May 11, 2012

Where yields fall short: in measuring sustainability (a response to @MarcGunther) When measuring the productivity of farming, yield -- or output per acre of land -- is the metric that is often trotted out. And when this measure is used, organic farming usually falls short since it can’t match the yields of conventional agriculture. From there, it’s a short jump to conclude, as my friend Marc Gunther does, that organic methods will take more land to produce an equivalent amount of food, especially when population is increasing. The upshot, “organic food is not as green as you think.” The problem with this argument is not that the yield calculations are wrong. The problem is that yield studies are inappropriate by themselves in measuring what’s “sustainable,” in determining what might “feed the world,” and which methods actually end up using more land in a particular situation. That’s because farming does not occur in a vacuum where yield is the sole measure of success. Consider that the conventional farming methods that achieve higher yield require costly fossil fuel inputs in fertilizers and pesticides (the environmental impacts of which fall outside of yield studies), that they require highly mechanized tools that replace labor, and may rely on intensive irrigation from increasingly scarce water resources. Measured against the methods in most of the world -- 80% of the world’s workers are still farmers -- I have no doubt that the highly intensive model would produce a higher yield. But are those methods available or even appropriate to farmers in areas where food is most scarce...
Is American agriculture really efficient? Last week, I attended the Sustainable Foods Institute, hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As in the past, the session-packed affair of panels and keynotes did not disappoint, even though the outlook -- for fisheries, for food production, for humanity in general -- was pretty sobering. Among the speakers was Jonathan Foley, a professor of ecology and director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. He gave a big picture view, noting that agriculture is not only the single biggest factor in global warming but obviously crucial to feeding a growing world. If there was one surprising takeaway, it was that the highly efficient machine of American agriculture -- and modern agriculture in general -- doesn't measure up to the hype. As Foley stated, "yields from the Green Revolution have stagnated and what we're doing isn't sustainable anyway." This discussion of how to feed the world often begins and ends with the question of whether we're maximizing crop production per acre of land -- something American farmers do quite well. But what yield doesn't tell us is whether that land could be used even more efficiently to produce more calories of food. Foley pointed out that crops such as corn and soybeans which are then fed to livestock -- or cars -- amount to a grossly inefficient use of land resources. "The elephant in the room is the cow," was the way he put it. Measured this way, it takes 32 pounds of corn to produce...

Sam Fromartz

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