Norman Borlaug on Organic Farming

Reason asked Norman Borlaug about the claim that organic farming is better for the environment and human health and well-being.  His answer:

That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.

If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive...

I want to add a big "ditto" to this answer in reference to the whole food miles and locally grown food movement.  There is a lot of evidence that trying to get all of our food locally will actually increase energy use.  It will certainly harm the environment by increasing land use.

Why?  Because currently, economic incentives push farming of a particular food item towards the land that is best-suited and most productive for that item  (government subsidies, both direct, e.g. farm programs, and indirect, e.g. subsidized water for agriculture in arid areas like Arizona and SoCal, interfere with this, but that is a different subject).  The locally grown food movement seeks to shift crops from large productive farms located in the best soils and climates for that crop to smaller farms located in sub-optimal growing areas.  This HAS to increase agricultural land use, prices, and in many case, energy use.  More here.


  1. John Sterling:

    So where do the White House grounds land on your optimal/sub-optimal growing continuum?

  2. morganovich:

    there are a few things to be said for local produce, particularly in terms of flavor. this has little to do with organics and a great deal to do with transport miles. 2 tomatoes (one organic one "conventional") both picked when ripe and eaten soon have identical nutritional value.

    the issue with many big grocery store's tomatoes is that they are not picked ripe. they are picked green and allowed to redden in trucks. this certainly changes the flavor significantly. store tomatoes will never compare to your backyard for flavor. i think it also affects nutrition, as truck reddened tomatoes are no longer getting minerals from the plant.

    so study a ripe fruit at the source, no difference, but study to fruit as delivered to you, and the difference may be substantial. safeway tomatoes taste nothing like those from the farmers market. restaurants have known this for a long time.

    this is in no way exclusive to tomatoes. you should see what bananas go through in shipment and ripening rooms.

  3. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA):

    Apart from a few minor technical details, I agree with Borlaug. That's on the basis of having been trained as a soil chemist, having been a certified organic farmer, and having been the president of the Organic Crop Improvement Association from 1985 to 1987. OCIA was at one point the largest certification organization in the world. During the 1990s I also inspected over 700,000 acres in six countries for organic certification.

    I walked away from the entire organic religion -- for that is what it has become -- almost ten years ago, because it had become absolutely obsessed with distinctions that don't make any difference. Potassium sulphate must be mined rather than manufactured? Across the board opposition to all genetic modification? Seeds must be not only untreated, but certified organic themselves? I could go on.

    That's my own rant, but it isn't the real underlying problem with organic agriculture, which is that all but about 25% of existing organic farmers lack the management ability to pull it off. Successful organic production that actually makes a difference to ecosystem health is incredibly management intensive.

    Of my thousands of inspections, perhaps 5% of the farmers are truly inspiring in their ability to develop and maintain a sustainable organic farm system. Roughly half are essentially organic by neglect. They don't do much of anything, so therefore qualify by virtue of not using any prohibited materials; they are indifferent managers at best.

    The limiting factor in all agricultural success is management, and that's most especially the case for organic systems. The really good farm managers are already cutting back on chemicals and working to build soil organic matter.

    In the end it will be far better to have 90% of all farmers cut their chemical use in half than to have 1% or 2% succeed in eliminating "chemicals" completely. Organic production is a marketing decision far more than it is an agronomic decision..

  4. Allen:

    Mentioning water subsidies.... is there anything about buy local or organic that addresses water use and irrigation? Curious given the comments about buying local causing problems. Like if I bought a lovely Carlson Vineyards T-Rex Lemberger ( from just up over "the hill" here in Colorado would that be good because it's "local" or bad because of all the irrigation required to grow grapes on the high desert?

  5. s:

    Warren: thought you would be interested in this article,
    Freeman Dyson, The Civil Heretic on Climate Control

  6. epobirs:

    The hard-core greenies are much easier to understand if you appreciate that their plans call for the elimination of at least 75% of the population. They're like a lot of wannabe dictators of the past in their belief that a perfect world can be had by eliminating most of those annoying people.

  7. Les:

    Much is made about the obesity rates of the US compared to places like Europe, one correlating factor that doesn't get much scrutiny is how ubiquitous Corn Sweetners are in American local food production. Why do we use so much corn in our processed foods? Tariffs and protectionism.

    Sugar does not grow very well in North America, this makes local sugar more expensive than sugar grown in the tropics. So... we have tariffs in place to raise the price of imported sugar to at or above the level of home-grown sugar. Problem is that local sugar is still expensive, because sugar cane doesn't grow well here.. but Corn grows really well, and can be processed into something that can kinda.. sorta.. almost serve as a passable substitute for cane sugar.

    I wonder how obesity rates might be affected if those sugar tariffs went-away.

  8. td:

    There are crucial errors in Borlaug's reasoning. He's right that roughly 80 million tons of N are currently used to grow our food annually but he is absolutely wrong in assuming that is a baseline requirement. Synthetic N is a salt and as such massive quantities of it degrade soil over time requiring ever greater amounts to achieve the same results. His rambling also seems to assume further that our fertilizer usage is based on the requirements of an efficient ag market producing only what is essential for our survival. This is of course laughable as anyone familiar with the term "Farm Bill" can attest. There are any number of reasons one may or may not choose to grow or purchase organic food but Borlaug has hit upon exactly none of them.

  9. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA):

    td -- without turning this post into a soil chem thread, you're partly correct, and partly not. I hope that by looking at a few points you can grasp a bit of the issue's complexity, both on the organic and on the more conventional sides of the equation.

    a) the nitrogen question is intimately involved with soil microbiology, whether through nitrogen fixation by Rhizobia bacteria or the role of carbon:nitrogen ratios in decomposition of crop wastes by multiple species.
    i) microbial nitrogen fixation is usually cheaper per pound of nitrogen than even the least expensive chemical source -- but there is no Farm Program subsidy money for nitrogen-fixing crops. That's the economic disincentive.
    ii) chemical nitrogen sources can actually build soil organic matter IF applied in a manner designed to facilitate effective decomposition of crop residues. This is a crop management issue for conventional farmers, and most are not up to the task.
    iii) the cheapest (as in cash out of pocket, not overall cost) source of nitrogen is anhydrous ammonia (not a salt), which is tremendously easy to use and absolutely devastating to most soil life. Repeated use of anhydrous largely kills a soil, at which point the farmer is attempting to deal with hydroponics, a discipline vastly beyond their ability to manage well.

    b) what you're alluding to about nitrogen salts degrading the soil is that the nitrate ion -- and certified organic farmers can apply quite a lot of nitrate, provided it comes from a mine in Chile, instead of manufactured (back to distinctions without a difference) -- and its tendency to leach calcium out of the soil.
    i) as calcium levels decline soil often becomes "tighter" which tends to decrease yields.
    ii) most farmers, faced with sagging yields ... add more nitrogen. Vicious cycle.

    There's way more I could say, but I'm only wanting to highlight how the average farmer gets caught up in problems not only he, but government Extension agents almost never understand. Four other points:

    National Food Security -- the real problem is that for most reasonably perishable commodities it takes but a small surplus to drive the price down hard; it's very "elastic."

    Processing -- farm gate prices for ingredients are a vanishingly small percentage of the cost at the store. I fail to see a substantive difference between the 3-dollar pound of conventional corn flakes -- for which the farmer saw 4 cents ... and the 6-dollar pound of organic corn flakes, for which the farmer saw a nickel, if lucky.

    Intrinsic quality -- dairy products are a good example: We purchase Organic Valley milk and such because those animals are fed lots of hay and pasture, so the brand is a good proxy for higher quality milk. There are other brands of organic milk where the animals are all essentially in a feedlot, so "organic" isn't the issue. Conventional milk, however, almost always comes from animals fed a tremendous amount of grain, causing acidosis in the animal. Let's leave it that the effects of acidosis and things like somatic cell count are not topics for the breakfast table.

    The middle road -- as a farmer and as an agronomist, I'm convinced that agriculture got excited about chemical fertilizers because when judiciously applied to a healthy soil they improve both yields and soil quality. That's what happened in the early 1950s. Everybody attributed the improvement to the chemicals, not to the combination. So they applied more chemicals, abandoned the sound agronomy that had produced the healthy system, and when the deleterious effects began to show up attempted to counter them (temporarily), thus putting agriculture on the path that has been its fate for the last two generations.

    80% of what we call "organic" is nothing more than sound agronomy, long-since forgotten by researchers and farmers alike. Organic isn't the answer -- sound agronomy is -- and we'll get almost nowhere on that journey as long as immense economic distortions (Farm Program, subsidized water in California, etc) impose overwhelming disincentives against sound agronomy and attentive land care.