Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Farming - The Middle Way

The World Bank says that “malnutrition contributes to infant, child and maternal illness, decreased learning capacity, lower productivity and higher mortality.” How many people does this affect? Almost 800 million people. Globally, at least one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. That’s more than a billion tonnes of food a year.

Monsanto’s activity around the world is causing acute harm to our planet’s health.  Food and Water Watch has reported that the now widespread use of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically engineered seeds—many of them created by Monsanto—has resulted in herbicide-resistant “super-weeds” and the application of more and more chemicals to fight them. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization declared that glyphosate—the main ingredient of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide—was “probably carcinogenic,” or cancer-causing

Nevertheless, Monsanto president and chief operating officer Brett Begemann called organic agriculture  “low-productivity” and “not the most sustainable solution” and argued that “High-productivity agriculture is actually the best that we can do for the environment and for sustainability.”

Begemann couldn’t be more wrong. The truth is this: The massive industrial agriculture system Monsanto and other agribusinesses have built over the last century is doing more harm than good. Organic agriculture is but one piece of the puzzle because for sure this is not n all black and white situation, there are grey areas. One of the most persistent arguments for modern, mechanized agriculture is that it produces a lot of food per acre, leaving more land for other purposes. However, in many poor countries, the smaller the farm, the greater its yields because when people only have a small amount of land to support them, they pour all their efforts into that land and eke more food per square foot than their neighbors with more land. The eco-modernists of the Breakthrough Institute countered that “the smallest African farms produced about 25 percent more yield per hectare than the largest African farms. But the average American farm produced about 10 times more yield per hectare than either. Yield gaps between farmers in rich nations and those in poor countries are profound.” They conclude we could grow more food on less land if every farm were as big and efficient as those in the U.S but the path to higher yields starts with farms getting smaller, rather than larger. That’s what’s happened in Asia — farms are getting smaller, using Green Revolution pesticides and fertilizers, and getting bigger yields. Creating big industrial farms in Africa or Asia would probably be a disaster. Linus Blomqvist, one of the authors of Nature Unbound, explained it would be a terrible idea, because it would mean that all those small subsistence farmers would have no way of supporting themselves.

Size just doesn’t matter (when we are talking about farm yields). You can have small farms with high yields, or big farms with low yields, and vice versa. Also, if we are chiefly concerned about environmental impact, farm size matters a lot less than the techniques and technologies those farms use.

In 2007, a group of researchers led by Catherine Badgley made a big-picture estimate of how many additional acres we would need to switch over to 100 percent organic. The number they arrived at was startlingly low: Zero acres. That is, they projected that we could go all-organic without increasing the amount of land used for agriculture one bit. But lots of other researchers disputed and protested, asking Are you really looking carefully at where you are getting your nitrogen?
Creating nitrogen fertilizer organically takes space. That’s because there are just two ways to get the nitrogen in our atmosphere into a form that plants can use: Bacteria can do it, or humans can do it by burning decomposed dinosaur goo (i.e. fossil fuel, mostly natural gas), through the industrial Haber-Bosch process. (There’s also some nitrogen fixed by lightning and internal combustion engines, but that’s hard to catch.) Both bacteria and humans start with nitrogen in the air and bind it to hydrogen, creating a form of nitrogen plants and use: ammonia, urea, ammonium, or nitrites.

The way you create fertilizer organically is to fill a field with legumes: plants that harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Once they’ve grown, you plow those nitrogen-packed plants into the ground. That takes up time and land that’s not growing food. Of course, you can also feed these plants to cattle, but you lose a lot of the nitrogen in the process, even if you put all the manure back on the field. When you are simply pouring synthetic nitrogen out of a bag, you don’t need this fallow period. So instead of looking at how much food an acre of land can produce for just one crop, we need to look at how much food an acre of land can produce over multiple years — and account for those fallow years, when nitrogen-fixing crops like legumes are planted. Following the 2007 Badgley study, other researchers looked at this issue — but largely sidestepped the question, arguing that yields didn’t depend on farmers devoting their fields to nitrogen production for a long time. Even so, the new studies found that organic yields were lower than conventional; the best apples-to-apples comparisons had organic producing somewhere around 30 to 20 percent less.

