Comparing conventional vs. organic: Don’t judge sustainability by yield alone


[T]wo colleagues and I published a paper in PLOS ONE titled “Commercial crop yields reveal strengths and weaknesses for organic agriculture in the United States.” The article presents an analysis of USDA crop yield data to compare organic and conventional farms in the US. . . .

. . . .Our paper [was used by Alex Berezow at the American Council on Science and Health] to support a questionable conclusion regarding sustainability:

[The lower yield in organic agriculture] violates the very notion of sustainability. An inefficient food production system that cannot feed everybody is, by definition, not sustainable.

. . . .

Evaluating “sustainability” is difficult. . .  yield is important, but so is biodiversity, economics. . . environmental impacts. . . Producing . . . food in a way that destroys the environment is obviously unsustainable. Protecting the environment to the extent that . . . people go hungry is also . . . the answer lies . . . between these two extremes. . . . [W]e need to continue increasing realized crop yields to feed the world population, especially in developing regions where the conventional yield gap is greatest. But dismissing the benefits of organic agriculture simply because it yields less than conventional farming (which also don’t come even close to maximizing yield) seems . . . unscientific . . .

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. Read full, original post: How much yield is enough?

  • Farmer with a Dell

    Of course “yield gap” isn’t the definition of “sustainability” (well,
    actually it could be, I suppose, since “sustainability”, as a term, has been so corrupted as to lose true meaning, now defined casually as practically anything anyone might prefer for the sake of political expedience). But neither is “biodiversity” the definition of “sustainability”. I’ve noticed agroecologists, when they permit themselves to be pinned down with facts, which is a rare accident indeed, quickly run and hide behind key weasel words like “sustainability” and “biodiversity”.

    Let’s skip the shifty eco-speak and vague agroecological pseudopsychobabble and cut to the chase here. If we are going continue farming and feeding the world’s population into perpetuity humans are going to have to continue evolving food production agriculture to conserve those finite resources we currently rely upon and eventually substitute a fresh set of untapped resources. All of this evolution must be economically and technically feasible, not merely in the holistic sense, but also at virtually each level within the hierarchy…because we are humans each with human rights, or so we all like to say. And some naturally occurring controls to human population growth will need to kick in, too (this promises to be more troubling than wrenching our agriculture into shape, certainly).

    We can’t do much of anything about global population but modern conventional agriculture is given too little credit for our successful resource conservation efforts these last several decades. We are too brutally and gleefully excoriated for not inventing and adopting new paradigms for substituting untapped resources in the place of increasingly scarce finite resources in common use.

    Those of us at the forefront of modern agriculture have thrived specifically because we eagerly seek out and adopt the latest practical approaches to effectively applying resources to solve the problem of food production. Indeed, it is that relentless efficiency and all it naturally entails that makes you hyper-judgemental agroecologist muckpucking turdwompers hate us so passionately. Here’s the full-blown anthropology of the antagonism, laid out before you:

    So, there is all that human social crap for great sociologists and agroecologists to understand and overcome if we are going to continue to evolve our effective modern agriculture. You see, it isn’t so simple as merely blurting out politicized opinions of “sustainability” and whining plaintively over whimsical notions of “biodiversity”.

    And what of “biodiversity”? How is that appropriately defined, how is that appropriately applied as a concept? How much biodiversity is adequate? How much is too little and why, exactly? How do we measure and monitor effective biodiversity? How do we manipulate and manage it appropriately? It seems to me that this is something that “agroecologists” could be applying themselves to conceptualizing in a practical fashion, if only they would. Maybe begin by integrating human beings and human population trends into each and every consideration of “biodiversity”? I mean, when you are preparing your ideal inventory of tigers, jellyfish, ferns, crickets and so forth, shouldn’t you be expected to factor in Homo sapiens as a species population?

    Finally, “yield” does matter, it absolutely does. It matters at every level of the ecosystem: from micronutrient flows in soils to individual plant growth & productivity to field-by-field productivity to farm productivity to industry productivity to global productivity — and all within the context of time — trends in yield and productivity matter, too. Why do “agroecologists” yammer on and on about holistic approaches but shy away from taking holistic views of the challenge at hand? Why quibble over comparative seasonal crop yields? Why waste time excusing away the shortfalls of a pet paradigm, organic farming, which is not itself sustainable nor does it offer any practical solution to the greater challenge? Cut the high-minded crap and get to work bringing us practical solutions. And don’t you worry or waste any more time scolding us modern farmers for probably resisting practical improvement, so why bother? — that’s just another of your lame excuses. Let me here and now warn you fakers; if you ever invent anything worth adopting you’d better stand back a safe distance or risk being trampled by us modern farmers coming after it and taking it up as our very own — we always have and deep down that’s what you skanks have always hated about us.

