Against organic farming

Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug,
the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize
and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to
increase crop yields.  He claims the idea that organic farming is better
for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces
lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to
produce the same amount of food.  Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr
Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and
2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%.  Using
traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to
supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a
tripling of the area under cultivation.  The more intensively you farm,
Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

Read more here.

Addendum: Speaking of The Economist, here are their book recommendations for the year.


Of course, we have the relevant question here: Is the market in organi and ostesibly "moral" food defined by consumers who really want to help the rest of the world, or by consumers who just want to feel good about themselves?

Here's a paper idea: Do the "stupid feel good" consumers impose a negative externality on the "really wanna help out" consumers by attracting products that don't really help out, thus raising the search costs for consumers who really want to make the world a better place?

THIS is why I come to Marginal Revolution.

Keith, is it really necessary to call these people stupid? I'd guess that the majority of your "stupid feel good" consumers really want to help out and see organic farming as a way of doing so. Your paper idea is clever, more so if you remove the falsely attributed motives.

That leads to a few questions, though:

1. What happens when the raw materials for the fertilisers run dry?
2. If the chemical farming practices lead to more humans than the earth can comfortably support, what happens to those extra people?

As I understand it, the main criticisms of the Green Revolution are two-fold:

1. Long-term unsustainability. The fertilizers become scarce, and expensive, and the billions born on cheap calories are suddenly fucked.
2. Extra chemical pollution. While the Green Revolution may make land more useful, it also leads to increased chemical pollution, negating the positive effects of using land more efficiently.

I don't see where this excerpt answers either concern.

- Josh


I agree that most people who prefer organic food do so because they think it is healthier for them, despite a lack of evidence. The real question these people need to answer is: Why are manmade toxins worse than natural toxins? In other words, the issue is toxicity, not natural vs manmade.

Thanks, Joe. It's true. I didn't read that Economist article nearly as favorably. The statistic about agricultural productivity growth from 1950 to 2000 is misleading in its context, because organic agriculture today is very different from a luddite return to 1950 technology. The discussion of farming "intensively" is confused, failing to distinguish between intensity with respect to all production factors versus intensity with respect to land in particular. And most importantly, one can't honestly discuss the environmental consequences of choosing food whose production makes inefficient use of land without mentioning modern animal agriculture first. My conclusion: "A typical contemporary post-hippy suburbanite's granola diet -- organic food and smaller amounts, if any, of animal products -- is not the cause of deforestation."

Eriks, sure I let my Id run wild, but isn't that what the internet is for?:)

While we're on the general topic, I do prefer freshness, I don't care about organic, but I'll definitely take advantage of modern industrial food production and shipping technology and everything else. I mean how else am I going to get blueberries in December?

I'm sure Borlaug's arguments are more sophisticated than they appear in this short little blurb, but it seems to have a lot of holes.... Land usage isn't the only facet of organic farming.

In un-grammatic brief:

1. Fertilizers are bad for water ways. Synthetic fertilizers are the chief culprits in algal blooms in down-stream areas, and can contaminate ground water.

2. Heavy pesticide usage is bad for multiple reasons. For one, it is a vicious cycle. Oftentimes, predators of the species that is trying to be killed off are killed as well, and that perpetuates more pesticide use and can drastically affect the food chain. Also, many pesticides are thought to mimic endocrine hormones, and may be harmful even at low doses. Besides consumers, organic farming is much heathlier for consumers

3. Monoculture (almost always practiced in non-organic farming b/c you can uniformly treat a feild, and only have to think about the needs of one plant at the time of spraying) depletes soil, and makes growing conditions less efficient. It also diminished fauna biodiversity, which affects local food chains.

4. Synthetic fertilizers must be prodcued by burning fuel, and often by mining, both very environmentally destructive practices.

5. Really, the culprit isn't organic farming, but meat eating. Meat eating is far more inefficient than 10%. If all of the space devoted to animal ranching was used to produce organic food, even at 10% lower yeilds than normal crops, you would still be producing enough to to feed everyone in the world.

