According to the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom grants of up to $1000 are now available for teachers to “creatively enhance the understanding of organic agriculture for kindergarten through eighth grade students.” The purpose is to integrate organic agriculture into regular classroom instruction. The grants are jointly supported by the California Certified Organic Farmer’s Foundation, and the application deadline is May 15, 2017.
From the scientists’ point of view, teaching students about organic agriculture would be intriguing because while historically, experiments led to the procedures, organic farming is essentially pre-scientific and much is based on the naturalistic fallacy.
However, there is a lot to be learned by studying the ideas and best practices of organic agriculture, and herewith we present an outline for an ideal curriculum.
Much of the earliest work by Sir Albert Howard at the Indore Farms he supervised in India had to do with the development of compost from vegetable and animal waste, and his first book in 1931, The Waste Products of Agriculture may have been his most important work. Howard noted that decomposition of compost only took place at neutral pH and added lime to achieve this. He believed that good soil aeration and quality humus were all that one needed to prevent disease, which was not supported by later scientist’s work, and his book, An Agricultural Testament contained a number of such ideas which caused him to lose support among botanists.
Sir Albert correctly believed that understanding of the mycorrhizae that lived on most plant roots was important and should not be left to mycologists, but his attacks on overspecialization in agricultural science as well as flaws in his later theories caused him to lose much of his initial scientific reputation, but this only increased his stature among non-scientists.
Lady Eve Balfour
Lady Eve Balfour was one of the first women to study agriculture at a British University and upon graduation she used her inheritance (she was part of the prominent Balfour political family) to buy farm land in Haughley Green in Suffolk, where she began experiments comparing her organic methods with conventional farming methods. Many of her experiments were published in her book The Living Soil in 1943.
Lady Eve was also the founder of the Soil Association, which although small in size, is a major proponent of organic farming in Britain, and she eventually donated her Haughley Green farms to the Association. She also attempted to moderate some of Sir Albert Howard’s extreme positions, but because of some of her other extreme spiritualist positions, Howard refused to join the Soil Association.
The Soil Association has also taken some extreme positions that are unsupported by science, suggesting that animals be cared for by homeopathic means (which cannot possibly work) and taken extreme positions on genetically modified crops which have no scientific basis.
In the United States, Jerome Cohen, writing under the pseudonym of J. I. Rodale, took up promotion of organic farming and gardening with his Rodale Press and Rodale Institute, beginning in 1948, with his book The Organic Front, published by his own press. While Rodale promoted organic farming tirelessly, his views were hard to take very seriously because of his huckster style of writing:
Along comes your scientific agronomist, who should know better, but who recklessly throws a monkey wrench into this microbial universe, by dousing it with strong, corrosive chemical fertilizers. He believes that the conveyor belt method must be introduced into every aspect of farming.
Rodale took on all sorts on anti-scientific views, suggesting that the polio vaccine was a bad idea, and that rimless glasses and salt water cause cancer. He was also a racist. While he boasted that he would live to be 100, he died at 72, bizarrely during a taping of The Dick Cavett Show, although that episode never aired.
Rodale’s has also undertaken a study of organic versus conventional farming, which they published in a glossy brochure, but have never published in any peer-reviewed journal. An article by Pimentel and colleagues in Bioscience analyzes their findings: that organic and conventional farming techniques have similar yields and that in drought conditions, organic crops may do better. Pimentel also examined the economics and found that the two systems generated similar income, but only if you include a 10% organic price premium.
In another recent trial, they rotated their organically grown crop out and planted other soil enriching crops in 2 of the 3 years, and compared the yield with conventional crops grown without rotation. This was hardly a comparable trial.
The National Organic Program
Until the year 2002, farmers choosing to use organic techniques followed one of several sets of standards, but encouraged the USDA to set nation-wide standards so that organic crops would be comparable. The Agricultural Marketing Service within the USDA codified these standards as the National Organic Program, carefully noting that
Our regulations do not address food safety or nutrition.
While the general fiction put about by the organic industry is that organic crops are grown without pesticides, this is demonstrably untrue, as there are quite a number of permitted substances listed as permitted. This is discussed in some detail by Porterfield.
