ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Organic Pasture Rule, Part II

There was an early sense of relief at the USDA's newly proposed organic pasture rule, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. I've been hearing questions about the rule and its mandates that fall outside the much-debated 120-day, 30% forage minimum. I haven't digested the criticism or concern yet, so if you have, post a comment. I hope to write on this further as the issues gel.
- Samuel Fromartz

USDA Kills Grass-Based Research Program

In the Bush administration's proposed budget, a well-regarded grass-based research program at State College, PA, got the ax. A letter from the researchers states:

The research program at University Park seeks to develop profitable and sustainable animal, crop, and bioenergy producing enterprises while maintaining the quality of ground and surface waters. The loss of this research unit would end cutting edge research on nutrient management, forage and grazing land management, water quality, integrated farming systems, and bioenergy cropping systems for the northeastern U.S.

I know one of the researchers, Kathy Soder, who spent a lot of time explaining sustainable grazing practices to me while I was researching my book Organic Inc. In light of the growing demand for grass-fed meat and pasture-based dairy farming in the northeast, I find it incredible that this program is being killed.  We need more research into sustainable agriculture, not less. Click here for the researchers' letter about their fight to maintain funding.

Organic research has fared a bit better in the farm bill now on the Hill. The Senate allocated $16 million in mandatory money for organic research grants, while the House version of the bill only put up $5 million. The Organic Farming and Research Foundation is now lobbying to make sure the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative gets funded at the $16 million level and is looking for businesses and other organizations to sign its letter seeking this support. Contact OFRF.

Be aware that $16 million still represents less than 1 percent of the USDA's ag research budget -- even though organic farming represents 3 percent of food sales. The letter states:

This discrepancy in the share of research funding spent on organics is detrimental to an industry that relies intensively on management and information for its success. In fact, lack of knowledge is the biggest limiting factor for farmers and ranchers who are looking to take advantage of the growing organic market demand and profits that it brings.

- Samuel Fromartz

Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

By Samuel Fromartz

Organic food is often portrayed by its critics as a low-yielding farming method that undercuts the main goal of food production – feeding the world.

These critics also argue that if organic farming were to grow much beyond its tiny elitist niche, forests would have to be plowed under because a much greater land mass would be needed to make up for far lower crop yields.

Pretty sad picture isn't it? Organic farming is portrayed as an inferior agricultural method that ends up raping and pillaging the natural world.

The only problem with this argument is that it doesn't square with the facts. (Nor with the actual picture if you check out the organic wheat field pictured above that was part of a USDA trial).

Although many studies have countered these arguments, three recent ones deserve notice.

First, researchers at the University of Michigan recently published a new study in the Journal of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems that evaluated 293 studies comparing conventional and organic farming.

They found that in the developed world, such as the US, Europe and Japan, organic farming methods yielded slightly less than conventional methods.

But importantly, in the developing world, where food-scarcity is most pronounced, organic methods were actually two- to three-times as productive as conventional agriculture.

Farmers in poorer nations often could not afford the chemicals and fertilizers that are required by high-yielding seed varieties. By farming organically, they could enhance soil fertility by composting waste sources on their farms.

The researchers write that organic farming could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.

"My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture," said Ivette Perfecto, a professor at University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, and a principle on the study.

She added that the idea people would go hungry if farming went organic was "ridiculous." (You can listen to a brief interview with the researcher).

Another report out of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Iowa is also significant, for it demonstrates the long-term yield potential of organic methods.

The now nine-year-old trials "convincingly show greater yield, increased profitability, and steadily improved soil quality in organic over conventional rotations," the Leopold Center stated.

The longest running rotation of corn, followed by soybeans, oats with alfalfa, and then another crop of alfalfa, produced 188 bushels per acre of organic corn in 2006. The traditional corn-soybean rotation on conventional fields yielded 177 bushels/acre – a 6 percent deficit from the organic fields.

In soybeans, the organic fields produced 45 bushels per acre in this long rotation, compared with 43 bushels on conventional plots.

