November 22, 2011

Organic farming and the yield myth You've heard the line often -- organic farming can't feed the world because it is so inefficient, producing 50 percent less than conventional methods. Then you hear the kicker -- "that's why it's only for rich people." As Tom Philpott over on Mother Jones points out, there's been more than a few studies exploding this myth. He links to a couple, but one influential one he didn't mention was published in Science a number of years back -- a long-running Swiss study I talked about here in relation to energy use. Now comes yet another, from the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, which found that yields of conventional and organic farming were largely the same in a long-running trial. Averaged over 13 years, yields of organic corn, soybean and oats have been equivalent to or slightly greater than their conventional counterparts. Likewise, a 12-year average for alfalfa and an 8-year average for winter wheat also show no significant difference between organic yields and the Adair County average. What the study also found was that organic fields were far more profitable, because of the premiums paid for the crops as well as lower costs for chemicals and fertilizers. (An early study looking at this was carried out by the University of California Santa Cruz back in the 1990's on organic strawberries -- it too found organic more profitable). This point is crucial, for another argument often heard about organic is that rotations mean far less production of a particular crop...
A Few Comments on the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN) I'm pleased to announce that this week the Food & Environment Reporting Network launched. I've been working on this a non-profit journalism venture quiety for some time (two or more years), and now serve as editor. It grew out of an impromptu discussion with several people into an organization with a staff, board and editorial advisory board. Our launch coincided with the publication of our first story in High Country News, an award-winning Western magazine which collaborated with us on the piece. We're supported in this work by several foundations who believe in our vision of producing stories on food, agriculture and environmental health at a time when interest in those areas is growing but in-depth coverage is waning. In our model, we work closely with reporters and media partners so that these stories can see the light of day. We also have a code of ethics that governs our work. Now, you might wonder, why not just start a blog? Well, blogs are good models, but what we have in mind is traditional reporting: sending a reporter into the field on an in-depth investigation and giving them the chance to really look into a story. This kind of work is expensive and often falls through the cracks in the rush of the 24-hour news cycle. If you're tied to a blog, this work is especially tough. Our first story is a clear example of how this works. Reporter Stephanie Paige Ogburn went down to New Mexico to look into...

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