Granted, a "conventional" local apple is probably better than organic apples from chile, because of all of the fuel burned to bring the apple here.

every argument here is anti-industrialization, and anti the human progress that came with it. Meat eating allowed us to do more than spend all day eating to have enough energy to think. That hunger is no longer a problem of scarcity os in not a natural state of the pre indystrial world. In large part it is due singlehandedly to Boralaug. speculation on pesticides aside, the remaining part of hunger caused by scarcity was wiped out by pesticides, as pests destroy crops and shut down markets. unwillingness to use synthetic fertilizers increases the liklihood of e. coli and other biological organisms kiling those who eat fresh fruits and vegetables.

organic farming is a bad use of available resources. it undermines comparative advantage.

I buy organic foods for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with caring about the environment.
1) They mostly taste better. Especially meat, fruit, and veg. When I was a kid I literally laughed at my neighbor for shopping at at Whole Foods predecessor. Then I tasted the organic milk and realized the error of my ways.
2) I have a strong family history of cancer and I believe that among the many things that we don't know for sure if they increase cancer or not but probably do, all the shit that they put into food is a big one. Especially but not limited to those bastard nitrates.


It's not the land the animal occupies that makes meat land use inefficient. It's the amount of land needed to grow the food that the animal eats. A person might live on one pound of grain a day but you would have to feed a cow 10 pounds to get enough meat for a person to live on for one day.

[So you can have a fabulous coffee patch of your own, and be surrounded by fabulous soil going fallow, and have the financial means to buy the land and intelligently use it, but the "geniuses" at FairTrade won't let you]

No, it just means that you can't sell your coffee through the Fairtrade scheme, because the Fairtrade scheme is meant to be a means of assisting small family-farm producers, not larger producers with hired labour. This is rather like saying "you can be a fantastic bond trader capable of pulling down seven figure bonuses, but the "geniuses" at the unemployment benefit office won't let you. Or saying that a dog which licks its ass and chases mice ought to be able to enter a cat show.

Sudden insight: is the efficiency argument behind the Green Revolution as clear as Borlaug says? Of course adding fertilizers is an immediate and easy solution to boost crop production **by analphabet peasants** but can't experienced farmers can get very high yields through organic farming? I find Cuba's experience quite enlightning on that regard.

The example is far from being perfect, the unefficiencies of the Cuban economic system being what they are, but the background is roughly as follows:

1.Pre-1959 20th century
Basic crop farming by uneducated farmers & corporate farming for export crops (sugarcane).

Green Revolution under a communist regime. Up to 90% of the Cuban farmland is owned by the state and managed through big units. Boost in crop yields but at the price of a strong dependency on agricultural inputs from the Soviet Union.

3.Early 1990s
"Special Period in Times of Peace". Cuba ceases to receive fertilizers from the Comecon and is forced to switch to low-input agriculture, mostly organic. This is highly efficient compared to what was done before, but part of the effect comes from changes in land management, organization and tenure in agriculture (development of collective farming groups and private enterprise in agriculture for 2/3 of total land use in agriculture).

4.Late 1990s+
Urban Agriculture (UA) stays mostly organic (and is by law 100% organic in Havana for instance) whereas certain sectors of Rural Agriculture partially switch back to the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the concept of Green Revolution, particularly so for export crops (citrus).


I wish I had figures and facts to really analyse the efficiency of Cuban UA by international standards and compared to classic high-input agriculture. Unfortunately, as all things Cuban, figures are hard to find.

The Cuban government implemented a nationwide UA program in the early 1990s, supporting individual producers with the expertise of State agronomers among other things. As a result, the yields have increased dramatically. The first unsupported family UA units produced 1.5kg/sqm of vegetables, compared to more than 25kg/sqm in the present-day agropónicos. The notion of "vegetables" is quite vague and all UA producers are lumped together despite the high differences of yield between producers (the most efficient being the military UA units cultivated by the EJT). If you could remove the family producers from these figures, the yields of UA would be even higher. Nonetheless one fact appears clearly: educated organic producers are more efficient than uneducated ones. What is more, organic high-yield microfarms managed by professional agronomers seem to be extremely efficient, at least as far as production is concerned.