Some consumers think that organic foods are somehow safer because they are not grown using synthetic pesticides, but plants make their own pesticides all the time and most of the synthetic pesticides in use are similar to the ones plants already make: toxic and carcinogenic in large quantities. But as Bruce Ames has shown, the plant-made pesticides occur at 10,000 times the concentration as the traces of pesticides added during farming.
You might think that organic crops grown with minimal pesticides and so forth might be more nutritious, but research has shown that there is essentially no difference. Dangour and coworkers systematically reviewed articles on nutrient content and found that “here is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.” Similarly, Brevata and Smith-Spangler “found little significant difference in health benefits between organic and conventional foods.”
Since organic rules prevent the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, you might ask if the yields differ between organic and conventional crops. There are a number of research articles indicating that organic yields are 50% to 80% of those from conventional farming. The diagram below is from de Ponti’s article “The crop yield gap between conventional and organic agriculture.”
A similar gap was reported by Seufert. DePonti reported an average 80% organic yield and Seufert a 68% yield. And, the USDA’s report on yields was only a little better.
When you plant and grow crops, and harvest them, you are taking away nourishment from the soil. You need inputs to replace those nutrients. In organic farming, this is usually composted manure and other plant debris. But the composting process itself produces greenhouse gases, as Savage notes. Farmers typically apply about 5 tons of composted manure per acre. In fact, the greenhouse gases generated for one acre are equivalent to those generated in manufacturing enough fertilizer for 12.9 acres. This doesn’t seem to be scalable.
Organic Farming causes more pollution
A study at Ben-Gurion University studied the groundwater runoff in a group of new greenhouses, some using manure fertilization and some using drip fertilizer irrigation. They monitored a zone well below the roots and just above the groundwater for nitrogen contamination, and found that nitrogen pollution in the groundwater was 10 times as much in the organic greenhouses as in those using drip irrigation to fertilize the plants.
One of the greatest advances in soil maintenance has been no-till farming, where the ground is not plowed up and turned over every season. When you use crops that are resistant to herbicides such as Roundup, you can kill the weeds before planting and plant using a seed drill without disturbing the soil. This preserves the soil structure and prevents soil runoff. Unfortunately, genetically modified crops that are resistant to herbicides are not currently permitted by organic standards. If soil care is important, this standard needs to be changed.
Organic foods are marketed throughout the United States by the Organic Trade Association, and the Organic Consumer Association (which regularly spreads misinformation). The definition of “organic” in the US is products “produced without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering or other excluded practices, sewage sludge, or irradiation. “ Since a number of pesticides have been approved for organic use, this is clearly misleading. The Environmental Working Group also is a major promoter of organic products, through its “Dirty Dozen,” which attempts to paint pesticide residues far below danger levels as being unsafe. It also clearly contradicts the findings of Bruce Ames we discussed above.
Thought Questions for Students
- What advantages do you see in organic crops?
- Are you concerned about pesticide levels on conventional crops?
- Why does the organic industry say that no pesticides are used?
- If a farmer has 1000 acres of farmland, and hopes to grow 160,000 bushels of corn, how much corn would he be able to grow if he switched to organic methods?
- If a farmer wants to make the same profit, how much would he have to raise his prices to grow organic corn on the same amount of land?
- Farmland is expensive. Would the farmer be justified in buying more land to grow the same amount of crops? Do you think there is unused farmland he can buy?
- In this article, Henry Miller argues that organic farming isn’t sustainable. Do you agree?
- In this article, Roger Cohen refers to organic farming as a “fable.” Is that fair?
- If you have a limited budget for buying food, as most of us do, would you be willing to pay 10% more for organic foods? How about 50% more? Why?
- Organic farmers can reduce their carbon footprint by using an Anaerobic Digester to compost their manure. How much do they cost? How big a farm do you need to pay for one?
- Roger Cohen argues that “organic” is actually just an ideology? Is that an exaggeration?
- How else could no-till farming work?
- By 2050, we project that only 2.5% of US cropland will be certified organic. Is that enough?