by Chand Prasad, Ph.D.
Sales of organic foods have grown at an annual rate of 20 percent or more since 1990, making organic farming one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture. This rapid growth is all the more impressive because, unlike conventional agriculture, organic farming is not heavily subsidized by taxpayers dollars. The rise of organic agriculture is consumer-driven, not subsidy driven, and indeed organic farmers market their food directly to consumers much more frequently than conventional farmers. Market share for organic producers will continue to expand due to rapid growth in consumer demand. In contrast, conventional agriculture is not sustainable because it depends heavily on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. An important policy implication of this article is the need to discontinue government subsidies for conventional agriculture, since organic farming is the only sustainable form of agriculture and will be the only alternative in the long run.
Agribusiness conglomerates, such as Monsanto, Du Pont, Dow, and Novartis, incorrectly argue that organic yields are low. Based on an ongoing long-term comparison study at UC Davis, organic yields were at least as high as conventional farming for all crops tested: tomato, safflower, corn and bean (Clark, 1999). A recent study comparing organic and conventional apple production in California’s Central Coast showed higher yields as well as higher returns under the organic systems (Swezey et al., 1994). And another recent study compared organic, conventional, and integrated apple production systems in Washington State over a 6 year period, and found that the organic system was more profitable, had similar yields, better tasting fruit, and was more environmentally sustainable and energy efficient than the other systems (Reganold et al., 2001).
Organic agriculture can play an important role in averting future crop failures both in the US and in the rest of the world. The Rodale Institute compared conventional and organic systems for corn and soybeans in a study know as the Farm Systems Trial. Although yields were comparable during years of normal rainfall, the key result is that organic practices markedly improved the quality of the soil, thereby allowing soybean yields to remain relatively high even in the face of a drought. Unlike conventional farming, organic practices allow the soil to retain moisture more efficiently, while the higher content of organic matter also makes organic soil less compact so that root systems can penetrate more deeply to find moisture (Rodale Institute, 1999).
Not only is organic farming better able to withstand droughts, but it is also relatively immune to the inevitable shortages of petroleum supplies. Conventional agriculture is heavily dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, while in contrast organic farmers are more insulated from volatility in energy prices. Therein lies an important competitive advantage of organic. For example, corn yields would fall dramatically from 130 bushels per acre to approximately 30 bushels, in the absence of chemical (petroleum-based) fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum powered irrigation (Pimentel, 1998). The world is moving relentlessly towards this scenario, as conventional oil production could hit its maximum (peak) before the year 2010 (Campbell & Laherrere, 1998). Moreover, it is important to note that even before we reach this maximum, the costs of extracting petroleum would rise sharply, as oil companies are compelled to tap into oil deposits that are less accessible. Finally, the costs of extracting oil will exceed the benefits, implying that further production is not economical.
While organic production continues to grow rapidly in a competitive free market, conventional agriculture is heavily subsidized through direct farm payments, counter cyclical payments, crop insurance, and a network of research institutes and extension agents. These handouts, which are critical for the survival of conventional agriculture, tend to keep farmland and resources tied up in our highly mechanized, chemical-based farming systems, thereby inhibiting the growth of organic. It is reasonable to conclude that organic would have grown even faster if it had not been for the subsidies that conventional agriculture receives.
The misuse of taxpayers dollars to subsidize conventional agriculture is symptomatic of a misdirected society. Even in the current situation, in which economically accessible supplies of petroleum are still largely available, conventional agriculture depends heavily on subsidies. The subsidy bill will have to grow sharply in order to maintain conventional farming systems in the face of rising petroleum prices and dwindling supplies. But we have to put these issues into the proper perspective. Although organic farming is a sustainable alternative, the human race will, on many other fronts, continue to experience an array of social, economic, and environmental problems unless we accept the spiritual principles that were enunciated by Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada. All the difficulties of material existence have a common source, i.e., we want the Kingdom of God without God. Fortunately, these problems also have a common solution, i.e., a society centered around the Supreme Lord.
References available upon request