A recent article on Project Syndicate, entitled “The Unsustainability of Organic Farming“, by Henry I. Miller and Richard Cornett, has rightly seen quite some traffic. In that article the authors warn about the dangers of organic farming, in particularly forwarding the following points:

  1. The use of compost instead of fertilizers in organic farming may lead to groundwater contamination (via nitrates) and generates significant greenhouse gases.
  2. Organic farming has lower yield levels than conventional farming (20%-50%) and consequently may lead to higher stress on e.g. soils.
  3. And now I quote for simplicity: “Organic practices afford limited pesticide options, create difficulties in meeting peak fertilizer demand, and rule out access to genetically engineered varieties.”
  4. “Another limitation of organic production is that it works against the best approach to enhancing soil quality.”

Some quick comments are in line here I think.

I find it very important that the authors stress the potentially adverse effects on sustainability from organic farming. In particular the lower yield together with potentially higher stress on the soil are important points that one should not neglect. If organic farming were to be used at a larger scale, then this would quite clearly require more land to be freed for agricultural production. Thus, a well-meant positive idea of a `return to nature’, or traditional farming methods, may potentially (emphasis here is important, the jury is out on this) do more harm than good. In a way this may be comparable to the problem with biofuels: while they help in slowing down carbon emissions, they at the same time drive up food prices and lead to more land being turned into agricultural mono-culture.

So while I mostly support their first and second point, I am puzzled by the third and forth. The wish to have pesticide-free food, or limited pesticides in the food, seems to be in clear demand by the conscious consumer. Furthermore, it is now well-known that the pesticides which are commonly used in agricultural production are harmful across a wide range species, from insects to bird as well as mammals (see HERE, HERE and HERE). The authors are clearly correct in claiming that a lower pesticide use may require “labor-intensive hand weeding”, but efficiency is not everything in this world. Just because we have a technology at hand that eases our lives does not necessarily mean that we have to use it, especially if significant health impacts may be the consequence. In effect, it is precisely for this reason that we regulated e.g. the use of lead in petrol, even though it helped engines to be more efficient.

The authors also suggest that more organic farming would “create difficulties in meeting peak fertilizer demand”. Yes, supply will equal demand eventually in a free market, and if there is little demand for fertilizers then the production thereof will be reduced. This is a fundamental mechanism in economics and anyone who advocates for an efficient market should feel happy that more organic farming creates difficulties in meeting fertilizer demand. Thus, using this as a critique against organic farming is a bit dubious I think.

Ruling out “access to genetically engineered varieties” has also been raised by the authors as an issue of organic farming. My guess is that, as long as the producers of genetically manipulated food can convincingly show that their products are safe and sound, then there will be no problem for GM food to be used in organic farming. After all, nearly all farming products have seen some cross-breading during the past hundreds of years.

However, the reason why everyone is particularly concerned about GM food is that it is not generally obtained via cross-breeding but via genetic engineering methods. And there is a sizable amount of empirical evidence that suggests GM food is not safe, see especially HERE. Anyone who suggests GM food is safe (for consumers) is simply not providing a balanced view of the evidence.

The last point raised by the authors, namely that organic farming “works against the best approach to enhancing soil quality”, is a point that is very much in line with their first and second points and I have nothing much to say about that. However, let’s not be naive, it is also evident that conventional agriculture may equally well not rely on the “best approach”, see e.g. HERE.

So let’s try to weigh the arguments:

Organic farming has lower yields and thus, ceteris paribus, will lead to lower food production.

However, it uses less pesticides and GM and thus is healthier for consumers and potentially ecosystems.

In effect, this implies that organic farming will raise the food prices not only because it is a more costly method of production, but also because it leads to less food being produced. This will be particularly harmful for the poor and drive up inequality and potentially food security. If the world, and by this I really mean the rich societies, seriously start to turn to organic farming, then they have to do this by carefully balancing the impact on the poorest.

In contrast, a lower use of pesticides and GM will be beneficial for everyone. Hence, turning to organic farming could be seen as a worthwhile attempt to improve overall health. Nevertheless, unless organic farming will be adopted everywhere and becomes wide-spread, it should also be clear that mostly the rich will benefit from this since the very poor will not be able to afford it.

Consequently, in addition to the authors’ claim that organic farming may be less sustainable if one considers the overall level of production and the yields, it should also be noticed that it may undermine sustainability from an economic perspective, namely by increasing the wedge between the rich and poor, both in terms of wealth and health.