How Many Will Starve? 

In 1971, then US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz1 uttered these unsympathetic words: “Before we go back to organic agriculture in this country, somebody must decide which 50 million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry.”

 In almost 70 years, things have not changed much.  A new study from the UK’s Cranfield University repeats basically the same old tune when it says, “Organic practices can reduce climate pollution produced directly from farming – which would be fantastic if they didn’t also require more land to produce the same amount of food.”

  While the  study acknowledged the benefits of organic farmin their basic premise seem to be that because of the alleged lower yield of organic crops more land is needed to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

Here are some statements from the articles: 2,3

  • The switch to 100% organic practices would require 1.5 times more land to make up for the declines. 
  • Organic farming produces more climate pollution than conventional practices (ONLY) when the additional land required is taken into account. Note; I added the above ‘ONLY’ to clarify the meaning of the sentence. 
  • Organic farms tend to produce less food than non-organic ones. The big problem, for both crops and livestock, is that these practices end up requiring a lot more land to produce the same amount of food. 
  • Some earlier studies determined that organic farming yields are between 5% and 34% lower than those from conventional agriculture, depending on the specific crops and practices. A 2017 Nature Communications study estimated that switching to organic farming would increase land use by only 16%.
  • Some sources cite an average 20 per cent lower yield for organic crops compared to conventional crops.

The conclusion of this report is predicated on the assumption that conventional crown crops out yield organic crops and that conventional crops have the same nutrient density as organic.crops. 

There seems to be a lot of ambiguity about land needs and crop yields in the above statements. I believe the ‘so called’ difference in yield would disappear if nutritive value per acre were compared.

Earl Butz, the folks at UK, and many others, all make the same mistake.  They They apparently believe all crops, organic or conventional, have equal nutrition.   If yields were measured in nutritive value per acre rather than pounds, bushels or tons per acre it would be a more accurate picture of productivity.

For example, conventionally grown corn (maize) will frequently test  1 to 3 percent lower in protein than organic corn (a 20% reduction in nutrients). Chemically grown corn tends to retain moisture at harvest and needs to be artificially dried, further reducing its digestible protein — and burning a lot of fossil fuels to provide the heat.   In this example, allowing for a 20% reduction in yield, the organic corn still provides more nutrition per acre. I believe this same concept can be applied to many, but probably not all, of our crops. 

 I know of no research that havs addressed this issue so I don’t have any study to quote, but I do know this — animals know the difference between nutrient rich food and look-alike but not so nutritious food. Deer will walk past miles of convention corn to feast on organic corn.   The same is true of any domestic animal if it escapes confinement and seeks out nutritious sustenance.  I have seen hogs starve themselves for two or three days in protest to being switched from organic feeds to convention. 

We bemoan the fact of soil depletion but tend to overlook the fact that nutritive value of crops has also declined especially the mineral content.  This is apparent in animal feeding. Back in the day when we were still almost all organic, a basic mineral mix for animals was equal parts salt, ground limestone, and steamed bone meal.  It was adequate for most situations as the corps and soils were still highly mineralized.  Not so today, as livestock now need well-balanced mineral supplementation.  Many innovative livestock owners have opted to take advantage of their animal’s nutritional wisdom by providing self-select or cafeteria style mineral programs. 

1 I do not like the term organic..   It has so many different meanings and connotations it is almost useless.It is even more ridiculous  when used in terms such as,  “Certified Organic Hydroponically Grown Lettuce.”   Sheesh! Give me a break.