But then other researchers protested again: What about manure?

It’s true that organic farm yields don’t depend on farmers dedicating growing seasons to nitrogen production, but that’s probably because the farmers that spend less time producing nitrogen with legumes apply more manure to their fields. Manure is a big source of nitrogen fertilizer for organic farmers, especially in richer countries. When farmers use manure to fertilize their fields, they are using nitrogen that has traveled through several steps: First it’s crafted by bacteria or people, then it’s absorbed by plants and turned into new growth, then it’s eaten by an animal and pooped out. In the U.S., a lot of the nitrogen that organic farmers get is really synthetic ammonia that has passed through livestock before reaching them in the form of manure. If we did away with this transfer, and instead set aside more land for generating this manure, how many additional acres would we have to clear? No one has done that calculation — it was just too thorny a problem for the researchers to solve.

According to available evidence it does look like we’d have to significantly expand our farmland if we switched all agriculture over to organic. Now, in theory, the amount of extra land you’d need to go organic could be much smaller if all the small farms in Africa performed as well as the Rodale Institute experimental farm in Pennsylvania. Pour research money into finding improvements, and we might be able to get the yield gap between conventional and organic to disappear entirely. But you could make the same argument on the other side of the ledger: If you were able to get more conventional farmers to use best practices, we’d also see even more food production from even less land area. This doesn’t mean we seek high yields at any cost. Organic agriculture requires more land upstream of production, because you have to grow nitrogen fertilizer before you can grow food. But conventional agriculture takes up more space downstream from production: Fertilizers wash into waterways creating dead zones; soil washes away, too, and that eventually creates the need for more farmland; the manure lagoons required for confined animal feeding operations dominate space, especially when they leak. The great strength of organic agriculture is in building up and restoring soil. Better soil structure, in turn, means less erosion and pollution. Perhaps we could do that good soil building, and use some synthetic nitrogen to keep our agricultural footprint from expanding. Rather than forcing a choice between organic and industrial, we should create hybrids out of whatever techniques work best.

We should also ask: Is it really so bad if we can’t produce the same amount of food on the same amount of land? If we wasted less food, and distributed it more equitably, and ate less meat, we could all feed ourselves well, even with significantly lower farm yields. As population grows over the next 35 years, however, we’re going to have to do it all: reduce waste, farm more efficiently, share more equitably, eat less meat, and increase yields. Jonathan Foley, calculated that, if we do all of those things, we might just be able to freeze agricultural expansion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and feed all the people who are going to be with us by 2050. It’s easy enough to note that we waste a ridiculous amount of food, and that many of us are getting fat and could use a reduction in calories, but it’s much harder to turn these trends around. To make matters worse, climate change is driving farm yields down as we struggle. Feeding ourselves is not going to be easy: If we simply dismiss the option of increasing production and try to make up for it in other ways, we will fall short. Falling short would mean converting more land to agriculture — more forests felled, more prairies plowed — which means more greenhouse gas emissions. It’s clear that cutting down forests for farmland is terrible from a greenhouse gas perspective. The total amount of land clearance for agriculture has leveled out for now; the forests burning in South-East Asia are balanced out by the forests that have returned to New England and Europe.

It’s important to be efficient in our land use with farming. But that doesn’t mean that we all need to stop worrying and love industrial farming. Organic production has a lot to contribute and industrial farming has a lot of room for improvement. As we strive toward sustainability, context always matters. In many places it will make sense to maximize production, so as to spare forests elsewhere. In some places, organic makes more sense — where there’s an abundance of manure, or no synthetic fertilizers available, or where there’s plenty of land best used for farms. Sometimes it feels as if the divide between organic and industrial farming is too wide to bridge — but we’re almost certainly going to need the best of both for a future that makes sense. There are zero barriers to adoption of successful organic techniques by conventional farmers. And where there are negative externalities like water pollution, they should be dealt with, e.g., by regulation or tax, for both organic and conventional agriculture. But throwing out all of the tools of BigAg, like being able to fix nitrogen or use biotech to create pest-resistant plants, as the organic believers do, is completely senseless and smacks of religious dogma. We should not forget that the great Dust-Bowl of the American mid-west was before the extensive usage of pesticides and was because of mono-cropping organic agricultural methods.