Sunday, July 17, 2005

Pimentel Strikes Again, Claims Organic Crop Yields Equal Conventional

David Pimentel, the Cornell University researcher whose ongoing series of reports have condemned virtually every biomass scheme I've heard of as energy negative, now comes forth with a new study claiming organic farming methods produce the same yields as conventional farms.
The study compared a conventional farm that used recommended fertilizer and pesticide applications with an organic animal-based farm (where manure was applied) and an organic legume-based farm (that used a three-year rotation of hairy vetch/corn and rye/soybeans and wheat). The two organic systems received no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Inter-institutional collaboration included Rodale Institute agronomists Paul Hepperly and Rita Seidel, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service research microbiologist David Douds Jr. and University of Maryland agricultural economist James Hanson. The research compared soil fungi activity, crop yields, energy efficiency, costs, organic matter changes over time, nitrogen accumulation and nitrate leaching across organic and conventional agricultural systems.

"First and foremost, we found that corn and soybean yields were the same across the three systems," said Pimentel, who noted that although organic corn yields were about one-third lower during the first four years of the study, over time the organic systems produced higher yields, especially under drought conditions. The reason was that wind and water erosion degraded the soil on the conventional farm while the soil on the organic farms steadily improved in organic matter, moisture, microbial activity and other soil quality indicators.

Here's where I begin to wonder about Pimentel's honesty. Technically he's correct in that the organic yields for the crops specified are about the same as for the conventional farm, but you cannot plant and harvest the same crop year in and year out. This is the sticking point I continue to see in every shootout between organic and conventional farming, and it's one that's vitally important.
Pimentel noted that although cash crops cannot be grown as frequently over time on organic farms because of the dependence on cultural practices to supply nutrients and control pests and because labor costs average about 15 percent higher in organic farming systems, the higher prices that organic foods command in the marketplace still make the net economic return per acre either equal to or higher than that of conventionally produced crops.
In other words, only if you raise prices substantially will these methods become economically viable. That says volumes about where all this is headed.