Organic yield gap shrinking? Study actually shows it’s less sustainable than conventional ag


Last month, The Proceedings of the Royal Society published a study entitled “Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap” . The paper is the largest meta-analysis of comparative conventional farming to organic farming studies done to date. They put together a large data set and compared the yields between the two approaches and the effects of a wide range of variables.

The paper was met with a wide round of applause among foodies and organic activists. The idea of organic farming is very appealing, and many people hope that evidence that there is little difference in yields versus conventional agriculture, particularly where GMOs are grown, will lead to wider adoption. The problem in all this is that the study’s conclusions don’t match the findings–and the coverage of the study completely missed this salient fact.

This is unsurprising, (though not excusable) given the way it was presented to the press, who then ran with it–as an uncritical comparison between organic and conventional. As a result, in distorting the public debate over ‘what is sustainable agriculture,’ the flawed study has become a major distraction from the very real challenge of increasing the sustainability of modern farming.

Lets take a look at the research, starting with the press release, Can organic crops compete with industrial agriculture?

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 data-set 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 previously found in other estimates. (25 percent and 20 percent)

The researchers claimed that the previously available data sets comparing farming methods were often biased in favor of conventional agriculture, so prior estimates of the yield gap were likely overestimated. After creating a larger collection of data to examine, they found that 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 (growing different crops in a series on the same land), that would substantially reduce the organic-to-conventional yield gap to 9 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

The yield gap also depended upon the type of crop grown, the researchers found. They claim no significant differences between organic and conventional yield gaps for leguminous crops, such as beans, peas and lentils, for instance.

“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.”

We’ll come back to the claim…and the fact that they did not compare industrial conventional farming with non-industrial organic farming.

The paper quantifies a number of interesting (if unsurprising) things. It shows that nitrogen is the primary restraint holding back organic productivity. When it comes to leguminous crops, which fix their own nitrogen, the yield gap narrows for specific crops (They also claim, confusingly, that there is little difference between legumes and non-legumes – see Figure 1). When applied nitrogen levels (fertilizer) were similar between organic and conventional the yield gap shrunk to 9% from 30% in comparisons where conventional systems applied more nitrogen (see Figure 2, below).

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(Figure 1 – Click on image to see full size)


The paper appeared to show that the yield gap narrows for fruits and nuts (around 7 percent), and oilseed crops (around 12 percent) but is quite large for cereals (nearly 20 percent) and huge for roots and tubers (nearly 30 percent).

But the set of comparisons on which the authors hang their hat is an apples to oranges comparison of organic polycultures to conventional monocultures, and organic with more crop rotations to conventional with less rotations. In other words it appears to be a clear apples or oranges comparison, perhaps designed to end up with just the result the researchers wanted.

Indeed, when organic farmers employ the conservation agriculture techniques of diverse rotations and growing in polycultures, we see the gap closes to around 9 percent. However, when conventional farmers also employ the same conservation techniques that boost organic yields, the gap widens to over 20 percent.

Farmers often switch up the crops grown on a field in order to preserve and enhance soil nutrients. Different crops use various nutrients in different amounts. Leguminous crops, like lentils, alfalfa and soybeans actually add nitrogen back to the soil. That is referred to as nitrogen fixing. The most typical rotation is simply corn followed by soybeans. More diverse rotations of three to six crops grown on the same field over a series of years increases soil health, decreasing the need for applied fertilizers, as well helping with pest control, as different bugs and disease attack different plants, so the rotation interrupts their momentum in attacking a crop. Polyculture refers to cultivate more than one or two crops, but it can refer to multiple crops on a farm at one time or to diverse rotations.

Along with conservation tillage, mulching and cover crops, diverse rotations and inter-cropping (growing multiple crops in the same field at the same time, often in alternating rows or on the ground between trees in an orchard) are methods collectively referred to as “Conservation Agriculture”.

As a rule of thumb, organic farmers historically have relied on diverse rotations and polyculture more than conventional farmers. As organic farming has become more industrial, and conventional farmers adopt conservation methods in greater numbers, this rule of thumb has become less accurate.

The counter-intuitive observation in all this is that adoption of conservation techniques by conventional farmers creates an advantage that is even greater than their advantage in monoculture and no-rotation situations. One would think that in polycultures with diverse rotations, conventional farmers would lose some edge, because these techniques can reduce the need for the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that are forbidden to organic farmers. Instead we see the opposite.

Conservation conventional tops conservation organic on yields

It turns out that conservation techniques are even more productive when integrated into a full toolbox approach with judicious applications of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.


(Click on the image to view full size.)


Yields matter for sustainability

Before looking at the implications of this data, I’d like to touch on one other weakness in the reasoning of the paper’s authors. Throughout the study, they discuss yield as if it were apart from sustainability concerns or environmental impacts.

Broad adoption of sustainable agricultural methods is unlikely, however, unless such methods are similarly productive and/or cost-effective, such that they improve livelihoods. Hence, there is much incentive to determine whether a yield gap exists between ‘conventional’ agriculture (i.e. chemically intensive and biologically simplified) and alternative, more sustainable forms of agriculture, and if so, how it can be reduced or eliminated.

But yield is a central metric of sustainability. High yields are an indicator of efficient use of resources. High yields indicate that water, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, labor, etc were successfully transformed into food instead weeds, bug food, and run off. There is nothing sustainable about pouring resources into a crop that are co-opted by weeds or wasted by pests and disease.

Of even greater import is the issue of land use. This is frequently overlooked when considering the environmental impact of farming methods, because it asks us to think counterfactually. We have to ask the question, “What would we have to do to produce the same amount of food if yields were lower?” The answer of course is to use more land. This is no small thing, as I’m about to rudely demonstrate.

We are told by the authors that the yield gap is a hurdle for adopting more sustainable forms of agriculture. Suppose for a minute that it wasn’t a hurdle and we could just adopt what they claim are more sustainable forms of agriculture—organic farming techniques.

Based on the previously calculated yield gap of 25 percent, in the United States, if we were to switch exclusively to organic certified production, we would need to clear an area the size of California for new cropland and if we extend that yield gap to livestock, we are talking about California + Montana + Pennsylvania, in order to practice what they claim is a more sustainable form of agriculture.

If we go with the papers new finding of 19 percent we would only have to clear out wilderness for cropland the size of New Mexico. Cropland, pasture and rangeland would be equal to clearing out a space equal to New Mexico + California, in order to practice a more sustainable form of agriculture.

In the unlikely event of organic production closing the yield gap to 9 percent, we would still need to clear out an area of wilderness equal to Iowa or New Mexico + New Jersey if we include livestock, in order to practice this more sustainable form of agriculture.

Nitrogen problem

I’m not sure which definition of “sustainable” includes plowing under vast new tracts of land. And these numbers actually understate the issue, for a number of reasons. The first of which is that all the best land is already under cultivation. Newly cleared land would be less productive and thus we would need to clear even more wilderness. Switching to leguminous fallow cover crops have a number of advantages from an environmental standpoint. Freezing the footprint of agriculture is not one of them.

Some critics of organic production point out that these comparison studies often fail to count a fallow cover crop in a rotation against the yield. Adding in fallow legume rotations, significantly raise the amount of land necessary to maintain the same levels of production. Perhaps, more consequentially, switching completely to organic production and phasing out synthetic fertilizers brings us face to face with organic’s dirty nitrogen secret. In addition to using legumes to fix nitrogen into the soil, organic farmers rely on manure for nitrogen. Most of the manure comes from conventionally raised cattle.

The question then becomes, “Where do the cows get the nitrogen?” It comes from crops grown with synthetic fertilizer. So manure has become a nitrogen laundering scheme, where synthetic nitrogen enters a cow at one end and comes out the other end as organic nitrogen. Organic farming doesn’t have a good answer for this.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 3.37.22 PM

We don’t have the vocabulary we need to discuss these issues properly

Fortunately, organic farming isn’t the only model of sustainable agriculture. It’s just the only one with any name recognition. And vocabulary was one of the things that this paper got me thinking about. This first thing that occurred to me on reading the title to the press release was: “Organic” and “Industrial” are not opposites, though many food activists like to position the debate that way. Quite a bit of organic production is industrial–as even the organic activist organization The Cornucopia Institute noted the other week. (It’s also worth noting that most of the comparisons that the study looked at were experimental trials, so there was very little truly industrial production actually studied)

The opposite of “organic” is “conventional” which is a word with no real meaning, other than “Not Organic”. I think of “organic” as agriculture with a limited toolbox, so perhaps a more opposite number would be “Full Toolbox Agriculture”. What struck me was that we don’t really have a term for the opposite of “industrial”. To come up with one, we would first need a definition of “Industrial Agriculture”. I would simply say that “Industrial Ag” means agriculture organized along industrial lines: highly mechanized, employing economies of scale, homogenization of products, in some labor intensive crops “industrial” also means a high proportion of front line employees to management (farm workers to owners).

So in agriculture, the opposite of industrial would be smallholder polyculture (SP) farms. So we could have a rough quadrille taxonomy of Industrial Conventional, Industrial Organic, SP Conventional, and SP Organic.

This taxonomy misses a slot for the occasional Large Polyculture and some Small Monoculture operations, but it far more useful than the Organic vs Industrial mismatch. Sadly, no one is collecting data along the lines of this more productive analytical taxonomy. To be able to put data to use, we need to employ the categories that data is collected around. Thus, we might create a quadrille taxonomy like this:


(Click on the image to view full size.)


As Food First executive director Eric Holt Gimenez points out in his review of the paper:

Not all organic farms are agroecological, of course. Some are vast industrial monocultures that are as climate-vulnerable as their conventional counterparts. What this new study shows is that agroecology — not organic agriculture per se — is the key to yield and sustainability.

That highlights another problem with our current vocabulary. In becoming synonymous with sustainable agriculture, the “organic” label has eclipsed other approaches to sustainable agriculture, while obscuring the fact that it’s possible to be certified organic, while being unsustainable at the same time. (I’m looking at you organic carrot and cabbage growers!)

Conservation Agriculture needs to come out from behind the shadow of Organic

In fact, we just don’t have a widely recognized term for sustainable farming that other than “organic”. There is a term, it’s just not widely used. It’s the term, that I introduced earlier: “conservation agriculture”, and it centers around a set of practices to improve soil quality and output, but without the prohibitions that hamstring organic. Conservation agriculture was first applied to the use of no-till and lo-till conservation tillage and has expanded to include the use of cover crops, mulches, composts and diverse rotations. If we were to add to that integrated pest management (IPM) we’d have a framework with real legs. But conservation agriculture is languishing in organic’s shadow, even as organic struggles to tame its tillage addiction and keep its dirty little nitrogen secret.

In fact, there is good research that shows that conservation agriculture not only increases yields, but it increases profitability as well by lowering inputs costs (read also as: lowering environmental impacts of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides) in tandem with the higher yields. Note also, that profits increase without the organic premium in price, so conservation agriculture is accessible to low income consumers in the developed world and to the poor in developing nations.

How much of a distraction is organic when it comes to how we think about sustainable agriculture and where to turn our resources?


(Click on the image to view full size.)

Let’s take a look at our quadrille taxonomy but scale it to represent acreage in cultivation for each of our four groups.

