Why I’m Not An Organic Farmer

Pesticides, GMOs, Roundup, super-weeds, evil wheat, big Ag and a hundred other buzz-words are touted as the failure of modern agriculture’s quest to feed the world.  Organic farming is proclaimed as the solution to these problems, as the future of sustainable agriculture. The reality is, as I will tell you in this post, that the opposite is true; conventional farming, not organic, is better for the environment and can sustainably and safely feed a growing world.

As an aside, I have no problem with most organic farmers. The ones that I know do it not for idealogical reasons, but for economical ones. For their farms, they believe they will make more money growing organic crops than conventional ones. There is nothing wrong with that, and I don’t want to go on an attack against farmers doing the best they can to do what they love. Furthermore, I’m not going to go on record saying that conventional agriculture is perfect. We have many improvements to make, and there are some real issues that need to be addressed – but that is a concern for another day. Also, for the purposes of this post, I want to focus in on crop production, so I’ll leave livestock out of this discussion.

Organic vs Conventional Agriculture: What’s The Difference?

First of all, I don’t want to assume everybody is as obsessed with agriculture as I am, so let’s just go through some basic differences between these two production methods.

Organic agriculture is a $2.6 billion dollar industry in Canada, with regulations stipulating what products farmers can use on their farms. Genetically modified crops are not allowed, and neither are synthetic fertilizers. Pesticides are a more complicated matter, with only “organic” chemicals allowed for use.

For a farm to be certified organic, each of its fields must be free of any prohibited substances for three years before certification by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is allowed. Are organic crops tested before they are certified? No; at least, according to this source. The CFIA disagrees, but concedes it is still more or less an honour system.

Without synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, organic farmers must use alternatives to grow their crops and kill weeds and insects. Essentially, it is a reversion to agriculture practices of 100 years ago. While some of these practices are quite effective and perhaps even have a fit in conventional agriculture, most of them were abandoned years ago with the introduction of fertilizers and pesticides. The reasons were numerous, but they really all began in the infamous “Dirty 30’s”.

Tillage and Soil Erosion

Today, we talk about four elements of weed control: cultural (crop selection), chemical (herbicides), biological (using natural enemies- still a very new and undeveloped field) and mechanical. In modern agriculture, cultural and chemical controls are our primary weapons in the war against weeds, with the real emphasis on chemicals- crops like corn and soybeans are just not that competitive. Wheat, barley, canola and other such crops are actually very competitive, but they still depend on herbicides to get established and get ahead of the weeds.

A century ago, there were no real herbicides available. With that option stripped out, and biological controls in their infancy even today, that really only left mechanical and cultural controls- exactly like organic farming today. Mechanical control essentially involves steel; DSC_0367 (640x354)using shovels, discs, rods, harrows, etc. to uproot, rip and drag weeds apart to kill them. Every second year, each field must remain idle (not seeded, or “summerfallow”) and constantly tilled up to stay ahead of difficult weeds. This kind of intensive tillage leaves the ground bare, exposed to direct sunlight and the ravages of heavy winds. Remember hearing about dust storms? That is the unfortunate end result of old-school farming. Without chemical controls, there is simply no way to consistently grow crops (especially up here in the northern climates) all year round to stay ahead of weeds. Yes, natural grassland will do that, but how will that feed 7 billion people?

In my area of the world, I have seen- and continue to see- the effects of long-term tillage on our soils. Heavy rains and winds wash precious topsoil into ditches and sloughs. Wet spots in the field stay that way for months and months, allowing salts to collect on the soil surface; eventually turning the ground a ghostly white, a sober metaphor of the inability of that soil to grow anything again for generations. The reality is that, at least in Western Canada, herbicides are our only method of controlling soil erosion; they allow us to minimize tillage.

Is tillage the only way for organic farmers to control weeds? No; there are other methods, including cover crops and precise planting timing to keep weeds in check. However, as good as some of these methods can be, they are still not the solution, with most farmers opting for the reliability of tillage instead. And, ultimately, they still do not solve the other stark reality of organic agriculture: it cannot possibly feed the world.

A Growing Population Needs All The Tools It Can Get

In 1898, a scientist by the name of Sir William Crookes, new president for the British Academy of Sciences, stated unequivocally that the world would run out of food by the 1930’s. A lack of fertilizer would cause world crop yields to plummet, and massive starvation would ensue. Current production methods of manure and saltpeter harvesting to use as fertilizer would eventually be outstripped by an exploding human population. He said the only way to prevent this famine would be to synthetically produce fertilizer. Less than 20 years later that became a reality, thanks to Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch.