    • charlie

      All I’m reading is: “agroecologists only job is to attack modern/conventional farming” and in consequence: “I attack agroecologists”. Why not use this time/energy by inspecting what each of both sides has to offer, in the holistic way you mention, instead of blabber about who has the biggest dick?

      • Farmer with a Dell

        When agroecologists invent something useful and practical we can discuss it. Until then we are painfully aware of what agroecologists have to “offer” and that’s just warmed over leftovers served with a giant helping of impractical slanderous pseudopsychobabble.

        As for who has the biggest dick, during the entire time agroecology poseurs have been impotently reciting nostalgic pastoral poetry and dreaming up hateful agriculture screenplays, I and my real farmer colleagues have been out here makin’ bacon. And by this time, and representing just 1% of the American population, we feed ourselves and the entire other 99% of you deficient wankers. So, busy as we are, charlie, any time you want to flop ’em up on the table and get out the measuring tape you just say so, any damned time. Oh, and bring along a constructive thought or a useful new idea to contribute when you lose the bet. See, successful modern farming has been an evolution of adopting the most practical, efficient and cost effective ideas — always have, always will. We are not in competition with “agroecology”, rather agroecology thinks they are in competition with us…and they concentrate on negative campaign advertising to push their otherwise vacuous agenda, as hucksters and mountebanks always have.

        • charlie

          Agreed: “when agroecologists invent something useful” is probably not going to happen soon as the way of agroecology is to first understand some of the ecologic dynamics in natural systems and then obtain produce while sustaining (at least partially) this system. Conventional agriculture, as you mention in some of your comments, is commited to increase yield [1]. Who cares what happends after…

          But I get, we are the most perfect thing in this world, we are at the top of the chain, we certainly are more powerfull than nature and can control (destroy) it at our will. Just look at the modern awe of GMO’s and snapchat.

          And speaking for our species I really do hope it is so. If not… I’d say we’re pretty much fucked.

          The good news is that, for the moment, it never hits close to home: despite all the injustice of old and modern days related to the mass production of stuff (cotton in India, sugar cane in the EE.UU. and Caribbean, minerals in the Andes, soybean in Brazil, diamonds in Congo and so on and so forth) we are on the side that benefits. So the best is to leave things the way they are and not question them too much.

          Anyway… I thought about doing this in a long and detailed manner but you are right, I wouldn’t be saying anything new.

          The only thing I mean to say is that we should profit from all the information we can get to make better decisions. I agree that agroecology has a lot of pseudopsychobabble, so does everything else, it’s up to us to learn the difference and appreciate helpfull knowledge.


          some more links about stuff:

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Well Charlie, at least you acknowledge agroecologists have invented nothing, seemingly will never get around to inventing anything practical and useful. Agroecologists did not invent awareness of soil erosion, they did not invent cover crops, they did not invent crop rotation, they did not invent buffer strips, they did not invent manure management, they did not invent watershed protection — agroecologists have never invented a goddam thing, ever. They only manage to pen inflammatory revisionist histories, whining and brazenly blaming agriculture for all the ills of the earth…with no constructive practical alternatives.

            Agroecologists inevitably fail in their biased histories to acknowledge the legitimate success of modern agriculture. Likewise they utterly refuse to acknowledge the awareness of environmental stewardship and continual progress in that direction modern agriculture has made and is committed to continue refining. In a nutshell, agroecologists have an axe to grind without troubling themselves to develop a current familiarity with modern agriculture. They stupidly assume modern agriculture will not continue to evolve to improve productivity and environmental stewardship. In short, agriculture, as portrayed by agroecologists, is mired forever in sins and mistakes made during the previous three centuries in America, up to about 1960, sins which, in many cases have been remediated. The end is near, agroecologists shrilly preach…there can be no future for agriculture or the human race — and they insinuate we need to hire agroecologists to somehow talk our way out of it. What a disgusting goddam scam!

            Your first linked reference, Charlie, wonderfully illustrates the present situation with agroecology — a sophomoric revisionist history of agriculture that stops short of developments during the last 20 to 50 years — a screed written by academics cloistered in the ivory tower of the natural resources department at Cornell University. And after all the dry revisionist history? Nothing! No earthshattering discovery, no breakthrough solution, no idea, no clue, nothing of use or of interest. Cornell is a university that is legendary for operating in the preferred pattern of contemporary agroecologists — little or nothing invented, instead mostly replicating and harshly critiquing the work of researchers at other universities and industry, typically reporting results some 15 – 20 years after the fact. Cornell is notorious for developing useless cynical expertise in obsolete developments. Ezra Cornell must have rolled over in his grave years ago.