Plus, the plots of land used in UA were unused land in urban zones (in some rare instances on the rooftops of big buildings), not cleared forests, and the irrigation systems and compost systems are often placed above the crops, leading a slight decrease in land use.

In the absence of figures my argument may seem a bit empty but after 3 months living in Cuba I'm starting to think that UA is the only thing positive that has happened to the country in the past decade.


You're nitpicking here, and as a result missing the intent of my words.

Yes, you are correct that the folks at FairTrade can't prevent people from growing and selling coffee any way they want to.

But it is true that the folks at FairTrade think their model is "better" despite it being a method that perpetuates poverty unneccesarily for the most poor. Again, this isn't bad in and of itself, people hold all kinds of well-intentioned ideas that would have horrible results if implemented. But they are trying to persuade others that no is yes, that wrong is right, and that the more moral choice is to buy FairTrade "because it cuts out the middleman".[1] And they are succeeding in duping (to be fair, in my opinion they duped themselves) coffee drinkers into thinking they are helping by buying FairTrade, when in fact they are hurting the poorest of the poor by displacing those who employ them.

Regardless of whether or not you buy the middleman argument (I don't, see my note at the end of this post), this is no excuse to mandate co-ops replace the efficient use of the radically underemployed who are in dire poverty. This is a horrible misallocation of resources.

I love entrepreneurship, and if they want to find a way to help more poor people to become effective coffee entrepreneurs and compete with established farms that are bigger, I am all for it. But in reality they are putting a ceiling on the gross and net product of these entrepreneurs, by (yes, again) preventing free market hiring of anyone, let alone the poorest of the poor who would be ideal hires for both parties.

[1] I am not at all convinced the whole middleman argument is genuine. I think the problem is governments effectively granting monopolies to their favorite friends or those who bribe them the most. Sadly, too many people on the Left, and I'm talking about the folks in charge of FairTrade in particular, can't differentiate between genuine libertarian style capitalism, compared to crony capitalism. As a result, they see unfair trade, and assume that this means market failure and "we need a new paradigm". We do need a new pardigm for poor countries, and that new method is called freer markets. FairTrade goes in the escat wrong direction.

Far be it from me to speak for Norman Borlaug, a plant scientist who has developed strains of wheat and rice that have been credited with averting large-scale famine in India, Pakistan, and other parts of the world. But his comments are perhaps being taken out of context - at least for those who are not aware of his accomplishments and what his present concerns are.

Below is Borlaug says about organic farming from the Reason article linked above:

Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.

Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive. [emphasis added]

Obviously, Borlaug is not as critical of those who choose to purchase organic food for themselves, as far as that goes.

Beyond what is said in the above excerpt, his primary concern right now is the line in the sand being drawn by environmentalists in Africa (of all places).

You can read a lot more about this in this 1997 article published in the Atlantic Monthly:

I encourage anyone interested to read both the entire Reason and Atlantic articles. You can find a lot more there. Since many here likely do not understand where he is coming from, here is a lengthy excerpt from the Atlantic:


NONETHELESS, by the 1980s finding fault with high-yield agriculture had become fashionable. Environmentalists began to tell the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and Western governments that high-yield techniques would despoil the developing world. As Borlaug turned his attention to high-yield projects for Africa, where mass starvation still seemed a plausible threat, some green organizations became determined to stop him there. "The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa," says David Seckler, the director of the International Irrigation Management Institute.

Environmental lobbyists persuaded the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to back off from most African agriculture projects. The Rockefeller Foundation largely backed away too -- though it might have in any case, because it was shifting toward an emphasis on biotechnological agricultural research. "World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa," Borlaug says. The green parties of Western Europe persuaded most of their governments to stop supplying fertilizer to Africa; an exception was Norway, which has a large crown corporation that makes fertilizer and avidly promotes its use. Borlaug, once an honored presence at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, became, he says, "a tar baby to them politically, because all the ideas the greenies couldn't stand were sticking to me."