In the U.S., organic production makes up for .8 of cropland and .5 of pasture. In 2011, there were 5.4 million acres in organic out of 914 million total acres, or .6 percent. Farms of over 500 acres made up 70 percent of agricultural lands, while farms smaller than 500 acres made up the remaining 30 percent. Within the organic sector the split was 60/40 with farms of over 500 acres making up 60 percent and under 500 acres making up 40 percent.

So when the authors of the study opine:

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.

The question becomes, “Why?”.

What the study showed, was that it is methods that matter, not the ideology or the growing system per se. When we look at the chart above, it doesn’t make much sense to spend even more time and resources trying to figure out how to make that tiny sliver on the bottom right more productive when we could be trying to promote more diverse rotations, intercropping, polycultures and the rest of Conservation Agriculture throughout more of the 99.4 percent of the acreage that Full Toolbox ag currently occupies?

Research into cover crops, mulches, composts, diverse rotations and IPM would benefit everyone, organic and full toolbox alike. But instead of focusing on the false promise of closing yield gaps, we could preserve and extend yields while bringing Conservation Agriculture to the masses.

It’s good old fashioned Willie Sutton logic. “That’s where the farmers is.”

Marc Brazeau is a writer and agriculture editor for the Genetic Literacy Project. He blogs at Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Follow Marc on Twitter @realfoodorg.

  • Excellent article. Well done, Marc

  • George Allen

    Mark, excellent work! This piece is one of the best on the subject that I’ve read….and I recall you saying at one time that you aren’t a scientist. By reinterpreting the conclusions of this paper you have unlocked some critical issues that everyone needs to address in the future. I particularly like your comparison of “full toolbox farms” vs “limited toolbox farms”.

    • marcbrazeau

      Thanks. Nope, not a scientist. English major dropout.

      • First Officer

        You do English Majors proud!

      • Kevin Hulbert

        you seem like a unscientific english dropout – too much opinion, nothing to back it up with !!!!!!!!!!!

        • marcbrazeau

          What claims have I not backed up?

      • mike

        Monsanto thanks you for promoting their ideology. If the yields from organic farming are so terrible as you state using your “full tool box” or industrial or whatever other label you use versus chemical farming, it still is a far better thing to eat food that actually does not kill you. when comparing the variety of health issues that studies are now finding and proving, even a lower yield is better than a higher yield that has less nutritional levels, but more toxic chemical levels.

        • marcbrazeau

          The profile of pesticide use in organic agriculture is not necessarily any better than in conventional farming. In some cases, most notably fungicides they are stuck with more toxic, more persistent copper based options.

          But people, sadly, are unaware of what’s happened with pesticides in the last 40 years. They are pretty low on the hierarchy of the environmental impacts of agriculture. If your cartoon version of agriculture was reality, I would agree with you. In fact I did before I really dug in and studied up on the issues.

          Today pesticides are no longer a consumer issue, though on too many farms, they are a serious labor issue.

          • mike

            Conventional farming used to be organic farming a while back. That has now morphed into synthetics as the “conventional” way to farm. If synthetic pesticides are so harmless along with the herbicides used, why the need to practically wear a hazmat suite to apply them? And, if they are completely safe, why does a potato farmer need to wait three days before setting foot in his field after spraying? A high percentage of the NPK from synthetics actually is not available to the plant.
            As far as the “cartoon” version, I would suggest it is a funnier cartoon to picture a farmer in a hazmat suite happily spraying his field and telling his son that in three or four days it will be safe to go into the field and harvest something. By that time the harmful chemicals have had a chance to dissipate enough so we can pick them, but we have to let them sit for another few days before eating them. Safe? No health risks? I guess I am just not seeing that part.

          • marcbrazeau

            The same precautions are used in applying organic pesticides.

            I think the concepts of degradability and “the dose makes the poison” might come in handy.

          • mike

            Oh, the Forbes article by Steven Savage. Is he the former Dupont Employee that has had much of his positions and opinions heavily criticized and debunked, worked for Mitt Romney in the last election, which received very generous donations from Monsanto? I just wanted to be sure it is the same guy, common name and all.

        • marcbrazeau

          I don’t know what you think Monsanto’s ideology is, but I would guess that it’s some caricatured, exaggerated idea of “industrial agriculture”. I doesn’t really matter, because I don’t know or care what their ideology is or what you think it is.

          My own vision of sustainable agriculture squares with the views of most ag researchers and farmers who are committed to lowering the environmental impacts of agriculture.

          It’s summed up pretty neatly in this piece by WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources agronomist Andy McGuire:

          • mike

            Monsanto’s ideology is, how I see it at least is, GMO foods will save the world. I disagree and strongly believe some varieties of GMO seeds are harmful to humans being made much more harmful by genetically modifying the organism to be resistant to herbicides such as Glyphosate. One problem in this whole discussion as I read various blogs, etc, is the pro chemical and industrial/conventional farm set denies there is any evidence suggesting that GMO foods and the chemicals used on them do or even could or have any harmful effects despite numerous studies pointing to the contrary. I remember DDT and how it was promoted as a miracle ag product only to realize later of the severe health issues associated with it. Monsanto and Dupont, etc have vigorously resisted any attempts at regulation of their products as well as even labeling of products that contain GMO ingredients or even independent testing of their seeds and products. Continued use and overuse of synthetic agents to promote crop growth is not sustainable. More and more must be used and the actual soil biology that creates plant growth begins to die making the soil ever more dependent upon more synthetics being added. This adds up to market positioning,customer retention and revenue gains. It is much about generating revenue than “feeding the world.” I also disagree with your assessment that the only way organic farming is viable is to near complete deforestation of the planet. That is a bit over the top I would suggest. Respectfully.

          • marcbrazeau

            It’s not my assessment. Virtually every agronomist that has done the math has come to the same conclusion. Given the fact that we can’t expand the footprint of agriculture any further and the significant yield gap 10%-70& how do you that happening without major deforestation?

            For the rest of it, where to begin. I don’t have the energy to do anything other than to point you to the systemic research literature on glyphosate. It’s not as exciting as conspiracy websites, but it’s a little more grounded in reality.


          • hyperzombie

            “Monsanto’s ideology is, how I see it at least is, GMO foods will save the world.”

            Monsanto is a cutting edge Ag company, they sell conventional seed as well and are one of the biggest suppliers to the organic industry. I do believe that they are the biggest veggie seed seller and other than corn there are no GMO veggies. The come up with some pretty cool veggies, like frescada lettuce, super sweet mini peppers, and beneforte broccoli all non GMO.

            “I disagree and strongly believe some varieties of GMO seeds are harmful to humans being made much more harmful by genetically modifying the organism to be resistant to herbicides such as Glyphosate.”

            First of all, every crop is resistant to at least one herbicide and second conventional crops are also bred to be resistant to herbicides, Clearfield crops for example. This is the one thing that baffles me about you Anti GMO’s, why are you against the 2 least harmful major herbicides? Glyphosate and 2-4-d? Do you not know that there are other herbicides that are far more environmentally toxic? Look up paraquat toxicity.

            “despite numerous studies pointing to the contrary.”

            But there are not numerous studies.

            “remember DDT and how it was promoted as a miracle ag product only to realize later of the severe health issues associated with it.”

            Nope, DDT was banned because it was a persistent insecticide, all modern pesticide breakdown in the environment

            .” or even independent testing of their seeds and products.”

            All the seeds and pesticides are available at any Ag store, they could just buy them. Plus Monsanto and DuPont, will supply GMOs and herbicide free of charge to any independent scientist that wants to test them. They just cant test them for performance.

            “Continued use and overuse of synthetic agents to promote crop growth is not sustainable.”

            Actually if you leaned more about agriculture, you would realize that it is far more sustainable.

            “More and more must be used and the actual soil biology that creates plant growth begins to die making the soil ever more dependent upon more synthetics being added.”

            Nope, actually the opposite is true. If you control the weeds well, less herbicide is needed and if you add the proper amount of nutrition to the crops it builds up the soils.

            “I also disagree with your assessment that the only way organic farming is viable is to near complete deforestation of the planet.”

            Nope he was totally right, Organic would require about 30% more land and most likely far more. Organic farmers now are relying on the efforts of conventional farmers to lower the weed and insect pressure, if that was gone Organic would suffer far more.

          • Peter Olins

            Straw man argument, mike. Monsanto’s “ideology” is to develop products that appeal to customers. Is this any different from the “ideology” of Apple or Samsung?

            In case you hadn’t noticed, GM-based crops are already “feeding the world”—just not all of it. Is your objection to food production, or just corporations that make money? If your beef is truly about the dependence of farmers to make money (rather than just providing food), then you need to make the case more explicitly, and I’d be glad to pursue the topic further.

          • mike

            Thank you Peter. GM crops have been banned in many many countries throughout the world. Tobacco companies develop products that appeal to consumers as well. That does not make them good products. And, I smoke a pipe. I realize there are negative effects of smoking, but it is a choice and I am aware of the risks. With GM foods, the companies are even strongly resistant to labeling to allow consumers to make a choice.

            I am not against companies making money. I am the President of a successful company not in the agricultural industry. However, there is a responsible way to make a profit and an irresponsible way. There are people that honestly believe the GM companies motive in all this is actual TO feed the world. That could not be further from the truth. I am very familiar with at least Monsanto as I worked for one of Monsanto’s contractors. So, their ideology is not as simply stated to just make products that appeal to consumers no different than Apple, etc.

            Typically in these types of discussions the side that favors chemicals, etc belittles the other side with snide remarks and “cartoon” descriptions of their opinions. You guys honestly feel, in my assessment, that people on the other side are either conspiracy nuts or poor things, just not that bright. I can assure you my friend that is not the case. There is mounting evidence on both sides of this issue. I do have an honest question for you though. Why does the chemical side or conventional side (I don’t want to sound too negative) always ignore studies that show negative aspects of that type of farming? The USDA, National Institute of Health, the AMA and the list goes on and on. These are not cartoon organizations or nutcases that run around hugging trees, etc. These are some pretty smart and educated people. The position of your side’s argument seems to be, yes there could be negative health effects and negative effects for our planet’s overall health, but if we do not use these products many people on the planet will starve unless we deforest the entire planet. That is as much fear mongering, conspiracy and cartoon depictions as extremists on the other side. I think it is quite obvious of the motive for the chem/ag companies spending millions of dollars to support that position by discrediting the other side and resisting transparency at all cost as being nothing more than to guarantee their market. The market share for organics is growing at an ever increasing rate along with profits for the farmers. It is becoming more and more realized that farmers can make money growing organically in ever increasing numbers. That facts is not lost on the chem/ag companies and their significant increases in marketing, research and programs to pay people to promote their side is documented. Their market is under attack and any good businessman or businesswoman would take similar steps. That’s just business. Take labeling for insistent. The chem/ag companies are strongly resistant to labeling products as GMO. With the growing market share of organics, labeling products as GMO would further decrease their market from the negative feeling that millions of people have about their products. Of course they have to prevent that at all costs. From a higher level view, how is this really any different from the tobacco companies about 20 years ago resisting labeling of their products as carcinogenic. They did not want to lose market share by people quitting smoking. They debunked the numerous studies that showed tobacco use to be harmful. They eventually lost that argument, but millions of people continue to smoke, me being one of them as a pipe smoker. The point here is I understand the risks and make a choice to smoke a pipe. With GMO foods, we have no choice as we, the public, are not allowed to even know if a product contains GMO’s. This same scenario played out with artificial sweeteners and DDT. Resist labeling, resist regulations, promote the positives of the product, “work” with legislators to keep their products on the market and debunk the other side as extremists, conspiracy nuts or just not very intelligent. The scenario of GMO versus organic is exactly the same thing. I am not an all or nothing type person nor am I an extremist. And, I do not believe that everything produced by a chem/ag company is evil. But, what we are learning about the long term effects of GMO and related agriculture processes should have transparency and objective scientific research and to give the public a choice.

