Delving Deeper into the Roots of Organic

Part three – response to the criticism on my piece about organic farming, here: Natural Assumptions. I will continue with what may in fact be the biggest problem I see with the organic paradigm in practice: yield. We only have limited land for farming. The solutions aren’t easy.

My critic was a person interested in civil debate, and he provided me with a 6-point list of issues he saw with my piece. I can’t tell you how rare and valuable this is.

In a three-part series of posts, I will offer my response to the detailed list of criticism posted on the comments section of the Skepti Forum Blog by Rob Wallbrigde (Delving deeper into the roots of organicwho blogs over at The Fanning Mill). I will go into more detail on the aspects of 1) nutritional content, 2) animal welfare, 3) pesticides, 4) environmental impact, 5) yield differences, and 6) the origins of organic farming.

The answers got lengthy.  The previous points have been addressed in the posts On farming, animals, and the environment, and Am I biased? Are you?

Yield differences in organic vs conventional agriculture

Criticism – well, this doesn’t really voice a criticism, but points to a blog-post with additional studies and other sources, which I address below together with a commentary of organic yields.

5) Speaking of which, I discuss organic yields, providing links to several scientific studies in this post:

The evidence clearly supports the conclusion that yields are lower in organic farming. So far I have found three comprehensive meta-analyses stating that yields are considerably lower for organic systems. My piece accurately reflects this.

In order not to rely on single studies (single-study syndrome, or cherry-picking) I am always looking for meta-analyses and reviews of the scientific literature. Searching through above mentioned blog post doesn’t yield that (pun not intended).

Among its sources I find a booklet by the Rodale Institute, which has a 24-references long source list, however, among those references very few seem to have anything to do with yield. One is simply a long report aimed at the UN (not UN’s statement, but a report to the UN from a number of advocacygroups), which happens also to include an endorsement of biodynamic farming, which gets us onto very sketchy ground scientifically speaking. Buried animal organs stuffed with herbs and the like, and I’m not kidding (see table of biodynamic preparations).

Components of biodynamic preparations

Five additional references from my critic’s blog post are surveys or reports of some kinds by interest or advocacy organisations, and among the remaining 18 that probably are scientific papers, there are 2 authored by Seralini, an author known to have produced questionable research using bad methodology (enough so to result in paper retraction). This does not automatically disqualify his papers and arguments, but it should raise concern, and we should use scrutiny when evaluating his claims. Including Seralini’s papers, there are whole 5 papers arguing about birth defects, cancer, and glyophosphate toxicity – again, issues where there is plenty of research and the papers chosen here seem to represent stark outliers to the scientific body of evidence. Also I had done a considerable amount of work trying to find scientific evidence on the question of yield, but I was failing.

What I did find behind the blog post’s argument for organic yields being comparable to conventional were not very strong. I could track down one individual paper where they demonstrate the possibility of getting similar yields:

a valuable demonstration of the potential for organic crops to achieve comparable yields

but from what I see the study mainly focuses on soil factors. They mention that under their experimental conditions they could achieve similar yields, but this does not reflect or measure the actual state of wide-scale commercial agriculture, only their test fields. They acknowledge that during weed-infestation years, their yields also fell below conventional.

In his blog post, conversely, Rob Wallbridge does provide a large meta-analysis showing evidence for lower yields in organic agriculture, an analysis of 362 studies finding 20% lower yields for organic, with reasons to believe this difference tends to be even higher.

I try to stay aware of my limitations. When I want to get an overview of the science on a field, especially one not of my own expertise, I may not spot all the problems in a given study. It follows that I should try not to overly rely on any one study based solely on my own judgement. Here for instance, the highlight from the Nature News piece which I referenced in my essay:

“Seufert’s meta-analysis reviewed 66 studies comparing the yields of 34 different crop species in organic and conventional farming systems. The researchers included only studies that assessed the total land area used, allowing them to compare crop yields per unit area. Many previous studies that have showed large yields for organic farming ignore the size of the area planted — which is often bigger than in conventional farming.”