Borlaug's reaction to the campaign was anger. He says, "Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

In 1984, at the age of seventy-one, Borlaug was drawn out of retirement by Ryoichi Sasakawa, who with Jimmy Carter was working to get African agriculture moving. Carter was campaigning in favor of fertilizer aid to Africa, as he still does today. The former President had fallen in with Sasakawa, who during the Second World War had founded the National Essence Mass Party, a Japanese fascist group, but who in later life developed a conscience. Today the Sasakawa Peace Foundation is a leading supporter of disarmament initiatives; Carter and Sasakawa often made joint appearances for worthy causes.

Sasakawa called Borlaug, who related his inability to obtain World Bank or foundation help for high-yield-agriculture initiatives in Africa. Sasakawa was dumbfounded that a Nobel Peace Prize winner couldn't get backing for a philanthropic endeavor. He offered to fund Borlaug in Africa for five years. Borlaug said, "I'm seventy-one. I'm too old to start again." Sasakawa replied, "I'm fifteen years older than you, so I guess we should have started yesterday." Borlaug, Carter, and Sasakawa traveled to Africa to pick sites, and the foundation Sasakawa-Global 2000 was born. "I assumed we'd do a few years of research first," Borlaug says, "but after I saw the terrible circumstances there, I said, 'Let's just start growing.'" Soon Borlaug was running projects in Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Togo. Yields of corn quickly tripled; yields of wheat, cassava, sorghum, and cow peas also grew.

Borlaug made progress even in Sudan, near the dry Sahel, though that project ended with the onset of Sudan's civil war, in 1992. Only Sasakawa's foundation came forward with more funds, but although well endowed, it is no World Bank. Environmentalists continued to say that chemical fertilizers would cause an ecological calamity in Africa.

Opponents of high-yield agriculture "took the numbers for water pollution caused by fertilizer runoff in the United States and applied them to Africa, which is totally fallacious," David Seckler says. "Chemical-fertilizer use in Africa is so tiny you could increase application for decades before causing the environmental side effects we see here. Meanwhile, Africa is ruining its wildlife habitat with slash-and-burn farming, which many commentators romanticize because it is indigenous." Borlaug found that some foundation managers and World Bank officials had become hopelessly confused regarding the distinction between pesticides and fertilizer. He says, "The opponents of high-yield for Africa were speaking of the two as if they were the same because they're both made from chemicals, when the scales of toxicity are vastly different. Fertilizer only replaces substances naturally present in the soils anyway."

In Africa and throughout the developing world Borlaug and most other agronomists now teach forms of "integrated pest management," which reduces pesticide use because chemicals are sprayed at the most vulnerable point in an insect's life cycle. Borlaug says, "All serious agronomists know that pesticides must be kept to a minimum, and besides, pesticides are expensive. But somehow the media believe the overspraying is still going on, and this creates a bias against high-yield agriculture." Indonesia has for nearly a decade improved rice yields while reducing pesticide use by employing integrated pest management. The use of pesticides has been in decline relative to farm production for more than a decade in the United States, where the use of fertilizer, too, has started declining relative to production.

Such developments have begun to sway some of Borlaug's opposition. The Committee on Sustainable Agriculture, a coalition of environmental and development-oriented groups, has become somewhat open to fertilizer use in Africa. "The environmental movement went through a phase of revulsion against any chemical use in agriculture," says Robert Blake, the committee's chairman. "People are coming to realize that is just not realistic. Norman has been right about this all along." One reason the ground is shifting back in his direction, Borlaug believes, is that the green parties of Europe have been frightened by the sudden wave of migrants entering their traditionally low-immigration nations, and now think that improving conditions in Africa isn't such a bad idea after all.

Supposing that opposition to high-yield agriculture for Africa declines, the question becomes What can be accomplished there? Pierre Crosson, an agricultural analyst for the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future, calculates that sub-Saharan Africa needs to increase farm yields by 3.3 percent annually for the next thirty years merely to keep pace with the population growth that is projected. This means that Africa must do what the American Midwest did."

