has been well documented both by meta-analysis of published research comparisons and by public data generated through USDA commercial production surveys.  

    The shortfall is driven by limited pesticide options, difficulties in meeting peak fertilizer demand, and in some cases by not being able to use biotech traits.  If organic production were used for a significant proportion of crop production, these lower yields would increase the pressure for new land-use-conversion - a serious environmental issue because of the biodiversity and greenhouse gas ramifications.

    6. Lack of an Economic Model to Move Beyond Niche Status

    Finally, agriculture needs to change in ways that accomplish both productivity and environmental goals.  That optimal farming approach must become the dominant system over time. Even if organic had maintained its growth trend from 1995 to 2008, organic acreage in 2050 would still have represented less than 3% of US cropland. 

    Trend line for US organic cropland as of of 2008

    Then, between 2008 and 2011, USDA survey data showed no net gain in US organic acreage.  Environmentally desirable "conventional" practices like no-till, cover cropping and a variety of other precision agriculture innovations are already practiced on a much broader scale and have the potential to be economically attractive for farmers without any price premium mechanisms.  Innovations in farmland leases could greatly accelerate the conversion process if growers could be guaranteed long-term control of fields so that they could profit from their investments in building soil quality.  

    Consumers Who Want To Do The Right Thing

    There are many consumers who are willing to spend more for organic food because they believe that they are making a positive difference for the environment.  While it is commendable that people are willing to do that, the pre-scientific basis for the organic rules means that the environmental superiority of organic cannot be assumed. While “only natural” is appealing as a marketing message, it is not the best guide for how to farm with minimal environmental impact. Between rigorous, science-based regulation, public and private investments in new technology development, and farmer innovation, modern agriculture has been making excellent environmental progress. That trend, not organic, is what we need to encourage.

    You are encouraged to comment here and/or to email me at applied.mythology@gmail.com

    Pennsylvania farm image from USDA Images.  Vineyard image Agne27.  Copper Sulfate image from Wikimedia commons.  Organic yield and acreage information from the USDA-NASS. 


    This is a very commendable article. As someone who runs a 200+ acre, certified organic farm, I agree with most of the point made. The rule system seems to be run by zealots. Every year I think about giving up my certification, but the economic advantage that the organic certification brings makes it tough to do.

    I would point out that there have been very few long-term studies comparing organic and conventional yields. Most of the studies that are cited in the literature are only short term, 5 years or less. It takes much longer than that to average out yields. The Rodale Institute is conducting a long term study (it's been running for 25 years or more) that shows organic production o row crops and vegetables equal to or greater than conventional over the length of the study.

    Another point, is that most of the people I come in contact with buy organic because they think there are fewer (i.e. no) chemicals involved and no gmo's. These seem to be more important reasons to them than arguments about the environment or sustainability.

    Fertility and weed control are the two major shortcomings of organic row crop agriculture for which there aren't good solutions presently available. If anything kills

    I'm also president of my county farm bureau, so I see many sides of agriculture. Our farmers produce abundant and affordable food, filling many niche markets, of which organics is a small but very important one in our area.

    I certainly appreciate what it takes for a farmer to do organic farming, and at 200 acres you are doing a great deal.  I also think that if a farmer can fill a consumer niche profitably they should do so.  I just don't see this as a viable model for where we want all of ag to go.  Yes, it is also a refuge for consumers who will never believe the very solid science saying they need not fear either GMOs or modern chemicals.
    I'm familiar with the Rodale study, but that could never be considered an unbiased test since the promotion of organic is what they've been all about since ~1950.  For instance, for most of that 25 years they haven't been even looking at no-till for the conventional side.
    Steve Savage
    Good reply and like you, I agree with much of what the article addresses. Here are a couple of areas where I disagree.
    1. Carbon footprint - please, let's get past this nonsense. I agree that large scale commercial composting operations are not optimal. From my point of view I would prefer to see the organic material spread as mulch rather than composted, where the natural cycle will break down the material over time. To supply N for the break down, spread a high N organic fertilizer on top of the ground prior to mulching. BTW, in many cases, a LACK of CO2 is THE limiting factor in vegetable growth. A greenhouse is just such an environment.

    2. Weed control - there is a HUGE push to move to a plasticulture system of vegetable production to both combat weeds as well as limit water evaporation.

    3. Limited till - Rodale's has pioneered a limited till system using cover crops and their patented "roller/crimper" cover crop rolling/killing system. After almost 5 years of real-world experience, many early adopters are reporting great success.

    4. Water soluble organic fertilizer - many options are available in this area, ranging from liquid fish (5-1-1) to an ultra-fine powder that can be incorporated into a fertigation system. The Mighty Grow Instant Liquid powder will soon be available from Mighty Grow Organics. This powder is a 4-3-4 with added trace minerals and is as fine as finely ground flower.

    BTW, I also agree that the organic model should morph more towards sustainability rather than "hard core" organics. However, if there was more emphasis in the organic industry on soil mineral balancing, then many of the pesticide/fungicide issues would be mute.

    Michael,Spreading a mulch is better unless it is something like a large organic farm was doing in my county (San Diego) where they were feeding such a huge population of eye gnats that people didn't even want to go out of their houses or play golf on the neighboring course.  If that had been a conventional grower they would have been shut down immediately.  This has gone on for years.

    Plastic mulch is a fine idea and an example of reason over "natural" absolutism.  Plastic is certainly not natural, but can be made in forms that will break down.

    On the roller/crimper - what I have seen in research says that it is not what you would ever want to use on a large scale.  Again, fine for a niche.

    Yes, there are options for soluble organic fertilizers.  However the history in California has been that at least two times, a very large percent of such sales turned out later to be "spiked" with conventional N so the price could be more attractive.  This is, to me just irrational to worry about whether nitrate or ammonium ions originated naturally or not since they look exactly the same to the plant in this sort of system

    I think that if organic had greater ability to be rationally changed it would help, but it is so political and essentially religious to many of the hard core activists that I really doubt that it could change.  We saw what happened when USDA tried in the 1990s.  If some of organic's supporters didn't demonize the rest of farming it would be nice.  I think that most of the folks that grow organic (which includes a great many conventional producers who offer that as an option) are rational, but they have no control of the "brand"
    Steve Savage
    Thanks for your reply.

    Mulch - when I think of mulch, my ideal options are (a) ground, whole, green trees, (b) wheat straw - which can be blown or spread. Neither of these products will attract gnats.

    Roller/Crimper - Just an FYI, I don't have a "dog in that hunt", but from what I understand, there are a large number of conventional growers using the roller/crimper very successfully. Specifically I have read of peanut farmers in Georgia and some conventional (not GMO) farmers in the midwest. But, I don't pretend to the be the last word on this option. I do know that locally some farmers are using sunn hemp to prepare ground that has been out of cultivation and that needs N and organic matter.

    Liquid fertilizers - I am well aware of the issues surrounding liquid "organic" fertilizers in CA. However, the 5-1-1 hydrolyzed fish fertilizer is both organic and cost effective. There is another product produced by Denali Organics out of central Alabama that is around a 2-2-2 that is made from catfish waste. Both of these products, plus a number of others are available for fertigation.

    What I have been recommending with my product is to use my pelletized, organic fertilizer in bed prep and then to use the liquid fertilizer through the drip irrigation system. This is for plasticulture.

