Hey Mr. Green,
Some say organic farming is actually more climate-damaging than responsible "regular" farming, since it takes more land to produce an equivalent quantity of produce when chemical fertilizers are not used, putting more stress on the environment. This sort of issue should be taken very seriously. The Sierra Club and others should publicize the full consideration of this question, so members can be the kind of advocates who swing moderates and the unconvinced. What are the CO2 downsides of organic methods? I e-mailed an organic farming association and got a stock answer without any figures, research, or comparison data.
In general, data and citations of research are what is convincing, not just assertions. Our side should do a much more aggressive job of arming the public with data and stats. For example, all too often what our side says is "Scientists agree that . . . " What we should be saying is "Our 2005 survey of 450 climate scientists from membership lists of this association yielded an 80 percent response; of these, 87 percent say thus and such about so-and-so."
You can help, Sierrans. You can demand that the Union of Concerned Scientists, the League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, and others give their members hard data. Our side needs to do a better job of playing to its strengths--given that the science (as well as common sense) is what motivates environmental activists--and helping us arm ourselves with research citations so that we can feed the actual data and its sources to sympathetic or open-minded politicians. --Mary in Sandy Springs, Georgia
Thank you very much for these perceptive comments. Clearly, things are not as simple a matter as we organic advocates often claim, though I also think that some anti-organic people overstate their case. We ought to take a closer look at the growing body of research into organic farming before we make too many exaggerated claims.
In general, at least for the major commodities that take up the lion's share of our cropland, it looks like organic farming can in fact match the yields of conventional farming. (Some specialty crops might be a different story.) For example, a study done by the University of Iowa showed only a small drop in soybean yields when the beans were farmed organically (from 48.4 bushels to 46.8). The corn yield in this study did drop from 160.6 bushels to 121.1, but the researchers said that was probably overstated due to some variables in the experiment.
The reason for such results might be that a soybean plant or a cornstalk isn't an environmentalist and therefore doesn't make moral distinctions between synthetic and organic fertilizer. Nitrogen is nitrogen, phosphorous is phosphorous, and as long as the organic field has as much of these elements furnished by organic fertilizer, it's going to roughly match the field that has synthetic fertilizer. The wild cards are pests and weeds, but apparently, at least in this experiment and others I've studied, organic farming techniques matched the effectiveness of chemical herbicides and insecticides.
The point is that organic appears to be competitive in terms of acreage required. A lot of confusion might occur because too many environmentalists with strong opinions about farming don't really know anything about it. Hence, they make black-and-white equations: e.g., old-fashioned farming equals organic farming, and modern farming equals toxic farming. This is, of course, complete nonsense (from which they would be quickly disabused if they spent an hour with an old-fashioned manure fork prying horse manure loose from the stable floor).
Old-fashioned farming is not intrinsically virtuous, as we well know from episodes like the dust bowl or the erosion of New England. And modern farming does require way less land than old-fashioned farming (the old-timers needed about a third of the farmland just to feed their horses!) while producing greater yields. We can now grow three or four times as much corn per acre as 100 years ago, thanks to hybrids and other improvements in corn breeding and cultivation.
But it's simply untrue to assume that because a modern farm grows modern corn, it also requires the use of toxic chemicals and chemical fertilizers. Corn growers can use modern methods and still grow crops organically. The two methods are not mutually exclusive. (And don't get me started on those overrated, under-yielding heirloom tomatoes!)
Adding to the confusion, some of the anti-organic commentators also fail to make these distinctions. They blithely (and maybe disingenuously) accept the false dichotomy of old=organic, modern=toxic and then deploy their comparisons to "prove" that organic farming will use far more land than conventional farming. But if you trace the funding to the think tanks some of them work for, you'll end up with a long list of chemical companies.
The big difference is in costs. At this point, organic is generally more labor intensive. It obviously takes more labor to remove weeds by hand or with a tractor cultivator than to make one pass through a field with an herbicide. And the organic method may be more energy intensive if it demands more cultivation, although it does save on the energy used to make fertilizers and pesticides. Comparisons in this area certainly should be explored, along with your other advice.