Do industrial agricultural methods actually yield more food per acre than organic ones?

When it comes to supporting the modern mechanized agriculture, one of the most sensible argument is that this method helps to produce a lot of food per unit and lets the farmers use the land for other purposes. However, this argument isn’t as solid as its thought to be. Let’s take a closer look at this argument and check the real facts.

Harvesting farms

It started with a paper from a think tank. The Breakthrough Institute study, called Nature Unbound, argued that, by embracing technology, humanity could shrink its footprint and leave more land for “nature.” (I don’t like this way of defining nature as something apart from humans, but that’s a different issue.)

The Breakthrough people call themselves Ecomodernists and have a long history of pissing off environmentalists. Their paper caught the attention of Guardiancolumnist George Monbiot, who took the Ecomodernists to task for favoring big industrial farming over small. Monbiot pointed out that in many poor countries, the smaller the farm, the greater its yields. This is true: When people only have a small amount of land to support them, they pour all their efforts into that land and eke more food per square foot than their neighbors with more land.

Organic versus conventional

In 2007, a group of researchers led by Catherine Badgley made a big-picture estimate of how many additional acres we would need to switch over to 100 percent organic. The number they arrived at was startlingly low: 0 acres. That is, they projected that we could go all-organic without increasing the amount of land used for agriculture one bit.

Alfalfa collection

But then a lot of other researchers chimed in. Wait, wait, wait, they (more or less) protested: Are you really looking carefully at where you are getting your nitrogen?

This is the one giant hurdle that has always stood in the way of organic farming producing as much food as conventional farming. Creating nitrogen fertilizer organically takes space. That’s because there are just two ways to get the nitrogen in our atmosphere into a form that plants can use: Bacteria can do it, or humans can do it by burning decomposed dinosaur goo (i.e. fossil fuel, mostly natural gas), through the industrial Haber-Bosch process. (There’s also some nitrogen fixed by lightning and internal combustion engines, but that’s hard to catch.) Both bacteria and humans start with nitrogen in the air and bind it to hydrogen, creating NH3 — that is, ammonia, the form that plants can use.

There’s more to life than yield

After surveying the science on this, it looks to me like we’d have to significantly expand our farmland if we switched all agriculture over to organic.

farmer spreading fertilizer in rice field

Now, in theory, the amount of extra land you’d need to go organic could be much smaller if all the small farms in Africa performed as well as the Rodale Institute experimental farm in Pennsylvania. Pour research money into finding improvements, and we might be able to get the yield gap between conventional and organic to disappear entirely.

But you could make the same argument on the other side of the ledger: If you were able to get more conventional farmers to use best practices, we’d also see even more food production from even less land area.As population grows over the next 35 years, however, we’re going to have to do it all: reduce waste, farm more efficiently, share more equitably, eat less meat, andincrease yields. That’s when things get tougher.

Just how bad is synthetic fertilizer?

There are a lot of problems with nitrogen fertilizer. It creates algal blooms and dead zones in the oceans. It leaches into groundwater, and when people drink that water, it can harm infants. Soil bacteria convert some of the fertilizer into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

synthetic fertilizer

The thing is, we often associate these horrors with synthetic nitrogen, but all this is true of organic nitrogen as well. If we changed nothing else, and simply shifted the source of our fertilizer from factories to bacteria, we’d have the same problems.

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