    I agree with you that organic has taken on a semblance of religious fervor. I would certainly support a more rational methodology, where as I mentioned, there was more emphasis on prevention of plant born pathogens/insects rather than an eradication mindset. Prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

    I think that as time goes forward there will be an opportunity to tweak the model so long as GMO's are not allowed, I think that would be a positive development.

    Michael,IPM has been around since I got into ag 36 years ago so I don't think an "eradication mindset" is really the norm.  If you look broadly, most disease control is achieved by a mix of choosing growing locations, genetics, microclimate management and finally fungicides when needed.  

    If you haven't read it, UC Davis molecular geneticist Pam Ronald's book, "Tomorrows Table," makes a strong case for why GMO should be embraced in organic (her husband and co-author is an organic farmer and organic farming instructor). 
    Steve Savage

    IPM - I have been working with the Alabama State entomologist for the past couple of years. He is a big proponent in using "trap crops" to divert insects away from the primary crop and into the sacrificial crop. He also uses lures for scouting insects and to determine insect pressure.

    He is coming around to my side of the fence so to speak, since I have been growing for 3 years in Alabama with very little insect damage and no fungal issues. When I do note the presence of insects, I try to determine what is missing from the soil through soil and petiole testing. So far in every case I discovered a deficiency, which when corrected resulted in no more bugs. This year will be the test for peaches as I have several trees loaded with fruit and I have done NO spraying.

    GMO - I guess we will have to agree to disagree. The "promise" of GMO seeds was that there would be a DRASTIC reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides. What has happened is that the use of toxic chemicals has more than DOUBLED! There are also numerous studies documenting "issues" with animals fed exclusively on GMO corn and soy beans. I'm not buying GMO and I recommend against it to anyone that will listen.

    That being said, I have been wrong before, so I have a "somewhat" open mind, but the evidence would have to be REALLY compelling to cause me to change my mind.

    After watching a trailer from the authors, I think there needs to be a clarification with the term GMO. The way that I and most people use "gmo" is the way Monsanto markets its seeds. Corn, soy beans, canola and alfalfa has been "modified" to tolerate toxic herbicides that not only kill weeds but also kill soil microbes. I see NO good coming from such "technology."

    What "Tomorrows Table" proposes is to modify plants, such as rice, so that it can tolerate adverse environmental conditions. I see nothing wrong with that specifically, other than I'm not a big proponent of carb consumption, but I do realize that most of the world relies on cheap carbs to sustain life.

    So, thanks for the heads up on the book. I will check it out. But I'm not bending on the Monsanto brand of GMO.

    Hello and thanks for the article.

    I for one do think we are over carrying capacity, human wise. Who have you identified as thinking that organic ag could feed the world? Other than a niche market for the those who can afford ( money/psychological ) to care, it is a dead/limited end ag. Prior to Justus von Liebig circa 1850, everybody was "organic", famines where fairly common in many "organic" civilizations and cultures, slash and burn ag is still going on in very poor areas where they still have bio mass to burn ( Madagascar, my favorite ), carbon foot print!

    Thanks again.
    Who has turned a fair amount of compost.

    Marion Nestle and I did a "debate" on Marc Gunther's site about whether organic could feed the world.  I always say that only farmers will feed the world, and they do that best with the fullest toolbox of options.

    Actually, most pre-modern farming wasn't organic.  It tended to mine the soil of nutrients and stability and simply move on to "virgin land."  
    Steve Savage
    We're not over-carrying capacity anyway.  As I have noted, since the time when I was a kid on the farm we are producing far more food for far less people with far less impact.  By 2008, farmers produced the same food as 25 years earlier on only 60% of the land.  It has been a miracle of dematerialization.
    I agree.  Also Science Left Behind is well worth reading
    Steve Savage
    Thanks!  If you have amazon, please leave a review. Some guy just gave it a 1-star rating, saying, "They are firm believers in Climate Change which is why I wouldn't give them a 5 star rating."

    So we get hammered by the anti-science left for accepting biology and the anti-science right for accepting physics. But I figure if both sides are yelling, I am right where I need to be.
    Did anyone notice that in the past year organic farmers in Indiia and Holland set new world records for potatoe,rice and wheat production? All time WORLD RECORD YIELDS. 100% organic. Organic farming requires an excellent farmer and careful attention but is very doable. Meanwhile my local newspaer last Sunday had a front page article about the distrurbing level of endocrine system imitators in our water and the apparent consequence to human health. That wonderful no-till corn and beans? 1400 EPA registered herbicides and pesticides scattered everywhere and getting into every living thing. They kill bugs, birds, bees, weeds, but are , of course, totally harmless to humans.
    Anyone notice that, according to the last census, life expectanctcy for the first time in 150 years is going down , not up.

    Anybody notice any confirmation of that "fact"?

    I've heard of it, and have heard scientists quesetion the credulity of their claim.

    I question claims from India. They seem good at making claims to be the best in the world about a lot of things...

    Please Google ,,The Guardian Feb 16,2013. " professor Norman Uphoff, director of the International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development at Cornell University, "
    I am afraid it is true. if you read that article and others and still think it is untrue please tell us why.

    Vince,Uphoff tells a nice story, but it is very short on details and on data other that what villagers told him.  It also seems that the biggest change has to do with non-flooding using what appear to be hand built raised beds.  I'm glad these farmers are feeding themselves better.  Whether this is a model for other cropping situations is not at all clear.
    Steve Savage
    I'm not sure an article is verification. Many are hightly dubious of these results. In China, they are highly critical of the claimed rice yields. There criticism is related to how the sampling was done, and after-the fact reporting on yeilds..ie the rice is gone before the claim is made.

    John Hasenkam
    Here's some more reasons Steve,
    I still worry about the use of the copper fungicides because high copper loading is a very bad idea, especially for brains. Free copper can induce protein aggregation. I imagine it doesn't do the kidneys any good either. 

    Organic farmers should be grateful that other farmers are using pesticides because this creates huge barriers limiting pestilence spread and keeping their numbers down. If we had wide scale organic farming the bugs would have a field day, literally. 

    Organic farming is labour intensive, even if it could be scaled up that would not bring the prices down. 
    life expectanctcy for the first time in 150 years is going down , not up.
    So what, just a correlation. Doctors had been warning about this for years because of the obesity issue. The endocrine issue is a big worry to me because while most cancers are not going up breast, prostate, and testicular cancers do appear to be rising. The biggest source of endocrine disruptors is from plastics. We really need to address the issue of endocrine disruptors because there is also evidence these can drive type 2 diabetes and possibly obesity. 

    John,Actually, I've spoken to several growers over the years who surround an organic block with conventional so that they can keep the pest pressure low enough to get by with pheromone confusion and less effective pesticides for the organic.  One apple grower told me he didn't believe that balance could go beyond 90/10 to be stable.  