            Corporations should make money and lots of it. They create jobs and provide livelihoods for their employees. However, they have a responsibility to not do harm while they are doing it

  • hyperzombie

    Wow, excellent work Mark! One of the best that I have ever read.

  • First Officer

    Yes, where does the nitrogen come from? As you point out, Organic techniques can compliment conventional for greater yields, taking the best from all worlds but the organic rules forbid synthetic fertilizers, and as such, cannot long harvest more nitrogen than natural systems supply. Hence, any organic farming claims that they can sustainably meet or surpass the yields from conventional farming are the agricultural equivalent of perpetual motion machines.

    Nutrient_crop_uptake(t) = Nutrient_supplied(t) – Nutrient_loss(t) – change_of_nutrient_level_in_soil(t)

    Conservation of Matter, not just a good idea, but the law.

  • monty sandor

    im not sure if pouring on a million tons of deadly chemicals on the land every year is sustainable.

    • Stuart M.

      Which chemicals are you referring to?

      • monty sandor

        many chemicals have been used and are still used. lakes here are still high in mercury and traces of ddt from the 1960s. currently 24d, glyphosate, treflan, edge, furadan, quadras, and many more to numerous to mention. farmers here apply glyphoste 3 times a year to the land and even apply glyphosate on crops a few days before harvesting them. I have farmed for 40 years. chemical farming is not susatainable. The land, water and air can not be useful if they are poisoned. Only Organic farming has a chance of long term use.

        • hyperzombie

          Only Organic farming has a chance of long term use.

          Really? The only difference is that they use more land and so called “Natural” chemicals. Instead of herbicides they use propane for flame weeders, polypropylene sheets to smother weeds, diesel fuel for tillage. Organic uses far more chemicals, it is just that they are “naturalish”.

          • monty sandor

            we do not use more chemicals. we do use fossil fuels. This is an issue until a more green friendly way of producing enery is used.
            chemical farmers use chemiclas that are made with fossil fuels. All the way down the line from people driving to a chemical plant to make the chemicals. to the farmer driving to pick them up and the factorys that require energy .

            Hopefully we can use a combination of solar and wind with hydrogen to reduce fossil fuel usage.

          • hyperzombie

            Hate to break it to ya, but fossil fuels are chemicals, that when burnt, turn into another chemical CO2 carbon dioxide, you know the greenhouse gas.

    • marcbrazeau

      Yes, but judicious use of relatively non-toxic herbicides is more sustainable than the soil erosion associated with tillage.

      What is sustainable about pouring million of gallons of water into feeding weeds or using fuel, fertilizer and water to grow crops, only to have them destroyed by pests.

      The toxicity profile of pesticides has improved so much since the 1970’s that they don’t really rate as an environmental impact compared to land and water use, reactive nitrogen, phosphorus, and GHG (carbon and methane). More here:


      And here:

  • Stuart M.

    One of my favorite webpages is Conservation Farming Unit which develops and promotes conservation farming techniques for small farms in Africa. Minimum till methods combined with spot fertilization and rotation of crops have significantly increased yields for these farmers while reversing the erosion of farmland. They also recommend a pre-crop application of Round Up herbicide to retard weeds and keep subsequent manual weeding to a minimum. Their yields are of course no where near the yields achieved by conventional farmers in America, but given the differences in mechanization and access to other agricultural inputs, the improved yields are still impressive.

    • Liv Langberg

      On their web page, CFU also have an excellent study on time use on weeding, and how the use of a little herbicide help farmers grow enough food, and send their kids to school. 🙂

  • rick

    Thank you for a refreshing reassessment of the organic vs. conventional debate. One thing that introduces unnecessary division is the concept that organic and conventional ag are diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive systems and philosophies of husbandry. Actually, I think you nailed on the head by describing organic and conventional farming as limited toolbox and full toolbox approaches — I might suggest the terms restricted input farming vs unrestricted input farming. It is probably even more accurate to say that all farming lies somewhere on a spectrum of the degree of technological methodologies adopted in the husbandry of crops and livestock rather than the idea that farms are inherently assigned to one or the other of extremes and that one must be right and one must be wrong.

    When I read the study, I came to the same conclusion that the study was comparing a hypothetical organic husbandry ideal vs. the least optimal conventional, not really comparing apples to apples. The study also relied heavily on yield from small scale, carefully controlled demonstration trials which ideal conditions are not likely to be realized in real world applications, just as real world application of conventional methods and technologies typically falls short of performance achieved in research situations. Additonally, in some cases, the study only looked as organic production in production years and failed to account for the discount to average yield over time when you average in fallow years. As you point out, with conservation tillage and increasing adoption of covercropping, the lines between conventional agriculture and what we associate with organic will become increasingly blurred.

    None of that is meant to disparage organic farms or farming. Most people I know who practice organics truly are committed to sustaining soil health and environmental compatibility as they see it. But I do dispute that technology is inherently and always anathema to sustainability, and as you pointed out nicely, there are many factors that contribute to whether a resource like land and water are optimally and judiciously used. We so want what is aesthetically and culturally appealing to also be superior in objective assessments of economic efficiency economic and environmental sustainability. But the question isn’t which one method is right and which is wrong, it is rather one of understanding both the contributions and tradeoffs that accompany any application of technology and advanced knowledge. Both organic and non-organic have tradeoffs when is comes to how we measure sustainability and judicious use of resources. The quest is not to determine which the better or correct way to farm but rather how to combine our accumulated agronomic wisdom with agricultural technology to achieve optimal food security and sustainability.

    • marcbrazeau

      ” We so want what is aesthetically and culturally appealing to also be superior in objective assessments of economic efficiency economic and environmental sustainability.”

      Nicely put. I’ve been arguing for some time that aesthetics have been in the driver’s for too many in the Food Movement, while evidence, metrics and real impacts have taken a back seat.

      One of the difficulties in the discussion is that organic agriculture does well on environmental impacts that tend to be either more tangible or psychologically important to people. For instance, “on farm biodiversity” tends to be higher on organic farms, so the farm more readily appears ahead on biodiversity, but a conventional farm may be better in it’s impact on regional biodiversity. The same goes for the fact that while organic tends to have a lighter eco-footprint per acre, conventional has a lighter footprint per unit produced. Again, people connect aesthetically with the per acre impacts, but the impacts per unit producer are actually of greater importance.

      I wrote about an aspect of this regarding pesticide use vs. the actual major environmental impacts that are at the top of researchers target lists.

      >>The salience of pesticides as an environmental impact doesn’t come from the size of their effect on the environment, but rather on their psychological impacts. It’s better understood by run of the mill chemophobia. Just as we are more afraid of shark attacks than slipping in the shower, pesticides as poisons or carcinogens have a much greater grip on the public imagination than unsequestered carbon, gulf deadzones, or methane pollution. Tropical deforestation may be the biggest agricultural impact, but there aren’t many mommy bloggers wondering about how it could affect their kids health. As Steve Savage has explained, neither the ag companies that have improved their products nor the environmental groups that have pushed for improvements have much incentive to publicize the changes, so they go unheralded.

      The other reason that it has great salience for the general public is because it is the main political football in the culture war between organic and so-called conventional agriculture. Pesticide use, while not absent from organic farming, is the most visible and highly touted difference that sets organic apart. On issues like carbon, methane, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, organic doesn’t have much to brag about. When it comes to the yield gap, it’s organic that has some splainin’ to do. Thus, a big to-do is made about synthetic pesticides, despite their relatively minor environmental impacts.<<

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Hi Mark, The N secret is also an unquantifiable recycling benefit. The organic farms that cluster around CAFOs and urban areas are performing a service that is hard to measure the benefits of. Manure not in a landfill or creek leading to an estuary, or aquifer. I can see clear benefits to such organic growing. I think it will hit a point of diminishing returns fairly quickly as fuel prices rise again[When?] and the farms find they can not afford the inputs. Also impossible to measure and predict is the ability or lack of effective organic marketing that allows for many to receive premiums. Finally, is there anyway to get rid of the troll Annie and her disgusting pics. She [it] has showed up elsewhere.

    • marcbrazeau

      Thanks, I agree there, I’d like to see more manure end up on farms, organic or not and less ending up where it shouldn’t be. My point is that I’d like to see these kinds of conservation practice more widely adopted, and delinked from strictly organic certified production. My sense, though I need to look more closely into it, is that manure gets used, demand meets supply.

      I sent word the powers that be and it looks like Annie the poop troll has been dealt with.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Thanks, for getting rid of her. Delinked, is an issue. I use some organic ferts and mulch. Yet, when asked I have to find a better way of describing my methods. I use synthetics as well. Especially in winter when cold soil temps limit the effectiveness of organic ferts.

        • marcbrazeau

          Without a monker that people recognize, it’s hard to sustainable farmers who use the full toolbox to get the credit and recognition they deserve.

          I think Conservation Ag is a great starting point. It’s an established moniker for a set of great methods, we just need more people to hear about it and start thinking along those lines.

          • Eric Bjerregaard

            I will use the term conservation Ag and get back to you with anecdotal results. My problem is making customers out of those who ask if I am organic. Have told them I use hybrid methods and some have stopped to converse as they do not know what to make of that response. I mention the mulch, Then explain that manure can not be used on the pineapple for much of the year because it may be a safety issue when ripening fruit is present. Therefore I use a liquid applied as fertigation using an injector.

          • marcbrazeau

            “What we do is even better! We do conservation agriculture!”

          • Ole J. Hansson

            Gabe Brown must have hade the same problem once, since he is not certified organic, but over time he has managed to build himself a brand, so that customer know what they get.


            Good luck!

          • Ole J. Hansson

            Any comments on the agroecology-framework of the UN?

            “Agroecology is both a science and a set of practices. It was created by the convergence of two scientific disciplines: agronomy and ecology. As a science, agroecology is the “application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.”16 As a set of agricultural practices, agroecology seeks ways to enhance agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes, thus creating beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of the agroecosystem. It provides the most favourable soil conditions for plant growth, particularly by managing organic matter and by raising soil biotic activity. The core principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in agroecosystems over time and space; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species. Agroecology is highly knowledge-intensive, based on techniques that are not delivered top-down but developed on the basis of farmers’ knowledge and experimentation.” (p 6)


          • marcbrazeau

            Agroecology is great. It would be some real work to reclaim it from the bastardized, sentimental version that has been popularized.

          • Ole J. Hansson

            Are you familiar with “The agricultural testament” by Albert Howard?


          • marcbrazeau

            I’ll check it out. Thanks.

  • Ddant

    Great article. However, as a conservation minded farmer, we have been practising zero till since the early 80’s and have rebuilt our soils to within 1% of organic matter from our native pasture. Yes, we have tested. The introduction of glyphosate allowed this transition and we eliminated tillage from our farm. But I am always surprised that P (phosphorus) is ignored in these discussions. There are ways to replenish N to some level without adding synthetic fertilizer but not P. Most of our crops require P every year, including legumes unless we choose to skip a year and mine the soil. Most of our P is imported from Morocco up the Mississippi and is either exported with the seed, stored in the soil until it is needed or passed thru livestock and spread on both conventional or organic land. If we converted completely to organic, the import of P would stop, the P stored in the soil would quickly get used up and the P content in manure would fall rapidly. Our organic yields would drop slowly at first as residual P is mined from the soil, but would fall drastically to unsustainable levels within a few short years. This would not be reversible without the addition of P. The Canadian prairies where I live, would be converted back to grassland long before this happened.

