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Food and Farm Discussion Lab has many discussions of agricultural issues.

Can Data-Driven Agriculture Help Feed a Hungry World?

Everything in Agriculture is a Trade-Off

Farming is complex. Just about every decision made on a farm will send ripple effects throughout the entire system; these decisions will influence the cost/benefit ratio of many future decisions. This complexity makes it difficult to make rapid changes, and is a major reason why many farmers tend to be pretty conservative in their farming decisions. Even if a farmer wants to try something new (a new technology, or a new crop, for example), that option may be precluded by decisions that were made last year, or even many years ago.


The Stanford Study

Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review Crystal Smith-Spangler, Margaret L. Brandeau, E. Hunter, J. Clay Bavinger, Maren Pearson, Paul J. Eschbach, Vandana Sundaram, Hau Liu, Patricia Schirmer, Christopher Stave, Ingram Olkin, Dena M. Bravata; Annals of Internal Medicine; 4 Sep 2012 [paywall]

The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

No Health Benefits from Organic Food Steven Novella; Science-Based Medicine; 5 Sep 2012

Commentary on Stanford Study

Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis Dominika Średnicka-Tober et al; British Journal of Nutrition; 18 Nov 2015

Demand for organic meat is partially driven by consumer perceptions that organic foods are more nutritious than non-organic foods. However, there have been no systematic reviews comparing specifically the nutrient content of organic and conventionally produced meat. In this study, we report results of a meta-analysis based on sixty-seven published studies comparing the composition of organic and non-organic meat products. For many nutritionally relevant compounds (e.g. minerals, antioxidants and most individual fatty acids (FA)), the evidence base was too weak for meaningful meta-analyses. However, significant differences in FA profiles were detected when data from all livestock species were pooled. Concentrations of SFA and MUFA were similar or slightly lower, respectively, in organic compared with conventional meat. Larger differences were detected for total PUFA and n-3 PUFA, which were an estimated 23 (95 % CI 11, 35) % and 47 (95 % CI 10, 84) % higher in organic meat, respectively. However, for these and many other composition parameters, for which meta-analyses found significant differences, heterogeneity was high, and this could be explained by differences between animal species/meat types. Evidence from controlled experimental studies indicates that the high grazing/forage-based diets prescribed under organic farming standards may be the main reason for differences in FA profiles. Further studies are required to enable meta-analyses for a wider range of parameters (e.g. antioxidant, vitamin and mineral concentrations) and to improve both precision and consistency of results for FA profiles for all species. Potential impacts of composition differences on human health are discussed.

Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analyses Dominika Średnicka-Tober et al; British Journal of Nutrition; 8 Jan 2016

Demand for organic milk is partially driven by consumer perceptions that it is more nutritious. However, there is still considerable uncertainty over whether the use of organic production standards affects milk quality. Here we report results of meta-analyses based on 170 published studies comparing the nutrient content of organic and conventional bovine milk. There were no significant differences in total SFA and MUFA concentrations between organic and conventional milk. However, concentrations of total PUFA and n-3 PUFA were significantly higher in organic milk, by an estimated 7 (95 % CI −1, 15) % and 56 (95 % CI 38, 74) %, respectively. Concentrations of α-linolenic acid (ALA), very long-chain n-3 fatty acids (EPA + DPA + DHA) and conjugated linoleic acid were also significantly higher in organic milk, by an 69 (95 % CI 53, 84) %, 57 (95 % CI 27, 87) % and 41 (95 % CI 14, 68) %, respectively. As there were no significant differences in total n-6 PUFA and linoleic acid (LA) concentrations, the n-6:n-3 and LA:ALA ratios were lower in organic milk, by an estimated 71 (95 % CI −122, −20) % and 93 (95 % CI −116, −70) %. It is concluded that organic bovine milk has a more desirable fatty acid composition than conventional milk. Metaanalyses also showed that organic milk has significantly higher α-tocopherol and Fe, but lower I and Se concentrations. Redundancy analysis of data from a large cross-European milk quality survey indicates that the higher grazing/conserved forage intakes in organic systems were the main reason for milk composition differences.

The Organic False Dichotomy Steven Novella; Neurologica blog; 8 Oct 2012

I don’t have any a-priori or ideological issue with any of the specific practices that fall under the “organic” rubric. I do have a problem with the fact that there is an organic rubric. In fact I think the USDA made a mistake in giving into pressure and creating their organic certification. At the time they tried to make it clear that “certified organic” said absolutely nothing about the product itself, only that certain rules and restrictions were followed in production. It was not an endorsement of organic farming, just a way to regulate the use of the term in labeling food. Unfortunately, it further solidified the organic false dichotomy.

Organic vs Conventional Meat and Milk Steven Novella, Science-Based Medicine; 17 Feb 2016

Two recently published meta-analyses, one on meat and another on milk, conclude that levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and omega-3 fatty acids are higher in the organic versions of both. This is being widely reported as evidence that organic meat and milk is healthier, but a closer look at these two studies shows a different picture.