    The endocrine disruptor area is sort of up in the air.  It is not clear that all chemicals (including things from soy or iodine in sushi) that have endocrine effects are harmful.  We need to have a way to sort that out.
    Steve Savage
    Thor Russell
    Good article, have shared it around my social network so all those clicktivists can get more informed!
    Thor Russell
    Thanks Thor,
    If nothing else this has generated some conversation.  The goal isn't to say "organic is bad" but to say that those who care about the environment need to follow the science, not philosophical preferences
    Steve Savage
    Thor Russell
    Sure, and I included your link http://sustainablog.org/2011/03/the-five-best-things-about-organic-farming/ in the conversation. 
    Thor Russell
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Steve, do you think that any of these 19 differences between chemical farming and organic farming that are clearly outlined in the table there, are adequate reasons to believe that organic farming is more environmentally sustainable in the long term than chemical farming? They list soil differences, crop differences, health/social differences and economic differences. In your expert opinion, do any of these 19 differences listed have any credibility that negatively impacts upon your 6 reasons that you claim mean that organic is not the most environmentally friendly way to farm?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Helen,No, none of those arguments really stand unless you do a comparison with a dated, worst-case example of what they call "chemical farming."  As I have said, building soil quality is what made organic distinct early in the 20th century, but now we know how to achieve even better soil health in a way that is more like nature.  There is no natural system in which 5-15 tons of organic matter get mixed into the soil on a regular basis.  Soil microbial communities in nature and in no-till/cover crop farming are fed by carbon sources coming from plant roots and by the slow decomposition of crop residues on the surface.  Without tillage and with continuous plant material on the surface there is essentially no erosion.   Synthetic fertilizers can be balanced while reliance on manures and their composts delivers too much phosphorus relative to the other nutrients so that soil pH can be messed up and toxic levels of P can accumulate.  Unlike modern synthetic pesticides, the heavy metal part of the copper and zinc-based fungicides allowed in organic does persist in the soil or in the local stream bed.  I could go on and on, but this is a typical case of setting up a straw man for contrast which is really a false picture of most of agriculture.
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Steve, do we both agree that organic agricultural methods are internationally regulated and vary from country to country but that they are legally enforced by many nations, based in large part on the standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an international umbrella organization for organic farming organizations established in 1972? If so, then you will agree with IFOAM's definition of the overarching goal of organic farming as being:-  

    "Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved..."

    Most would agree then, that organic farming is 'a form of agriculture that relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control. Organic farming uses fertilizers and pesticides but excludes or strictly limits the use of manufactured (synthetic) fertilizers, pesticides (which include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides), plant growth regulators such as hormones, livestock antibiotics, food additives, genetically modified organisms, human sewage sludge, and nanomaterials.' In order to acheive these environmentally sustainable goals.

    You have said that 'building soil quality is what made organic distinct early in the 20th century, but now we know how to achieve even better soil health in a way that is more like nature.' 

    Is it possible for you to explain or give evidence as to how you now know that the soil from chemical, conventional or non-organic farming is now 'more like nature' than it was, in the millions of hectares that are currently growing these non-organic monocultured, often genetically modified (GM) crops? Do you have evidence that this soil is not eroding, becoming seriously chemically degraded and denatured, polluting the surrounding waterways and ecological systems and killing the native and often endangered wildlife and threatening the natural biodiversity of that environmental niche? 

    Is there a place for the environmental biodiversity that organic farming encourages, like Darwin's earthworms, pollinating insects and beneficial microorganisms for example, in a soil that is only growing one crop, over vast expanses of land and constantly being sprayed with toxic synthetic chemicals, fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides,  all deliberately designed to destroy everything in this large area, other than the monocultured crop that is being commercially grown and harvested? 
    This paper by Donald W Lotter describes how 'Organic agriculture (OA) movements in the major industrial countries - Britain, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. -emerged in the 1930's and 40's as an alternative to the increasing intensification of agriculture, particularly the use of synthetic nitrogen (N) fertilizers. Synthetic N began to become available after World War I when the infrastructure for the manufacture of explosives, based on the Haber-Bosch process for fixation of N, was converted to N fertilizer production (Morrison 1937). Synthetic N fixation enabled a 20-fold reduction in the volume and weight of fertilizer relative to manures, drastically reducing fertilizer transport and application costs per unit of N. A consequence of this process was that organic carbon (C] was decoupled from N and, along with the soil microbe community dependent on its energy, was essentially left out of the science of crop and soil fertility management for the next 50 years.'

    'Von Liebig's theory of the chemical basis for plant nutrition, in which N, P, and K are at the top of a list of elements necessary for plant growth, was used nearly exclusively as the theoretical basis of soil fertility well into the 1980's (Porceddu and Rabbinge 1997).'

    The recent massive explosions in the fertiliser factory in the US is a testimony to the amazing potential power of these synthetic Nitrogen and other chemical fertilisers. So, how is conventional, commercial, chemical, non-organic farming nowadays, any different to the chemical farming being described back then and compared in the differences between chemical and organic farming that i linked to above? How is the environmentally sustainable need for organic farming to maintain balanced biodiversity and natural sustainable practices these days, any different from back then? 

    'The scientific basis for crop soil management based on organic inputs was developed quite early. In the 1920’s and 30’s pioneering research on soil organic matter, the importance of organic carbon energy as the foundation for the soil microbial community, and the relation of this ecosystem to crop growth was done by Waksman (Conford 1988) and Albrecht (Albrecht and Walters 1975) in the U.S. and Chaboussou in France (Aubert 1996). These works were largely passed over in the prevailing approach to soil management in agriculture (Darwin 1945) (from the foreword by Albert Howard) in which the chemical basis for plant nutrition was substituted for the broader concept of an ecological basis for sustained crop production.'

    Do you believe that there is still a place for the birds and the bees and the environmental biodiversity of life that they completely depend upon, for their future existence, in the modern, massive, conventional, commercial, chemical and often GM and nanoparticle farming of monocultured GM crops that you are advocating, and do you have any real evidence to support your 6 reasons why modern chemical GM farming overall, is really more environmentally friendly than organic farming in the big picture?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    I won't try to respond to all of that, just a couple of things

    As for the soil building, think about how the fantastic prairie soils of the US midwest were naturally formed prior to the ravages of the plow starting in the 1800s.  There was no plowing or other physical cultivating of the soil so that it was allowed to build complex three dimensional structure slowly.  The very live biological system underground was fed by the roots of plants all of the year that the ground wasn't frozen, not just during an annual crop cycle of 180 days or so.  The plant debris that grew each year simply fell to the soil surface where it decomposed slowly, blocking evaporation from the soil surface and protecting it from erosion.  Plowing and annual cropping took most of those soils from 4-5% organic matter down to 1% or less by the early 20th century.

    Today when a farmer uses no-till methods and follows the annual crop with a cover crop the same lack of disturbance, surface decomposition of plant material and full season soil feeding occurs.  In such systems the soil quality improves and builds up beneficial organic matter.  Because a crop is harvested, it is necessary to replace the major nutrients, but between the buffering in the organic matter and the use of biological nitrogen fixation in the rotation and in the cover crop, that need is minimized.  The farmer may also use GPS guidance to that the wheels of any farm equipment only ever roll over a small, dedicated part of the total field area.  This prevents the sort of soil compaction that would otherwise occur.  Over time, the lack of tillage and good weed control with environmentally soft, low toxicity herbicides, leads to enough decline in the weed seed bank that weed control becomes easier.  Crop rotations help to break pest cycles.  Highly targeted seed treatments help establish vigorous crops with minimal use of actually rather benign chemicals and biologicals.  Insect resistance traits and advanced genetics based on marker assisted, conventional breeding make the crop more productive and less difficult to manage.  Many growers use GPS-based yield and soil maps to understand what parts of the field are actually most productive and which parts are better left to shift back to native vegetation to benefit regional biodiversity.  The un-plowed fields provide good forage and protection for migrating birds.  The lack of erosion from the untilled fields protects the local streams and lakes.

