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They blinded me with science
October 5, 2011 8:27 AM   Subscribe

As was not widely reported, The Rodale Institute has just published the results of a 30-year study that claims that -in terms of yields, economic viability, energy usage, and human health- organic farming is better than conventional farming, and they have the data to prove it.
posted by Cobalt (61 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm inclined to believe them. Human tendency is to drift into "too much of a good thing". Vitamins good? Megavitamins better! Killing some pests chemically good? Killing everything chemically better! Fertilizing good? Megafertilizing better! Etc.

I did wonder one thing on economic viability, which was that of course you can make a lot more money since the prices are higher. However:
Even without a price premium, the organic systems are competitive with the conventional systems. Marginally lower input costs make the organic systems economically competitive with the conventional system, even at conventional pricing.
posted by DU at 8:32 AM on October 5, 2011


This part will need some careful managing:
The crop rotations in the organic systems are more diverse than in the conventional systems, including up to seven crops in eight years (compared to two conventional crops in two years). While this means that conventional systems produce more corn or soybeans because they occur more often in the rotation, organic systems produce a more diverse array of food and nutrients and are better positioned to produce yields, even in adverse conditions.
Otherwise, it starts to sound like, "Well, we can't grow enough of what you actually want, but we've got a bunch of other things you don't!"
posted by kcds at 8:37 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


this is really fascinating, thank you. obviously, I was aware that organic farming was more environmentally sustainable, but I worried about whether it was economically sustainable.

Though the link doesn't fully address the economics: it notes that, yes, there is a premium paid but organic farming would be profitable without the premium. How profitable? if we converted all NorthAm farming to organic, what kind of food prices would we be looking at?
posted by jb at 8:39 AM on October 5, 2011


My grandpa is a farmer. I asked him what he thought of the GM corn, and he said he loves it. Why? Because it produces consistent, quality grain.
posted by rebent at 8:39 AM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Though the link doesn't fully address the economics: it notes that, yes, there is a premium paid but organic farming would be profitable without the premium. How profitable? if we converted all NorthAm farming to organic, what kind of food prices would we be looking at?

Don't forget that a lot of processed food prices are artificailly low, because of the huge subsidies paid to corn farmers.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:41 AM on October 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


GM isn't non-organic.

Though I have heard that GM corn tends to be a bit demanding: it wants lots of fertilizer, water, and doesn't produce good seed corn (for a second generation). Which may be no problem for an American conventional farmer, but more of a problem if economics/politics replaces traditional strains in less developed regions.
posted by jb at 8:44 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


While this means that conventional systems produce more corn or soybeans because they occur more often in the rotation, organic systems produce a more diverse array of food and nutrients and are better positioned to produce yields, even in adverse conditions.

The "better managing" will be "IRISH POTATO FAMINE".

Since most of the corn (and beans?) grown just go to produce non-directly-edible foods (corn syrup, etc), this doesn't seem like a problem to me. Beets produce sugar notably well, for instance, and cows and pigs will eat just about any vegetables, unlike humans.
posted by DU at 8:47 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


GM isn't non-organic.

You aren't allowed to use it in organic production according to the USDA regulations.

Either way, because idiots aren't following the instructions that come with their seed, which require planting "refuges" of normal corn in order to reduce evolution of resistance in pests, BT corn might not be useful for much longer. Pests are catching up with Roundup too.
posted by melissam at 8:48 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was a subscriber to Organic Gardening for several decades. It taught me the intensive, raised bed techniques I still use. They work extremely well and I never had any doubt they would scale up. I don't see it going big scale any time soon, though, because it would require large farmers to accept a huge paradigm shift in the way they do things ( and that's above and beyond fighting off ADM, Monsanto, DuPont, etc). Too bad, really.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:52 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]



Either way, because idiots aren't following the instructions that come with their seed, which require planting "refuges" of normal corn in order to reduce evolution of resistance in pests, BT corn might not be useful for much longer. Pests are catching up with Roundup too


If you like a dystopian SF take on this concept, may I suggest The Windup Girl for a world where food diversity has been taken over by competing strands of GM foodstuffs, turning the plant world into a complete monoculture.
posted by The Whelk at 8:53 AM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


My grandpa is a farmer. I asked him what he thought of the GM corn, and he said he loves it. Why? Because it produces consistent, quality grain.

That's an interesting point.

I don't know much about the microeconomics of farming, so this may be completely off base. But my sense of things is that farmers are pretty reliant on credit during the planting season. Even if organic farming is better (for the environment or by whatever metric you choose to care about), I wonder if the reason many farmers haven't moved to organic is because they're worried about the consistency of their crop from year to year. Even if in the medium-to-long term, average yields are better, or if the premium allows you to make more money, or if you save money on pesticides, the short term cost/benefit might look a little different from the farmer's point of view - there might be issues with insuring the crop, or concerns about paying off your loans if there's a bad year, or however the USDA certifying process works, etc. You'd also have to think about how this interacts with the people buying your crops as well, and their sets of incentives.

None of that's to say that migrating over to organic production wouldn't be a better thing, and I might be completely misunderstanding the economics of this like I said. I haven't looked at the study very closely (I glanced over it when these results came out), so maybe this is addressed somewhere in there.
posted by dismas at 8:55 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Though I have heard that GM corn tends to be a bit demanding: it wants lots of fertilizer, water, and doesn't produce good seed corn...

That may be the case for some GM grains, but there a number of open source (sounds awful to say that about food) grains that are engineered to require less fertilizer and water. I have seen conflicting articles about whether organic farming is ultimately a boon or bane for most of the world's agricultural issues. I suppose it will likely slowly shake out as a general consensus is reached (puts on patience hat).

Interesting article, though it should be viewed with the same level of rigor as an article from Monsanto claiming that Round-Up ready crops are the panacea to save the world.
posted by jason says at 9:05 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


"My grandpa is a farmer. I asked him what he thought of the GM corn, and he said he loves it. Why? Because it produces consistent, quality grain."

That's an interesting point.

I don't know much about the microeconomics of farming, so this may be completely off base. But my sense of things is that farmers are pretty reliant on credit during the planting season. Even if organic farming is better (for the environment or by whatever metric you choose to care about), I wonder if the reason many farmers haven't moved to organic is because they're worried about the consistency of their crop from year to year.
My family owns an organic farm. The main issue here is that corn production has largely been mechanized over the years, so rebent's grandfather is looking for consistant varieties that work well with the mechanized equipment. Organic farming is more dependent on manual labor. That's why our farm produces no vegetables at all for human consumption (we grow hay for cattle) and I have zero interest in doing so. If visit an organic strawberry farm, for example, you will find hundreds of migrant workers squatting in the sun doing manual repetitive labor. rebent's grandpa probably doesn't want to deal with that and I don't blame him. If you are trying to be legal, the paperwork for hiring such migrant workers is often mountains high.

Our farm does hay and animals. A couple of men and women can easily supervise 77 cattle on 10 acres and hay cutting is pretty much mechanized, but we'd need a lot more people if we did produce.
posted by melissam at 9:05 AM on October 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


I could see problems with the huge diversity of crops requiring different harvesting methods too. If right now, I use one machine and harvest the two or three different crops I rotate its no problem. If I now have to buy four different machines to harvest eight different crops I don't know if it will still be profitable and, even if it is, the up-front capital investment required would chase a lot of farmers away.

This might actually be something that massive corporate farms would be good at. They could be better at managing crop rotations to meet demand and manage the soil and any extra machinery cost wouldn't as big a deal.
posted by VTX at 9:05 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Offered on the Institute’s dynamic website are: 1) the online Organic Transition Course (funded by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency); 2) the Organic Price Report, a weekly comparison of U.S. wholesale organic and non-organic prices in various locations; 3) the New Farm webzine, offering stories by and about farmers and researchers practicing cutting-edge organic agriculture; and 4) continuously updated sections containing news and research focusing on how biologically based farming can curb global warming, improve the nutrient value of food and play a role in fighting hunger worldwide.

Good news, of course, but consider the source.

GM isn't non-organic.

By definition it is, in the U.S. Also, the whole point of most GMO foods is to survive pesticides. Contamination seems nigh impossible to prevent, however, since no one (excepting Dr. Oz, I now see) cares.

Responsible Technology
posted by mrgrimm at 9:10 AM on October 5, 2011


It taught me the intensive, raised bed techniques I still use. They work extremely well and I never had any doubt they would scale up.

You've used the words "intensive" and "scale up" in the same sentence, which pretty much instantly sets off my bogometer.

If you go from 1 hour a week on your plot to 10 hours of week on your plot, and you do not see an order of magnitude gain in output, you are *not* scaling. Yes, a farmer could hire more workers, which is the most expensive thing they can do. Why do you think migrant workers are exploited so much during harvest? Because farm owners are trying to save on labor costs.

The marginally lower input costs mean nothing at all unless the amount of labor required to farm the same plot in this method is exactly the same and the return on the diverse crop grown is no worse than the former crop minus the input cost differential.

If you need more labor to farm the same plot in this manor, you are looking at one of three things -- either increased food prices, more exploitation of labor, or this method being abandoned quickly in the face of the GM corn and soya harvest making a much larger profit for the farm owner.

I've never doubted that intensive organic gardening can work. Indeed, if you can ignore the cost of labor, you can make almost any project work. I, though, think that serfdom is a bad thing and I am not willing to dramatically cut the standard of living for thousands, if not millions, for the sake of a better cheap tomato.

Indeed, I see this in their economics section. "Organic agriculture promotes job creation, providing for more than 30% more jobs per hectare than non-organic farms, according to a report from the United Nations." Translation -- labor costs are 30% higher per hectare (2.4 acres.) "The addition of on-farm processing and direct marketing, two practices fostered in organic systems, further increases the opportunities for job creation." Read, more labor costs -- though here, we're moving external costs into the farm.

The question I have is what kind of labor is being used here? I'm one who believes that are food costs should be higher so that we can pay those who pick our crops a living wage, and I'm not willing to allow farm owners to further profit if the cost is more workers in the fields 12+ hours a day at fractions of a dollar per hour.
posted by eriko at 9:12 AM on October 5, 2011 [12 favorites]


I could see problems with the huge diversity of crops requiring different harvesting methods too. If right now, I use one machine and harvest the two or three different crops I rotate its no problem. If I now have to buy four different machines to harvest eight different crops I don't know if it will still be profitable and, even if it is, the up-front capital investment required would chase a lot of farmers away.

Yes, and many of these crops just can't be harvested by the machines we have now. They mechanized lettuce harvesting quite recently, but there are a lot of crops that are almost totally hand-picked because they are delicate. For example, all efforts to mechanize strawberry harvesting have failed so far. You need some kind of AI that can handle delicate fruit and determine ripeness. The machine would have to be incredibly advanced.
posted by melissam at 9:13 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Don't forget that a lot of processed food prices are artificailly low, because of the huge subsidies paid to corn farmers.

I had the opportunity to spend some time on a farm in Hecla, South Dakota this summer. My friend's brother-in-law farms 25,000 acres of corn and soybeans - all GM round-up ready.

I spend half a day on the seat of a monster John Deere tractor pulling a 90foot boom behind me. It was something to see: two big wings unfolded like a Transformer. With 45 feet of disc on both sides, and only scratching the surface - literally - I plowed a few hundred acres using a few liters of fuel in no time at all.

Moreover, all I needed to do was drive around the perimeter for the on-board GPS took over and finished the job mapping all the contours of the field. The farmer sat with me for the first lap, set the GPS, said "don't touch anything" and hopped off leaving me by myself in the air-conditioned comfort.

That GPS program was then loaded into the air-seeder which dropped one seed on one hole with perfect precision and placement. No waste here at all.

Randy says he'll spray once or twice with chemical - using another machine relying on the same GPS program - and then harvest using, again, the same GPS profile.

The scale is utterly vast and the efficiency impressive. Randy's a pretty old guy and he said it is a revolution from traditional deep plowing he practiced not so many years ago. That's the real reason he's making so much money. He can actually take advantage of the high commodity prices and print money while the printing's good.

Which leads me to believe that traditional, deep plowing organic farmers cannot achieve the same results. They will use more fuel, more fertilizer, more of everything Randy uses less of now - except Round-up.

To make a long story short, he farms 25,000 acres with a tiny staff of people and shared equipment and his profit margin is enormous - with or without those subsidies.
posted by three blind mice at 9:15 AM on October 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


Otherwise, it starts to sound like, "Well, we can't grow enough of what you actually want, but we've got a bunch of other things you don't!"

American farmers don't grow corn and soybeans to the exclusion of almost all else because the demand was so high it compelled them to; they do it because corn and soybeans (and wheat) receive massive subsidies. Gourmet Magazine ran a great piece a few years back on how it was more profitable to grow grain crops on marginal soil - but excellent ranchland - in North Dakota than to use the land for its most obvious role as pasture for livestock.

Under the worldwide "cheap food" regime, governments have chosen, top-down, to grow a very small handful of grain crops - corn, wheat, soybeans, rice - and underwrite the operations of enormous multinational food companies that turn the surplus into feed for livestock and highly processed convenience foods.

If we choose, by essentially the same mechanism, to make let's say soil health the keystone of our agricultural system, farmers would go organic and practice meticulous crop rotation and diversification and all that.

(For further context on the strange place conventional farming has reached, here's a justifiable self-link to my cover story in a recent issue of The Walrus.)
posted by gompa at 9:17 AM on October 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


You aren't allowed to use it [GM] in organic production according to the USDA regulations.

Well, that's just stupid. There is nothing inherently non-organic with GM crops; GM cotton, for example, is less dependent on pesticides.

regarding my point about GMcrops being demanding: I didn't mean that GM crops are inherently demanding of water, fertilizer, but rather that many GM types have been optimized for conventional, rich-world farming, but are then promoted to farmers in very different circumstances. All of my issues with GM are economic/political; crops that are GM'd with developing world farmers in mind (like dwarf wheat) can and probably will be amazing advances.

After all, GM is just fast selective breeding.
posted by jb at 9:19 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


The question I have is what kind of labor is being used here? I'm one who believes that are food costs should be higher so that we can pay those who pick our crops a living wage, and I'm not willing to allow farm owners to further profit if the cost is more workers in the fields 12+ hours a day at fractions of a dollar per hour.

Imagine how expensive organic produce would be if we paid the workers a living wage? I think the future of organic that labor costs will rise and rise because of social welfare concerns and immigration issues. For grains, organic farmers will rely on hybrid varieties that are just as controlled by their creators as GM seeds are, but they will be important because they are consistant and their production can be mechanized more easily. Delicate fruits and vegetables will get more and more expensive, both organic and non-organic, until machines with advanced AI can substitute for human labor. Grass-fed organic meat and dairy is not terribly labor intensive thankfully, but will remain expensive just because productivity is quite low in general.
posted by melissam at 9:20 AM on October 5, 2011


Imagine how expensive organic produce would be if we paid the workers a living wage?

My CSA pays their workers a living wage and the prices are pretty reasonable. There may be a lot of things about the CSA model that make the economics different, but there's no $12 head of lettuce there.
posted by KathrynT at 9:26 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


We waste so much damn food in this country it's unbelievable. If we actually ate what we grew I wonder if we would need all this high-fangled mechanized robotic farming buffonery?
posted by roboton666 at 9:27 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


My CSA pays their workers a living wage and the prices are pretty reasonable. There may be a lot of things about the CSA model that make the economics different, but there's no $12 head of lettuce there.

Yes, CSAs that are low-labor typically have low productivity per acre, which is an OK model in an area with fewer people and more free land.
posted by melissam at 9:28 AM on October 5, 2011


"Organic agriculture promotes job creation, providing for more than 30% more jobs per hectare than non-organic farms, according to a report from the United Nations." Translation -- labor costs are 30% higher per hectare (2.4 acres.)

Ah, I should have read the full report (though currently I'm working on reading a study of farm yields c1300-1800, so it may go on the backburner).

But the labour issue is the primary one - and it's the line between pre-modern and modern farming. Since c1800, the drop in food prices has been partly due to yield increases, but also massively due to labour decreases.

Truth is, I'm torn: the western world has an under-employment problem, and a pollution and environmental problem from contemporary low-labour farming. I had wondered whether if we moved to a slightly more labour-intensive mode of farming, whether the two problems could be adressed simultaneously. BUT what gives me pause: agricultural labour is seriously underpaid and always has been paid less than manufacturing labour. It is also very hard - especially picking. If we increase the labour requirements in agriculture, can we do so while improving conditions and pay to make it a decent job? or is it inherent in the work (and always has been) for it to be so horrible?
posted by jb at 9:28 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


After all, GM is just fast selective breeding.

No, that's really not true. With breeding there has to be some plausible path from gene pool A to gene pool Z. With GM, there doesn't have to be, and generally there isn't. The most common GM grains are modified to express bT toxin, which is done by splicing in the gene from the bT bacillus that produces the toxin, so the plant makes it by itself, without needing to be sprayed with bT bacillus in suspension. There isn't really any way to imagine that happening naturally, or even by selective breeding, outside of geological timescales.

I'm making no claims for or against GM crops here, I will note. Just saying that it is manifestly not the same thing as selective breeding.
posted by rusty at 9:29 AM on October 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


roboton666: We waste so much damn food in this country it's unbelievable. If we actually ate what we grew I wonder if we would need all this high-fangled mechanized robotic farming buffonery?

Stopping this waste would probably involve a lot more sacrifice than you'd initially think. For instance, you like fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarkets, right? What do you think happens if they don't sell? A lot of the solutions proposed to dealing with this are either limited (we don't have enough hungry in the US to even eat a small portion of our waste food) or more wasteful than the food waste was (either in terms of labor cost or fossil fuel usage).

Anyways, what's wrong with robotic farming? It uses some fossil fuel but it doesn't really have to (you could always use biodiesel) and it's almost certainly more efficient than either supporting a first-world population to harvest things manually or using animals to do it. Quite honestly our society could never afford a return to traditional agriculture while still maintaining a lifestyle even vaguely resembling what we have now.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:38 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can some explain the fast facts section for me? How does 3,264 MJ/a/yr equate to 45% less energy than 4,568 MJ/a/yr? Reading '45% less' makes me think 'Wow that's almost half!' but clearly that's not the case here.

I'm not debating the validity of the study I just like to know how studies etc. come up with percentage claims.
posted by tronfunkinblo at 9:38 AM on October 5, 2011


I am 100% pro-organic farming, and I hope that in my lifetime I will see the transition to large-scale, profitable organic farm systems that entice growers and corporations while protecting consumers and the environment.

That said, Rodale very much has a vested interest in touting the benefits of organic, being that it is the publisher of Organic Gardening magazine and countless other books dedicated to an organic-leaning lifestyle. Rodale is still run by people with the surname of Rodale. It is an 'institute' in name only. I have a hard time putting any more faith in this 'study' than I would in a study published by the Monsanto Institute claiming that using Roundup and Roundup-Ready crops is a perfectly sustainable, ecological foodway.

I'm looking forward to replicated results from more reputable researchers.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:48 AM on October 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm looking forward to replicated results from more reputable researchers.

Indeed. Once researchers at the Cargill School of Agriscience at the University of Kansas, overseen by the 3M Chair in Applied Agricultural Chemistry at the University of Iowa, with assistance from the Archer Daniels Midland Institute of Agricultural Economics at Harvard can duplicate the results of this 30-year study, I'm sure we'll all go green.

Meantime, though, only fools would buy buy a line of bull from Big Organic, amirite?
posted by gompa at 9:54 AM on October 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


I've never doubted that intensive organic gardening can work. Indeed, if you can ignore the cost of labor, you can make almost any project work. I, though, think that serfdom is a bad thing and I am not willing to dramatically cut the standard of living for thousands, if not millions, for the sake of a better cheap tomato.

If you examine the Rodale graphs, you'll see this is a strawman. The human labor input goes up only very slightly.
posted by DU at 9:57 AM on October 5, 2011


If you examine the Rodale graphs, you'll see this is a strawman. The human labor input goes up only very slightly.


The text says 30%. The only graph I see that has "labor" on it is about energy consumption.

Other than the labor issue, I guess the other obvious criticism is that they seem to have run their study on pretty prime farmland in Iowa (note - going off pictures so I could be wrong). You would expect the marginal return to conventional vs organic is going to be pretty small to begin with there right? You'd probably need to look at more marginal farm land to make the argument better.
posted by JPD at 10:06 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've never doubted that intensive organic gardening can work. Indeed, if you can ignore the cost of labor, you can make almost any project work. I, though, think that serfdom is a bad thing and I am not willing to dramatically cut the standard of living for thousands, if not millions, for the sake of a better cheap tomato

How about for the difference between an expensive tomato and no tomato? The entire edifice of Western Civilization is and has always been built on the back of cheap, exploited agricultural labor. Cities and urban culture cannot exist without a constant supply of abundant, cheap food. That we have mechanized the process of farming is a triumph. Being able to continue to do so at the present scale is the question to be answered.
posted by Chrischris at 10:09 AM on October 5, 2011


I assumed energy consumption meant, like, energy consumption. If they've somehow figured a way to get labor out of a person that doesn't consume energy, I'd be interested in that.

And if they've simply accounted the numbers oddly somehow, I still say that 30% is a lot less than the 1000% eriko cited (1 hr vs 10 hrs per week).

Being able to continue to do so at the present scale is the question to be answered.

Well, that's another issue. Our "present scale" is too big. We have too many people on Earth. This is the root cause of many of our problems, most notably the entire suite of issues known as "the environment".
posted by DU at 10:16 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]



Being able to continue to do so at the present scale is the question to be answered.
Well, that's another issue. Our "present scale" is too big. We have too many people on Earth. This is the root cause of many of our problems, most notably the entire suite of issues known as "the environment".


And yet, the entire point of this Rodale study is to show that their method of farming is just as or more productive than conventional methods. If you are unwilling to accept a comparative scaling in methods, the whole point of the study (and subsequently, this post) is pointless. Either we are comparing roughly equivalent methodologies at roughly equivalent scales, or we are just wanking off about the environment and chemicals and GMO and moving this conversation out of the realm of quantitative yields and into the realm what is often called around here "First World Problems."
posted by Chrischris at 10:31 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


No, my point is that even if their methods don't work at the present scale, that wouldn't be a failure of the methods. That's a failure of the scale. What we are doing now does not work and is not an option. If the thing we can do means there has to be fewer of us, then that's the answer. Doing the wrong thing is not.
posted by DU at 10:34 AM on October 5, 2011


I suspect by "Energy" they mean fossil fuel consumption not calories burned.
posted by JPD at 10:37 AM on October 5, 2011


What we are doing now does not work and is not an option.

This is precisely incorrect. It works and will continue to do so as long as there is enough fuel to run the tractors and there exists enough income disparity to create an agricultural labor underclass. Whether those inputs will disappear or be replaced by alternatives is the conversation you seem to want to have, and I'm sympathetic to that. However, the appeal to some vague morality will not affect the system one iota; it is only through action, either deliberate (in the case of consumer choice) or forced (peak oil, the disappearance of cheap migrant labor) which will change things. Given my limited understanding of human nature, I'm pretty sure that mechanized agriculture will continue on until such time as it collapses.
posted by Chrischris at 10:48 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I say that something "works" I do not mean "today only and tomorrow it will kill you".
posted by DU at 10:51 AM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Anyways, what's wrong with robotic farming? It uses some fossil fuel but it doesn't really have to (you could always use biodiesel) and it's almost certainly more efficient than either supporting a first-world population to harvest things manually or using animals to do it. Quite honestly our society could never afford a return to traditional agriculture while still maintaining a lifestyle even vaguely resembling what we have now."

The energy input is something like two barrels of oil's worth of energy is used to create one barrel's worth of oil in food calories. that 2::1 loss of fossil fuels right there to make food. I probably have it wrong on the exact numbers, but food production uses a hell of a lot of fossil fuels. It ain't sustainable, no way no how, and Biodiesel? You're looking at something like 3-4 to one ratio of loss, because you gotta use fossil fuels to make biodiesel at any scale, (ethanol and the grain itself both use fossil fuel inputs) so that's not gonna work at all unless we do something way different to create bio-d. Liquid sunlight is a fading empire. We are gonna have to start getting our hands dirty soon. That is unless we do something like finally put a few hundred billion dollars into fusion development and finally figure that one out.

So, until we finally figure out fusion, my opinion is that we prepare for global economic dislocation due to energy scarcity by choosing to eat less, more locally, and mutually agreeing to transition towards that, oterwise the realities of energy supply and prices are going to force us. This way of life we've enjoyed for the past 75 years ain't gonna last another 40.
posted by roboton666 at 11:07 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The main issue here is that corn production has largely been mechanized over the years, so rebent's grandfather is looking for consistant varieties that work well with the mechanized equipment. Organic farming is more dependent on manual labor.

A couple more years of double-digit unemployment and maybe you will get enough dispossesed workers to replenish the native agricultural laborer market. Of course, the society with cheap agricultural laborers won't look very 'first world,' so at least we won't have to worry about those first world problems anymore.

To make a long story short, he farms 25,000 acres with a tiny staff of people and shared equipment and his profit margin is enormous - with or without those subsidies.

We are in the midst of a historic commodity bubble for grains and soy plus near zero interest rates. That margin is going to vanish with the bubble, and he better hope the interest rates stay low or all the leverage he has taken on to buy the fancy machines and seed will then work against him.

Organic farming is a giant red herring, which serves as a wedge to prevent any political coalition from the changing way agriculture has been captured (yet again) by the banking and investment interests. Now that the small farm is no more, there isn't even the populist groundswell to support someone like W. J. Bryan. The best people like Pollan are ever going to achieve is a two-tiered food system where organic is an upmarket marketing term.

"Anyways, what's wrong with robotic farming?"

It's essentially what we have now. The only problem is that it's built on a profit making system which is looting the environment of the midwest and pushing risk onto the farmers and now keyed into the political, so that the price of food is a political lever that can be pulled (and pushes back.) Any move to make the current robotic system more sustainable will be accompanied by price hikes (on top of the commodity bubble). It becomes an issue much like the "gas tax," when commodity prices are high no one is willing to bear an extra cost on top of the current price, when they are low, the politics of an increase in the price of food are prohibitive.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:15 AM on October 5, 2011


"I am not willing to dramatically cut the standard of living for thousands, if not millions, for the sake of a better cheap tomato."

I know that Eriko meant that as a statement opposing serfdom as a cheap-food solution and I agree. I'd take a different approach though and say that if we could somewhat reduce the living standards for tens or hundreds of millions of people for a better cleaner cheaper tomato, then that would be something I entirely support. I'll gladly give up giant televisions and annual trips in an airplane if it is for a world where food is grown sustainably and responsibly.

It pains me to see our technological magnificence wasted on frivolities when things like food and water remain a challenge.

Yes, I'm typing this on my laptop via wifi...
posted by Shutter at 11:26 AM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


@DU

we have too many people on earth, the solution is for everybody i don't like to die
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:39 AM on October 5, 2011


roboton666: The energy input is something like two barrels of oil's worth of energy is used to create one barrel's worth of oil in food calories. that 2::1 loss of fossil fuels right there to make food. I probably have it wrong on the exact numbers, but food production uses a hell of a lot of fossil fuels. It ain't sustainable, no way no how, and Biodiesel? You're looking at something like 3-4 to one ratio of loss, because you gotta use fossil fuels to make biodiesel at any scale, (ethanol and the grain itself both use fossil fuel inputs) so that's not gonna work at all unless we do something way different to create bio-d. Liquid sunlight is a fading empire. We are gonna have to start getting our hands dirty soon. That is unless we do something like finally put a few hundred billion dollars into fusion development and finally figure that one out.

I'm pretty sure the energy consumption of the current system isn't intrinsic to robotics so much as it is due to other inefficiencies, primarily involving water, fertilizer, and chemicals. I tend to think there's a solution that would be sustainable that doesn't involve everyone in our society returning to medieval serfdom (which is also unsustainable, as our industrial system would collapse and we don't have enough high quality land that doesn't require irrigation, etc. to feed everyone without it).
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:55 AM on October 5, 2011


Related in the NYtimes today:
Six hours was enough, between the 6 a.m. start time and noon lunch break, for the first wave of local workers to quit. Some simply never came back and gave no reason. Twenty-five of them said specifically, according to farm records, that the work was too hard. On the Harold farm, pickers walk the rows alongside a huge harvest vehicle called a mule train, plucking ears of corn and handing them up to workers on the mule who box them and lift the crates, each weighing 45 to 50 pounds.
posted by melissam at 12:00 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


We have too many people on Earth.

Says you. And people have been saying the same thing for near 500 years now. And no modern scientists can agree on how many people is too many. ... etc. etc.

"There is a 60 per cent probability that the world's population will not exceed 10 billion people before 2100, and around a 15 per cent probability that the world's population at the end of the century will be lower than it is today."

"The population timebomb is fast being defused – now we need to fix the habits of the greedy few."

There are so many inefficiencies in our current system that it's hard to argue overpopulation is a significant issue for food production. We still throw away (trash) 50% of our food, and waste much, much more on animals and meat.

I find overpopulation to be consistenlty used as a convenient excuse for somebody who doesn't want to do anything to not do anything, e.g. "What's it matter? There's too many people!" ... "How can we have a child? There's too many people!"

I can imagine many functional solutions for overconsumption. I can't for overpopulation (if such a thing exists).
posted by mrgrimm at 12:03 PM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


also related:

Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops

"The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state agricultural agencies, and universities increase research and development for proven approaches to boost crop yields. Those approaches should include modern conventional plant breeding methods, sustainable and organic farming, and other sophisticated farming practices that do not require farmers to pay significant upfront costs. "

And related to those upfront costs:

Is Monsanto Responsible For 200,000 Farmer Suicides?
posted by mrgrimm at 12:14 PM on October 5, 2011


eriko:

I think the orders of magnitude can be achieved for a lot of plants. Most simply don't require the space they are given. Back when I was a serious gardener I learned how to grow more in 4 5' x 20' beds than I previously did on a quarter acre (400 sf vs. 10,000 +/- sf). That's a factor of 250. And I got healthier plants with fewer inputs of water, fertilizer, pesticides and machinery.

The cost of million dollar harvesters + huge pieces of land + fertilizer + pesticides is not a negligible cost. While it may not be (very probably isn't) feasible for every crop - corn takes up a lot of space, for instance - I think yields could be plenty big enough with intensive techniques to use reasonably well-paid labor as an input in lieu of some of the industrial inputs used today.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:45 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sorry, factor of 25. My point still stands.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:48 PM on October 5, 2011


I'm one who believes that are food costs should be higher so that we can pay those who pick our crops a living wage, and I'm not willing to allow farm owners to further profit if the cost is more workers in the fields 12+ hours a day at fractions of a dollar per hour.

But imagine that: the food crisis, the environment crisis, the wage crisis, the employment crisis, it's all the same goddamn crisis. If we actually paid people what their labour was worth to produce food in a sustainable fashion we wouldn't be destroying the environment. Too bad about that.
posted by mek at 1:51 PM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


It ain't sustainable, no way no how, and Biodiesel? You're looking at something like 3-4 to one ratio of loss, because you gotta use fossil fuels to make biodiesel at any scale, (ethanol and the grain itself both use fossil fuel inputs) so that's not gonna work at all unless we do something way different to create bio-d.

I do not believe this is correct. If we are talking about biodiesel, the only non-energy inputs are oil, methanol (which can be distilled from wood) and lye (which can be produced from wood ash). Obviously you'll be wanting to use a plant-based oil in this situation. Soy is a decent oil feedstock and the leftover protein can be used for animal feed. I'd argue that this is not outside the capabilities of most farmers, given the equipment. If, as three blind mice states, "literally - I plowed a few hundred acres using a few liters of fuel in no time at all." that is easily enough soy to make fuel for the tractor and provide the energy to process it into biodiesel. Ethanol is pretty shit the way it's done right now, I'll give you that, but that's an entirely different situation.
posted by nTeleKy at 2:40 PM on October 5, 2011


The most promising biodiesel solutions are the ones using algae to produce oil, but it will still be a niche fuel, it's not like we're all going to run all our cars on biodiesel and everything will remain as it is today. If anything we will be looking at ethanol/biodiesel engines for farm work specifically, and transportation will require other solutions.

That said biodiesel is perfectly efficient in that it captures waste products and turns them into fuel. If fuel production displaces food, it's generally bad news. This is why algae farms are so neat - they use no land.
posted by mek at 2:45 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


After all, GM is just fast selective breeding.

No it's not. This myth gets repeated all the time. GM crops can get genes inserted that could not be produced by selective breeding in any rational timeframe. How long to get BT into corn by selective breeding? For all practical purposes, its not gonna happen.
posted by DarkForest at 2:59 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Moreover GM can add genes cross-species as well as artificial genes that do not exist in nature.
posted by mek at 3:08 PM on October 5, 2011


okay, GM isn't fast selective breeding. But we have done weird stuff with selective breeding, incluing cross-species. Just not as FAR across species.
posted by jb at 3:22 PM on October 5, 2011


Once researchers at the Cargill School of Agriscience at the University of Kansas, overseen by the 3M Chair in Applied Agricultural Chemistry at the University of Iowa, with assistance from the Archer Daniels Midland Institute of Agricultural Economics at Harvard can duplicate the results of this 30-year study, I'm sure we'll all go green.

Note: none of these entities actually exist.
posted by grouse at 3:24 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm happy one farmer can 'print money while the printing's good' by planting 25,000 acres of corn and soy. Can we please get off of corn and soy?!? It seems everything Americans eat these days is something processed from corn and/or soy. It's simply not healthy for people or planet in the long run.
posted by hangingbyathread at 4:42 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The scale is utterly vast and the efficiency impressive. Randy's a pretty old guy and he said it is a revolution from traditional deep plowing he practiced not so many years ago. That's the real reason he's making so much money. He can actually take advantage of the high commodity prices and print money while the printing's good.

Which leads me to believe that traditional, deep plowing organic farmers cannot achieve the same results. They will use more fuel, more fertilizer, more of everything Randy uses less of now - except Round-up.


I don't know why you think this. Shallow-tillage is an idea that came out of organic farming. It's important because it reduces destruction of soil structure when you grow organically; much less so when you grow purely via chemical with no organic (in the carboniferous sense) material being added to the soil, and high use of pesticides that kill soil organisms that decompose that organic material and produce humic acids.

However, shallow tillage prevents corn from establishing deep roots to extract water sources below. Not a problem if you are a farmer that pays nothing for water and has loads of it. Most farmers that practice shallow tillage have to do deep tillage to break up pan layers and tap added repositories of nitrogen and sulfur that deep-rooting can access. This again, is less of an issue with soils high in organic matter: they have less of a chance of forming pan layers (due to better structure) and have more cation exchange sites.

Tillage is about resources, not about organic vs. inorganic. Organic farmers don't eschew science and the latest ag tech- they often drive it.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:23 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Stopping this waste would probably involve a lot more sacrifice than you'd initially think. For instance, you like fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarkets, right?

Related thread about global food supply and food wastage recently where there's a chart showing individual American consumers, not supermarkets or other parts of the supply chain, waste a staggering amount of food, more food on their own than is wasted in total from farmer's field to belly in South and Southeast Asia.

...while still maintaining a lifestyle even vaguely resembling what we have now.

The underlying point here is the lifestyle we have now is not maintainable. You can either print money while the printing is good or prepare for change.
posted by BinGregory at 6:38 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wish that Rodale released more data here. Even their "full study" (PDF) doesn't describe which of the various organic practices (manure, legumes, etc.) are employed in the various comparisons, and otherwise lacks specifics on methodology and data handling that one requires to develop an informed opinion. The report reads more like advertising than a scientific publication.

There are peer-reviewed articles using data from the Rodale study such as this by Pimental et al. (PDF), which has more detail and is more credible.
posted by exogenous at 7:28 AM on October 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


Holy shit is that Pimental paper more interesting than the Rodale press release stuff. Thanks for posting.
posted by JPD at 9:42 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


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