Our atmosphere is nearly 80% nitrogen. It is one of the most important building blocks of life; but it is unavailable to us – and plants – in its atmospheric form. Crops require nitrogen for growth and reproduction. Before synthetic fertilizer, animal manure and bird guano were the only sources of fertilizer. Crops were carefully rotated with nitrogen producing pulse crops and forages to generate as much N as possible. Yet, inexorably, yields would eventually decrease as the soil became exhausted of nutrients. The Haber-Bosch process solved that problem by converting atmospheric nitrogen to a usable form for plants. So, essentially, so-called “synthetic” fertilizer really isn’t synthetic at all; rather, it is a natural component of the air we breathe every day. Without it, the crop yields would long ago have failed, and the world would not be what it is today.

Without synthetic fertilizer, and their natural counterpart, pesticides, crops would not be able to sustain enough growth to feed the world as it is today. Haber and Bosch are responsible for one of the greatest inventions of our history. Why go back to the problems of 100 years ago when we have already found the answer?

Organic Food: Is It Really Healthier?

The final component of this blog post concerns the misconception that organic food is somehow more nutritious than conventionally grown food. There is a belief that pesticides somehow contaminate the seed of the plant itself, finding its way directly into our food. To some degree this is true. But the reality is that the residues that find their way into our food are so abysmally tiny that in 98% of our food, there is no difference between food that is grown conventionally and food that is grown organically. What about that other 2%? It still comes in below the stringent limits set by the government (source).

But wait; isn’t organic food healthier than conventional? According to a recent Stanford Medicine study, that is simply not true. No nutritional differences of significance were found when comparing the two production methods.

Organic Farming Is Not The Future

The answer to the question of whether organic agriculture is more sustainable, better for the environment or healthier than conventional agriculture is clear. Organic farming causes greater soil erosion, is not healthier or safer for consumption and would sentence billions of people to die, most of them in developing nations. Isn’t it easy to criticize a method of producing food when you have never been hungry?

I choose to farm with pesticides, GMOs and fertilizers because I know that it is the right choice. I know that standing behind the use of these products will help feed a growing and hungry world. Yes, there are still problems with our agriculture system, but I know that farmers and researchers are savvy and brilliant individuals that will solve these problems over time. Yes, organic farming is a choice some farmers make, and I am not going to attack their choices. What I am attacking is the marketing and smearing of conventional agriculture; the misinformation that permeates this discussion and diminishes the importance of it.

During my time as a farmer, I have spent a lot of time studying this issue. As an agronomist, I have seen first-hand the consequences of organic farming, and the successes of modern conventional agriculture. As a third-generation farmer, I know how amazing our progress has been in agriculture, and I am excited about the possibilities of the future.

canola field

Any thoughts on this post? Disagree? Write a comment below.

Sources and Further Reading

California Department of Agriculture. (2007). 2007 Pesticide Residues in Fresh Produce. http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/enforce/residue/rsmonmnu.htm

Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 2014. Canada Organic Regime: A Certified Choice.

Hager, T. 2008. The Alchemy of Air. New York, NY, USA: Broadway Books.

Humpreys, A. 2012. Canada’s organic food certification system ‘little more than an extortion racket,’ report says. National Post.

Smith, E.G., Knutson, R.D., Taylor, C.R., Penson, J.B. 1990. Impact of chemical use reduction on crop yields and costs. Texas A&M Univ., Dep. of Agric. Economics, Agric. and Food Policy Center, College Station.

Smith-Spangler, C. et. al. 2012. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Annals of Internal Medicine.

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Why Do We Spray?

There was a time, not too long ago, that June and July were relatively quiet months on the farm. Once in-crop weed spraying was finished, work in the fields was essentially completed. Farmers were able to spend their summers getting ready for harvest, taking care of unseeded low-lying areas in their fields, and attend weddings and other social events.