Original meta-analaysis paper here. There is also the extensive review already discussed in point nr 4) above, which highlights the lower yields in organic.

This leaves me at 3 meta-analyses highlighting the problem of lower yields in organic farming. In a piece titled Organic yield gap shrinking? Study actually shows it’s less sustainable than conventional ag, Marc Brazeau analyses a new, fourth, comparison study of yields which tries to argue for only 19% percent yield gap with convoluted comparison scenarios. Marc concludes:

Based on the previously calculated yield gap of 25 percent, in the United States, if we were to switch exclusively to organic certified production, we would need to clear an area the size of California for new cropland and if we extend that yield gap to livestock, we are talking about California + Montana + Pennsylvania, in order to practice what they claim is a more sustainable form of agriculture.

Where are the roots of organic farming?

The criticism was as follows:

6) As for the roots of organic farming, any serious student of organic agriculture recognizes that like most similar things, it evolved from a number of significant influences, not just one. In fact, if you had referenced the Wikipedia article on the history of organic farming rather than biodynamics (or even read further down in the entry you cite next), the reader comes upon this statement: “Sir Albert Howard is widely considered to be the “father of organic farming”, because he was the first to apply scientific knowledge and principles to these various traditional and more natural methods.” This plain statement, along with the wealth of research on organic farming available on-line (,, directly contradicts your claims that organic agriculture is not evidence- or science-based, both in the past and in the present. I address these false assumptions about organic farming and technology in more detail here:

Allow me to conclude that I agree with the general gist of Iida’s call for open-minded, respectful dialogue and a willingness to question deeply-held beliefs. I don’t have much patience for radicals in the anti-GMO movement, and I’m no fan of the OCA. But I maintain my original opinion that this piece could use a more nuanced, contextual approach, with less secondary references and more reliance on original sources. Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to respond in greater detail.

First I’d like to mention that I did read and reference that Wikipedia article on “History of organic agriculture”. I do think Rob is right, and I should add that reference number (15) so that it is cited also in the sentence about the roots of organic agriculture. As it is, it is found only a couple of sentences later.

These early fertilizers were cheap, powerful, and easy to transport in bulk. Similar advances occurred in chemical pesticides in the 1940s, leading to the decade being referred to as the ‘pesticide era’.[9] But these new agricultural techniques, while beneficial in the short term, had serious longer term side effects such as soil compaction, soil erosion, and declines in overall soil fertility, along with health concerns about toxic chemicals entering the food supply.[10]:10

Soil biology scientists began in the late 1800s and early 1900s to develop theories on how new advancements in biological science could be used in agriculture as a way to remedy these side effects, while still maintaining higher production. In Central Europe Rudolf Steiner, whose Lectures on Agriculture were published in 1925.[11][12][13]:[14] created biodynamic agriculture, an early version of what we now call organic agriculture.[15][16][17] Steiner was motivated by spiritual rather than scientific considerations.[13]:17–19

They further state about the “Father of organic farming”:

The Howards were influenced by their experiences with traditional farming methods in India, biodynamic, and their formal scientific education.[11]

Here is another source where I learned about the origins of organic, from a former organic farmer on Why I’m Through with Organic Farming:

The origins of the “organic” vs. “chemical” false dichotomy

In the early 19th century, “Vitalism” reigned. This was the belief that certain materials could only be produced through a mysterious “vital force” in living organisms; hence, “organic” substances were those derived from organisms and their products. Then a German scientist, Fredrick Wöhler, synthesized urea, a component of urine, in a laboratory without having to pee in a bottle. Goodbye Vitalism.

These “mysterious” materials turned out to be the results not of a vital force but of the properties of good old carbon. So the term “organic” came to describe the chemicals based around the carbon atom.