    • marcbrazeau

      That’s a great point. I can only cram so much into an essay before losing the average reader. That will require a follow piece here or on Food and Farm Discussion Lab.

    • Rob Wallbridge

      Except that organic farmers can use the same mined sources of phosphate that serve as feedstock for your TSP, MAP, or DAP. Rather than chemically-processing it into a water-soluble form, organic agriculture relies on soil biology to do the job. On my farm, I’m rebuilding phosphorus levels that were depleted by the former conventionally-farming owner by supplementing with calcium phosphate, and I’m working at increasing availability by inoculating the soil with a specific strain of mycorrhizae.

      • First Officer

        That’s good that Organic is allowed to used mined sources. If those mined sources run low, will Organic rules allow extracting phosphorous from other sources, such as seawater?

        • Rob Wallbridge

          That would depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to the form of phosphorus, the methods/materials of extraction, the environmental and health impacts of the product and the process, and the availability/relative impact of alternatives. I’ve never heard of seawater as a P source – do you have a link with more info? I’m curious!

          • First Officer

            This just shows it’s there but I do not know if anyone is currently trying to extract it from seawater. There is also the possibility, in the next century or so, mining asteroids for P.
            What forms are not allowed?

          • Rob Wallbridge

            It’s hard to offer a full explanation in this context, but broadly speaking, highly-reactive or highly-soluble forms are not permitted, due to their increased potential for leaching and/or negative impacts on soil biology.

          • First Officer

            Then, once, “harvested”, from the ocean, the offending phosphor compounds may be able to be converted to the acceptable forms. I’m not a chemist, but, unless such reactions are require a lot of energy, it should be doable, given the phosphorus already harvested.

          • Ruben Anderson

            The U.S. is not currently capable of transporting its own astronauts to its own space modules, and instead has to rely on the Russians of all people. I don’t think it is a very smart plan to rely on catching asteroids in order to grow food.

          • First Officer

            The beauty is we needn’t send astronauts at all. But as far as present capabilities, we do a whole lot of things today that mere decades ago were not, “presently”, feasible.

            1) We know the phosphorus is there
            2) We know there is no fundamental limitation in bringing it here. It is an engineering problem.

          • Ruben Anderson

            This is a common problem experienced by rationalists and especially engineers.

            Just because something is technically possible does not mean it is economically possible or socially possible.

            Economics really comes home with EROEI, which I have talked about in another response to you.

            But the social possibilities matter just as much or more. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House. Imagine how much renewable energy the US would have right now if you had been building that out since the 70s. Instead, Reagan came in and tore them down. The social possibility was not there, no matter what the technical capacity was.

            Generally people think that when things get bad enough, things will change and we will be able to do what it takes. That is not supported by history. We have lost all sorts of great things in the past, and I expect losing the capacity—which we don’t yet have—to mine the moon will be a very early casualty.

            So yes, technically possible. The Republicans want to defund NASA because they hate taxes so much.

            Private space companies? You mean the ones that rely on all of NASA’s research, development and technology?

          • First Officer

            Take a look around you. Wind and solar are increasing and, again, fuels can be made directly from CO2 and water. Political winds can and do change, and often.

            NASA is not the only game in town/ there are the Russians, Indians and Chinese.. And, yes, private companies building on what came before.

          • Ruben Anderson

            Again, EROEI. All of the renewables are built with massive amounts of non-renewables. They are built from non-renewable ores, mined and refined with machines that run on oil and coal, and are themselves made from non-renewables. Transported on non-renewable roads to non-renewable factories. Tied into a non-renewable grid.

            There are no examples of cradle to grave renewables that are made of renewables and manufactured with renewables. There is nobody who knows anything about manufacturing who thinks such a thing is possible.

            Furthermore, to do such a massive transition would require a massive amount of fossil fuel, which we are currently using to drive to Burger King. That is where the social technology comes in. How are you going to convince the population of the US they need to stop driving so we can use that fuel for a manufacturing revolution?

            You can’t. The numbers don’t add up.

            This does not make me happy. I am trained as an industrial designer. I love machines and manufacturing and products. I love it, and I am good at it. I love it. But the numbers don’t add up. If you spend even one day researching the critiques of transition to renewables, or the critiques of moon or asteroid mining, or the critiques of mainstream soil science or the critiques of recycling or whatever, you will see the numbers don’t add up.

            That requires an open mind on your part, and probably not much more time than you have spent here arguing with me. Here, I will give you a tight little list:








  • Ruben Anderson

    Marc, you have written a very thoughtful and useful article here. You clearly poured a lot of research, time and thought into this, and it shows in the finished piece.

    There are a few points, however, that I hope will enrich the discussion.

    Bill Rees, who invented Ecological Footprinting, says, “Sustainability is like pregnancy, you either are or you aren’t.”

    For all the hand-waving certain industrial apologists like to do, sustainabilty has a very simple and useful meaning.

    It means able-to-be-sustained. It means able to be kept in existence.

    So there is no more or less sustainable, only sustainable or not. For more or less discussions, I tend to use the word green. Electric cars are greener than gasoline cars, but neither are sustainable.

    It is, then, very important to specify what is being sustained. As Easter Island showed, it is possible for a rump population of humans to live a very long time in a denuded landscape—as long as you don’t mind eating a lot of rat meat. But most people aren’t eager to join that buffet line.

    So, the agriculture that we want is one that produces the diverse and nutritious foodstuffs we have come to enjoy, sufficient for the needs of a reasonable human population, in a manner that can be sustained.

    Second, I would note the frequent grumble that conventional agriculture IS organic agriculture. Several thousand years of organic agriculture, minus less than a century of chemical use clearly shows the convention is not to use chemicals.

    Monty said it—there is organic agriculture, and there is chemical agriculture. Organic is conventional, and chemical ag is the radical upstart. For the sake of clarity, I will use the terms organic and chemical.

    Let’s not get distracted with the fact that living creatures are made up of chemicals. Everybody knows that, and everybody knows what is really being said here. Chemical agriculture replaces labour and agri-cultural practices with barrels of chemicals.

    Now, I am going to get to your excellent points about conservation agriculture soon, but having sharpened our terminology a bit, we can ask the question of whether chemical agriculture is sustainable.

    The short answer is no.

    On one hand we have traditional organic agriculture, which has allowed continuous cropping for millennia—as related in the book Farmers of Forty Centuries. Even without using nightsoil, we have countless examples of sustainable agriculture; the intensive market gardens that fed Paris are a popular example right now.

    On the other hand, industrial agriculture has degraded or destroyed arable land through erosion, desertification, and salinization in much less than a century. Don’t ask the environmentalists, like the WWF. Time Magazine says:

    “A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded – the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone. Because of various farming methods that strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust as well as weaker in nutrients, soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished.”

    This is Dustbowl stuff. Brazil, to cite just one country, loses 55 million tonnes of topsoil every year.

    Now when you are saying that as much arable land area has been lost as we now farm, it is kind of pointless to quibble too much. I don’t care if the amount of arable land lost is equal to 80% of the land we now farm or 120% of the land we now farm. Either way it is blatantly unsustainable.

    This is a common mistake when we are trying to justify continuing our lifestyles unchanged. A recent variation was the studies of Life Cycle Analysis for New Zealand lamb and Spanish tomatoes. These studies found it was greener to eat New Zealand lamb with a delicious Spanish tomato ragout than it was to raise lamb, and grow tomatoes in heated greenhouses in England.

    Fair enough. It is greener. But it is still not sustainable. As you say, apples to oranges; sustainable agriculture to unsustainable agriculture.

    Sadly, the universe never promised us an infinite supply of fresh tomatoes whenever we want, wherever we happen to live.

    And that is how it is with industrial agriculture. Who cares about productivity gaps when one method has been proven to able to be sustained, and the other method has been proven the opposite? Looking at the study of population crashes is quite clarifying here, and there is plentiful research for bacteria, mice, deer and humans, just to name some off the top of my head. Let us avoid building a global population dependent on agriculture that cannot be sustained.

    So, yes, chemical agriculture may be more productive in the short term, but that is all it has going for it.

    Personally, I would also be curious to take a closer look at the productivity numbers. There are traditional, deeply integrated systems that interlink animals, fish, farming, tree crops and household wastes. In the U.S. Joel Salatin popularizes multispecies mobstocking.

    So, are the productivity numbers counting, the eggs, meat, vegetables, feedstocks, down feathers, hides, bones, timber, nuts, saps, fruits, berries, mushrooms, flowers, honey and medicinals that are produced by true polycultures?

    There is one more bit of unsustainability for chemical agriculture:

    Nitrogen is made from natural gas, and for all the hullaballoo about Saudi America, we live on a finite planet. Relying on non-renewable resources to grow our food is a recipe for disaster.

    As Ddant noted, phosphorous is also a problem, with current projections for peak P in the 2020s. Again, some of the greatest cultures the planet has ever seen survived for centuries or longer with sustainable agriculture. They used their animal wastes to replenish phosphorous. Of course other great cultures degraded their lands and collapsed. We should try to be among the former.

    The physical limits of chemical agriculture weakens the notion of “full toolbox farming”. What if your hammer just broke in half? Next year the jaw of your wrench snaps off. Your screwdrivers start to bend.

    Organic agriculture is a toolbox full of solid, proven tools, made from good, forged steel and handled with straight and tight-grained wood. These tools would be recognizable to your great-grandparents—heck, some of them came from your great-grandparents.

    Chemical agriculture is more like the stuff you get at the dollar store. Sure, the tape measure only cost 99 cents, but when the tip snaps off, it is useless.

    So, sustainability is on or off, like a light switch. Using non-renewables, like most agricultural chemicals, is by definition unable to be sustained. Mining the soils at a rate faster than they can be renewed is by definition unsustainable. It is a short-term project, so I don’t think quibbling about the productivity gap is in our long-term interest.

    Of course some people will immediately begin the chorus about all the people we need to feed, and how people want their hamburgers so we need to use chemicals. I agree that is going to be difficult and some people will be sad. But if the agriculture is not sustainable, that means at some point it is going to stop. The argument is moot. The universe never promised us infinite hamburgers, or fresh tomatoes in January. But we can have delicious, nutritious, abundant sustainable food.

    Finally, as you pointed out, any productivity gap can be increased if chemical farmers use conservation agriculture techniques. This is a great idea, for, as the flaws of chemical agriculture play out, the farmers will have built the necessary habits to transition to the truly conventional form of agriculture, organic.

  • marcbrazeau

    I never get tired of being turned into a straw man and having the stuffing beaten out of me.

    • Ruben Anderson

      I get confused…is your reply an ad hominem, or a straw man itself?

      • marcbrazeau

        You’ve set me up as advocating or defending things that I have neither advocated or defended. You’ve also set up a number of false or pointlessly arbitrary and Manichean divides that many others before me have shown to be counter-productive.