    This is a kind of row crop agriculture which is rapidly expanding in the US and elsewhere around the world.  This is not what you describe with your master list of anti-farming epithets: 

    "the modern, massive, conventional, commercial, chemical and often GM and nanoparticle farming of monocultured GM crops that you are advocating"

    These are inaccurate, dismissive and insulting names that food activists like to hurl at modern farming.  To understand how that feels on the receiving end, imagine that someone called organic "shit-based agriculture."  That would be a nasty and misleading characterization, but no more so than your list.  I could give you a list of literally hundreds of peer reviewed articles from the last 20 years that are the solid science behind the sort of farming advances I've described.  It would be far better if I could take you and 1000 others on a tour of real farms run by real people.  I don't think you would be able to be so dismissive of their efforts if you knew them
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    "the modern, massive, conventional, commercial, chemical and often GM and nanoparticle farming of monocultured GM crops that you are advocating"
    'These are inaccurate, dismissive and insulting names that food activists like to hurl at modern farming.  To understand how that feels on the receiving end, imagine that someone called organic "shit-based agriculture."  That would be a nasty and misleading characterization, but no more so than your list.'
    Which of those adjectives are inaccurate, dismissive or insulting Steve? The farms you are advocating are modern, as are many organic farms, they are massive, unlike most organic farms but some are getting that way, they are statistically conventional as opposed to non-conventional, again that is also changing as organic farming keeps growing, they are commercial as are some organic farms, they use chemicals as do some organic farms, they use GM crops and nanoparticle farming, which some of the US and other countries organic farms use and from what you are saying they are now not monocultured. I really don't think there is any need to feel insulted by those words that I used Steve. I have an open mind and what you have written is becoming more convincing to me.
    I could give you a list of literally hundreds of peer reviewed articles from the last 20 years that are the solid science behind the sort of farming advances I've described.  It would be far better if I could take you and 1000 others on a tour of real farms run by real people.  I don't think you would be able to be so dismissive of their efforts if you knew them.
    I would be grateful for that list of peer reviewed articles and I wish i could do a tour with you but I'm in Australia. If I am correct, what you are saying, is that this type of farming that you are advocating, is actually getting closer and closer to achieving the same goals that IFOAM's definition of the overarching goal of organic farming are :- 

    "Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved..."

    So that's great news :)
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    "Organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. 
    It's always fascinating that you persistently take any ridiculous claim at face value but demand 100s of peer-reviewed articles for each bit of basic science on this site. 

    Since there is zero spot checking of any organic farm we have to rely on the fact that they pay a fee to be certified and fill out some paperwork and that they do what they say they do. But those organic marketing claims go unchallenged by you yet actual science is held to an unrealistic burden of proof. 

    I appreciate Steve's patience but I fail to see your need to grind every article into mud with the same tedium. And wikipedia should pay you some sort of fee, since you deny and dispute every single scientist here yet you accept stuff written by anonymous nobodies as your gold standard.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Please read what I wrote, I was agreeing with Steve and saying I am impressed and becoming convinced by what he is saying. Surely that is one of the main points of Science20 to allow scientists like Steve to educate the public? Why would you use that comment I have made agreeing with Steve to then criticize me? Maybe you just skim read it? That's understandable in your situation, you must have to read so much every day :)
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Helen,I'm sure that you know that "modern" and "massive" are pejorative terms for the audience of sources and audiences you probably frequent.  "Massive" in particular is an emotive term, but economics are the driver of what scale each kind of business, including ag, needs to be.  If you are growing some niche organic vegetable, you might be able to be small.  If you are growing a commodity grain, scale is absolutely necessary.  I can also show you articles that show that larger row crop farms are better able to implement many environmental best-practices.  Actually, most of the organic production comes from very large operations today.  They also happen to be part of the same companies that are very large producers of conventional produce.  They are wonderful companies.

    I'm sorry, but both the terms "chemical" and "nano-chemical" are emotion-laden words that need much societal education.  I'll be posting about that soon.

    The kind of farming I recognize as much as advocate is pursuing the goals of economic and environmental sustainability.  They have no need to even reference IFOAM's  goal.  They may achieve it, but not because they followed their limited methods, but because they followed the science.  Sorry, but this is what this site is about and what I'm about.
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Sorry, but this is what this site is about and what I'm about.
    No need to be sorry Steve, I also love science and this site because it is about science.

    I am sorry if you thought my words 'chemical' and 'nanotechnology' were insulting and emotion laden, that was not my intention. I just thought they were relevant adjectives in a comment section of a blog that is titled 'Six Reason Organic is NOT the Most Environmentally friendly way to Farm' and talks about the chemicals copper, methane, nitrous oxide and carbon being byproducts of organic farming.

    I also mainly mentioned IFOAMs overarching goals again because they now seemed similar to yours and they also include using science to achieve their goals.

    I won't comment here any more, as Hank has accused me of grinding your blog into the mud, sorry for that too, if I have, even though it does sound a bit like another possibly productive, environmentally friendly, farming technique :)
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Thor Russell
    It may be a good idea to put all those hundreds of peer reviewed articles in a central place, with rough headings, and perhaps build up a more detailed narrative around them as you get time. Most of those articles are never mentioned, but the bad science ones get brought up all the time.
    Thor Russell
    Thor,I can, and may do that, but I can't get around the fact that many are behind pay-walls.  As an independent with no company or University affiliation that is a great irritant to me.  I almost always can get a pdf if I write the authors, but sometimes I'm looking for a paper from the early 90s and sometimes those authors are not around, at least at the emails in the pub.  There is also the issue that on certain issues, like whether or not there is carbon sequestration in no-till, there is a decade of controversy so that if one wants to get the final consensus they need to read many papers over time.  I had the opportunity to read hundreds of papers for a paid consulting job.  That isn't what most people can do in terms of a time investment.

    Steve Savage
    Steve, the picture of copper sulfate is actually a blend of copper sulfate and lime, (Bordeaux mixture), which is green. My Italian father who sprayed it on his vines called it verde rame, which translates directly to "green copper". If it had been pure copper sulfate, it would have been blue.

