The food security movement that has been seeking to prevent the spread of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) has become strong in urban centers throughout North America. But in rural areas it continues to be a challenge as a large number of chemical farmers continue to be resistant to organic or non-chemical farming methods’, usually citing that to go organic is inefficient and a money losing proposition.
In fact, organic farming is now proving to be a profitable option, which is raising the question – Why are some farmers resisting change? The answer to this question might strike at the core of wider belief systems, one that might be attached to an “economic” connection to the land, the other, a “spiritual” connection to the land.
Chemical vs. Organic: The Profit Picture
A systematic overview of more than 100 studies comparing organic and conventional farming finds that the crop yields of organic agriculture are higher than previously thought. A new study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, also found that certain practices could further shrink the productivity gap between organic crops and conventional farming.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, tackles the lingering perception that organic farming, while offering an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemically intensive agriculture, cannot produce enough food to satisfy the world's appetite.
"In terms of comparing productivity among the two techniques, this paper sets the record straight on the comparison between organic and conventional agriculture," said the study's senior author, Claire Kremen, professor of environmental science, policy and management and co-director of the Berkeley Food Institute.
"With global food needs predicted to greatly increase in the next 50 years, it's critical to look more closely at organic farming because, aside from the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, the ability of synthetic fertilizers to increase crop yields has been declining."
The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies -- a dataset three times greater than previously published work -- comparing organic and conventional agriculture. They found that organic yields are about 19.2 percent lower than conventional ones, a smaller difference than in previous estimates.
The researchers pointed out that the available studies comparing farming methods were often biased in favor of conventional agriculture, so this estimate of the yield gap is likely overestimated. They also found that taking into account methods that optimize the productivity of organic agriculture could minimize the yield gap. They specifically highlighted two agricultural practices -- multi-cropping (growing several crops together on the same field) and crop rotation -- that would substantially reduce the organic-to-conventional yield gap to 9 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
The yields also depended upon the type of crop grown, the researchers found. There were no significant differences in organic and conventional yields for leguminous crops, such as beans, peas and lentils.
"Our study suggests that through appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management and in breeding cultivars for organic farming systems, the yield gap could be reduced or even eliminated for some crops or regions," said the study's lead author, Lauren Ponisio, a graduate student in environmental science, policy and management.
"This is especially true if we mimic nature by creating ecologically diverse farms that harness important ecological interactions like the nitrogen-fixing benefits of intercropping or cover-cropping with legumes."
The researchers suggest that organic farming can be a very competitive alternative to industrial agriculture when it comes to food production.
"It's important to remember that our current agricultural system produces far more food than is needed to provide for everyone on the planet," said Kremen.
"Eradicating world hunger requires increasing the access to food, not simply the production. Also increasing the proportion of agriculture that uses sustainable, organic methods of farming is not a choice, it's a necessity. We simply can't continue to produce food far into the future without taking care of our soils, water and biodiversity."
Anti-organic: Why do some farmers resist profitable change?
On the market side, organic farmers continue to sell into a higher-end consumer market and are often selling direct to consumers, which is allowing them to earn more revenue with a smaller crop yield.
So why do some chemical farmers resist a profitable conversion to organic methods? A new study in the Journal of Marketing suggests that it may be because making that change feels like switching belief systems.
"The ideological map of American agriculture reveals an unfolding drama between chemical and organic farming," write authors Melea Press (University of Bath), Eric Arnould (Southern Denmark University), Jeff Murray (University of Arkansas) and Katherine Strand (McGill University). "Chemical farmers argue that to make money, one must follow chemical traditions; when organic farmers make more money, it seems "wrong."
The authors looked at chemical and organic wheat farmers on the American plains to see which crop production strategies they used, and why. They found that, as predicted, both chemical and organic farmers often gave passionate, belief-based reasons for their choices, and clearly felt that their beliefs were in competition.
One chemical farmer stated that he felt organic farmers were unscientific and that they probably followed "an organic crop guru." An organic farmer, by contrast, stressed the joy of bringing Earth back to life: "I had thousands of seagulls, but my chemical neighbor did not have one. Why was this? Earthworms. My soil is getting healthier because I'm not putting all the herbicides and pesticides out there."
The authors conclude by stressing the vital importance to agricultural managers of recognizing how ideological beliefs influence farming methods, and of using this understanding to find new ways of inspiring farmers to adopt profitable changes.
"It is possible that when approaching strategic change, managers might have greater success if they recognize that potentially conflicting ideologies are in play. As we have illustrated, the preservation of the agricultural world is at stake."
The Transition of the “Spiritual” Farmer
There may be a common thread that ties these two kinds of farmers together, and it might be “security” but one is driven by economic security and the other by environmental security. The differences generated between economic and environmental views probably emerge within all aspects of our society. So if we can understand how to bridge these differences in today’s farming communities then perhaps we can solve even bigger differences throughout the world.
There’s a lot that we don’t know about how farming communities are transitioning. If chemical farmers are driven by economic logic and if they are also the traditional conservative Christian backbone of rural communities, then are they becoming stronger or weaker in numbers? We have known for well over two decades that there has been an exodus from rural areas because traditional family farms have become less profitable.
Conversely, are new organic farmers growing in numbers? Are these people moving from the cities into the countryside to become the new “spirit” within rural areas?
If we can understand this changing cultural landscape we will better understand the future of food, spirit and the economy – everywhere.