What is New in Organics

Oct 8-19, 2007-10-19

1.     Organic farming is good for the rich but unachievable for the poor

2.     Judging an organic book by its cover crop

3.     Fall Field Goals (Sampling time for crop nutrients)

4.     Making use of local produce

5.     Countdown to the Senate-Farm Bill Review

6.     Alerts from Our Allies-á Support the Efforts of other Organizations

7.     Deal reached on Senate version of farm bill

8.     New Voices Contest Seeks Innovative Vision for Sustainable Agriculture

9.     Seeking farms to demonstrate habitats for beneficial insects

  1. Fall a good time to sample for nematodes

11.                        áUpcoming agriculture events

12.                        Do food miles make a difference to global warming?


Organic farming is good for the rich but unachievable for the poor

Friday, October 05, 2007

Why organic food can't feed the world

- Craig Meisner, Cosmos Online, Sept. 24, 2007 via Agbioview

This item addresses recent studies have that have re-visited the idea that organic methods of agriculture would be sufficient to feed the world - but argues they are they are flawed because of na´vetÚ about agriculture in developing nations.

Can organic food feed the world? A recent study, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems provides new data that suggests it can. However, I have some grave reservations about this prospect that are based on my experience as a scientist and my time living and working with real farmers in developing nations...

Heavy burden

So, why won't the use of pure organics work in developing countries like Bangladesh?

Most supporters of the idea that organic farming can feed the world, assume that organic manures are cheap and available to all - even the poor. But this isn't often the case. I see cow dung in Bangladesh and all of South Asia as a valuable commodity. During my walks in the villages I see it collected largely by women and children and used as fuel. It's found in nearly every house, dried and formed into patties, to be sold or burned for cooking.

Straw is another organic source of nutrients, but that's not always available either. Rice and wheat straw is collected from the fields, and used for cattle feed or thatching for roofs. Even the stubble is used, which the poorest come and cut for fuel.

The authors of the study mentioned above - led by researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, U.S. - have rightly assumed that organics can supply sufficient nutrients for plant growth. However, the quantities of organics required to sustain such productive growth makes it very difficult for the poor to handle. Organics whether farmyard manure, compost, or cow dung, contain moisture and are heavy and difficult to carry from the homestead to the fields by the growers.

For example, to raise a six-tonne rice crop in the peak season requires 100 kg of nitrogen. Because of monsoons and the fact that several metres of rainfall drains through the soil every three months, the amount of nitrogen it carries is low. Assuming we used good quality manure, there would be about 0.6 per cent nitrogen in the material; thus, requiring 17 tonnes per hectare to produce a six-tonne rice yield.

Can you imagine carrying 17 tonnes of manure, in repeated 50 kilogram loads, in a basket on your head? The lack of machinery to carry that material and the labour required to apply it, compounds the challenge.

Plus, there just simply isn't enough manure, or even plant biomass, available to apply 17 tonnes per hectare, for even a single annual rice crop across the whole of Bangladesh. That's enough of a problem, but when you consider there are actually two rice crops a year, the full scale of the problem becomes apparent!

Green manure

In answer to some of these problems, the new study proposes the use of a leguminous 'green manure' crop. These pulse crops fix nitrogen into the soil from the air through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in their roots. They provide enough nitrogen for their own growth and more, and when ploughed under provide nitrogen for a subsequent crop too.

However for such a crop to be used in Bangladesh, it would have to take the place of a food crop, effectively halving the amount of food the land can provide. The cropping intensity in many developed countries is well over two crops per year, but I have seen as many as four to five crops per year in places that are elevated and flood-free.

Besides substituting for a food crop, green manure crops would also require cutting and ploughing under the soil. While ploughing technology has increased dramatically in the last decade in many developed countries, it is mostly the two-wheel tractors or roto-tiller types; thus making it a significant challenge to plough down any high-biomass green manure or crop residues into the soil.

Some propose a greater use of leguminous food crops to supply nitrogen for the proceeding cereal crop and where possible, growers would love to expand pulses. However, in South Asia, while the national pulse yields appear stable, switching to more of these crops is quite risky for individual farmers due to unseasonable rainfall, diseases, and poor growing environments.

Faced with a choice

So, to make compost effectively, one has to have surplus plant biomass and cow dung. For the poor who have limited land and animals, this is quite difficult.

Surveys I have conducted in Bangladesh clearly show that growers that do have the ability to add organics to their land are those who are richer and have larger land holdings and animals. The poor have to rely on purchased fertilisers, whether organic or chemical. When faced with a choice based on labour and expense, the poor choose the non-organic fertilisers...

When I have asked growers in Bangladesh, most would love to be able to use more organics in their farming production. But due to the lack of availability and costs, organics are actually being used less each year.

Can organic agriculture feed the world? No, but most growers understand that it benefits the soil, and as such its use is is advocated as much as is possible. Unfortunately, for Bangladesh, and many developing countries, those possibilities are diminishing yearly as organics become less and less available and affordable.

Craig Meisner is Adjunct International Professor of Crops and Soils at Cornell University of Ithaca, New York. He is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.




Vicki Morrone

Organic Vegetable and Crop Outreach Specialist

Michigan State University

C.S. Mott Sustainable Food Systems

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East Lansing, MI 48824


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