Save the rain forest -- boycott organic?

Chemical fertilizer fans play a game of green-upmanship.

Published December 11, 2006 9:57PM (EST)

Do the ideals of organic farming and the triumphs of the Green Revolution have to be locked in mortal combat?

In the culture wars, there is a conservative faction that loves nothing better than savaging the organic-farming movement as an elitist affectation that is out of touch with economic reality. This contingent is ecstatic today, gleefully passing around a paragraph from a recent Economist article summarizing the negative views on organic agriculture held by famous agronomist Norman Borlaug.

Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the "green revolution," winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilizers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is "ridiculous" because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilizers, Mr. Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10 percent. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr. Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

In other words, as one commenter to Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution joked, if you want to save the rain forest, boycott organic!

Borlaug expressed himself directly, and even more pungently, on this topic in an interview with Reason magazine conducted in 2000.

Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.

Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have -- the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues -- and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive.

This shouldn't even be a debate! Those are strong words, and naturally, they are dismissed outright by organic farmers. Borlaug's every contention is hotly disputed. There are studies that purport to prove that organic farms have the same or better yield than conventional farms and that small farms produce much more per acre than large farms. As for organic sources of nitrogen -- vast amounts of currently generated cattle manure are not recycled into the system at all. And then there are the really big questions. How long can the current application of synthetic fertilizers be sustained, ecologically, and what happens if the price of oil rises to a point where using petrochemically derived fertilizers becomes economically unfeasible?

The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota has put together a nice page of links on this very topic, including a pointer to a summary of research studies comparing organic yields (conducted before 2000) with conventional farming practices. The author finished with this riposte to Borlaugian technological determinism.

Hunger is a problem of poverty, distribution, and access to food. The question then, is not "how to feed the world," but rather, how can we develop sustainable farming methods that have the potential to help the world feed and sustain itself. Organic management practices promote soil health, water conservation and can reverse environmental degradation. The emphasis on small-scale family farms has the potential to revitalize rural areas and their economies. Counter to the widely held belief that industrial agriculture is more efficient and productive, small farms produce far more per acre than large farms. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on monocultures, the planting of a single crop throughout the farm, because they simplify management and allow the use of heavy machinery. Larger farms in the third world also tend to grow export luxury crops instead of providing staple foods to their growing population. Small farmers, especially in the Third World, have integrated farming systems where they plant a variety of crops maximizing the use of their land. They are also more likely to have livestock on their farm, which provides a variety of animal products to the local economy and manure for improving soil fertility. In such farms, though the yield per acre of a single crop might be lower than a large farm, total production per acre of all the crops and various animal products is much higher than large conventional farms ... Conversion to small organic farms therefore would lead to sizeable increases of food production worldwide. Only organic methods can help small family farms survive, increase farm productivity, repair decades of environmental damage and knit communities into smaller, more sustainable distribution networks -- all leading to improved food security around the world.

So there you have it: The two poles of the debate. One side envisions a world of small organic farms knit together into sustainable ecological networks. Another pins its hopes on continuing technological advances that must aggressively increase yields in order to cope with an ever-burgeoning global population. Representatives of the two sides rarely have kind words for each other.

My question is: Where's the middle ground? Where is the attempt to merge technological innovation with state-of-the-art ecological conscientiousness? Is it, by definition, an unforgivable sin to imagine a genetically modified rice strain that is drought resistant and can handle higher temperatures, farmed sustainably, with a minimum of petrochemical fertilizer inputs? Is it heresy to concede that Borlaug's contributions contributed immensely to India's being able to feed itself (something that many critics said was impossible) while at the same time acknowledging that we can do better?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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