        Full toolbox farmers will use a little glyphosate to enable them to use no-till or conservation tillage, while organic farmers rely on petroleum to till their fields, unlocking sequestered carbon, and leaving their fields vulnerable to erosion. It’s very clear which one contributes more to soil health and is more sustainable.

        Yes. Nitrogen is a problem, but where are organic farmers getting it from? Either they are using cows to launder synthetic nitrogen, or they are using leguminous fallow crops, increasing the amount of land they need.

        The point is that there are trade offs to different methods. Whether they are organic or not has little bearing on which ones are the most sustainable. We need an agriculture based on metrics of what produces the most optimal outcomes, not on arbitrary definitions of what’s natural and what’s not.

        • marcbrazeau

          Also, the last time that organic farming was providing for the world on it’s own the population was 1.8 Billion people. No where in what you wrote did you acknowledge that we are at 7 and headed to 9 billion.

          (Cue up call for population control in order to change the world to accommodate your preferred fashion of agriculture)

          • hyperzombie

            on it’s own the population was 1.8 Billion people.

            It was not even close, at the time millions were starving to death.

          • First Officer

            In 1960, 1 out of 3 were in hunger. Today it’s less than 1 out of 7.

          • Ruben Anderson

            I mentioned the study of population crashes. There is no need for a World Government to do the work, simply keep on farming unsustainably.

            This is the problem of treating sustainability like it is just a nice thing to have around, rather than an imperative as non-negotiable as gravity. Sustainability works on a longer time scale than gravity, but is just as relentless.

          • marcbrazeau

            I disagree with your definition of sustainability as anchored to the concept of a resource or method that is inexhaustible. I think impacts are far more important. The way that you are framing the issue is that we have to choose a set of techniques that will work forever as being what it means to be sustainable. While I think that is something to keep in mind, it’s shouldn’t be central. We will continue to innovate and switch technologies and switch from resource to resource. It’s far more important to continuously be trying to minimize impacts and be as parsimonious with resources as possible.

            Organic farmers use petrol powered tractors. Someday, we will be out of petrol. So we should choose to go back to mules? But mules have constraints built into being a sterile hydrid, so does that leave us with water buffalo?

            I also think you are overweighting the impacts of synthetic pesticides while underweighting the impacts of land use. For me, the biggest impact that agriculture makes is taking land out of wilderness. Everything else runs a distant second. So with current constraints on organic yields and access to manure, it’s not a question of being unsustainable when it comes to scaling up to being a substantial part of producing food, it’s simply impossible. There is not enough arable land or manure to scale past a certain point with out synthetic fertilizers.

            Either way, we are going to need to figure out better ways of powering the Haber process, but there is no way forward without synthetic fertilizers.


          • Ruben Anderson

            Marc, it is so refreshing to talk about these issues with someone who brings references to the table. You have given me some reading to catch up on.


            Sustainability is a hard word, and it is made more difficult by the fact that no Westerner alive has ever been part of any sustainable system (gross generalization…but I may be right). The concept is simple—able to be sustained—but the bar is so high it feels impossible to us, and therefore seems useless.

            I agree impacts are important, and there are lots of great measure for that: embodied energy, carbon footprint, carbon intensity, ecological footprint. We can look at biodiversity and biomass, social justice, equality, regeneration.

            Impacts matter very much. But without a guide to keep us focussed on what is able to be sustained we end up with the LCA idiocy that recommends the California tomato shipped great distances over the local tomato grown in a greenhouse heated with natural gas.

            It is a false dichotomy. Neither is able to be sustained. Any effort we put into those systems is by definition short-term.

            So, we could work on breeding shorter season tomatoes for the north.

            We could work on preserving local produce for out-of-season eating. Why shouldn’t we buy cans of tomato sauce from our own region?

            We can develop our regional cuisines and seasonal eating. Many of the great celebrations we mark each year have a food component, and the food often is very seasonal. Why do we not eat pumpkin pie for Valentine’s Day? We could, the can of pie filling is in the store all year round. But our tradition, the tradition that we love and look forward to, grew out of time when pumpkins were enjoyed in the winter months. Tomato soup for late summer and fall. Pumpkin soup for winter and spring.

            That is able to be sustained. Why would we not choose to put our energy there, in a system or a culture that can endure, instead of having angel/pinhead arguments about which is less bad of two things that cannot endure?

            That is why I think sustainability is so important. I agree we should minimize impacts and be parsimonious with resources—I am crazy passionate about those things—but I think that work needs to be organized or guided by sustainability.


            As Joseph Tainter points out, it is unlikely we are going to choose to go back to mules voluntarily. But, what else will we have when oil runs out? You are not arguing that finite resources deplete, so eventually we will not have diesel tractors.

            So, we either need to cross our fingers and hope we come up with something miraculous in the energy department, or we start planning for a much lower energy future. The best part, since you are worried about impacts, is that planning for a lower energy future is very parsimonious. It still benefits us even if an energy miracle happens.


            All I know about scaling up organics is what I read, so I can’t directly counter your point.

            A 2010 United Nations study (PDF) concluded that organic and other sustainable farming methods that come under the umbrella of what the study’s authors called “agroecology” would be necessary to feed the future world. Two years earlier, a U.N. examination (PDF) of farming in 24 African countries found that organic or near-organic farming resulted in yield increases of more than 100 percent. Another U.N.-supported report entitled “Agriculture at a Crossroads” (PDF), compiled by 400 international experts, said that the way the world grows food will have to change radically to meet future demand. It called for governments to pay more attention to small-scale farmers and sustainable practices


            I don’t know about the impacts of land use vs. pesticides. I don’t like the impacts of land use OR pesticides. Pesticides breed terrible resistance, and I think that is a problem. I want more wild space, so that is a problem too.

            But I don’t think we are getting out of this predicament without a lot of problems. I think it is a good idea to switch early to sustainable methods for whatever civilization is left. There are a lot of places on the planet that would be very happy to farm with mules.

            For me, I take the unyielding force of nature and the laws of physics as the baseline, and assume we are going to have to shape our population and culture to that. Most people want to take 7-12 billion people as the baseline and act like we can shape the laws of physics to suit. Physics has never been very compliant to our wishes, but has been good to us when we follow its rules.

            So, I don’t think we will have this many billions for too many more decades or centuries, and I don’t think we will enjoy such an energy wasting life for too many more years.

          • marcbrazeau

            I think we part ways over our faith in our ability to innovate past Malthus a for yet another century. You have a far more apocalyptic vision of the future than I do. Where we do agree, is that things will have to come to a crisis for that innovation to be adopted more broadly where it currently is seen as an inconvenience. I would love to see people eat seasonally. I eat seasonally myself (and don’t we all secretly believe the world would be a better place if everyone acted like we do?). But where you see physics as immutable, I’ve found that it’s easier to reshape the world to make consumer tastes viable than to try to change the way people eat.

            Pesticides don’t necessarily breed terrible resistance when used properly, as they mostly are. They certainly don’t rate as an impact on the scale of land and water use, GHG, reactive nitrogen, and phosphorus.

            I agree that more agroecology is necessary to feed the world. That’s what I’ve been saying all along.

          • Ruben Anderson

            Yes, I think you nailed the point of divergence.

            I would note a couple of things:

            I am not an apocalyptic; I don’t think we are going to have a fast crash. For example, the Roman Empire took four hundred years to collapse. Now, the Roman were smart, educated, skilled, innovative and wealthy. And yet they couldn’t keep all the balls in the air forever.

            So, I don’t think this is an apocalypse. But I understand there is a reflexive binary between shiny, progress and living in caves. I think the future holds neither of those things for us, and it is helpful if we can try to spot our reflexive binaries and avoid them.

            Another binary that is used to close off conversation is Malthus. The logic is, because Malthus predicted a population crash and that has not happened yet, therefore it will never happen.

            Malthus pointed out that humans do not get a magical pass from the need to eat. So, just like every other creature on the planet, if we eat ourselves out of house and home, we will go hungry, starve and die.

            We have seen this in many highly-publicized famines, even at this late and enlightened time. They say nobody starved to death in the Great Depression. But maybe a million people died of normally treatable illnesses exacerbated by malnutrition…

            So, humans can peak and crash just like any other creature, despite our big brains and opposable thumbs.

            I agree that we will likely be able to postpone Malthus for another century. I just think a century is quite a short timeframe for planning, so we are beyond time to start panicking. And, I really don’t want to keep growing more humans with the promise we will always be able to feed them, when in fact we can’t for all sorts of reasons—energy, nutrients, water, stable climate.

            It is so interesting that you said it is easier to make consumer tastes more viable, as I think that is the most likely route for us—too many people in a degraded ecosystem forced to eat gruel to survive.

            This is Easter Island. A rump population eating rats to survive. This is the Planet of Weeds—nothing left but the weed species, rats, deer, cockroaches, ants and a few others…and us. What a horrible fall.

            So, yes, we diverge a bit in our visions and binaries, though probably less than you might expect.

            But, as we try to implement agroecology on a much broader scale, I think we should always choose the path of decreased energy, decreased outside nutrients and decreased chemical use—and we should choose the path of increased labour, which is jobs and good for the economy,

          • marcbrazeau

            I think we agree on plenty, it’s the disagreements that are interesting and generally drive a discussion.

            I can’t think of an example where humans have shifted from high labor productivity to low labor productivity in any endeavor at any meaningful scale. So, while possible, it’s really swimming upstream if that is part of your plan. Nor do I think shifting back to a higher percentage of farmers is necessarily better for the economy, as it necessarily means less of other professions.

            While, 100 years isn’t much on a historical scale, it is more horizon than we can realistically plan for. I for one am glad that we aren’t currently locked into a plan for agriculture (or society in general) that had been hatched in 1915.

          • Ruben Anderson

            You make an excellent point about the 1915 food plan 🙂

            Though…our world would be different if we were following the 1915 plan and that wouldn’t be entirely bad, I am sure.

            Marc, I agree a nation of farmers is swimming upstream. It is not just you, Joseph Tainter says no society has voluntarily simplified.

            But I think we will be forced to do a lot of things we never dreamed of. I think the focus of a lot of my thinking is to not shut down future options just because we couldn’t conceive that we might have a hundred times more small farmers. Again, what if in 1915 they had shut down options we are using today?

            So, I am quite concerned that we are building suburbia on some of the richest agricultural soils. I am very concerned we have become so reliant on fossil fuels. I am worried that we have implemented chemicals on a broad scale and moved away from cover cropping. I think these things shut down options for the future.

          • Ruben Anderson

            Btw, for a hilarious example of the path dependency that concerns me, check out


        • First Officer

          Of all the nutrients, Nitrogen may be the least troublesome. If oil and gas were to run out tomorrow, we’d use water as our hydrogen source, using power from solar/nuclear/wind/hydro to crack water and then to run the Haber-Bosch process. Granted, it’ll be much more expensive than the current use of Natural Gas for both the hydrogen source and power, but still very doable.

          I don’t know where he thinks his animals are going to get the phosphorous that he believes will replenish his fields. The traditional phosphorous replacement plan was ultimately atmospheric dust and volcanic eruptions.

          And as far as 500 year farm tech being sustainable, those organic fed civilizations of yore had far fewer people per acre to feed than we do today. Perhaps he’s volunteering to help bring down the population.

          • marcbrazeau

            “Perhaps he’s volunteering to help bring down the population.”

            That’s usually where the conversation turns next: “My preferred fashion of agriculture isn’t up to the task at hand, but it would be, if the task at hand were drastically easier..”