Why I Don't Buy Organic, And Why You Might Not Want To Either Steven Savage; Forbes; 19 Mar 2016

I don’t buy organic foods. In fact I specifically avoid doing so. It’s not my place to tell anyone else what to do, but I’d like to lay out three, seriously considered factors that have shaped my personal stance on organic:
  1. Informed confidence that we are safe buying “conventional” foods
  2. Recognizing that some of the best farming practices from an environmental perspective are not always allowed or practical under the organic rules
  3. An ethical problem with the tactics that some organic advocates and marketers employ which seriously misrepresents their “conventional” competition

On Farming, Animals, and the Environment Iisa Ruishalme; 24 Feb 2015

(This piece was originally published in February 2015 and updated in April 2016.) In a three-part series of posts, I will offer my response to the criticism posted on the comments section of the Skepti Forum Blog by Rob Wallbrigde (who blogs over at The Fanning Mill). I thank him for his interest in civil debate, and for providing me with a detailed 6-point list of issues he saw with my piece, making this discussion possible. I will go into more detail on the aspects of 1) nutritional content, 2) animal welfare, 3) pesticides, 4) environmental impact, 5) yield differences, and 6) the origins of organic farming.

KOALA Birth Cohort Study

Etiology of atopy in infancy: the KOALA Birth Cohort Study Kummeling I1, Thijs C, Penders J, Snijders BE, Stelma F, Reimerink J, Koopmans M, Dagnelie PC, Huber M, Jansen MC, de Bie R, van den Brandt PA.; Pediatr Allergy Immunol. ; Dec 2005

The aim of the KOALA Birth Cohort Study in the Netherlands is to identify factors that influence the clinical expression of atopic disease with a main focus on lifestyle (e.g., anthroposophy, vaccinations, antibiotics, dietary habits, breastfeeding and breast milk composition, intestinal microflora composition, infections during the first year of life, and gene-environment interaction). The recruitment of pregnant women started in October 2000. First, participants with 'conventional lifestyles' (n = 2343) were retrieved from an ongoing prospective cohort study (n = 7020) on pregnancy-related pelvic girdle pain. In addition, pregnant women (n = 491) with 'alternative lifestyles' with regard to child rearing practices, dietary habits (organic, vegetarian), vaccination schemes and/or use of antibiotics, were recruited through organic food shops, anthroposophic doctors and midwives, Steiner schools, and dedicated magazines.

KOALA fact sheet (pdf)

Consumption of organic foods and risk of atopic disease during the first 2 years of life in the Netherlands Ischa Kummeling, Carel Thijs, Machteld Huber, Lucy P. L. van de Vijver, Bianca E. P. Snijders, John Penders, Foekje Stelma, Ronald van Ree, Piet A. van den Brandt, Pieter C. Dagnelie; British Journal of Nutrition; 2008

We prospectively investigated whether organic food consumption by infants was associated with developing atopic manifestations in the first 2 years of life. The KOALA Birth Cohort Study in the Netherlands (n 2764) measured organic food consumption, eczema and wheeze in infants until age 2 years using repeated questionnaires. Diet was defined as conventional (,50 % organic), moderately organic (50 –90 % organic) and strictly organic (.90 % organic). Venous blood samples taken from 815 infants at 2 years of age were analysed for total and specific IgE. Multivariate logistic regression models were fitted to control for potential confounding factors. Eczema was present in 32 % of infants, recurrent wheeze in 11 % and prolonged wheezing in 5 %. At 2 years of age, 27 % of children were sensitised against at least one allergen. Of all the children, 10 % had consumed a moderately organic diet and 6 % a strictly organic diet. Consumption of organic dairy products was associated with lower eczema risk (OR 0·64 (95 % CI 0·44, 0·93)), but there was no association of organic meat, fruit, vegetables or eggs, or the proportion of organic products within the total diet with the development of eczema, wheeze or atopic sensitisation. Further studies to substantiate these results are warranted.

Organic milk may help babies beat allergies Rebecca Smithers; The Guardian; 9 Nov 2007

Mothers who drink organic milk during pregnancy and while breastfeeding can help their babies beat eczema, asthma and related allergies, according to ground-breaking research. The study suggests the conditions can also be kept at bay if children drink organic milk themselves. Researchers conclude that "the consumption of organic dairy products, within the context of an organic diet, is associated with the ... reduced incidence of eczema".

Yield comparison

The Lower Productivity Of Organic Farming: A New Analysis And Its Big Implications Steven Savage; Forbes; 9 Oct 2015

The productivity of organic farming is typically lower than that of comparable “conventional” farms. This difference is sometimes debated, but a recent USDA survey of organic agriculture demonstrates that commercial organic in the U.S. has a significant yield gap. I compared 2014 survey data from organic growers with overall agricultural yield statistics for that year on a crop by crop, state by state basis. The picture that emerges is clear – organic yields are mostly lower. To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of one hundred nine million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation. As of 2014 the reported acreage of organic cropland only represented 0.44% of the total, but if organic were to expand significantly, its lower land-use-efficiency would become problematic. This is one of several reasons to question the assertion that organic farming is better for the environment.