    Enrico,You are right.  Its hard to find free to use images of these things (I got dinged once on a copyrighted image someone put on my website).  Copper is used in various forms in ag.  The original Bordeaux mixture was copper sulfate mixed with hydrated lime.  End of the day they are all problematic vs modern options.  What was "state of the art" in 1874 can't be the best option today.
    Steve Savage
    In our editor toolbar the Flickr image search allows you to specify images that are usable (with attribution). Shutterstock also gives us a free account.
    This business of an organic farmer surrounding himself with conventional farmers to "protect" himself from pests is preposterous and I suspect the writer knows little about actual real live in-the-dirt farming.
    I am a 62 year old life long farmer that sprayed atrazine and Lasso to kill weeds and some real wicked organophosphates to kill root worms back in the 1970's and came to realize the craziness of spreading 55 gallon barrels of class 1 poisons all over my farm and expecting anything good to happen. By 1980 I weaned myself off drugs and learned how to farm carefully , intelligently and profitablty. I welcome anyone to come to Western Wisconsin and drive down highway 162 in mid August and tell me which farms are organic and which ones are conventional by what you see out the window. And come back in October and ride in the combines and have a look at the yields. And tell me you honestly prefer to eat things that you know have ample residues of substances that are neurotoxic by design and originally designed to kill people in war. Remember the Sarin gas attack in Japan?
    In the mean time go to the http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/pubs-and-papers/2012-... the U of Iowa and have a look at the 1998 to 2011 side by side comparison of yields comparing organic and conventional. I look forward to hearing why I should not believe the people from Ames, Iowa like I am not supposed to believe Professor Imhoff.
    I am not impressed with anyone's methodology of dismissing in one sweep of the hand 1.1 billion people in India. You are so much smater than all those people? Please show me any factual data, report or article that disputes the yield record facts.

    Aren't you making two different points?  You seem to be critical of modern, science-based farming and then say Indians are doing it right - and they love GMOs. Or am I misunderstanding your comment?

    I grew up on a farm also and was always shocked when flatlanders would believe they could somehow pick a vegetable out of the ground and eat it because it was grown by a small farmer.  They thought something grown in the country was somehow more natural. I wouldn't let my kids eat anything without washing it, I don't care who grew it.  And any 'organic' food coming from China is probably a hoax. That said, even as a 'foodie' who doesn't like that anyone has touched my family's food, I trust GMOs more than organic farming.
    Vince,You are actually a great example of the progress in agriculture that I am talking about.  Those old organophosphates were really nasty and it is great that they are not now what people use for corn root worm control.  Atrazine use rates are now really low and it is still an important tool.  I'm not saying don't believe Imhoff, I'm saying that he is talking about a farming system in a climate about as different from Wisconsin as you can imagine and with a human labor resource that has never been available to you.

    I don't dismiss the farmers of India.  I also know that 4-5million of them have benefited greatly from Bt cotton.  I don't dismiss data from Ames.  I just look at the real life statistics on a state and national level.  

    I don't want to defend the bad aspects of what farming was in the 1970s.  I've spent 36+ years working on improvements.  My only point in this article was to say that "organic" is not the best way to decide what changes to make.  We should let the science decide that.
    Steve Savage
    One of the issues with comparison is sustainability of the process. Organic is more labor intensive generally, so it's more expensive. The expense pays off ONLY because it's a niche market with well off people able to pay for it. Can we afford a system where everything is organic? I don't think so.

    Sure, orgainc yeilds fine if not challenged with pest pressure or disease pressure. SO if their trial years didn't have those challenges, then they aren't telling the whole organic vs. conventional stories. The economics work, and I think it's great that you are an organic grower, and I'm glad you guys are out there. I don't think you would want a system where that becomes normalized. Suddenly the economics won't work, your specialty becomes a commodity, and your expensive crop isn't worth it's inputs.

    Yes, I have made the case in the past that an organic process is for people who are 'rich' when it comes to land; the agricultural 1% who happened to be born in great places to grow food, so yield is not a life-and-death issue, it is solely a profit one.  The bulk of the world does not have that luxury so science can level the playing field.

    But the industry is being crippled by anti-science and anti-corporation types who insist that because it cannot be inexpensive today, it is all a Big Business lie. These same people would have denied the value of penicillin because it hadn't cured disease in the third world shortly after it was invented.
    Gerhard Adam
    The bulk of the world does not have that luxury so science can level the playing field.
    There's no disagreement with that.
    But the industry is being crippled by anti-science and anti-corporation types who insist that because it cannot be inexpensive today, it is all a Big Business lie.
    ... and it is.  Nobody, not corporations, not government needs my permission to help others.  It doesn't require my permission to assist third-world nations or starving people.  The "lie" occurs because they want me to subsidize it.  This is the same argument used for pharmaceutical prices, i.e. we have to pay higher prices so that others get it cheaper.  That's simply another form of taxation.  If that government did it, you'd hear no end to the wailing and screaming about it, but when corporations charge higher prices for exactly the same purpose, then it's just business.

    The fact is that marketing these things to consumers is something that the market should regulate.  If the market accepts it then there's no problem in making a profit.  However, I'm tired of the corporations [and government] arguing that it is to help poor people, when the reality is that they simply want me to buy their products without having a choice, so that they can play their "altruism" card.

    If they want to help, who's stopping them.  If they want to force me to buy, then it's a different question.
    Mundus vult decipi
    What seems to be missing in this article is carbon,Whether you produce your nitrogen by synthetic process or natural,it must be held and processed with carbon[decaying vegetable matter].Plants have no mechanism in their cells to produce protein although they can process protein from other proteins.It is the animal cells in bacteria that process protein from nitrogen and carbon i.e. composting.The whole animal kingdom is about producing bacterial waste [a worm for instance passes seven times as much bacteria as it consumes]and bacteria is the final stage in feeding it's growth fuel,protein.Carbon sequestration in the soil by composting ,not only reduces co2 in the atmosphere,it increases the protein content of food compared to carbohydrates,which means we eat less ch2's and hence store less fat in order to get our protein.You don't mention anything here about the quality{proteinwise] of food which in Australia has seen a drop corresponding to a drop in soil carbon levels.Hank ,who seems to think so much of Charles Darwin does not think we need to evolve our crops in the environment in which they grow but can safely be manufactured in a laboratory and then left to fend for themselves in an entirely different field environment ,like taking Darwin's finches and expecting them to survive in the Amazon,thats GM crops.

    Plants most certainly do make protein. Where are you getting your information?

    And regardless of your view on CO2 as a greenhouse gas, it's not the only greenhouse gas, and methane from composting is an important one. And somebody needs to explain carbon sequestration via composting. The carbon input to compost is sequestered by the plant material added...so why would aerobic composting be doing any further sequestration? Are we saying that it's more stable to have carbon in a soil-form than...well fill in the blank, where do we say that carbon would go if it weren't composted. It shouldn't just "become" CO2 because it wasn't composted.

    aslo bacteria have not animal cells...by definition.

    Gerhard Adam
    Mundus vult decipi
    ??? Not!

    "bacteria have not animal cells...by definition.

    Pedantry roolz!  Cells plural.  A bacterium is a single cell.  But then, you knew that already, didn't you, Gerhard ?  ;-)
    Gerhard Adam
    Yes, but since bacteria are not part of the animal kingdom, I'm not sure what the point of the comment was.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The guy said
    :...It is animal cells in bacteria that..."

    If I knew how to quote here I would have.

    Mike: I'll do the quote for you.

    Don said:
    "It is the animal cells in bacteria that process protein from nitrogen and carbon i.e. composting."

    Which is where I do Gerhard's ??? thing. :-)
    and I think recent studies would disagree with "organic produce has more protein."