Summer this year has been a whirlwind so far. In-crop spraying was completed about two weeks ago (mostly), but fungicide season has only just gotten started. Every sprayer is rolling full out on whatever fields are ready to spray, and farmers are busy checking the rest of the fields to see if they are ready. It is not unheard of to spray 40,000 acres per season, per sprayer.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by “in-crop spraying”. After seeding is complete in late May to mid-June, crops must all be sprayed to kill weeds. Make no mistake, this is a critical application, as a crop left to fight weeds on its own can be quickly overwhelmed by competition. Thanks to genetic modification, many of our crops are easy to deal with, such as corn, soybeans and canola. Some are also very competitive, like wheat and barley. However, crops like peas and lentils, even with proper herbicide application, can easily be outcompeted by difficult weeds like kochia, wild buckwheat, wild oats, etc. Spraying these crops is a big project and it takes many hours on the sprayer; but it is not the final application of the year.

As soon as the weeds are taken care of, crops are carefully monitored for disease and insects. Most diseases need wet, humid air and warm temperatures for optimum growth and infection. These diseases are mostly fungi, with a wide variety of species infecting each crop. In wheat, tan spot can be very damaging to the leaves, removing photosynthetic area and replacing it with tan-coloured spots. In canola, white mould can devastate yield potential, choking off the stem and starving the plant. In other crops such as lentils, some diseases can virtually kill an entire field in a matter of days (e.g. Anthracnose).

From the outside looking in on agriculture, you may wonder why we spray so many chemicals on our crops. We would not spray fungicides if we didn’t need to. These are expensive products that require many hours on the sprayer to apply, and many of them have extremely tight application windows. Also, during the summer months, I can guarantee you every farmer would rather be at the lake than spraying non-stop.

Take Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) for example, caused by Fusarium graminearum. This disease, if left unchecked, infects the seeds of durum, wheat and barley, elevating levels of a vomitoxin called deoxynivalenol (DON). As the name suggests, this toxin induces vomiting and can be dangerous if consumed in high enough levels. Therefore, if our grain is infected with FHB, it will be worth a lot less to try and sell. Would you want to eat bread or pastries or drink beer infected with this? It is a difficult disease to control, and we check our durum daily to try and catch the optimal window for fungicide application, which is about a two-day opportunity while the head is flowering. A wheat head that has completed flowering, and therefore moved past its application window, is shown below:

Nikon J1 July 351

We sprayed this crop to protect it from FHB, as climatic conditions are perfect for its development. Unfortunately, we also had to apply a product that everyone hates: chlorpyrifos, also known by its brand name, Lorsban. This product is an insecticide, and yes it is somewhat hazardous. We applied it to protect our crop from the dreaded grasshopper. These verocious insects can eat a lot of material very quickly. To compound the problem, we also found some of these bugs:

 

20170704_205521

This little bug on the wheat head is called the orange blossom wheat midge, a nasty little insect that lays its eggs in the florets of wheat and durum, which hatch later on and chew on the developing kernel. Like FHB-damaged kernels, this also causes grade loss.

Spraying insecticides is not a fun job, but sometimes it is necessary to protect the massive investment we put into our crops every year. We avoid spraying them as much as we can, but you do not have to worry about their safety. There is no kernel, or any form of it, in that wheat head yet. Lorsban has a residual of about 7 days. This plant is at least 40 days from harvest. All of our insecticides, indeed all of our chemicals, have a regulated pre-harvest interval to ensure no residue remains at harvest. Furthermore, scientists have developed economic thresholds to determine when it is worth spraying insecticides to prevent unnecessary spraying. Believe me, if I didn’t believe this our food was safe after spraying with insecticides, would I really be out there spraying it? Would I eat it with my family?

The reason I have covered this in such detail isn’t to tell you how tough farming is. I love farming, and I couldn’t think of a career I could enjoy more. I tell you this so that you may know why we do the things we do. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t smother our crops with pesticides; we target herbicides (kills weeds), fungicides (kills fungi) and insecticides (kills bugs) to specific fields that require them. Someday, maybe we will have better tools that allow us to reduce pesticide use (genetic engineering is by far the best path forward for this), but for now, these are the best options we have. And the reality is, for the most part, they have been proven safe by journal article after peer-reviewed journal article.

That’s my rant for today. Hopefully I can get back on this blog more often in the future, as fungicide season will only last another week or so. I am looking forward to its conclusion. It has been a busy spray season!

Oh, one more point, in case you were wondering how the “summer of storms” has progressed since my last post about it. Immediately after that post, some fields got 3 inches of rain. Yeah. Not good. But things have improved since, and because of near ideal weather in the past two weeks, we are now looking at the potential for a very nice crop. Our fingers are crossed!

If you disagree with me about pesticides and their safety, please comment, and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you. This is a subject I take very seriously, and I have done a great deal of research on it.