Over eight years of data, here's the average corn yield in the various methods:

  • Conventional corn, soybeans rotation, 160 bushels per acre of corn
  • Organic corn, soybean, oats mixed with alfalfa rotation, 150-1/4 bushels/acre corn
  • Organic corn, soybean, oats mixed with alfalfa, alfalfa rotation, 160-1/4 bushels/acre corn

Those include the first three years of the organic transition. If you back those years out, and only look at the organic fields post-transition you get these average yields:

  • Conventional corn, soybeans rotation, 173.2 bushels per acre corn
  • Organic corn, soybean, oats with alfalfa rotation, 162 bushels/acre corn
  • Organic corn, soybean, oats with alfalfa, alfalfa rotation, 176 bushels/acre corn

The study shows that well-managed organic crop rotations, which are key to organic farming practices, actually lead to slightly higher yields than conventional chemical methods and rotations. And in the current ethanol-infused corn boom, farmers are forgoing the traditional corn-soybean rotation and growing continuous corn on corn, which requires a greater amount of chemical fertilizers to keep the yield up.

Finally, organic farming gets criticized for its tillage practices, which critics say leads to soil erosion and leaches nitrates into groundwater. These critics say conventional "no-till" farm methods, associated with genetically modified crops and heavy doses of herbicides, are superior.

But again, the facts point to a different conclusion. USDA researchers report that organic farming methods actually produced healthier soils than no-till conventional methods.

In a nine-year study at the Henry A. Wallace Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, USDA researchers found that the addition of organic matter in manure and cover crops more than offset losses from tillage.

In a final three-year study, corn was grown with no-till practices on all plots to see which ones had the most productive soils. The organic plots had more carbon and nitrogen and yielded 18 percent more corn.

Needless to say, critics won't be convinced by this evidence. But then neither do those who continually assert, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that global warming doesn't exist.

We know better.

Wal-Mart Unmoved

Wal-Mart has issued a response to the Cornucopia complaint about its labeling practices. "Wal-Mart officials say that the company has done nothing wrong," according to Business Week.

The company notes it has has more than 2,000 locations that offer up to 200 organic selections, in addition to thousands of nonorganic offerings. It called the mislabeling an "isolated incident."

But many retailers sell far more than 200 organic offerings but seem to get the labeling right. Why doesn't Wal-Mart simply admit it made a mistake and plege to correct it? Instead, they are facing two potential investigations on mislabeling by the state of Wisconsin and the USDA.

Hello USDA? Check Up on Wal-Mart

The Cornucopia Instiute, a small farm advocacy group, has filed a complaint charging that Wal-Mart is passing off non organic food as organic. At the very least, the retailing giant may be causing consumer confusion if you take a look at the pictures Cornucopia has posted on its web site.

So what's the big deal?

Well, one of the reasons organic regulations were written was to make sure that consumers got what they were paying for. There's a whole system of inspections, certifications and labeling requirements that each producer and retailer must meet in order to sell organic food. Now, a retailer doesn't have to be certified to sell organic food, but they are required by law to label the stuff correctly (among other things). You want the fine print, check it out on the USDA web site here. The bottom line: mislabeling can lead to a $10,000 fine per incident.

Although Cornucopia complained to the USDA several weeks ago, the USDA apparently took no action. Nor did Wal-Mart, although Cornucopia also fired off a letter to Bentonville about the labeling issue. With everyone apparently asleep, Cornucopia - pitbulls that they are - racheted up the action by filing legal action.

Now, it would be easy to cry fraud. More accurately, it's probably a case of ignorant stocking clerks and managers slapping the organic signage on any and all products. Not too keen - but hey, that's what you get in the absence of adequate training about the organic marketplace.

So two things needs to happen. The USDA needs to check this out. And Wal-Mart needs to take some corrective action. They might be able to change the world by embracing sustainability, but first, they've got to get it right.

No wonder some organic types are likening the company's entry in the market as the arrival of Wal-Martians.