    Both organic and conventional growers get a good deal of their nitrogen (needed for making protein) from plant associated bacteria (Bradyrhizobium, Azospirillum, Azotobacter).  The rest comes from the Haber Bosch process which gets the N from the 80% in the atmosphere.  Conventional growers apply that directly.  Organic growers apply it after it has been through an animal, but they are dependent of that supply from conventional.  Current Haber Bosch nitrogen production is done using natural gas, but that does not have to be the case as I've written before.
    Steve Savage
    Ashwani Kumar
     Nice paper . I agree to disagree. Organic farming has different meaning in different agro-climatic zones. Land use pattern in semi arid regions with organic matter starved soils will be different if we select different cropping patterns as compared to farming in advanced countries which use excess of manure and fertilizers. The entire issue needs more realistic and diversified view to come to some sort of generalised conclusion.   
    Ashwani,We probably agree on many points.  There is certainly no one model that applies across climates, crops, soil types and socioeconomic settings.  However, because organic is based on philosophy rather than science its good features and intentions are mixed with limitations that don't make sense.  
    Steve Savage
    See obligate[binding]symbiosis[interdependency]of mytochondria[animal cells]and chloroplast[plant cells]cells.Plants need animals and animals need plants.link:- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endosymbiont.Composting is a process which can occur quickly [in bins]with great heat and methane/ammonia production,or slowly in ground carbon with hardly any gas given off.Carbon is the best storer of nitrogen known allowing nitrogen to be stored for plant use and not washed out of the soil into rivers.I disagree with Gerhard that bacteria is not animal,if it acts like an animal and works like an animal as far as i'm concerned,it's an animal.It's certainly not a plant.

    Gerhard Adam
    It is neither a plant nor an animal.  Depending on how one divides things, bacteria are in the kingdom Archaea and Bacteria [note they have their own kingdom].  Or even if you prefer the older division of Prokaryota, but they are not part of Animalia.

    So, while you may think they act like animals, they don't and they aren't.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Okey dokey, you call anythign you want an animal cell. Don't worry about that annoying scinetific fact stuff.

    I would like to understand the idea of carbon sequestration via composting. What's the other option for carbon tied up in plant matter? Are we pretending that if it's not formally composted on an organic farm, that it ends up somewhere else besides the ground?

    I could very well be missing somehthing. But it's as if we're acting like all non-composted plant matter gets burned or something...

    Mike,The normal carbon cycle is that plants absorb CO2 and then it is released again as CO2 when that plant matter decomposes or is metabolized by the plants or animals that consume it.  The GHG issue arises when the decomposition occurs without sufficient oxygen at which case microbes called methanogens use the carbon compounds for energy and emit some of it as methane which is 21-24 times as potent as a greenhouse gas.  So, in the ruminant animals that eat crops, there is some of that methane production and it continues in their manure depending on how it is stored or used.  If the manure is composted (necessary to kill weed seeds and human pathogens), some methane is produced even if the goal is to keep it fully aerated.  Then in manures or composts are buried in the soil (normal plow incorporation in organic farming), additional methane emissions occur.

    The best fate for manure and other organic waste streams is to run them through an anaerobic digester that intentionally favors methane production but which then burns it for energy releasing just CO2 (carbon neutral). Many dairies or CAFOs do this.  It would be better if they all did.  As for food scraps, many municipal sewage treatment facilities have digesters so down the drain is a much better way to dispose of the waste than into a landfill where it would go to methane.

    If crop residues, winter weed cover, or winter cover crops are plow incorporated into the soil, methane will be generated when it decomposes.  If those plant residues are simply left on the soil surface, they break down slowly with plenty of oxygen so no methane.  Some crop residues get burned which is carbon neutral, but not so great from an air quality perspective.

    Steve Savage
    Mr. Savage,

    Your argument has so many holes and misleading "facts" it will be difficult to address them all fully. It is apparent that you are not fully versed with modern organic farming. For background, I am an organic farmer for more than 35 years. Additionally, I am an organic farming advisor, providing technical assistance to more than 175 growers, who farm nearly 25,000 acres of organic crops, everything from apples to zukes, in a huge array of climates and soils in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Mexico, Guatemala and Hawaii. I have regularly dealt with all the issues you raise. We are able to produce high quality crops, and often outyield the county or country average for conventionally grown crops. Here is my feedback on your debatable issues:

    1) Fungicides: Copper is by far not the only fungicide organic farmers use. In fact, in my client base it is one of the least commonly used. Organically approved fungicides include minerals such as sulfur, potassium bicarbonate and silicates. Other commonly used organic fungicides include microbials (bacteria, fungi and yeast), hydrogen peroxide, soaps, oils (both vegetable and petroleum based), compost teas, plant extracts as well as probiotics. The majority of these materials have very benign environmental fate issues, often much less than conventional fungicides. I consult in some of the toughest, high humidity climates in the world, and we effectively deal with fungus and bacteria, rarely needing copper. Further, through inducing plant resistance via crop improvements, rotations and balanced nutrition, the incidence of fungus and bacteria is considerably less than on conventional farms. BTW, I have advised on many conventional and transitional farms as well, have seen the amount of disease pressure that occurs in conventional farming, and the disease pressure in a well managed organic field is considerably less.

    2) The majority of organic growers utilize compost as a supplement to fertility, not as the main fertility agent. Nearly all of my clients rotate leguminous crops with annual crops, or are planted between (in the case of perennials). This common practice obviates the need for most compost applications, while improving water holding capacity, nitrogen availability, weed suppression, water infiltration, organic matter, biological diversity, disease suppression and pest management. Compost is primarily utilized as a microbial inoculant to speed the cycling and nutrient release process with the breakdown of crop and cover crop residues. Further, compost greatly reduces the environmental footprint of all the "waste" generated in agriculture and urban areas. This waste often pollutes waterways (i.e. manure runoff) and fills landfills, thereby wasting valuable nutrients and organic matter. Additionally modern composting techniques have greatly improved the loss of nutrients, including methane, to the environment. Controlled scientific aerobic compost systems, properly managed, produce negligible methane. You need to look at state of the art composting to get the real picture.

    3) You completely ignore the biocide effects of herbicides when discussing the no till approach. Additionally a number of organic growers utilize no till, particularly in perennial crops, and an increasing number are doing so in annual cropping systems. Considering that there has been virtually no research done on non till, non herbicide annual systems, the development of organic non till systems lags behind herbicide systems, but growers are adopting more each year as they learn the intricacies of the timing and equipment required to do so. Make no mistake, its easier to do it with herbicides, but it can and is being done without herbicides. Organic no till will continue to increase, especially if more research is done on this.

    4) Organic fertilizers do not have the same environmental fate issues as conventional, soluble fertilizers. They are generally not soluble, requiring microbial activity to digest and release the nutrients, therefor do not leach into the groundwater. Additionally, unless over applied, organic fertilizers do not give off significant amounts of nitrous oxides. These are conventional fertilizer problems, not organic fertilizer problems. Organic farming uses very little soluble fertilizers for a good reason: they are generally not needed. The small amounts utilized are often foliar fed to meet on demand crop needs, or fertigated at much lower rates than conventional farming. We use nitrate tissue testing, plant tissue and soil analysis to determine fertility needs. Your point about organic farming being non scientific isn't at all what my experience is.

