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Sunday November 19, 2017

Organic and climate change: A lot of hot air?

Farmer Goes to Market has cautioned before: Blindly following organic food companies onto thin marketing ice by repeating questionable health claims risks the grocer's reputation. In response, critics of modern food technology point to organic as a cure for the environmental pollution caused by modern agriculture, including increasing greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.

But how well does that claim stand up to scrutiny?

University of Oregon environmental sociology doctoral student Julius McGee tested the relationship between the recent growth in organic agricultural production and greenhouse gas emission that could be traced specifically to agriculture. His study, in the June 2015 issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values, is one of the first large-scale empirical analyses of certified organic farming and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. In it, McGee offers the surprising and contrarian conclusion that not only has organic farming not helped reduce greenhouse gases and global warming, it has in fact increased climate change. He believes the rise of certified organic farming has increased both the total amount of greenhouse gas emitted from agriculture and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per acre of farmland. In addition, he argues that some organic crops--tomatoes, for example--actually produce more greenhouse gases than their conventional counterparts when produced on a similar scale.

How can this be?

McGee calls it a classic example of the "displacement paradox." Rather than replace high-input consumer consumption that may contribute to global warming, organic production simply gives consumers another outlet for purchasing. Organic farming as an alternative to conventional agriculture does little to reduce the consequences of farming practices overall, and organic farming fails to earn its marketing claim as a ‘‘more sustainable’’ form of agricultural, because a link has yet to be established between organic farming and carbon banking that helps reduce levels of greenhouse gas.

"What these findings ultimately suggest is that organic farming is not working as a counterforce to greenhouse gas emissions stimulated by agricultural production," McGee concludes.

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Is organic really more energy efficient?

In her 2010 Diet for a Hot Planet, food-sustainability eco-promoter Anne Lappé predicts a coming "climate crisis" caused by the food system, unless the developed world adopts her seven principles for a climate-friendly diet, including a reversion to old-style farming that replaces petrolium-based energy for more organic forms.

"Implementing climate-friendly solutions--including agroecological and organic methods," promises Lappe, "creates even more beneficial ripples: preserving biodiversity, improving food security and people's health, strenghtening communities, and reducing reliance on diminishing oil reserves."

Then again, maybe not so much, according to a new review scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.

The review of about 50 published scientific journal articles showed organic leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to rescuing modern agriculture from oil use:

  • Granted, organic agriculture does consistently show lower energy use than conventional agriculture, writes the study's lead author, British green-food professor Adrian Williams. More than eight out of 10 of the studies he reviewed showed lower energy use associated with organic production. However, that stark difference only appears when you do the math based on the amount of energy used per unit of land. That's all well and good when you're measuring non-market products of agriculture, like biodiversity. But if you're comparing farming systems based on production of goods for market, like food, fiber and fuel, a more meaningful measure is one that compares energy used based on units of production.

  • What happens when you do compare organic vs. conventional farming based on energy consumed per unit of production? The results become "more variable," in Williams' words. "This is to be expected," he writes, "due to the lower intensity of production on most organic holdings, resulting in fewer inputs, and a reduced yield." In other words, organic trades lower energy use for lower yield. Only when researchers create an elaborate accounting system that, in essence, measures the amount of stored solar energy in an entire farm's output, both harvested and standing, does organic begin to approach the energy efficiency ratio of conventional on a pound-per-pound basis. Otherwise, conventional production was found to have the highest levels of net energy production. It's this false organics economy of trading lower use of fertilizer and pesticide for lower food production that has led critics to argue organic cannot sustainably feed the world by meeting current and future demands, Williams grudgingly concedes.

Energy demands of livestock productionEnergy use of organic vs. conventional produce and cropping

Despite remaining an apparent organic advocate because of its promised overall environmental benefits and his conclusion that global petrolium supplies are running out, Williams nevertheless concludes, "...in their current form, organic systems do not offer a radical alternative to the fossil-fuel reliance of modern agricultural systems. The reduced use of energy in organic production and increased energy efficiency compared to conventional production is often marginal. These systems often still depend on the same sources of (fossil) fuel for tractors, machinery and buildings, etc. While organic production can make a contribution to a more resource-efficient agriculture, in its present form it does not provide a complete solution."

