When in Drought, Grow Organic

My friend Dr David Tribe from Melbourne University has just started his own blog, click here. Congratulations David!

I was scrolling through his recent posts and there is a great paper on organic farming, download file. Well it provides good quantitative comparative data on yields, nitrogen inputs, and nitrogen leaching for conventional and organic systems for trials in Norway, Switzerland, Sweden and Australia.

It is a pity they don’t include the data from the Rodale Institute in the US.

Scott Kinnear, a Director of The Biological Farmers of Australia and Victorian Greens Candidate, and others, often quote the trials from the institute as evidence that that organic farming systems are superior to conventional systems and in particular that they give a higher yield.

Indeed Kinnear claims as much on page 9 of a recent speech titled How Organics and Slow Food will Feed The World:

“Organic farming in the US yields comparable or better than
conventional industrial farming, especially in times of drought”.

The only example of this that I can find is a paper titled The performance of organic and conventional cropping systems in an extreme climate year, by Don Lotter, Rita Seidel, and Bill Liebhardt of the Rodale Insitute. They write:

In five out of six of the drought years during the 21 year experiment, corn yields were significantly higher in the organic treatments than those in the conventional treatment. The 1999 drought year being far more severe, results were more complex, and showed differences between the two organic crop systems.
Rainfall during the 1999 crop season totaled only 41% of average. The critical month of July had only 15 mm of rain, about 17% of the average. Crop yields were reduced to less than 20% in corn and 60% in soybean. Most farmers would have abandoned such a dismal corn crop; however, this kind of stress can expose differences between crop management systems that mild stress conditions cannot.

So if you don’t mind a really dismal yield, and if in drought, well you could go organic.

Otherwise, as the GMO Pundit, Dr Tribe says:

A review of farming performance in practice shows that for the same crop yield, organic farming requires more land than is needed with conventional farming with synthetic fertiliser.

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6 Responses to When in Drought, Grow Organic

  1. rog November 15, 2005 at 2:42 pm #

    I am afraid that the organic industry is peppered with unsubstantiated claims.

  2. Louis Hissink November 15, 2005 at 8:19 pm #

    Reminds of the story about the Aboriginal who had two sets of boomerangs for sale.

    Tourist looks at the first collection for sale, then the second.

    Morton, he said, how come these boomerangs all look the same ?

    Well, said Morton, these ones ‘here, these cost more.

  3. Phil Done November 16, 2005 at 8:41 am #

    OK – up front – I don’t buy organic myself. I’m unconvinced of any quality advantage or health benefits (less risks).

    But conventional agronomy doesn’t know it all. I’m told that yield decline syndrome is a problem in sugar cane production despite advances in crop agronomy and genetics. Also in other crop systems like cotton too (albeit not universal).

    Culprits – lack of soil mycorhizza from using anhydrous NH3, soil compaction from heavy machinery and traffic when soil is wetter than desirable, and maybe disease from green trash blanketing.

    Organic may have better soil structure and soil fauna. Although you can achieve benefits yourself by changing techniques – without having to adopt “organic” methods as a philosophy. It may even sequester more carbon ?? How mor eroganic matter goes with pest and disease control I reckon needs some more analysis.

    But I’ve often wondered how organic would save you from a good old Australian El Nino drought. The only benefits might be better reserves of soil water if water is the limiting factor. But I reckon the difference wouldn’t be major.

    If you get El Nino-ed everyone is in trouble. (unless according to Ian Mott, you have a dam with all trees removed from the catchment, and all angiosperms except tussock graminace banned đŸ™‚ )

    But anyway – what’s wrong with genetically engineered crops grown with controlled traffic, minimum tillage and less harsh slow release organic fertilisers? Cannot we adopt whatever is sensible, safe and works. i.e. evaluate all technologies on their merits, select and integrate the best components.

    And Rog – yes peppered is good for a crude insecticde spray. I’m glad you’re up with these modern techniques in your nursery. Or was the pepper spray for visiting greenies and Greenpeace collectors.

  4. rog November 18, 2005 at 7:33 am #

    The organic industry uses fear as a marketing tool, much the same as socialists who use global warming as a device to attract political capital.

  5. eumong February 13, 2006 at 6:09 am #

    What is the aim of agriculture on this earth?

    Is our aim to:

    Maximise the short term human carrying capacity of the earth?

    Maximise short term profits?

    Maximise long term sustainability and human happiness?

    Some other organic farming advocates may shoot me down for this, but I have always presumed that truly-sustainable organically-grown crops would yield a slightly lower yield than un-sustainable chemically-grown crops. The reason being that organic crops share the yield with other life on earth. They are a living landscape as apposed to the dead boring landscapes of chemical agriculture that rely on killing everything to maximise short term yields.

    What people are not taking into account are the extra costs of chemical agriculture. These being ecosystem collapse, hydrological imbalances, erosion, pollution and last but not least, environmental boredom.

    It’s high time that unsustainable agriculture started paying its taxes to cover these hidden and usually-ignored extra costs. For too long such unsustainable practices have been subsidised by good ecological land managers (these include SOME organic and biological farmers).

    So you lazy, boring chemical men, pay-up!!

  6. eumong February 13, 2006 at 7:06 am #

    Please recall “lazy, boring chemical men, pay up!!”

    Must not forget the chemical women.. Sorry!

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