On organic farming

This is something I hadn\’t realised (shows how much of a city boy I really am):

Under my crop rotation, I grow wheat five times in a decade, and produce nearly four tons an acre. My organic counterpart will grow wheat only three times, yielding around two tons per acre. In the time I have produced 20 tons, he will be lucky to get six. And in the intervening years I can grow sugar beet, peas, beans or oilseed rape, whereas he needs to rest his soil with clover and grass.

Whenever we see comparisons of the yields between organic and conventional farming we see them presented as one year yields. Or at least, that\’s the impression I have.

But the need for the organic farmer to leave land fallow obviously flatters such comparisons if we try to measure what we really want to know, which is production over time.

Yields from organic are thus even worse than I had thought, no?

11 thoughts on “On organic farming”

  1. IIRC, the clover or legumes are used because they are nitrogen fixers and rotation is also there to limit the spread of crop diseases.

    Are there no organic peas that the organic farmer can use?

    I appreciate that yields – single year or aggregate – using modern varieties, including GM, and modern fertilisers and pesticides are likely to be higher but unless the Soil Association rules are extremely daft (not necessarily an unlikely proposition) the original writer doesn’t appear to have explored the alternatives in any real detail.

    After a trivial amount of ‘research’ (aka using Google), it does appear that the Soil Association requires an amount of ‘grass clover ley’ in the rotation – but this can be as little as one year in six.

  2. Rotation is on a per-field basis, with different fields in different rotation phases. If the yields are measured by farm, the yearly yield issues should average out.

    No doubt in the era of lying spin, the numbers will be manipulated to look as good as possible.

  3. Of course the overall yields are lower – a modern conventional arable farm grows nothing but arable crops, year after year. Usually wheat, wheat, barley, breakcrop (normally oilseed rape, or beans). An organic farm of the same size will have to have a large proportion of its land down to grass at any point, and have animals as well, which provide the manure to fertilise the land.

    Given the UK specialises its production according to the geography – generally animals are produced in areas that have higher rainfall (ie grow more grass) and are unsuitable for cropping (ie Welsh mountain sides), crops are produced in richer and leveller soils of lowland England, if all arable farms had to cut their output of crops and increase production of meat/milk, two things would happen:

    1) The marginal areas that currently produce meat/milk would be unviable because they would be unable to compete with the bigger more efficient better soil lowland producers, and

    2) Crop production would fall, as you could not grow them in the areas that currently farm animals only, due to the weather/topography.

    So if the UK was to go fully organic meat/milk consumption/exports would have to rise considerably if large areas were not to revert to scrub, and we would no longer have an exportable surplus of grains, and might have to import them.

  4. Not forgetting that cows can be kept on a field of clover and grass. In fact if cows eat clover, they would produce less burps and less methane.

  5. The figures are interesting but take no account of the inputs (ie fertilisers, pesticides and fuel) needed to generate each type of wheat. I’m no supporter of industrialised farming nor of organic, but stats like these are pure smoke and mirrors and really add nothing to anyone’s understanding.

  6. ” if large areas were not to revert to scrub”: scrub becomes beautiful woodland; have patience.

  7. A common misperception is that organic yields are less than their non-organic counterparts. In fact, several studies have shown that organic production is on par with, and sometimes superior to, conventional production levels, and that it offers a compelling and sustainable alternative to conventional approaches toward addressing the world’s hunger problems.

    A United Nations report—Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa—released in October 2008 found organic farming offers African and other developing countries the most hope for feeding their people. Findings by the U.N. Environment Programme showed that organic practices raise yields, improve the soil, and boost the income of developing countries’ small farmers. Similarly, the Long-term Agro-ecological Research (LTAR) initiative at Iowa State University’s Neely-Kinyon Farm found yields equal or greater than conventional counterparts for organic corn, soybeans and oats. In 2007, for instance, the organic corn yielded more than the conventional with 209 bushels per acre compared to 188 bushes per acre for the conventional corn. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Michigan found that organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same amount of land in developing countries.

    In light of such findings, as well as the many personal health and environmental benefits that organic agriculture has to offer, it is becoming clearer that while it may take work, organic offers a sustainable solution that addresses the world’s hunger problems and the long-term health of the planet.

  8. Pingback: Something to delight Tim Wostall and discombobulate environmentalists « Left Outside

  9. Pingback: The Organic Homesteader

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *