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Why Claims That Organic is Worse for the Environment Do Not Hold Up

(Today’s commentary is written by Stephanie Strom, who grew to know and love the organic industry during her six-plus year tenure as the food business reporter at The New York Times.)

Dominating the headlines recently has been a study out of the UK which claims that organic farming is bad for the environment.

Not exactly.

In the report, which assesses the potential changes to net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if England and Wales shifted to 100% organic food production, it clearly acknowledges that organic farming might contribute to a reduction in GHG emissions “through decreased use of farm inputs and increased soil carbon sequestration.”

Nonetheless, the authors contend that organic’s positive environmental impact “must be set against the need for increased production and associated land conversion elsewhere as a result of lower crop and livestock yields under organic methods.”

The crux of their argument is that organic will result in yields 40% lower when compared to conventional farming.

Even if you trust the data collected on agricultural yields, which many scientists admit is less than perfect, relying on it to make a case that modern conventional farming and animal husbandry are better for the planet than traditional organic is a mistake.

“If you look at the last ten years, organic yields have been skyrocketing as research on organic crops has increased,” said Dr. Jessica Shade, director of science programs at The Organic Center. “In many crops, we’re getting to where the yield gap is small or doesn’t exist.”

Dr. Shade pointed out that while the amount of money spent on research into organic crops has climbed, it still is a fraction of the many millions of dollars invested by the government and private industry to improve conventional crop yields.

A critical factor, which the study fails to acknowledge, is how yields will change over time.

“The British study makes an assumption that yields in organic production will underperform conventional by 40% forever, but that’s not true,” said Dr. Yichao Rui, soil scientist at the Rodale Institute. “If you keep depleting the soil and its microbiome, you won’t sustain those conventional yields over time, and the soil will be less and less resilient, which is not good for future climate change scenarios.”

Rodale Institute, which has decades of experience running its own test fields, has found no significant difference in yields of conventional and organic small grains, such as wheat. It also has found organic and conventional potato yields to be virtually the same.

“Our organic wheat gets no additional fertilizer at all, while our conventional wheat gets 70 pounds of nitrogen and herbicides applied each spring,” said Andrew Smith, chief scientist at Rodale. “So, growing conventional wheat may result in nitrous oxide emissions that growing organic wheat doesn’t.”

Historically, the difference between organic and conventional yields has been set at about 20%, a ballpark figure confirmed by an authoritative meta-analysis of 115 studies comparing organic and conventional yields by the University of California Berkeley in 2015.

The Berkeley study also dug deeper and concluded that on older organic farms, where organic practices like cover cropping and crop rotation have had time to work their magic, the yield gap shrank below 10%. After years of investment in the soil that encourages nutrient retention and nurtures the fungi, microbes and bacteria to interact with plant roots in beneficial ways, organic farm yields can easily rival those of conventional and with less water, less energy and the use of natural pesticides.

One final component that the study does not adequately consider is the impact that toxic pesticides have on soil health, which directly influences plant yields.

Farmers in Europe are so concerned about the weedkiller glyphosate and its impact on the soil’s microbiome that they believe it represents a serious threat to the continent’s long-term food security – something that would seem to single-handedly discredit this UK study.

Unfortunately, we have yet another misrepresentation of organic farming’s true role in the environment, including its ability to protect sustainability over the coming decades.

Too many of these studies — and the headlines they generate — are concentrated solely on short-term results and fail to take into account what tomorrow will look like.

(Above is an article from PBS which talks about the study referenced in this newsletter.)


With gratitude,

Max Goldberg, Founder

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This Week's News Items

Weekly News Summaries

First Course

Industry Stakeholders Urge USDA Organic Program to Keep Pace

By Tom Karst

At a House Agriculture Committee, organic food executives urged politicians to ensure that the USDA provides strong leadership and oversight of the sector, particularly when the regulatory process fails to keep up with market demands.

New Hope Network

Organic Trade Association advances Court Battle to Defend Organic Standards

The trade association stated that USDA acted in an unlawful and arbitrary way when it killed the organic animal welfare livestock standards.

Organic Consumers Association

Wake-Up Call for Organic Advocates: Synthetic Biology Poses Greater Threat than Old-School GMOs

By Alan Lewis

Natural Grocers' Alan Lewis on the tremendous risks that synthetic biology poses.

Second Course
PR Newswire

Mooala Secures $8.3 Million in a Series A Financing

The maker of organic, plant-based milks and creamers will use the new investment to aggressively expand its geographic footprint and accelerate product development.


Controversial Pesticides Are Suspected Of Starving Fish

By Dan Charles

Neonicotinoids aren't just harmful to pollinators -- there is now evidence that they could be risky for fish, too.

Common Dreams

The Battle for the Future of Food in Africa

By Million Belay and Timothy A. Wise

Certain policies, strongly promoted by the Gates Foundation, open Africa to the multinational seed companies in the name of modernization, but they undermine climate resilience and food security for Africa’s small-scale farmers.

Third Course

GMO Trees To Save American Chestnuts? Don't Believe It

GMO advocates want to "start playing God" to save the American chestnut tree. Previously, we have written about how dangerous of an idea this is.

The Hill

Trump Administration Rule Exposes More Farmers, Farmworker Families to Harmful Pesticides

By Miranda Green

A new EPA rule proposal would shrink the areas where farmers must restrict human contact during pesticide applications, a move that exposes many more people to cancer-linked chemicals.

The New York Times

The Money Farmers: How Oligarchs and Populists Milk the E.U. for Millions

By Selam Gebrekidan, Matt Apuzzo and Benjamin Novak

The European Union spends $65 billion a year subsidizing agriculture. But a chunk of that money emboldens strongmen, enriches politicians and finances corrupt dealing.

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This Week's Quick Hits

Quick Hits

* ACTION ITEM: The U.S. House of Representatives formed the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

* This is our opportunity to tell Congress to promote regenerative organic agriculture as an essential way to deal with climate change.

* Beyond Pesticides has all of the details.

* Juice Press has opened up in the new Delta concourse at NYC’s LaGuardia airport.

* TMZ is reporting that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are aiming for an organic garden and citrus grove on their property in Hidden Hills, CA.

* Kahumana Farms, a certified organic farm in Hawaii, uses its profits to build homes for the homeless, provides school lunches for low-income children and runs learning centers for the developmentally disabled. #grateful #amazing

* Africa’s first dedicated organic & natural products expo is coming to Johannesburg in May of 2020.

* A newly-launched Georgia program strives to create transparency around what “farm to table” really means at local restaurants.

* Organic Week will be held in Singapore from November 16-22.

* An 18-year-old has started a pressed organic juice business in Bradenton, Florida.

* Organic Drip, an American coffee company, has launched its first shop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

* In Los Angeles, a food truck with onboard robotics that makes organic smoothies. Can it come to Expo West?

* Fascinating facts about the explosion of restaurant delivery and Chipotle, in particular:

* – Same-store sales rose 11%. Traffic increased 7.5%.

* – Digital sales have nearly doubled this year, and more than 18% of its sales are coming from orders made on the phone or through the computer.

* In case you missed either of the last two newsletters: Why This New, Edible GMO Cotton is So Concerning and Key Takeaway from the NOSB Meeting.

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