          • First Officer

            LOL !

          • Ruben Anderson

            There is a common logical fallacy that goes, “We have to do something, therefore we can do it.”

            Sadly, the universe does not listen to our wee mouse-like voices. The road of history is littered with car wrecks of things that “we had to do”.

            I know it will require great change to feed the global population with sustainable methods.

            But what is obvious in that sentence is that it will become difficult to feed the population with UNsustainable methods.

            So, I think it is smarter to build our world starting with sustainability. Let’s build our cities, our farms, and our population based on sustainability.

            I am afraid, if we follow the logical fallacy you propose, we will keep growing population with unsustainable methods, and have a much more painful situation when they are no longer sustained. Really, what this argument says, is that you would rather many more people suffer, and I think that is a shame.

          • First Officer

            The first production of Haber-Bosch fertilizers did use hydrogen from water. It’s not, we can, but, we can again. And, how do you propose we build our present population sustainably?

            You keep throwing that word, “unsustainable” around. Please define it. Be careful, if you say, “forever” or “indefinite”, then, the sun itself is unsustainable.

          • Ruben Anderson

            You are correct, the sun itself is unsustainable.

            However, worrying about that is kind of useless, and talking about that is the sort of debate technique used by people who are trying to stop discussion, not promote it. It is cheap and unhelpful.

            I have defined it, it means able-to-be-sustained. The general interpretation is forever, or at least a very long time.

            We crashed the whale population in a couple of hundred years, the cod population in less, the passenger pigeon in less, the bison in less.

            We reached peak liquid fossil fuels in about a century.

            We have created antibiotic-resistant superbugs for which there is no medicine in less than a human lifespan.

            We have been farming without agrichemicals for several millennia, and with agrichemicals for about a century.

            In the last couple of centuries, industrial farming techniques have lost as much arable land as is currently being farmed.

            All of these are on timescales much less than the death of the sun. My Troll Bingo card is all full up, so please try to add constructively to the conversation.

            As Marc—who has shown himself to be a serious thinker in his article and most of his comments—points out, sustainable doesn’t have to be organic, but it still is sustainable.

            It means able to be sustained. Pretty simple. It sure doesn’t mean “going to run out in our lifetime”, no matter how awesome that would be for people who are frightened of change.

          • First Officer

            Huh, bison were hunted for sport and passenger pidgeons were a delicacy, hardly examples of outstripping food supplies. Whales were hunted for energy, then supplanted by geologic oil. We haven’t reached peak oil as the Saudi’s are showing the world. (But it will run out, i agree). But for farm chemicals and all else, it is not a matter of oil, but of energy. Oil, is just an eenrgy source and feedstock. As a feed stock, water and CO2 can and will supplant it, making the mostly just a matter of energy. And, energy, my friend, the world and universe is full of. With energy, we make our own presently oil sourced petrol chems, including fuels, from scratch. We are already starting to do it!


          • Ruben Anderson

            Well, I disagree that sport hunting (not to mention deliberate genocide of the Plains Indians by killing their food supply) or delicacy hunting in some way means the food supply was not outstripped.

            Petroleum was widely rejected because whale oil was cleaner burning, gave a brighter light, and didn’t smell as bad. We didn’t switch to petroleum because we wanted to, we switched because we had long passed the peak of whales.

            Again, resource peaks simply mean you have passed the economically harvestable resource. There still may be tons of it in the worlds, but you can’t afford to get it.

            This is because of Energy Returned On Energy Invested. Pennsylvania crude bubbled out of the ground at a rate of 100 barrels out for every barrel of oil invested to run the operation and build the infrastructure. Our modern renewables are somewhere between 30:1 and negative returns, depending on how big you do your analysis.

            So, if you have to sell 100 barrels of oil in order to maintain the ship and pay the crew, but that ship and crew can only catch ten whales, well, you are out of business.

            The peak chart follows precisely with oil production. We aren’t drilling under five miles of water, or drilling sideways, or fracking, or processing tar sands because we think it is fun and awesome. We are doing it out of sheer hopeless desperation. This is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

            Now, yes. The universe is full of energy, just bursting from every atom. But what matters is the energy differential as any physicist or refrigeration technician can tell you. But if each of a gazilltrillbillion atoms have 0.00000001 picowhatevers of energy, it doesn’t matter what that adds up to be, because the harvesting of it would so uneconomical as to be impossible. It would be like growing one head of lettuce in 1000 acres. It is just not worth the trip out there to make a salad for lunch.

          • First Officer

            1 gram of hydrogen contains 6.0221413e+23 atoms. That may actually be bigger than a gazilltrillbillion. 4 H fusing to 1 He releases about 25Mev of energy.

            We’re not scraping the barrel, we’re actually squeezing a large sponge that sat under a liquid film.

          • Ruben Anderson

            And that is just one gram. Just think of all the grams floating around in the universe. If only we had a teeny tiny pair of tweezers we could use to pluck those electrons off. But we don’t, and we won’t because the energy source is too diffuse to be economical.

          • hyperzombie

            But we don’t, and we won’t because the energy source is too diffuse to be economical.

            Yet you support renewable s? Kind of strange logic.

          • Ruben Anderson

            The logic is only strange if you want to cling to the fantasy that our future will inevitably be shinier and better than the present. More jetpacks!

            But I don’t need that fantasy to sleep at night. I know we have no choice but to live within the limits of our planet. We truly have no choice and therefore we will. But that doesn’t guarantee jetpacks, or anything else.

            So, for example, how you design your house can capture both wind energy and solar energy, with zero moving parts. Voila! Renewable energy. For centuries we have built wooden mills to grind grain or spin shafts, powered by wind or water. Renewable.

            We cannot have a future that uses as much energy as this. It is unable to be sustained, and therefore it won’t be sustained.

            And there are no more seams of coal we can dig with surface shafts with our little shovels. There are no more oil ponds bubbling out of the ground. So, our resource-constrained future will have nothing but renewables.

            It is true those renewables likely won’t be harvested with the massive windmills and solar farms we are building today, with huge fossil fuel subsidies.

            But I try to make logical and consistent arguments, based on the facts. These are facts. The universe never promised us jetpacks, or any of the other “inevitabilities” the techno-cornucopians seem to think it is inconceivable to live without.

          • hyperzombie

            that our future will inevitably be shinier and better than the present

            Do you have any evidence that it will not? Hey even Disco could make a come back and everything would be all polyester and shiney.

            I know we have no choice but to live within the limits of our planet.

            There are no limits, name one? We have almost infinite energy on this planet. we only lack the technology to access it.

            So, for example, how you design your house can capture both wind energy and solar energy, with zero moving parts.

            Why would you want to, are moving things unsustainable?

            For centuries we have built wooden mills to grind grain or spin shafts, powered by wind or water. Renewable.

            Hardly, do the grindstones last forever and how about the building?

            We cannot have a future that uses as much energy as this.

            We could have a future that uses 100x more energy and it will most likely be even more sustainable.

            with huge fossil fuel subsidies.

            WTF, oil and gas are highly taxed.

            The universe never promised us jetpacks, or any of the other “inevitabilities” the techno-cornucopians seem to think it is inconceivable to live without

            Wow, the universe never promised anything, it just is. You neo Malthusians, have been wrong for 100s of years. When are you going to give up?

          • Ruben Anderson

            Well, enjoy. There are plenty of links already posted if you want to challenge your myths a little.

          • hyperzombie

            There are plenty of links already posted if you want to challenge your myths a little.

            Isnt that what debate is all about? Maybe we can both learn something…

          • First Officer

            I don’t know where to begin with that statement. I mention fusion and you call that too diffuse.

          • Ruben Anderson

            Sorry, I didn’t realize you were talking about fusion.

            Is this the same fusion that has been “just fifty years away”—for the past fifty years?

            If we are going to plan for fusion to save us, I would also like to plan for flying pigs to deliver me my morning bacon.

          • hyperzombie

            Mmmmm. morning bacon…:)

        • Rob Wallbridge

          Disappointing to see you only use an anecdote to back your claim that “it’s very clear” which system contributes more to soil health. The research I’ve seen demonstrates that organic systems are very effective at carbon sequestration:

          • marcbrazeau

            Rob, I made know claim in that comment about which ‘system’ contributed to soil health. I made a comparison between to specific methods. Herbicide aided no-till vs. tillage.

            I’m well aware that most research shows that organic comes out ahead in on-farm carbon impacts. I’ve said so in multiple places.

            “Metaregression did not deliver clear results on drivers, but differences
            in external C inputs and crop rotations seemed important.”

            From the paper you linked. That gets at the problem with these “system to system” comparisons. Perhaps if they had compared similar organic to organic or similar conventional to conventional, they might have been able to isolate drivers by limiting the number of variables.

            The important question isn’t which system is better, it which methods and techniques and which combinations are better.

            There really isn’t such thing as organic farming or conventional farming. Organic banana farming in Ecuador is not the same as a polyculture integrated crop/livestock operation in the Willamette Valley is not the same as an operation growing organic tomatoes for Hains in the Central Valley. Nor is their such thing as conventional. There are techniques and methods and different farmers using them in different combinations. No doubt, there are clusters, but the labels are still just convenient hueristics that are currently getting in our way to move forward. IMHO.

          • marcbrazeau

            From the linked paper:

            ” Second, SOC differences seemed to be mainly influenced by elements of
            mixed farming (livestock plus crop production), such as organic matter
            recycling and forage legumes in the crop rotation. It is therefore
            likely that SOC concentrations and stocks under modern agriculture could
            be improved if these measures were adopted. These measures are
            intrinsic to organic agriculture but can in principle be applied in any
            agricultural production system.”

            Sounds remarkably similar to what I’m advocating.

          • Rob Wallbridge

            All good points, Marc. I’m working on a blog post right now that I hope will contribute more to this discussion. Stay tuned!

          • marcbrazeau

            Excellent. I’m looking forward to it.

        • Ruben Anderson

          I am truly sorry if you feel I have misrepresented you Marc. That is a failure on my part; I would love to achieve the four rules that Daniel Dennett proposes:

          So, I will try to be as dedicated to good conversation as I can be, as I go through your response:

          Paragraph 2.
          I repeat my protest against the term “full-toolbox”. If the feedstocks are non-renewable, or renewable but harvested faster than it is replenished, then the “tool” is by definition unsustainable. This matters for farming, and can be seen primarily in the loss of topsoil; historically in the exhaustion of bird and bat guano, as well as mineral phosphate; and in weed and pest resistance to chemical treatments. In this case, these tools are only short term.

          I totally get where you are coming from—there may be real and important benefits to using chemicals that produce better outcomes than organic methods. But that is only short term because the feedstocks are non-renewable. I think it is a bad idea to build an agricultural system based on things we know are temporary.

          I run across this a lot with, for example, LCAs of styrofoam cups over washing a travel mug. The styrofoam wins every time—but it is comparing apples to rocks. Styrofoam is made from a depleting non-renewable resource, whereas hot water for washing can come from the sun. Sure, if everybody washes cups that is a real problem, and there is likely not going to be a happy answer—but nobody promised all the answers will be happy.

          The fact is, styrofoam is unable to be sustained, whereas washing reusables possibly can be sustained.

          Paragraph 3
          I want to start by saying I clearly heard your advocacy for conservation agriculture, and I clearly heard your advocacy for a data and results based look at agri-cultures, whether they be chemical, conservation or organic.