            The remainder of your links, Charlie, I must admit I barely skimmed. They are just time wasting recitations of the same whining, lamenting bullshit. Nothing new, nothing actionable to assist us in modern agriculture along our trajectory to improve our productivity and our stewardship of the environment. Just another canned scolding. And therein lies my most passionate beef with agroecologists — those obnoxious asswipes work hard to convince ignorant schlubs like you that farmers like me lie awake nights stupidly plotting ever more devious schemes to rape the earth and mine out our soils…and poison food consumers, too, if we can manage it. Well, fuck all that.

            Oddly enough, our successful modern farm is in its 5th generation here with every reasonable prospect of another 5 generations or more. Our soils have not been depleted or eroded, they have not been poisoned nor have our water sources. Our crops and livestock continue to thrive, typically being healthier and more productive with each new season. So far we’ve killed no one (even our farm accidents have, so far, resulted only in minor injuries, thank goodness). We are not slaves to ag suppliers — we make our own decisions and are responsible for the consequences, no one holds a gun to our head. In short, everything you gullible urbanites have been led to believe is quite simply incorrect. Although your concern as self-taught armchair agrarians may be well intended (although I have learned to doubt that), the consequences of activist’s actions are seldom helpful and too often are downright destructive.

            Now, before you go all defensive, Charlie, sucking up to agroecology and defending it’s purity of purpose I would have you peruse a syllabus or two in the core curriculum of the masters program in agroecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison…it’s fairly typical, so far as I can determine:




            Pure unadulterated pseudopsychobabble…at the graduate school level…oh, and with special emphasis on the fine art of storytelling. Nothing of agricultural science. Nothing of agricultural economics. Nothing of biology, biochemistry, microbiology, soil science, veterinary epidemiology, hydraulic engineering, biotechnology, zoology, climatology, animal husbandry, weed science, entomology, ag technology, commodity marketing, food manufacturing and marketing, livestock nutrition, farm management, capital decision making, soil conservation, nutrient management, mechanical engineering, credit & banking, farm bill legislation, USDA and government farm programs, agronomy, ecology…

            …nothing except the vacuous opinions of resident sociology professors channeling Michael Pollan (a journalism professor at Berkeley with no credentials in any aspect of agriculture or ecology).

            Agroecology: who needs science when we have storytelling?

            No thanks, Charlie, you can keep it. Rest assured, however, if you agroecologist dreamers, muttering incoherently in your various scrums, ever do accidentally stumble upon a practical invention, modern farmers will adopt it before the ink on your press release is dry. But I won’t hold my breath. You may, of course, because this is America, where you are entitled to your opinion, however stupid, hopeless or useless. More power to ya.

          • charlie

            Thank you for your time with a Dell, Farmer. Also for your perspective, it’s very interesting.

            I salute your hard work, and hope the plotting you do at night has more to do with making a better world… As a non-American resident there is much of your country I don’t know but that certainly influences what I’m studying, and the context is certainly important.

          • hyperzombie

            I wish I could give you extra upvotes for this post.

            BTW I am going to plagiarize the crap out of it.

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Be my guest, HZ.

          • charlie

            Hey Farmer.
            Would you give me your thoughts on this? I’m sorry I’m offering you to read Cornell stuff (and whats even more, a dry revision)… as you said before they’re not inventing anything new. I’m interested because they are talking about agrosistems in the high andean mountains, where I come from.
            Thank you for your time, again.


          • Farmer with a Dell

            Congratulations charlie, looks like your high Andean mountains are targeted for a wondrous and magical potential farming makeover! I say potential because in 166 pages of small font there are no specifics in purpose, prescription, method, prognosis — just an exhaustive litany of everything that comes to mind for 7 ivory tower authors (and a legion of unnamed graduate students, no doubt) to consider relative to your people and your indigenous agriculture. It’s truly an exhilarating mish-mash of same old, same old rants professionally embellished with academic flourish and heavily footnoted to other ivory tower academics, all wishfully retrofitted with a smattering of known details of high Andean geology and soil science to give it a precise prescriptive appearance.

            When distilled down I see the standard talking points of agroecology offered up as certain ready solutions to problems high Andean farmers ought to have (but, in reality, may not necessarily be the cause of their struggles). I also perceive much of the didactic information is carefully arranged to conveniently facilitate deft explanations after the fact of why those predetermined cookie cutter agroecology “solutions” did not work out. Note, in particular, the expectation that indigenous farmers will resist change and will foul it up when they do finally embrace change — agroecologists, from rare instances when they have attempted to scale up any of their pet prescriptions, correctly anticipate failure is likely and they will need to have farmers stood up ready to be scapegoats…at least until nefarious “BigAg” and corporations can be spun into conspiratorial excuses.

