The Organic Obstruction: Roadblocks to Gains in Organic Farming

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By Michael Schimaneck

Anyone with an ear to the ground of domestic agriculture has probably heard the sound of the Western Corn Rootworm happily munching away at Monsanto’s supposedly invincible, genetically-modified corn. If allowed to spread, these new, highly-resistant insects could decimate the United States’ top staple crop. Meanwhile, UN scientists believe that Europe, Africa, and island nations will experience the worst effects of extreme weather conditions such as drought in the next few years, but we aren’t getting off easy, either. By late August of this year, the United States had already seen a record number of billion-dollar environmental disasters (with Consumer Price Index valuation adjustments). Clearly, something must be done to avert, or at least mitigate, these catastrophes. Agriculture, which accounts for roughly eight percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, might have a powerful solution.

It has been well publicized that yields from organic farms are about 20 percent smaller than conventional farming equivalents. However, the recently published results of a 30-year study conducted by the Rodale Institute demonstrate that organic yields catch up over time and eventually even surpass conventional ones. Part of this is due to the fact that organic farming systems build, rather than deplete, diverse organic matter in the soil, which contributes to a 15-20 percent increase in water retention. Rather than allowing water to run off of the surface and take soil with it, this has the effect of replenishing more of it into the reserves, thereby boosting yields during times of drought.

Each of these factors makes a compelling case for organic farming practices to be climate change’s magic wand, but don’t hold your breath, because the sad reality is that persistent marketing and the influx of questionable imports have distorted many Americans’ perception of the rate of growth for domestic organic agriculture. As of 2008, organic farms only accounted for 0.52 percent of total U.S. croplands while growing at a paltry rate of 0.0385 percent.

What is the cause of this insufficiency? Despite the statistics mentioned above, government subsidies provide an unfair advantage to conventional farmers, making it cheaper for them to produce their crops while producing 40 percent more greenhouse gases and utilizing environmentally-damaging chemicals. The salt in the wounds is more evident when one considers that organic farming practices also require 45 percent less energy, meaning that if conventional farmers’ hidden costs weren’t being subsidized, shelf prices for organic products would actually be lower.

2 responses

  1. Your point is well taken, but the obstruction you cite is only one of several – maybe not the major one. In a nutshell, conventional farmers are also discouraged from transitioning to organic due to the excessively bureaucratic and irrational rules and requirements that have been dictated by those claiming to protect “organic integrity.” I could go on, but am working on a book that will make this case and be fun to read too. Check out some of my essays and articles (especially Part 3 of Conflicts Over Organic Standards) at:

  2. Prices of organic foods are also affected by the economies of scale enjoyed by the big conventional farms that allow them to produce more cheaply on a pound by pound basis.
    To offset this “disadvantage”, it is up to those of us at the retail end, along with the organic farmers, to continue to educate the consumer as to the reasons that organic farming is not only beneficial to their health, but also to the environment which is, of course, also beneficial to their health.

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