    5) The yield data is often misleading. I can introduce you to many, many organic farmers who outyield USDA conventional production figures on a wide variety of crops. This is particularly evident in drought years, but common in irrigated agriculture. Again considering the almost wholesale lack of science work in the area of improving organic farming, the yields we get are pretty amazing. Some of the crops I work in that have outproduced or produced equal to conventional include citrus, blueberries, carrots, grapes, spinach, cauliflower, lettuce, cotton, beans, peppers, pears and more. Typically the cost per acre is higher in organics, usually as a result of increased weed control costs, but satisfactory yields can be achieved with modern scientific farming. This cost differential is decreasing as organic farmers refine their practices, and could be greatly improved if more research was done on all organic crops. The organic crop research in the US is pathetically small.

    6) The economic argument is a smoke screen. The growth of organic foods has exceeded the growth rate of conventional foods for more than 10 years. Organic farming was less than 1/100% of the farmland in the US in the 80's. Yes, it has a long way to go to increase to the point that it will be a dominant factor in food production. The economic downturn of the last 5+ years has impacted a wide spectrum of commerce, including organic farming. The price differential between organic and conventional needs to lessen in the era of tight economies. A serious effort by the research community would greatly enhance the productivity, and lower the cost, of organic foods. Farmers, retailers and wholesalers of organic foods operate on higher margins, due to lower sales, than conventional large scale production and marketing. All economic issues are artificially tilted in the favorable direction of the largest producers and sellers, from inputs, energy, transportation, marketing, research, operating capital and subsidies. On a level playing field organic farming outperforms conventional agriculture, and will continue to do so.

    I encourage you to fully investigate todays modern organic farming movement. You will be pleasantly surprised. It still has plenty of flaws, make no mistake, but is a shining example of what can be done by the ingenuity of creative, forward thinking farmers.

    Amigo Cantisano,
    If your growers are using minimal amounts of copper that is good. There are certainly other organic farmers who use them extensively.  Perhaps they need lessons from you.  I am quite familiar with the other options having worked for 7 years at Mycogen developing biocontrols and natural products for ag. 

    I would be interested if you know of a good study documenting a low methane composting system.  Anaerobic digestion would clearly still be a better way to deal with organic wastes because there would be no methane emissions and the energy would have been captured.   I know that there are some companies that make soil amendments that way.

    It is good that some organic farmers are figuring out how to do no-till; however the way that some do it in cotton and perennial crops is to burn the weeds with propane.  That is even in official ATTRA guides.   

    I am also very familiar with the different properties of most organic fertilizers.  Their slower mineralization does lead to less leaching, but it can also lead to release long after the crop is taking up the nutrients so there can be leaching an nitrous oxide emissions then - I can show you several studies showing this.  Getting any form of fertilizer availability to match plant demand for high use-efficiency is a big challenge for any form of farming.

    If organic yields are superior, then why is a price premium needed?  The USDA surveys of organic in the US in 2008 and 2011 clearly document lower yields on average.  I'm sure you can find certain exceptions, but that isn't the norm.

    As for a lack of research, in comparison to its actual size, there is a disproportionally high investment in organic research within the USDA and the land grant university system.  Much of the recent growth in sales of organic food is in non-perishables imported from places where the compliance with organic rules is very much open to question.  As for the recession, the amount of money that US organic farmers were paid for their crops went up substantially even though total production or acreage did not.  

    I'm sure there is a great deal of ingenuity among organic farmers as there is among conventional growers.  There are plenty of people out there promoting organic, and not that many who point out what positive things are happening in conventional.   
    Steve Savage
    amigo cantisano,It is late, my time.  I will respond to your thoughtful comment tomorrow

    Steve Savage
    BTW, this is why I am against what is commonly referred to as GMO crops.


    Round-up ready crops, engineered to withstand the ravages of glyphosate, is causing serious harm in the world. When will the madness stop?

    Actually, that nonsense article is why scientists are against what is commonly called Huffington Post science. 
    Actually, that nonsense article is why scientists are against what is commonly called Huffington Post science.
    Actually, that was a Huffpo post of Reuters science which was in turn citing peer-reviewed science.
    As has been noted many times, calling that 'you pay and we will stamp you as peer reviewed' publication peer reviewed is like saying someone who starts a blog on wordpress has the same credibility we do.  That supposed study wasn't a study at all - it was done by an IT person, a 'consultant' and had no data. It is peer reviewed the way a group of astrologers might get together and declare themselves peer reviewed - and they are, but they are not science.
    It is peer reviewed the way a group of astrologers might get together and declare themselves peer reviewed
    My bad - I missed checking the bona fides of the publishers.
    No one expects anything from Huffington Post so a person with confirmation bias can always find a woo article there that agrees with whatever - it's a political site and the demographic behind anti-vaccine and anti-GMO and HuffPo readership is identical. The Reuters writer who really enraged people has done this kind of thing before but because they are considered a 'legitimate' source it has made the science community a lot angrier.
    It was the Reuters brand that switched off my skeptic genes.  They used to be a trusted news source.  I wasn't aware that they had done a Ratner.
    Michael,Ravages?  Really?  You need to get outside of your echo chamber to understand why science-based regulators around the world have considered glyphosate to be a benign chemical.  I'm sorry, but the huffingtonpost is not an authoritative source on these issues.  "Ravages" is an emotive term that makes no sense in a real crop context.  
    Steve Savage
    A much better Huffington Post piece on the Seneff/Samsel paper can be found here http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tamar-haspel/condemning-monsanto-with-_b_3...
    It was written by a woman who is clearly not a fan of Monsanto. She is exactly the type one would expect to lap up that kind of research and feel vindicated by the claims it makes. Instead she calls out the author for having it published.

    Why read them at all? This is a science site, we don't need HuffPo to simultaneously tell us a paper is awesome and flawed when it was clearly, to anyone who can read, a claim with no data at all.  

    Clearly the science audience does not need Reuters either - and we'd all be better off without either of them.
    You are quite right, and I apologize for not only linking to that site but for the part I played in hijacking Steve's brilliant post on a subject so important. I forgot for a moment that this site is strictly for scientists to enjoy discussions on their fields of interest, and not to educate the rest of us schlubs. I am reasonably sure that no matter what you said to him, any pro-GMO stance would just make him think you were in the pockets of the agricultural industry, as they invariably do of anyone who isn't against transgenic agriculture.

    Lyistrata,I certainly hope that this site isn't about conversations between scientists.  My goal for the last 3.5 years of blogging on various sites has been to communicate with all sorts of people.  I don't believe that there are any "schlubs."  I'm sorry if you got that message.  You are right that we who defend ag technology get branded as shills for big companies.  I suppose if I was smart enough I could get paid for defending agricultural technology instead of doing it as an anti-income activity.  I don't want to do that.  I get my encouragement from reading rational comments like yours.  Thanks
    Steve Savage
    Agreed. Where's my big paycheck too?  Monsanto has never once even advertised here - it's because we are not on Team Monsanto, we are on Team Science. Sometimes that confuses people.
    Brings up an interesting point and catch 22. If scientists do better at going after garbage articles, writing rebuttals, and questioning it on the internet, then those scientists are "in the pocket" of industry. If they ignore it as they could also be argued, then the lack of criticism lets the garbarge studies build up a head of steam.

    So what's the correct course? Where's the balance of fighting lies with truth, and just not wasting time with studies that aren't worth anybody's time. I'd like to see more easily accessible scientific rebuttal to this stuff...Both academic and in lay terms. It would at least be putting facts out there, so people who care to think can figure it out.

