Evaluating Organic Farming Against Conventional Methods

Organic Farming Realities: Beyond Chemical Substitution

The chemicals involved in organic farming do not go away. Most organic farms grow the same way that industrial ‘conventional’ farmers do. They grow monoculture corn/soy/wheat rotations, for example They attempt to simply replace their non-organic pesticide or fertilizer with organic pesticide or fertilizer, and they are astounded at the loss in productivity or the pest issues that arise. I postulate that the lag in productivity represented by organic farming is a result of this type of thinking. One should not simply replace non-fungible system inputs without replacing the system. Organic sprays and inputs are not fungible for chemical sprays and inputs. Organic sprays work in totally different ways than chemical sprays. For example, Neem oil makes little herbivore insects vomit when they try to eat a neem-sprayed leaf. Insect moves on. Organophosphates disrupt the nervous system of little herbivore insects. The insect dies immediately. With neem, the spray needs to be timed to the life cycle of the target insect and kept up throughout the season. With organophosphates, the chemical can be sprayed once or twice all season. Neem can be ingested by humans with little ill effect, organophosphates can magnify up the food chain to toxic levels and can have similar effects to VX and Serin gas exposure. The amount of neem required v. the amount of organophosphate required to deter pests is rather large, to the point where organic produce may be sprayed by even more toxic substances than neem at more harmful dosages than a little organophosphate. Of course, I don’t want any spray on my food, but more of that is below.

Unraveling the Industrial Agriculture Feedback Loop

The industrial ‘conventional’ farming system (and I use quotation marks around the word conventional because the type of industrial farming in use today was not “in accord with what was generally done” for hundreds of thousands of years of horticulture/hunting/gathering, and not “in accord with what was generally done” for thousands of years in agriculture, but I digress), contrary to the other answerers for this question, is appallingly resource-intense, with attendant environmental degradation and other negative externalities I like to call ‘negative feedback loops’. It is not the output of the farm that creates the negative feedback loop (usually), it is the input. The embodied energy in fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, implements, etc. is huge; as is transportation; as is drying and processing; as is the soil lost to degradation and erosion. Dead zones in the sea, fouling of waterways, aquifer depletion, erosion of land, saltification, destruction of habitat, etc. all occur in one way or another as a result of these negative feedback loop inputs. Furthermore, one negative feedback loop tends to feed into another: if the farmer decides she wants to grow corn in a monoculture, she will need to till (eroding soil), as the soil is now eroded, the organic matter in the soil reduces (requiring fertilizers), as the ground is now fertilized opportunistic weeds will germinate (requiring herbicides), as the corn is now the only plant with all this nitrogen soaked into the ground the corn will become more of a target for pests (requiring pesticides), as there are no pests in a portion of a growing region there are no pest-predators to kill pests in the entire region, as the predator population dwindles there is even more need for pesticides. Organic farming does not adequately address these concerns, but it is a first step.

The organic farm system is generally a great way for farmers to begin changing into a systems-thinking approach to farming. If it takes so much more work and money to grow things organically, organic farmers are more likely to become innovators than non-organic farmers, because their constraints are much higher, and meeting these constraints requires innovation. When innovation is ‘farmed out’ to large aggregated corporations, as in most industrial ‘conventional’ farming, the farmer begins to rely on the latest seed or the most efficacious inputs. The farmer begins to rely on innovation from these companies and forgets that they farm within a very particular context on a very particular piece of land with very particular advantages and disadvantages. The farmer sees any given piece of land 3 times per year, floating 10 feet above the land. Organic farming begins the process of observation and innovation, which enriches the farmer and the consumer more than any amount of new input would. In my view, organic farming is a necessary first step into a larger world.

Regenerative Agriculture Revolution

The larger world is a place that examines the systemic issues leading to the negative feedback loops piling up on one another, and replacing each input with something that can function similarly as the input, while either providing an output of its own or eliminating the need for the input. Think about it, a pesticide that gives you more pesticide when you apply it. This is crazy thinking, right? Apply the pesticide once, and it regenerates itself. Boom. Apply the fertilizer once, and it keeps fertilizing for a generation. In other words, we are attempting to replace negative feedback loops with positive feedback loops. The system (and there are excellent examples of these systems around the world, many of which are in the United States) implements pesticides by planting polycultures and never spraying. Why never spray? The polyculture (many different species of plants) will harbor both beneficial and pest insect species, as well as pest insect predators such as birds. A praying mantis population will constantly monitor your crops, keeping the pest population below the EIL (Economic Injury Level), a concept borrowed from the latest and greatest industrial term “Integrated Pest Management”. However, the mantis needs the farmer to not spray because the mantis cannot kill the pest if it is itself dead, nor can it kill the pest if there are no other insects around to feed it before and after the pest hatches. Well, if you implement those two positive feedback loops, you are already ahead of the farmer using monoculture cropping and sprays in real economic terms. They yield? Polyculture farming has been shown to increase the NPP of a piece of land. The yield is better for a polyculture of hay, for example. Replace your fertilizer with nitrogen-fixing crops such as beans or clover, and you also increase both your yields with something valuable as a commodity to sell or as an increase in protein for your animals, and you decrease your fertilizer input. There are hundreds of systemic changes that can be implemented for reduced input cost plus increased yield gain. These tools are not only helpful to the ‘beyond organic’ farmer, they are impossible to implement in any farming system besides regenerative farming.

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