          Yes, legumes take more land. But chemical inputs are unsustainable on some time scale (what the time scale is is another discussion). The fact is, millennia of farmers have maintained and improved croplands using fallowing and legumes. Looking at the impacts on soil and waterways we have seen in a few decades, do you really think we are going to get millennia out of chemical agriculture, even if we can maintain the fossil inputs? I understand this is not a happy answer, and the implications will have real effect on population and quality of life. But, it seems wiser to aim for zero nonrenewable inputs instead of relying on something we know is going to run out.

          Paragraph 4
          I don’t think we can dismiss cultural methods as having little bearing on sustainability so easily. As an example, we haven’t mentioned weed resistance, but the fact is Mother Nature relentlessly evolves at a scale billions of times greater than we can match in the lab. So a little weed-killer doesn’t seem so bad, yet. But over and over and over again we have been told it is harmless, it is better, it is wonderful, and over and over and over again there have been terrible unintended consequences. As a parallel example, scientists say we may start dying from the flu and simple infections again, because we misused our tools and built resistance that there are no current prospects of overcoming. We did that in one human lifespan. Sure, maybe some drug lab will find a new antibiotic, but what about the next one? One human lifespan and we have destroyed the great miracle of antibiotics.

          The kind of culture required for successful organic farming resists making enemies of nature. Crop rotation, radical polycropping, fallowing and cover cropping, companion planting, insect attracting, bird attracting etc. Yes, this is less “efficient” than spraying on a barrel of magic, but you never develop resistance.The word efficient breaks down once you start looking at time scales even as long as a human lifespan.

          So, I start with sustainability. What is able to be sustained? Oil is not, nor is natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizer. Nor are gross applications that cause resistance, or destroy the beneficial microbiomes. Nor is excessive tillage. Nor is monocropping.

          Start with the question of what is able to be sustained and what sort of agri-culture comes out of that. Something that looks a lot more like organic.

          • Ruben Anderson

            Unintended consequences of Roundup?


          • marcbrazeau

            The Seneff paper? Are you pulling my leg?

          • Ruben Anderson

            Nope. You are the one who plays a scientist on TV, so you will have to fill in the blanks for me. I just connected with an acquaintance who switched to organic flour and experienced immediate relief of symptoms, which is certainly relevant. You clearly have opinions, which I am interested in–but I am more interested in the previous discussion about sustainability.

          • hyperzombie

            I just connected with an acquaintance who switched to organic flour and experienced immediate relief of symptoms, which is certainly relevant.

            And what would the difference be between Organic flour and conventional flour, that would cause the immediate relief of symptoms? Magic?

          • Ruben Anderson

            If you are unwilling to lift your index finger to click a link, or wiggle your fingers over the keyboard to google, what are you contributing? Should we pre-chew your food for you, and come to your house to help you pull up your underpants?

            Yes, exactly. Magic. Spells cast by a bearded man in a pointy hat with stars on it.

          • marcbrazeau
          • Ruben Anderson

            Thanks Marc, I will take a look at these, and forward them to my acquaintance.

  • Great coverage.

    I read another journal article from the same journal that was talking about the genetic expression difference from organic and inorganic fertilisers. Their conclusions showed a laughable ignorance of the agricultural science literature (I mean, who’d have guessed that organic N sources cause different plant responses, we’ve only known that since legumes were introduced to rotations in Roman times).

    So I think that it is no surprise that this journal let this article through, since they don’t seem to have the editorial staff nor peers publishing in it that they need to be for papers on agriculture.

  • First Officer

    I forget where but i’ve read that if we did include the land needed to create green manures, grow the crops for animals to produce manure, etc, the Organic yield falls to about 2/3 of conventional. (Though i don’t think this took into account any increased losses to pests, if any, though, i suspect that it will increase as organic enjoys some herd immunity from their conventional neighbors). Given that, it would take half again as much land to produce the same amount of food that we do today.

    • Ruben Anderson

      One method is unsustainable, the other might be sustainable. Which is a smarter choice?

      • First Officer

        The conventional as it feeds more people and uses less land to do so. There is nothing in your long post below that doesn’t affect Organic farming equally. What you harvest away must be brought back or the soil gets depleted, regardless of methods used. The best of practices from Organic can and are being adapted by conventional, whilst Organic’s hands are tied by arbitrary rules. You mentioned how well our great great grandfathers’ farm tech worked, well, here is a comparison (2013 was in line and 2014 was a another bumper year):

        • Ruben Anderson

          I am glad the image embedded, because the link was messed up when I clicked on it from my mail.

          Before I get to the link, I want to reiterate: I don’t care about organic, I care about sustainable. I often buy local, chemical vegetables over California organic, because I think local agriculture is more important to sustainability.

          But, as in your other comment, this will be uninteresting to you until you are willing to accept that sustainable means able to be sustained. It is not just a word like “extra soft!” or “now with more torque!”.

          Marc gets this, and is questioning what techniques can be used most effectively for a sustainable agriculture. I disagree with his conclusions because he is using chemicals and fossil fuels that are finite and norenewable, and therefore are unsustainable. It doesn’t matter how loudly you protest, they are nonrenewable and unsustainable.

          That chart is very interesting. It shows a long period of sustainable yield, and then an exponential climb. This, of course, is a classic Hubbert Curve.

          If you really want fun times, watch Bartlett’s video on the Exponential Function.

          So, Marc has written a very thoughtful piece here. However, he has used the word sustainable incorrectly, from the headline through to the end. That results in some conclusions that are incorrect, just as surely as telling someone to turn right when you mean left results in them getting lost.

          • First Officer

            I’m well aware you cannot increase yield per acre ad infinitum. At some point, there’s only so much light energy per acre one can convert to food. However, we are nowhere near that. But there’s nothing magical happening inside plants that make food for us. Ultimately, we could manufacture food from scratch. There’s alos the matter that we may learn to curb our population growth. Several countries already have near steady or declining populations.

            Here’s the link from which the image came from


          • Ruben Anderson

            I am glad we agree that growth cannot continue forever, which means a system built on growth cannot continue forever. You would be surprised how often this basic understanding is avoided.

            As I will do on your other comments, I totally disagree that we can manufacture food from scratch. Nature has had billions of years to perfect converting sunlight and minerals into plant matter in a truly sustainable way. For us to think we can improve on that is intellectual hubris of the highest order. We have yet to demonstrate any kind of large scale sustainability, let alone the ability to beat evolution’s trillions of laboratory tests.

            But even if we could manufacture food, I believe we are already into negative returns. Joseph Tainter studies complexity, and has built a useful chart showing the cost of complexity compared to the benefit of complexity. This shows that a little complexity can create great benefits for us.

            But, as you add complexity, the returns diminish. Eventually, you pass an inflection point where, as you add complexity, you start sucking value out. You get negative returns.


            This is why modern farmers are stuck in an arms race of fuel, equipment and chemicals. They have passed the inflection point, and are running faster while still going backwards.

            Not too long ago, a farmer would input one calorie of labour and get out 100 calories of food. It is now reversed: we require 100 calories of mostly fossil fuels to get 1 calorie of food. This is obviously a losing proposition, and is only made worse by our hubristic attempts at beaker meat and underground farms, et c.

            Here is a link to an article critical of some of Tainter’s conclusions, but which gives a good summary of his theory.


          • First Officer

            I don’t know where you got your caloric calculations. Almost all crop farmers input huge amounts of energy into their crops, in the form of sunlight. That’s where our caloric energy in our food comes from. Pre-industrial farmers were forced to use food energy to work the land, in the form of their own labor and of their animals. The average farmhand/farmer back in the good ol’ days only fed himself and 2 others. Fertilizers help capture even more of that solar energy, much like the current into a base of a transistor amplifies the current output. Modern Ag is sustainable so long as we have energy sources and they need not be fossil fuels.

            You claim we’re past the C2 mark. If so, why aren’t farmers seeing less per acre with increasing tech rather than the more they are seeing? I think your curve is really the change in the change in value per unit of complexity, and is valid only if you stick with a particular level of tech, increasing the complexity on how you utilize that level of tech.

          • Ruben Anderson

            I did specify the input of labour and fuel. Just like with basic algebra, if the same thing is on both sides of the equation, you can strike it out of the conversation. Sunlight is not a variable we are talking about, so I don’t see the need to mention it. If we user fewer words, we reduce the chance of creating confusion, and are respectful of our conversation partners.

            But hey, let’s talk about sunlight for a while.

            One of the cultural techniques organic farmers use is intensive planting. This maximizes the use of nutrients and minimizes the amount of weeding. This can work because the labour is often less mechanized.

            Since chemical farmers need to space rows to suit their tractors, they often plant less densely, which means they are less effective at harvesting sunlight. Suddenly sunlight is back in the equation, but chemical farmers lose.

            Furthermore, because they planet less densely to suite their tractors, the weeds are not shaded out, which means suddenly they need to use a herbicide. And then they need a machine to apply the herbicide, a certificate showing they know how to handle the herbicide, and safety equipment to wear while they apply the herbicide. They have greatly increased the complexity, all because they think they need a tractor to farm.

            Weeds are not automatic. Good farmers keep the weeds in check before they seed. You do this for enough years, and the seeds resident in the soil are exhausted and your weed problem greatly diminishes.

            So, weeds are a cultural effect. Chemical farmers respond with complexity: money, chemicals and machinery. Organic or other truly conventional farmers respond with attention.

            Now, why are we not seeing less per acre with increasing tech? Well, what we are seeing is more farm bankruptcies. They have had to buy so much land and so much equipment they can’t stay in business. If losing your farm is not diminishing yields, I don’t know what is.

            And then there is Jean-Martin Fortier, who makes $150,000 per year off an acre and a half, using a walking tractor and hand tools.

            But we can’t all be small farmers you say. What, do you want us to live in caves?

            Obviously that is a silly argument. Nobody is advocating for a society of cave-dwellers, except maybe in the desert climates where it gets so hot.

            What I want is a society that is sustainable. My guess is that is a lot closer to many small-farmers than it is to moon mining.

            And again, that is the bad math of trying to compare chemical to organic. Who cares what non-renwable based fertilizers do? One is unsustainable, one is sustainable. How do you compare those two?

            That is like celebrating the fact your house is on fire because the landlord will be forced to drop the rent. You are left with no house, no matter how cheap it is.

            So, by planning for a world in which we magically mine the moon or harvest zero-point energy, you are really like those old Greek plays, where the plot gets so convoluted they need to bring in the Deus ex Machina. I think relying on a miracle is a really bad policy.

          • First Officer

            You brought up food calories. Your supposition that it only took 1 calorie of farmer energy to produce 100 calories of food, implies it took less than 1% of the farmer’s energy to grow food, since all his energy comes from food calories. I say less than 1% because some of that food was wasted and also fed to animals. And, whatever the farmer does, now or then, to contrive crops to grow, most of the energy the crop gathers into food calories is from the sun.

          • Ruben Anderson

            I am not sure why this is controversial. I agree ALL of the energy plants convert comes from the sun.

            All I am comparing is the EROEI of farming. Farming does not convert the sun’s energy, farming just keeps the plants watered and weeded while the plants convert the energy from the sun, and then farming harvest the product.

            So, one calorie of human labour used to be able to plant, water, weed and harvest 100 calories of plant energy. Yes, the plants made the energy from the sun.

