Is the “Organic Ethic” Ethical?
October 1, 2002
by Alex A. Avery
The Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, an agriculture policy research group, has become identified as the leading critic of organic farming, so reporters often call us for negative quotes when they’re doing a story on organic foods. The most recent example is Newsweek, which just ran a cover story on organic farming in time for the rollout in late October of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new federal organic food standards.
Like so many others before them, however, the Newsweek reporters completely ignored our most substantive criticism.
The only quote they used—and we were the sole critics quoted—was that E. coli is “perhaps the deadliest risk in our modern food supply, and its primary hiding place is the cattle manure with which organic farmers fertilize food crops.” The Newsweek reporters brushed this off with, “So wash your produce, but don’t let it scare you.”
But as we told the Newsweek reporters, the biggest problem with organic farming isn’t food safety; it’s fertilizer—actually, the lack of it.
The first precept of organic farming is the decision not to use “synthetic” nitrogen fertilizer. Only “organic” nitrogen can be used—such as animal manure or nitrogen-fixing legume plants, such as beans or clover, called “green manures.” But all of this biological nitrogen requires land to produce it. As a consequence, a typical self-reliant organic farm has one-third or more of its land area devoted to producing organic nitrogen for growing the next crop.
Hence, extending this organic ethic globally would gobble up vast amounts of land area for organic fertilizer production. Farmers of “non-organic” produce, by contrast, often use “synthetic” nitrogen that has been extracted from the atmosphere, which is 78 percent nitrogen. Essentially, no land is required to produce it. The industrial process can be fueled by any energy source available, including renewables such as solar or wind, and it is entirely sustainable.
The ultimate irony is that plants can only utilize nitrogen in the inorganic form—the form delivered by “synthetic” fertilizers. One of the reasons for the lower crop yields of organic farms is the too-slow mineralization of nitrogen from organic materials in the soil, which leads to nutrient deficiencies.
How much land would an all-organic world eat up? Dr. Vaclav Smil, author of Enriching the Earth (MIT Press, 2001), estimates that it would require an additional eight billion cattle to produce enough manure to replace the synthetic nitrogen currently used in the world. That’s over and above the 1.2 billion cattle already on the planet. Where would we pasture them all?
In the United States, farmers use about 11 million tons of synthetic nitrogen each year. To replace that with animal manure would require an additional one billion cattle. Considering that it takes 2 to 30 acres of pasture to support each animal, we’re talking about 2 to 30 billion acres of land compared with the 2.1 billion acres that comprise the entire continental United States. We simply don’t have nearly enough land to make the switch over to organic farming.
Instead of animal manure, we could grow green manure crops, but the land requirements would still be huge and unsustainable. Denmark proved this with a government-commissioned study of what converting the country to 100 percent organic would involve. (The Danes are a very politically correct bunch.) The Bichel committee’s report, published in 1999, concluded that converting to organic would mean a whopping 47 percent decrease in food production.
The main reason for the productivity decline was not the lower yields in organic fields (although the yields are indeed lower), but rather the need to devote so much land to organic nitrogen production. The report was no industry hack-job, either: the former president of the Danish Society for the Conservation of Nature led the committee.
This is an issue that must be resolved now. The world’s human population is expected to increase another 50 percent during the next half-century, reaching a peak of roughly nine billion. Moreover, most of these new mouths will probably have high enough incomes to afford high-quality diets. Combined, these two forces are expected to increase global food demand by 250 to 300 percent over the next fifty years. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, humanity is already farming more than one-third of the planet’s entire land area. More efficient food production, not organic farming, is the only alternative to mass human starvation or widespread destruction of wildlands for agriculture.
The Newsweek article ended with the statement that “an organic ethic could be the very key to our survival.” But organic agriculture just wastes too much land for this to be true. If we are to have any hope of conserving the world’s remaining biodiversity and wildlife habitat while feeding everyone, organic foods must remain the choice of a few lucky rich people in the world’s most prosperous countries.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.