Comparing apples to apples

Dr. Reganold and Anastasia at Cafe Beaudelaire in Ames, IA.

John Reganold and Anastasia at Cafe Beaudelaire in Ames, IA. Frank was waiting in the car, anxious to go pick up Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak from the Des Moines airport.

John Reganold, Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University, recently presented a lecture at Iowa State. I have to admit, a professor of agroecology automatically raises my skeptical eyebrows, but I’d previously read Dr. Reganold’s 2001 letter in Nature: Sustainability of three apple production systems, which was about some pretty solid research, so I was really looking forward to his talk. In this letter, Dr. Reganold and his colleagues showed that organic, conventional, and integrated (aka a mixture of organic and conventional techniques) were each viable methods of farming, each with their own benefits.

During this visit to Sustainable Agriculture Colloquium at Iowa State, Dr. Reganold talked about comparing organic and conventional methods, of course! According to Dr. Reganold, indicators of sustainability include: adequate yields of high quality, economics, environmental impact, and social justice, among others. He said that we need to judge all farming systems, including organic and conventional, on the same indicators.

One indicator of successful farming practices that Dr. Reganold said needed to change is our fixation on yields. Using yield as a measure of agriculture leaves out many factors, including soil, water, and other environmental effects. It also leaves out the human effect. Conventional agriculture, and much of organic agriculture as well, has a very carefree attitude towards social justice. At first, the organic movement did have a strong social responsibility component, but this has become watered down as organic produce and products have become more popular. There are examples of change, though, such as IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) which is currently working on new employee standards and product labeling, according to Dr. Reganold. He said, “farms aren’t sustainable if they don’t pay their workers enough for them to get health care and save for retirement.” Choosing yield as the sole indicator also doesn’t take into consideration the nutritional quality of the resulting crops.

Nonetheless, yield is a pretty useful indicator. He brought up quite a few studies* that had undertaken the complex task of comparing the yields of organic and conventional methods, concluding that yields of the two systems are comparable. Many of the sustainable ag students, including me, had never heard of many of the studies he mentioned, such as the 1990 paper The comparative productivity of organic agriculture by Gerald Stanhill, which was a meta-analysis, and Organic agriculture and the global food supply by Catherine Badgley. I’m looking forward to reading them when finals are over.

Dr. Reganold, while encouraged by these studies, was clear in pointing out that every situation is different. For example, soil types vary widely. Some soils do well with no-till, while others do not. “The best farming method is site specific”, he said. Organic farming is a major player in sustainable agriculture, but no one method is the solution. There is no one method that will “feed the world”. Instead, creative integration of methods is key. The biggest issues right now are synthetic fertilizers and pesticides – which can be replaced with integrated farming systems. “We’re arguing GMOs versus organic when there is so much ground in-between that is bigger and we are missing it big time”, Dr. Reganold said.

* Dr. Reganold started to bring up the recent report Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use as one example of how organic farming is more environmentally friendly with regards to pesticides, but an audience member beat me to questioning his reliance on this report. He clarified that Bt has decreased insecticide use and that Round Up Ready has increased herbicide use, and said that all herbicides are not created equal, which seemed to me to be an accurate analysis of the report.

Note: Any errors in this review of Dr. Reganold’s talk are unintentional. If you were there and see that I’ve misquoted or misrepresented what he said in any way, please let me know in the comments.