Africa has the lowest farm yields in the world and also a large amount of undeveloped land, so in theory a huge increase in food production could happen," says John Bongaarts, the research director of the Population Council, a nonprofit international research organization. "If southern Sudan was parked in the Midwest, they'd be growing stuff like crazy there now." Practical problems, however, make Bongaarts think that rapid African yield increases are "extremely unlikely in the near future." The obvious obstacles are desperate poverty and lack of social cohesion. When Borlaug transformed the agriculture of Pakistan and India, those nations had many problems but also reasonably well organized economies, good road and rail systems, irrigation projects under way, and an established entrepreneurial ethos. Much of Africa lacks these.

Additionally, African countries often lack a social focus on increasing agricultural output. Young men, especially, consider the farm a backwater from which they long to escape to the city. African governments and technical ministries tend to look down on food production as an old-fashioned economic sector, longing instead for high-tech facilities that suggest Western prestige and power. Yet a basic reason that the United States and the European Union nations are so strong is that they have achieved almost total mastery over agriculture, producing ample food at ever-lower prices.

An encouraging example of an African government taking a progressive view of agriculture comes from Ethiopia, where, since the end of its civil war, Borlaug has run his most successful African project. Visiting Ethiopia in 1994, Jimmy Carter took Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on a tour of places where Borlaug's ideas could be tested, and won Zenawi's support for an extension-service campaign to aid farmers. During the 1995-1996 season Ethiopia recorded the greatest harvests of major crops in its history, with a 32 percent increase in production and a 15 percent increase in average yield over the previous season. Use of the fertilizer diammonium phosphate was the key reform. The rapid yield growth suggests that other sub-Saharan countries may also have hope for increased food production.

Whether Africa can increase its food production may soon become one of the questions of international affairs. It may be one at which, in a decade or two, Western governments will frantically throw money after a crisis hits, whereas more-moderate investments begun now might avert the day of reckoning. And one of the questions of the next century may be whether the world can feed itself at all.


His opponents may not know it, but Borlaug has long warned of the dangers of population growth. "In my Nobel lecture," Borlaug says, "I suggested we had until the year 2000 to tame the population monster, and then food shortages would take us under. Now I believe we have a little longer. The Green Revolution can make Africa productive. The breakup of the former Soviet Union has caused its grain output to plummet, but if the new republics recover economically, they could produce vast amounts of food. More fertilizer can make the favored lands of Latin America -- especially Argentina and Brazil -- more productive. The cerrado region of Brazil, a very large area long assumed to be infertile because of toxic soluble aluminum in the soil, may become a breadbasket, because aluminum-resistant crop strains are being developed." This last is an example of agricultural advances and environmental protection going hand in hand: in the past decade the deforestation rate in the Amazon rain forest has declined somewhat, partly because the cerrado now looks more attractive.

Borlaug continues, "But Africa, the former Soviet republics, and the cerrado are the last frontiers. After they are in use, the world will have no additional sizable blocks of arable land left to put into production, unless you are willing to level whole forests, which you should not do. So future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before."

But "very strong" progress on yields seems problematic. John Bongaarts calculates that agricultural yields outside Western countries must double in the coming century merely to maintain current -- and inadequate -- nutrition levels. The United Nations projects that human numbers will reach about 9.8 billion, from about 5.8 billion today, around the year 2050. To bring the entire world's diet in that year to a level comparable to that of the West, Bongaarts calculates, would require a 430 percent increase in food production. . . .

In my opinion, that the demand for organically-grown food is driven by consumers is a major plus. If I am not mistaken organically-produced food generally receives little if any federal subsidies. At the same time, I agree with Borlaug that total world food production would be much less if everything were organic. And insisting that the Green Revolution shouldn’t take root in Africa as it has in other parts of the world to me certainly seems elitist.

The amount of non-sustainable resources converted to fertilizers for any farm is miniscule compared to that spent in packaging and transportation of the harvested crops. Unless you are going to carry your produce to market in a horse drawn cart, the question is academic.

資金を増やそうとするのに不動産投資をするのが手っ取り早い。日本で不動産で東京 賃貸をさがすのはきわめて難しくシステム開発は日本の会社が良い。


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