The organic farmers parted ways with the organic chemists around the turn of the century, with “organic” gaining positive connotations and “chemical” negative ones. This commenced with the German mystic Rudolph Steiner and his “Anthroposophic” movement, which includes “biodynamic” farming, a school that believes the farm should be seen as a “holistic” organism that needs to be balanced with various astrological forces. Some ways of achieving this “balance” include shunning “synthetic chemicals” and burying manure-stuffed cow’s horns to focus cosmic energy into the earth.

It also comments on the problematic organic assumptions:

The idea that “the principles of organic agriculture” do not “control nature at the molecular level” and do not have “the potential for unforeseen consequences” is a classic instance of the one who judges the gene splice in another’s eye while not seeing the cloned apple tree lodged in one’s own eye.

I don’t say that scientific tools were never used within organic farming, and I should believe many were used to optimise the methods of choice. I simply mean that the choice of limiting yourself to ‘more natural methods’ is not a scientific one, and it does not rest on a finding that ecology would be inherently harmed by use of synthetic substances. The choice to exclude those was a principal one, based on an assumption.

Should someone find studies where a comparison of organic and synthetic-aided methods would indicate that relying on synthetic pesticides and fertilisers was the problem per se, I would have to correct my view. While I haven’t found such studies, I have found an additional second-hand references on the soil health aspects in the roots of organic, that is, indication of no evidence that synthetic chemicals would be harmful what comes to the soil. Quote from If alternative farming worked, it would just be called “farming”:

the original idea of Organics comes from Steiner’s Biodynamics fairy-astrology woo, and Lady Eve Balfour, who founded the Soil Association, who failed to prove her own hypothesis, that food grown with synthetic chemicals would lead to a deterioration of plant, animal and human health:

“The many different chemical analyses, carried out on crops and livestock products, revealed no consistent or significant differences between the sections, other than the usually higher water content of the chemically grown fodder. Seasonal variations, and those between fields in the same section, often exceeded average sectional differences. But this lack of difference was in itself significant in that on the organic section, receiving no added minerals the analysis of soil and crops showed a nutrient status that remained consistently as high as that of the others.”

(-Towards a Sustainable Agriculture–The Living Soil Lady Eve Balfour IFOAM 1977)”

This is by no means a conclusive collection of resources on the history of organic farming, but for me it has been an illuminating one. Naturally I will remain open for possible further sources that could prove different points about the development of the organic movement.

What I would much rather find, though, would be indications of the organic label willing to change it’s rules at present. I would love to hear news of the organic agricultural movement getting ready to adopt a more evidence-based approach, no longer shunning methods solely on the claims of not being ‘natural’ enough.

And who knows, maybe it will happen?

In a recent article in Washington Post, the Rodale Institute Executive Director Mark Smallwood still stands just as fast by the natural mindset:

the mere fact that we’re talking about this [rethinking the synthetic/natural divide and evaluating materials “on a case-by-case basis”] “perpetuates the incorrect notion that humans are smarter than Mother Nature, and we need man-made answers. We always rely on cultural practices, methodologies and products aimed at working with nature, and synthetics throw off that balance.”

But there are other voices.

Amy Hepworth, an organic farmer in New York’s Hudson Valley, also believes in the importance of soil health and working with nature but says that science and technology, deployed judiciously, can help her with that, sometimes with fewer adverse effects than natural substances. “Natural doesn’t mean safe,” she says.

“When you say pesticides and chemicals, we’re so indoctrinated that it feels like we’re saying the word poison,” says Hepworth, “but we need confidence in agriculture beyond organic. The most sustainable, responsible system is a hybrid system.” She’s working on crafting just such a system.

That sounds to me like good news. We have a wonderful and very crowded planet on our hands. Ideas can only go so far without evidence to guide them, and we want to use all we have when we make choices that affect how we manage the beautiful nature we have left.


About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, volunteer science communicator, and fiction writer.
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7 Responses to Delving Deeper into the Roots of Organic

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