    Problem is it's not really possibly to waste time with discrediting every wacktivist published artcile. Sure scientists can take on Seralini and the other big name hacks, but when a comp sci person publishes an article cowritten by an activist non academic, who has time to waste? Then Mother Jones picks it up, and all the nodding head websites with "natural" "earth" or "organic" in their URL echo it and it sounds like fact to people who don't think very hard, who in turn rant about it on facebook to their non- crazy friends, who eventually start accepting crazy ideas because they haven't heard why they're wrong.

     but when a comp sci person publishes an article cowritten by an activist non academic, who has time to waste?
    I do. Lousy mainstream journalism actually does us a big favor in these cases, by cooing over the claim and giving us a giant target to ridicule. Did it give confirmation bias to people already inclined to believe in made-up terms? Sure, but if even one person learned not to trust Reuters or HuffPo or Grist or Mother Jones or ThinkProgress for science...
    I think part of the problem with writing an article to rebut people like Seralini or Seneff is that few people will read it. For example, on the Huffington Post, the Reuter's article reposted had thousands of comments within a couple days, whereas Tamar Haspel's article criticizing the "study" had fewer than 200 comments the last time I checked. But it's a start, and a good task for anyone with the stomach to take it on to try engaging people.

    The worst sites are those like Natural News, which won't even post comments from people who don't agree with their line of thinking. They have no one to point out the errors in their reasoning and you wind up with conformation bias run amok.

    For sites like Mother Jones, the NYT and others of a similar bent, if you have the time and patience to join in on the discussions I think it would help. Also addressing the random poster who comes to this site with a head full of crazy ideas planted by Huffington Posters could help some. And if you could do it without losing your composure, then more power to you. I often handle the shill accusations by explaining that Monsanto would never hire someone who so frequently lost the struggle to refrain from calling someone an a**hole.

    I will try steering a few people to related articles posted here and see if it helps. I tried to get a woman to read one of Steve's articles at bio-fortified on cross pollination, but I think she stopped reading after I said that transgenic corn was no less natural than seedless watermelons or tangerines. I probably should have gone with heirloom tomatoes.

    Mr. Savage,

    Cat got your tongue?

    I think it's important to keep organic farming systems in context. Organic farming is a holistic process, and when the parts of the systems are viewed as such, it is clear organic production is more environmentally sound than most conventional farms.

    For example, organic farming does not use heavy pesticide application as their only tool against pests, thus preventing the large-scale contamination of our water systems. It also uses cover crops and soil-building techniques to increase nitrogen availability rather than synthetically produced fertilizer, which reduces nitrogen pollution and the carbon footprint associated with fertilizer production.

    Follow the link below to see my full response posted on the Organic Trade Association’s website, and thanks for keeping the dialogue open!



    Jessica,Thanks for writing.  Since the OTA website does not have a mechanism for comments, I will respond to that post in detail here.  I think that the biggest issue is that the "conventional" agriculture to which you are comparing organic is not representative of 21st century farming and particularly not of the significant, progressive edge of such farming.

    Use of Pesticides
    The nature of pesticide options available to farmers has changed dramatically over time, so your points about beneficials, water pollution etc are not up to date.  That is why I brought up the issue of copper-based fungicides - the "state of the art" in 1874 is not surprisingly out of date today, but it is objectively true that these fungicides are used in organic in cases where a much safer option is available with a synthetic.  Conventional growers often use some of the same, good options that are available to organic growers.  Spinosad is one of the few organically approved pesticides that is detected in the USDA's PDP program.  Not surprisingly its residues are frequently found on both the organic and conventional samples.  Because it is an incredibly low toxicity option those detections are nothing to worry about, but the same can be said for virtually all the residues detected today. A great many conventional farmers employ IPM methods since those have been under development for more than 35 years.  

    Carbon Footprint
    Most of the studies about the carbon footprint of organic neglect to measure several very important contributions such as methane and nitrous oxide emissions during composting and following soil incorporation of organic matter.  These are difficult things to measure and require 12month monitoring. The higher organic matter is soils is a good thing, but the net benefit is usually negative when these other factors are included.  Again, the many conventional growers who practice minimum tillage, cover cropping and controlled wheel traffic are also building soil quality and soil organic matter.  Also, in these calculations it is important to measure per unit of usable output, not per acre

    While it is  good that Rodale has been working on organic no-till since 2002, the broader no-till movement has been around since 1960.  The "large quantities" of herbicide you mention is misleading.  On a per acre basis the amounts are actually rather small, something measured in ounces.  The adoption level of no-till in the US and Europe is definitely smaller than desirable, but already vastly larger than the total area of organic.  There is much higher adoption in South America and Australia where more of the farmland is owned rather than rented.  The solutions to wider no-till adoption is lease reform, not roller-crimpers.

    Reduction of Run-off
    Yes, organic fertilizers release nutrients more slowly and thus are less prone to early season leaching or runoff events. It can lead to nutrient shortages during peak growth - one reason for lower organic yields.  The slow release characteristics of organic fertilizers can mean that nutrients continue to be released later in the season when the crop is not absorbing much, and they can then become available for negative processes.  Matching nutrient supply to crop demand is a huge challenge, but slow release is not the only solution.  With irrigation, nutrients can be supplied in very close to the needed amounts.  With multiple applications, careful placement, variable rate application, no-till and cover cropping, there can be highly significant reductions in nutrient pollution issues.  Also remember that the total supply of organic fertilizers is finite for any of the needs that cannot be met with biological nitrogen fixation.

    Land Use
    The primary issues driving food waste are the same or worse for organic. I'm not sure what you mean by "short-term yield" since crop yields have been increasing steadily for many decades.  The theoretical arguments can be made, but the real-world statistics do not support the idea that organic is, on average, as productive.

    Yes, there are many large farming operations to do some organic farming.  The majority of organic fruits and vegetables in the US are produced by organic divisions of the same companies that supply most of the conventional supply.  What has been lacking is adoption on a national scale that goes beyond a niche supported by high consumer prices.  Organic sales have been expanding, but much of that growth has been coming from imported non-perishable ingredients about which there are considerable concerns even in the organic community.  If we are going to solve environmental issues like hypoxia in the gulf, etc, this will have to come through a kind of farming that grows far beyond the 1% of cropland that organic has yet to represent.

    My goal in this article was not to say, "organic is bad for the environment."  My point is to say that there are very positive trends in conventional agriculture which bear much greater promise of being the "answer" we need.  The founders of the organic movement made a great contribution, but because the organic rules have been constrained in a pre-scientific, philosophical fashion, some farming options that make very good environmental and economic sense are not as feasible for the organic farmer.

    Steve Savage
    Inside warehouses that can be scaled vertically. Using solar panels and fuel cells. The integrated system is hydroponics and all the needs to be resupplied is water and compost tea and everything is temperature controlled This is the future. The capital is all that is needed to initiate this near larger cities. Sierra nevada brewery is ran like this, 80 percent is fully operational without any power from the grid. In the summer they sell plenty of power back to the grid. This way undoubtedly provides higher yields and no bugs to worry about. In the end everything pays for itself.

    Protected culture is a great option for certain high value crops.  This is not how we will grow wheat or rice or other staples, but it is very good for many crops
    Steve Savage