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Why do ranchers give cattle hormones implants?

We know they're safe, but considering the ongoing controversy about the use of hormone implants ranchers and farmers give to most beef cattle, why would they continue to use them? The answer may not be as black and white as you think.

Recent news reports have brought the issue of how farmers house their mother pigs, or sows, back into the spotlight. Here are some answers to common reader questions about the use of "gestation crates" or individual stalls for sows.

Why put cattle in feedlots?

Of the more than 33 million calves U.S. farmers will raise this year, three out of four will eventually end up in fenced pens or feedlots, where they will be fed rations of grain and crop surpluses that average from 70 percent to 90 percent grain. Three-fourths of those animals will be fed on feedlots that sell 5,000 or more animals in a year. Why do farmers crowd beef cattle into these large feedlots, rather than just leaving them to graze?

The concept of taking a beef calf weighing from 500 to 700 pounds off pasture and putting it into a confined pen to add weight dates back to colonial New England, by some accounts. But what we know today as the feedlot system began in earnest just before the Civil War, when cottonseed-mill owners of the South discovered they could use their waste meal and hulls as cattle feed rather than simply dump it. Coupled with improved transportation and steady supplies of cattle, by the end of the Great Depression, large commercial cattle-feeding operations were common throughout the Great Plains. Meanwhile, by the early 1900s, smaller Midwest farmers were beginning to buy calves and year-old beef cattle in the fall, once the grass was no longer good for grazing, and "wintering them" on stored corn silage. As researchers began to discover the value of corn for improving the efficiency and quality of beef cattle by the 1950s, those farmers began using cattle feeding as a method to add value to their corn, moving corn-king Iowa to top the list as the nation's largest cattle feeder. Once large-scale irrigated corn production began to shift the heart of corn country south and west from Iowa, Texas eventually took over that distinction. Eventually, the packing plants followed the ready cattle supply. Today, 85 percent of fed cattle come from either Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado or Nebraska.

As important as the availabity of cheap feed is to the development of feedlots as the standard, it's important not to underestimate the impact of another unappreciated factor: consumer demand. By using confined feeding to bring calves to market at a younger age, standardize and control their diets, and group cattle by type and size, the quality of beef improved as well as the predictably of that quality. Those demand factors can't be under-stated in the importance of concentrating beef feeding into the system we consider the norm today.

Today, most U.S. cattle are  raised on range or pasture land for most of their lives and then transported to a feedlot for finishing at anywhere from 6- to 18-months old. There, they typically spend about three to six months on feed, growing between 2.5 and 4 pounds per day on specially made feed rations customized to their age, body type, breed and climate. That feed is delivered on a set schedule--usually twice daily--by trucks that present it in long concrete feeders, or "bunks." That kind of control over feed and feeding, the most expensive fraction of the total cost of raising beef, is simply not attainable when cattle are roaming on open ground.

In addition, because they are contained within a space of only about 125 to 250 square feet per animal, the cattle can be more closely monitored daily by professional cowboys, known as "pen riders," who are trained and experienced in the science and art of spotting animals that may be getting sick or are not eating sufficiently. Those animals can be quickly moved to "hospital pens" if needed, where they can be medicated and given special rations to encourage their return to health.

Many of the cattle fed in large commercial feedlots are still owned by the ranchers who run the ranch on which they were originally born. Like a hotel for cattle, the commercial feedlot cares for and feeds the rancher's "retained ownership" cattle, in return for a fee for the feed, medicine and a daily "yardage" fee. The feedlot then typically arranges for sale or delivery of the cattle to a beef packer based on the packer's needs and the quality level of the cattle.

Grouping the cattle into pens for finishing permits a degree of predictable growth and production that is reflected in the relatively cheaper price grain-finished costs compared to pasture-finished beef. If grocers were forced to rely on a completely pasture-based finishing system, as some advocate, the beef meatcase as we know it would be extinct.

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