            Now, 100 calories of mostly fossil energy is used to plant, water, weed and harvest one calorie of planet energy, which the plants still made from the sun.

            I don’t even care if you want to quibble about the numbers. Say it is two calories of labour and fifty calories of oil, small-scale farming still has an EROEI 25 times better.

            The problem is this has nothing to do with farming. If we weren’t past peak liquid fuels, if we didn’t have a climate crisis, if oil rained from the sky and tractor exhaust was made of cotton candy we wouldn’t have a problem.

            But chemical farmers have dedicated themselves to a system that cannot be sustained. Oil is depleting and the climate is changing.

            I said lots of other very smart things in that reply. Please don’t get distracted by our total agreement that plants convert the sun’s energy.

          • hyperzombie

            . I disagree with his conclusions because he is using chemicals and fossil fuels that are finite and norenewable, and therefore are unsustainable.

            Hmmm, name one non renewable resource that has ever ran out? For everyone that you name i will name 5 renewable s that did disappear, you go first.

          • Ruben Anderson

            I am afraid you are not adding to the quality of the conversation.

            As I say elsewhere, yes, if you use renewables past the rate of replacement, they run out. But, since they are renewable, there is at least a chance they could be used in a sustainable way.

            Since non-renewables are, ahem, non-renewable, use at any rate whatsoever will eventually deplete the stocks. That is simple math. You can wave your hands and spout economist mumbo-jumbo all you want, but it is no more complicated than the addition you learned in first grade.

            So, you hope to trap my in some Gotcha! by comparing extinctions of renewables over tens of thousands of years compared to use of nonrenewables over little more than a century or two. Not very persausive. I wonder why you are so married to that worldview?

            But anyhow, anthracite coal has become virtually unobtainable, and is now used only by the specialized industries that must have it, like steel manufacture. Everybody else is stuck with the cheaper, but much less energy dense brown coal, which is damp and sandy. So, the whole world’s coal-fired electricity got less efficient.

            This is just supply and demand, which surely you won’t argue with. If there was a supply, people would use it, but there is not. Industries would love it, it burns hot and clean and carries a lot of energy. But the supply is now so constrained they can’t use it.

            We now mine copper in amounts so infinitesimal—0.3% of the ore. Copper used to be regularly mined at concentrations 20 times higher. Remember the aluminum wiring from the 80s? That was due to copper shortages.

            Recycling has helped a lot, but every time you process you lose a bit—and of course you spend a huge amount of energy—which is again non-renewable.

            Britain’s North Sea oil ran out. Yes, other fields have been discovered. Go google a chart of new oil discoveries and see how warm and secure you feel. There are dry oil fields all over the planet, and the rate of discovery is no where near keeping up.

            So, you are just not persuasive. The economist who say we have a thousand years of whatever are not people who live and work in the real world. Oil geologists say we are running out, it is no secret it is just math. In a couple of centuries we have exhausted much of the economically recoverable resources.

            And remember, that is what resource peaks are about—what is economically recoverable. We could be floating on oceans of oil, but if it takes two barrels of oil to extract and refine one barrel of oil, well then, Reality Intrudes.

          • hyperzombie

            As I say elsewhere, yes, if you use renewables past the rate of replacement, they run out.

            So true and I will not disagree.

            Since non-renewables are, ahem, non-renewable, use at any rate whatsoever will eventually deplete the stocks.

            Look the simple fact is that even non renewables are renewable, just takes time or they take another form. For example Oil and Ngas, all the carbon and hydrogen is still here, it didn’t go any where. The planet is still making it.

            That is simple math.

            Hmmm, simple math says that NRs are more sustainable, they are cheaper, hence more sustainable. More abundant.

            over little more than a century or two.

            Nope, we could start in 1900 or even 1999 if you want? I would even let you list all the non renewables that have run out since the dawn of Ag (15000 years) and I will just list renewables that have run out since 1900. More fair?

            Britain’s North Sea oil ran out

            I think a million barrels a day is far from running out.

            Go google a chart of new oil discoveries and see how warm and secure you feel.

            Seen the price of Oil lately???LOL…

            In a couple of centuries we have exhausted much of the economically recoverable resources.

            Wow now you claim to be able to predict 200 years into the future, that takes some balls. You have no Idea what will happen in the future anymore than the folks in 1815 knew what would happen today.

            We could be floating on oceans of oil, but if it takes two barrels of oil to extract and refine one barrel of oil, well then, Reality Intrudes

            Nope, you need to think about that a bit more….

          • Ruben Anderson

            You have really levelled up by introducing italics. Let’s see if I can keep the html straight.

            Look the simple fact is that even non renewables are renewable, just takes time or they take another form.

            I agree, and I am excited to be talking to someone who is willing to plan on geologic time scales. I don’t think that is very helpful on cultural or human time scales, though.

            Hmmm, simple math says that NRs are more sustainable, they are cheaper, hence more sustainable. More abundant.

            Sustainability has nothing to do with abundance. It means able to be sustained. If you use one molecule or ten million tons, it doesn’t matter as long as that one molecule or ten million tons is being renewed.

            It is hard to look a the price of fossil fuels and make judgements about whether price signals supply. The fuel market has been so perverted by subsidies, protectionism and manipulation for so long that we can’t be sure it represents anything.

            over little more than a century or two.

            I will just list renewables that have run out since 1900. More fair?

            I explained why I think the comparison is apples to handbags. It has nothing to do with the start point.

            I think a million barrels a day is far from running out.

            Fair enough. I spoke lazily. However, North Sea production has been dropping about 10% each year for the most of the last 15 years. Don’t you think the UK would love to be selling more oil and making more money? The aren’t because they can’t because the field is depleting rapidly.

            Seen the price of Oil lately???LOL…
            If you are referring to the low price of oil, there are three things:

            1) Wild oscillations in price are a common feature of post-peak resources. The market doesn’t know what to do, and people responds in extremes.

            2) Gasoline consumption has been dropping in recent years. This is demand destruction because people don’t have money to buy gas. People not having money to buy gas is not good for the economy, and is nothing to LOL about.

            3) The current low price seems like a move by Saudi Arabia to destroy marginal producers. Why would they do this? Won’t the shale oil just come back as soon as price goes back up? Not neccessarily. It take more than oily rocks and drill bits to make a fracking field. You need to be allowed to frack, and public resistance is strengthening. You need to be able to finance the fracking, and that will likely get harder as more companies go bankrupt and the banks get suspicious. Also, fracked fields deplete shockingly quickly, which is going to impact the ability of frackers to raise money.

            In a couple of centuries we have exhausted much of the economically recoverable resources.

            Wow now you claim to be able to predict 200 years into the future, that takes some balls. You have no Idea what will happen in the future anymore than the folks in 1815 knew what would happen today.

            Obviously I was unclear. I was saying we have already exhausted much of the resources over the PAST two centuries. No crystals balls here, just charts of production and concentration.

            We could be floating on oceans of oil, but if it takes two barrels of oil to extract and refine one barrel of oil, well then, Reality Intrudes

            Nope, you need to think about that a bit more….

            Would you spend two dollars to get one dollar? If so, please send me your PayPal address, as I have a killer deal for you.

            This is the totally uncontroversial basis of EROEI. We built our civilzation on energy at about 100:1 EROEI. We are currently operating at about 30:1. Some renewables are as low as 3:1.

            The general estimate of the EROEI required to maintain a civilization we would recognize is 10:1. I posted all those links in another comment. I think the second one is the big publication on EROEI. fill your boots.

          • hyperzombie

            You have really levelled up by introducing italics. Let’s see if I can keep the html straight.

            Sorry I have a macro keyboard, italics are easier than “. plus it is easier for me to keep n=my responses organized.. PS thanks for the awesome reply 🙂

            someone who is willing to plan on geologic time scales

            Well, we should not plan on any time scale besides maybe 50 years into the future, no one knows what the future has in store.

            Sustainability has nothing to do with abundance. It means able to be sustained.

            Everything is still here, with the exception of a few tones that have been sent to space. Energy can put everything back to the way it was, if energy was inexpensive enough.

            1) have any evidence of that?

            2) world wide it is still going up

            3) Well if you look at it with non biased eyes, the saudis see it as threator they would not be giving up trillions of dollars.

            No crystals balls here, just charts of production and concentration.

            Now, that is the problem. no one can see the future. we both have no idea what will happen.

            Would you spend two dollars to get one dollar? If so, please send me your PayPal address, as I have a killer deal for you.

            well of course not, well unless you really need the money then of course. EROEI is a flawed metric to measure energy.

  • Samuel Leuenberger

    Brilliant article Mr Brazeau, you have put in writing what I had understood for a long time but had not seen anywhere.

  • Jim Hart

    I would like to see your data on the amount of manure used from cattle fed “conventional” on Organic farms compared to the amounts of other manures used from grass based systems etc and the amounts of those fertilizers compared to other fertilizers used on Organic farms

  • ritadona

    Good article, but you’re insistence on sticking with synthetic pesticides– a la conventional farming–I think is unsustainable. You can’t just look at yields when you are decimating the environment with those things. What do “yields” mean in the context of a trashed environment where native pollinators, birds, water tables and land suffer? And since when did the U.S. not have enough food to feed the everyone? In fact, we have too much. So, the premise that we need to keep those yields high is false. If you’re really concerned with feeding everyone (I’m assuming the world, as well, since we export a lot of our wheat and alfalfa, too, among other things.) you’d be better off dealing with policy. In the context that we have enough, organic farming actually ought to do us just fine. Oh, and the poop issue. I know poop from CAFO cows is allowed in organic farming, but their are rules and restrictions that go along with its use. As far as it being a “dirty, little secret”, lots of cultures use poop, some even use human poop, and human poop in the form of biosolids is also used in the U.S.

    • JoeFarmer

      Why is it that all activist minds lack the ability to construct paragraphs?

      “Good article, but you’re insistence on sticking with synthetic pesticides– a la conventional farming–I think is unsustainable.”

      So, “you think” that conventional agriculture is unsustainable. What are your qualifications to make that judgement?

      • ritadona

        I suppose if all you’re interested in is my ability to “construct paragraphs” then you are not really interested in content. I acknowledge the work you put into your piece, and I’m guessing that your question about my “qualifications” is to get into some sort of dick waving contest, in which I am not interested. Conventional farming is not sustainable. We’re running out of synthetic fertilizers, which you can read about in The NYT, if you care to ( (Title, in case the link doesn’t work: Shortage and price of fertilizer threatens to make more hungry). They cite their sources. Conventional farming depletes the land of nutrients and its microbiome–synthetic fertilizers, tilling, etc. Not to mention the runoff of said fertilizers that is polluting waterways. Most of this country’s crops and the largest part of its arable land for those crops goes to feed animals–and we don’t get our bang for the buck there. And I haven’t even gotten to our water needs. That’s a whole ‘nother shit storm happening right now. Shall I go on?

  • Leopold Stafrace

    A more interesting study is “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture” by Seufert et al.

    It does seem more fair in its judgement since it gives consideration to experimental errors, and different types of data-sets comparison. It concludes that some species fare better than other in organic farming due to genetic factors rather than on farming conditions.

  • Judith

    Perhaps the definition of the word “conservation” could be expanded to include “conservation of the health of the soil and it’s microbes” and “conservation of the health of the individuals consuming the harvested produce and/or grain”. I’ve read too much about the possible impacts of chemical fertilizer and pesticide residue on the human physical body not to believe organic is better.