            All I can tell you, charlie, is good freakin’ luck with all this. In fairness you ought to know similar comprehensive efforts to “help” subsistence mountain farmers here in America have been tried and failed — all that remains of those old sidehill farms up and down the Appalachians, Catskills and Adirondacks are cellar holes and faintly discernible farmstead boundaries overgrown with second growth forest. Oddly enough, the soils were not all washed away, the water sources did not dry up, nor were either of those poisoned — the trees of the forest are growing just fine. What really happened was subsistence agriculture became obsolete in the progress of modern American culture…and I can’t help reading the same future for high Andean farmers in the rigorous workup of those 7 Cornell authors. Without clearly stating the problem or the goals, it seems they are vaguely promising to transform your quaint traditional high Andean subsistence farms into perpetually functioning lucrative commercial small farm operations suitable for 21st century global civilization. A rare few will prosper, the majority will gradually disappear into the Andean mountainsides — back to nature…and agroecologists will secretly be pleased enough with that outcome.

          • charlie


          • charlie

            Thanks, FWD. I share your opinion on most of what you’ve pointed out of the document, and find the cases you mention in America interesting. Could you point me to any material I might read about those?

            Also… sadly two of those authors are on charge of a proyect I’ve worked on and for which I have to deliver somekind of a thesis now… I would very much like for the thesis to actually mean or contribute in something, but reading paper after paper of magical potential farming makeover I’m more lost than before I started. Can you advise me on some authors or texts that can give me another point of view?
            Thank you for your help!

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Well now charlie, I’m impressed that you would entertain another point of view…and shocked that you would dare to contemplate stepping outside the politically correct group think of your sociologist mentors who hold your future livelihood in their hands — you risk ending up head of a peasant household, yourself, and that will be an education you will not relish for very long, my friend.

            Anyway, I leap at the opportunity to corrupt you with a real life perspective of how and why peasant farmers aspire to be almost anything except peasant farmers, and how difficult it is to bring that aspiration to fruition. You see, that aspiration for a “modern” standard of living for one’s self and especially for one’s family motivates us in agriculture, just as it motivates you social climbers outside agriculture — we intend to live in clean safe modern habitations, enjoy at least some of the creature comforts and, especially, we intend to educate our children (no inexpensive consideration, as you may well know charlie). Around here we call all that “cost of living” and in our farm business that is covered under “fixed expense” or “overhead cost”. From the very first pioneer (ie. peasant) farmers in America a penniless existence was never possible – there have always been mortgage payments, land taxes, rural services, farm tools, family expenses and creature comforts demanded on a regular basis, so cash has always been a necessary evil. Fail at that and someone else will be working your bucolic peasant farm next season.

            Now, all the romantic sentimental reminiscences of small family farming aside, it’s a damned hard life. Industrialization and urbanization have always been a powerful lure for simple rural folks…imagine a chance to break away from being among the rural poor! This is a reality that I practically never see acknowledged in syrupy descriptions of agrarian peasantry, as described by your sociologists and anthropologists — I find it ironic none of those who wax philosophic are living the reality of the rural poor but, still, they have all the psychology of the stoic peasant down pat, ha!

            OK, now for your reading list. First I will assign you several papers that set the groundwork, then a paper that more or less documents the “loss” of sidehill farms in the history of American agriculture.

            Close your eyes and clear your mind, charlie, and for the moment forget all the entrancing angry accusations your professors make about how technology and corporate greed cause the demise of a veritable peasant utopia — instead imagine yourself with a pregnant wife and a bunch of ragged kids standing alone, penniless with the very barest minimum of well worn farming tools, on a little patch of mountanside where you must make your family’s livelihood for the next many seasons. The birds are singing beautifully and the view is breathtaking, of course. But you are acutely aware there are rent or mortgage payments to be made, the family will require food, shelter, clothing, medical care…and probably a few conveniences that will cost money.

            What to do? Acreage and productivity of that acreage is finite. Your capacity to supply labor and management to your peasant farm is finite. So, the looming question: How many of [fill in the blank] will it take to provide for my family? Here’s a nice overview of that question using sheep in Ohio to fill in the blank (but you can imagine any product anywhere you please, ’cause the concept is the main thing]


            OK, so we find that “it depends”. Mostly it depends on your family’s needs and aspiration for a standard of living. How long will it be, charlie, before you begin thinking about how better to develop your prospects there on your little mountainside utopia? And your neighbors, don’t naively believe they aren’t thinking the same thing you are. Hmmm…your little peasant neighborhood is almost imperceptibly changing under the hand of agricultural development…and so far no industry or technology has held a gun to your head. Here’s one view of how that happens (heh, and it’s from your friends at Cornell, no less!)


