march 2011

The Blogging Farmer

Alex Tiller’s Blog on Agriculture and Farming


Is It Organic, Really?

There is quite a debate going on regarding organic agriculture. One side says that small, localized organic farming is the future. The other side says that it will be impossible to feed the nine billion people expected to be inhabiting the planet by 2050 using organic methods.

What is interesting to note is that "organic" may not necessarily be any better for the planet.

Here's an analogy: many people eschew prescription drugs in favor of "natural herbs" largely because they believe that the former are dangerous and have too many side effects. Herbs are supposedly safer. What they don't realize is that prescription drugs are usually made from those same herbs. The difference is that a natural herb has several different chemical compounds in addition to the substance that has medicinal properties. When those herbs are processed into a pharmaceutical drug, that single substance is isolated and concentrated; with the herbal remedy, you're getting everything that's in the plant, good, indifferent, and bad alike. Using herbs without knowing what you're doing can lead to side effects just as serious as those from pharmaceuticals.

How does that relate to organic farming?

Prince Charles recently delivered a keynote address at the recent Future of Food Conference at Georgetown University. In his speech, he condemned conventional agriculture for its use of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers.  However, as one critic pointed out, even the "natural" substances that organic farmers use can be toxic.

gardenCase in point: copper sulfate, which is used as a fungicide. In small amounts, this is not particularly toxic. Unfortunately, this substance, like many other "organic" pesticides, is not nearly as effective at controlling insect pests as its chemical counterparts. What happens then is that the copper sulfate is used in larger amounts--at which point it does become harmful to the environment.

A similar mechanic operates in the case of "natural" fertilizers such as animal manure and nitrogen-fixing crops (legumes). As these are plowed under and into the soil, they can cause excess nitrogen to enter the groundwater--with results that aren't much different than those caused by conventional commercial fertilizers.

Add to that the fact that the yields from organic farming methods generally come in around 60-90 percent of those from conventional agriculture, and you can see how--barring a sudden and dramatic turnaround in population growth--it's not all that practical in the long run.

So why look at organic at all? Well, from a profit perspective, well-planned organic operations may be more lucrative for the individual farmer. And the organically grown stuff can be healthier for the consumers, if not for the planet. Environmentally speaking, organic farms do use a lot less carbon-based fuels--about half as much, according to the British Soil Association.

The bottom line is that every farmer has to make their own decision, but as a society we should probably not expect organic microfarms to feed the world any time soon. Instead, the good ideas and best practices of "boutique" organic farms will slowly spread to the mainstream, reducing the environmental impact of conventional farming and improving the quality of farm products.

(Posted on May 13, 2011. Read more of Alex Tiller’s blogs on agriculture and farming at

tillerHello, and thanks for checking out my blog.  My name is Alex Tiller and I grew up in rural Ohio (Clark County) where my family still owns farmland (corn and beans). I am a member of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers and am also an agribusiness author/blogger. I write about commercial farming, family farms, organic food production, sustainable agriculture, the local food movement, alternative renewable energy, hydroponics, agribusiness, farm entrepreneurship, and farm economics and farm policy. I visit lots of farms in different areas of the country (sometimes the world) that grow all kinds of different crops and share what I learn with you through this blog. You can contact me via email by clicking here: Email Alex at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024