INSIDE ORGANIC: New Michigan Global Yield Comparison Study Challenges Critics Who Claim Organic Farmers Can’t Feed the World (Jan/Feb 08)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · Jan/Feb 2008

When a Wisconsin dairy farmer slammed organic farming recently after accepting a local service club award for his 750-cow conventional milking operation, it brought back bad memories of similar attacks over the last 30 years that have never been backed up by scientific or economic data.

“If the entire economy went to organic farming, I want to know who’s going to decide who starves, because I can guarantee we would not be able to produce enough food in this country to feed our people,” the farmer was quoted as saying after receiving the club’s Distinguished Agriculturist Award. His critical remarks about organic farming were reported in a story spread over half a page in a recent issue of a Wisconsin farm weekly.

These comments echo the attack launched in the early 1970s by Earl Butz, the controversial Nixon-appointed secretary of agriculture who demanded to know how we would decide which 50 million people would starve if organic farming methods were adopted. Another USDA official claimed manure piles as high as the Empire State Building would be needed to make organic farming work.

Unfortunately no research comparing organic and conventional yields was available in the 1970s to refute these phony claims. But nearly 300 yield comparison studies have been done since then and most have concluded there is little, if any, difference between organic and conventional farming yields and economic returns. One of the latest and best is the 15-year Rodale Institute study that found yields from organic farming were equal to conventional yields after four years.

Feeding the World Study

The Wisconsin dairy farmer’s attempt to discredit organic came months after publication of the most comprehensive peer-reviewed study ever done to test whether low yields and insufficient quantities of organically acceptable fertilizers make it impossible for organic farming to feed the world. In a study published in June of 2007, “Organic agriculture and the global food supply” a University of Michigan team examined 293 studies from around the world that compared yields of the full range of food crops produced with organic and conventional methods.

“Using average yield ratios, we modeled the global food supply that could be grown organically on the current agricultural land base,” the study team reported in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, a multidisciplinary journal. “Model estimates indicate that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even greater population, without increasing the agricultural land base.”

The researchers also evaluated the amount of nitrogen potentially available from fixation by leguminous cover crops used as fertilizer. “Data from both temperate and tropical agroecosystems,” they concluded, “suggest that leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use.”

Publication of the Wisconsin farmer’s comments was especially surprising since Wisconsin is known as one of the nation’s top organic farming states and its organic dairy sector is flourishing. Organic agriculture in Wisconsin also has political acceptance and support, including an organic task force appointed by the governor and government-funded training for extension specialists and other agricultural professionals.

Raising questions about the ability of organic farmers to provide enough food also seems especially far fetched at a time when the federal government is going all out to expand grain exports, used primarily for livestock and poultry feed in other countries, and Congress is providing ever-larger subsidies for conversion of food crops to ethanol, biodiesel, plastic, and other industrial products.

Challenging False Claim Peddlers

Hopefully the new Michigan research provides the kind of information that will enable organic farming supporters to challenge critics who use the media to stir up and peddle false claims about organic food and farming. Unfortunately some of these phony claims have been published in respected newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times and aired on network television.

Most attacks in recent years have originated with the Hudson Institute, a think tank supported primarily by agribusiness companies selling chemicals and other conventional farming inputs. Denis Avery is the main spokesman trying to alarm both policymakers and the public by making false claims about organic yields and insisting “organic farming can never feed the world.”

A typical example is an Avery op ed piece published in many daily papers that claimed data gathered by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) showed Americans who eat organic food are eight times as likely to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria. However the CDC, a federal agency, reported when challenged by the organic industry that it has never gathered any kind of data that could link organic food to any illness and issued a public statement saying Avery’s report was baseless and erroneous.

Avery also recycles discredited research results, including a fake Texas A&M study that concluded organic yields were only 50 percent as high as yields on conventional farms. This study was discredited when it was disclosed that the only research involved was surveying several land grant university professors to get estimates of organic yields on several crops. No real yield data was used in this research and none of the professors providing estimates were involved in any way in organic yield data collection.

Another national critic is the Center for Consumer Freedom, which distributes distorted press releases and other materials for an industry coalition funded primarily by national food and beverage companies. Its main targets are consumer, environmental, animal protection, and other nonprofits that support organic food and farming and foundations that help fund them.

“A wave of anti-agribusiness activism threatens the food and beverage industry like nothing we have seen before,” a published Center tirade stated. “Celebrity chefs linked to cultish guru followers have joined forces with green brigades of anti-corporate activists and organic food marketers to flood consumers with bad science, generate fear about the quality of the food supply, and attack the morality of producers.”

ABC News Attack on Organic

The worst network television example was an ABC 20/20 program that used fabricated research to claim pesticide levels in organic produce were as high as those in conventional produce, and that consumers were more likely to get food-borne illnesses from organic produce. The program was aired once early in 2000 and then rebroadcast, despite objections from the Organic Trade Association.

“Give Us a Fake: How ABC News Fabricated One Lab Study and Distorted Another to Debunk Organic Food,” a report by an independent investigator, showed the tests that 20/20 reporter John Stossel claimed were performed to examine pesticides in produce were, in fact, never conducted. It also showed that ABC News did have some laboratory tests on bacteria but that the scientists who conducted them said they were incapable of showing any link between E. coli and organic food.

It is likely Avery and other organic critics will try to discredit the new Michigan study. But that may be difficult because a second study of the potential of a global shift to organic farming based on research at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences came to very similar conclusions. The researchers in this case were economists, agronomists, and international development experts who used a respected research model developed by the World Bank.

A commentary by Brian Halweil, a senior Worldwatch Institute researcher, suggests these new studies will help focus attention on the many benefits of organic farming. “Studies have shown, for example, that the ‘external’ costs of organic farming–erosion, chemical pollution to drinking water, death of birds and other wildlife–are just one-third those of conventional farming,” he wrote. “Surveys from every continent show that organic farms support many more species of birds, wild plants, insects and other wildlife than conventional farms.”

Although the myth of low-yielding organic farming may be fading, Halweil suggests, the benefits of organic can be realized without a complete global conversion. Some experts think a more hopeful and reasonable way forward, he noted, is a sort of middle ground where more and more farmers adopt the principles of organic farming even if they don’t follow the approach religiously.

The Michigan and Danish studies are highly significant and organic farmers now have an opportunity to use this peer-reviewed research to challenge the Averys and other irresponsible critics who use fake and distorted information to try to discredit organic farming. It’s time to go on the offensive by publicizing the many public benefits of organic, by sharing the results of these new studies with reporters and policymakers, by pushing back against critics making false claims, and by mobilizing public support for the newly-endorsed organic path to feeding the world.