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Response to “How Taxing Organic Products Could Solve California’s Water Shortage”

Jun 10, 2015
Photo Credit: Don DeBold

Photo Credit: Don DeBold

The article “How Taxing Organic Products Could Solve California’s Water Shortage” by Terry Anderson and Henry Miller erroneously suggests that an additional tax on organic products could reduce the drought facing California. This recommendation is founded on misinformation about the environmental impacts of organic. More importantly, however, it moves the dialogue away from a productive discussion about how all stakeholders must work together to contribute to water conservation.  Organic has some tools that research has shown to be effective at both mitigating and adapting to drought, and can be adopted into protocols regardless of a farm’s certification status. However, to weather this and future droughts, cross-sector collaboration will be critical for developing and implementing conservation-focused water use policy.  It is also important for both conventional and organic farmers and researchers to share their conservation techniques, and to learn from each other and work together to develop a systems-wide plan for the current and future droughts.

Mitigating Climate Change

Mitigating climate change is imperative to reducing the severity and frequency of extreme weather events like droughts.  One of the techniques that organic growers use to reduce their climactic footprint is increasing their energy efficiency.  One of the reasons that organic farms tend to be more energy efficient is that the production of synthetic fertilizer used in conventional practices is extremely energy intensive.  One recent study published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems showed that organic farming is more energy efficient than conventional farming for almost all crops when comparing the same amount of farmed area. The authors reviewed 50 studies      to compare the amount of energy used for different facets of the farming system such as fuel used to run machinery. They found that even when yields are lower in organic vegetable production, the absence of fertilizer input makes up for energy costs so that energy used for the same crop output is still lower or similar to conventional farming.

This energy efficiency is important when it comes to mitigating climate change, which contributes to extreme weather events like droughts.  In addition to the energy efficiency of organic production, organic soil management can help sequester carbon and release lower levels of greenhouse gases.  For example, a recent analysis of data from around the world found that, on average, organically managed soils release 492 kg less carbon dioxide per hectare per year than conventionally managed soils.  Another recent study showed that greenhouse gas emissions could be decreased by 40 percent if management of all current cropland transitioned to regenerative organic agriculture.

Drought Tolerance

Healthy management of soils should be a focus for both organic and conventional farms because it can allow for better adaptation to climate change in addition to helping mitigate climate change. Anderson and Miller claim that genetically modified crops can be crafted to withstand droughts, but

Photo Credit: Wendy

Photo Credit: Wendy

the page they link to shows that only one drought-tolerant biotechnology trait has been able to be developed for corn.  Rather than relying on experimental biotechnology, techniques like those employed by organic farming can result in greater resilience to drought by conserving soil moisture.  Organic management of soils can improve their water-holding capacity by up to 100 percent.  This was demonstrated in a research trial that compared the performance of organic and conventional cropping systems in drought years.  Researchers found that organic management of crops in drought years yielded up to 196% in relation to conventional crops.  Other studies have shown additional benefits of organic farming to soil health.  For example, a study published in the journal Ecological Indicators found that “organic management showed significantly better soil nutritional and microbiological conditions; with increased level of total nitrogen, nitrate and available phosphorus, and an increased microbial biomass content, and enzymatic activities.”  Soil health isn’t just an organic issue – it’s of global importance, and techniques employed by organic growers such as using compost and manure for nutrient sources can be incorporated into growing practices irrespective of management system.

Organic Yields

Photo Credit: Dwight Sipler

Photo Credit: Dwight Sipler

Anderson and Miller also cite reduced yields of organic farming as a contributor to the California drought.  However, the article that their claim links to was never published in a scientific journal (it was self-published by a consultant) and is out of date.  Organic is committed to conservation, which means increasing yields and land-use efficiency.  The most recent studies comparing organic and conventional yields show that the yield gap between organic and conventional farming is lower than previously thought, and can be reduced or even eliminated by using best organic practices.  Additionally, studies show that farming organically over a long period of time can result in yields equal to, or even surpassing those of conventional systems. For example, one recent study published in Crop Management summarizing results from the Iowa State Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment demonstrated that organic yields increase the longer their fields are managed organically.

Organic Effects

Even if Anderson and Miller’s article wasn’t based on incorrect assumptions about the environmental impacts of organic farming systems, their focus on a single production system is a red herring, sidetracking the conversation from the need for widespread reform of California water use policy.  Organic farming uses techniques that can be incorporated into conventional protocols that contribute to the long-term sustainability of our food system and climate by mitigating climate change, improving soil health and agricultural systems’ ability to respond to extreme weather events, while supporting pollinator health, biodiversity, and human health.  However, it is important that discussions take place across stakeholder groups and production systems. As drought affects all sectors, overcoming it will require cooperation among sectors.

 

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