            Now, I understand that seemed like pretty heavy reading for someone not trained in agricultural economics, but charlie you mustn’t give in to the sociologist’s impulse to cast it aside and supplant it with vacuous pseudopsychobabble. No, you must persevere, you must achieve a fundamental understanding of the dynamic and how it manifests in the real world.

            Let’s take a breather from the icky brain work and refresh ourselves with some very light history of how rural depopulation has actually occurred in the real world in the past. ‘Cause that’s a process that tends to repeat itself wherever the driving factors come together to create an opportunity for little peasant farmer families like yours (you are still role playing here, charlie – heh, role playing, that’s something sociologists love to do, right?)


            Hmmm…if the outside world takes up technology and economic growth, probably even within the breathtaking view from your mountainside haven, charlie, how do you suppose some of your neighbors might respond to it? How about your wife, your kids, yourself, charlie? What becomes of those quaint little peasant farms that are vacated by starry eyed peasant farmers transplanting themselves where the grass is greener? Don’t suppose that simply because your professors and perhaps you have altruistic expectations that those peasant farmers, for one minute, are going to march to your orders. Nowhere has that ever happened, not even here in America, the land of milk and honey.


            So, agricultural development proceeds more or less apace with societal development generally. Even in places where farms are fertile and convenient to work…even in lush places like Indiana.


            Just imagine how much more stressful and emotional agricultural development is in regions that are poorly suited to agriculture as a livelihood. Those little sidehill farms I mentioned and that you asked about — those were far from ideal settings for a farm family to grow and prosper. Here’s an account from Missouri, but it is authored by a bunch of sappy sociologists; it misses our larger points above and is rife with classic diversionary agroecologist blaming/hating rhetoric, so stay in your role as struggling peasant farmer, charlie, and read your own common sense and newfound understanding of agricultural economics between the lines.


            [if the above link doesn’t work, the paper is titled “Ethnoecology of the Ozark Highlands’ Agricultural Encounter” by Campbell — you can google it up as a PDF]

            Again I caution you charlie to not be caught up in all the distracting anthropological nonsense speculation in this paper — just stay in character as a peasant farmer and you will begin to see how the authors of this paper utterly fail to help you learn ‘how many sheep does it take to make a living’ on your sidehill farm. Use your newfound ag ec skills to try to put any of the authors’ wishful thinking into perspective in dollars & cents — that’s rent or mortgage payments on your little mountainside oasis and food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and education for your family. See if you can figure out, charlie, how many tons of compost you will need to carry up your mountainside in a bushel basket to make a living. Or how many species it will take to make a living off the biodiversity of your little plot. Or how much physical labor it will take to make a living if you cast aside all technology. Or, as in Ohio and everywhere else, how many sheep it takes to make a living.

            Good luck charlie. I’m sure you will want to slap me around for dousing you with the cold water of reality and your professors will promptly get you turned around again. But, hey, I tried. And you can only really understand the dynamics of agricultural development in the real world if you and several generations before you have successfully navigated it in one locaton…and if you are determined that future generations will have the opportunity to earn their livelihoods the same way in the same place. Then you will see how superficial and inane so much of contemporary agroecology really is. In my experience, charlie, “sustainability” is mostly about being successful enough to still be around tomorrow…and next season…and for the next generation. And none of that is forgiving of waste or inefficiency in any resource — that is, we know better than to rape our little patch of earth; your agroecologists refuse to credit us with even that much intelligence.

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Hey charlie, it occurs to me you may not be familiar with the American history or archeology of our agricultural past. Here are a few quick links with photos and text describing the bleak “cellar holes” that remain of some of those old sidehill subsistence farms. These links are mostly to sites in New England but you can find virtually the same for most of the eastern U.S. if you know where to look.





            Heh, these examples are nowhere close to being as early or historically significant as your ancient Andean ruins, but the high Andean mountan farms you are worried about could well end up looking like some of these New England, USA pictures in another few generations. Take heart in the knowledge it won’t be due to anything anyone did wrong, so much as it will be the advance of society and the march of time. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or even a sad thing. Everything becomes obsolete at some point in time. Nearly all of our abandoned farms are better suited for regrowth forest than they would be for food production in our contemporary society. Multitudes of descendants from these early farm families populate the breadth of America…and beyond. Practically none are farmers these days, though ;>)