Organic farming is 3 times better than GM? Not so fast.

The Guardian today has a Comment is Free piece, Genetically modifying and patenting seeds isn’t the answer. Comment is Free seems to have lower standards for truth than regular articles – I’ve written about previous CiF articles playing fast and loose with the facts on topics as broad as animal testing, GM soy and mitochondria donation. This time it’s the turn of organic farming to get the “sorta true but not really” treatment.

Holding all other variables constant, certainly a large wheat field will produce more if it is treated with chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers. But organic agriculture, and especially permaculture and traditional peasant agriculture, don’t hold variables constant at all. Each farming culture adapts over time to the unique characteristics of the local soil, biome and climate. Numerous studies show that when organic agriculture is practised well, it can bring double or triple the yields of conventional techniques. With intensive intercropping on mixed permaculture farms, yields can be higher still. It is a myth that mechanised, chemical, GMO agriculture maximises yield per hectare.

What would you expect to see when you clicked on “numerous studies”? A collection of studies? A review? How about the brochure of an organic food company.

Search through that, and you’ll eventually trace the claim back to a paper called “Organic agriculture and the global food supply”, which helpfully is online for free (PDF).

Read that, and you get a slightly clearer view. In the developed world, Organic farming yields slightly less than conventional farming – typically it looks like organic farming gives you about 90-95% as much as you would get from regular farming.

In the developing world, the picture is different, and these miraculous twofold yields start appearing. Good news, right? Except…

At present, agriculture in developing countries is generally less intensive than in the developed world. Organic production is often compared with local, resource-poor methods of subsistence farming, which may exhibit low yields because of limited access by farmers to natural resources, purchased inputs, or extension services.

In other words, this paper isn’t comparing organic food against state of the art pesticides and genetic engineering, it’s organic vs. the most basic sort of subsistence farming. Bringing any sort of organised, scientific methods into farming will give you more crops, regardless of whether the science is based on organic farming or conventional farming (incidentally, this actually disproves the author’s own claim that “permaculture” and “traditional peasant agriculture” are the best!). This doesn’t prove that organic farming is better than conventional farming at all – in terms of crop yields, in the developed world where pesticides and fertilizers are commonplace, it gives lower yields. There may be other reasons to replace conventional farming with organic, but crop yields are not one.

  1. #1 by Rob on Tuesday, 9th October 2012 - 13:03 GMT+0100

    And the article’s link for “yields can be higher still” is to renowned crank site

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