Commercial Crop Yields Reveal Strengths and Weaknesses for Organic Agriculture in the United States Andrew R. Kniss , Steven D. Savage, Randa Jabbour; PLOS One; 23 Aug 2016

Land area devoted to organic agriculture has increased steadily over the last 20 years in the United States, and elsewhere around the world. A primary criticism of organic agriculture is lower yield compared to non-organic systems. Previous analyses documenting the yield deficiency in organic production have relied mostly on data generated under experimental conditions, but these studies do not necessarily reflect the full range of innovation or practical limitations that are part of commercial agriculture. The analysis we present here offers a new perspective, based on organic yield data collected from over 10,000 organic farmers representing nearly 800,000 hectares of organic farmland. We used publicly available data from the United States Department of Agriculture to estimate yield differences between organic and conventional production methods for the 2014 production year. Similar to previous work, organic crop yields in our analysis were lower than conventional crop yields for most crops. Averaged across all crops, organic yield averaged 80% of conventional yield. However, several crops had no significant difference in yields between organic and conventional production, and organic yields surpassed conventional yields for some hay crops. The organic to conventional yield ratio varied widely among crops, and in some cases, among locations within a crop. For soybean (Glycine max) and potato (Solanum tuberosum), organic yield was more similar to conventional yield in states where conventional yield was greatest. The opposite trend was observed for barley (Hordeum vulgare), wheat (Triticum aestevum), and hay crops, however, suggesting the geographical yield potential has an inconsistent effect on the organic yield gap.

Just another organic yield comparison? Andrew Kniss; Biology Fortified; Aug 2016

Today, PLOS ONE has published a paper that I co-wrote with Randa Jabbour and Steve Savage titled “Commercial crop yields reveal strengths and weaknesses for organic agriculture in the United States.” In this paper, we describe our analysis of USDA data to compare organic and conventional crop yield data for 25 different crops. But is this just another organic yield vs conventional comparison for partisans to throw at each other in debates? We hope not. We’d prefer to throw that “debate” out the window – and instead focus on where each form of agriculture is doing best and start a conversation about how we can improve them all by learning from each other.

No. Organic Yields Are Not Close to Conventional. Plus: Using Land is an Environmental Impact Marc Brazeau; Food and Farm Discussion Lab; 16 Dec 2016

The largest study done to date comparing the yields between organic and conventional farming was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 2015–“Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap“. The authors put together a large data set and compared the yields between the two approaches and the effects of a wide range of variables. The paper was met with a wide round of applause among foodies and organic activists.
The idea of organic farming is very appealing, and many people hope for evidence showing only small differences between organic yields and those of conventional farming might lead to wider adoption of organic. This hope seemed to gain some momentum in the coverage of the new paper. The problem is that the study’s conclusions don’t match its findings. This contributes to a continuing distortion in the public debate over what constitutes sustainable agriculture. Misleading research conclusions become a major distraction from meeting the very real challenge of increasing the sustainability of modern farming.

organic industry

National Organic Action Plan: From the Margins to the Mainstream — Advancing Organic Agriculture in the U.S. Roger Blobaum, Lisa J. Bunin, Lynn Coody , Elizabeth Henderson, Liana Hoodes, Michael Sligh, Harriet Behar, Faye Jones, Mark Lipson, Jim Riddle; Jan 2010

This National Organic Action Plan (NOAP) represents the culmination of five years of meetings that engaged diverse stakeholders in envisioning the future of organic and in building strategies for realizing our collective vision. It calls for the creation of an expanded organic policy agenda for the next decade and beyond that reflects the broad social, environmental, and health values of the organic movement and the associated benefits that organic food systems afford society. The goal of the NOAP Project is to establish organic as the foundation for food and agricultural production systems across the United States.

The organic industry's war on breastfeeding We love GMOs and Vaccines; 10 Apr 2016

Organic industry attacks Prof Shelley McGuire of Washington State University for debunking glyphosate in breast milk scare


Organic and Biodynamic Management Effects on Soil Biology L. Carpenter-Boggs, A. C. Kennedy and J. P. Reganold; Soil Science of America journal; 12 Aug 1999

Biodynamic agriculture is a unique organic farming system that utilizes, in addition to the common tools of organic agriculture, specific fermented herbal preparations as compost additives and field sprays. The objective of this work was to determine whether biodynamic compost or field spray preparations affect the soil biological community in the short term, beyond the effects of organic management. Four fertilizer options: (i) composted dairy manure and bedding (organic fertilization), (ii) the same material composted with biodynamic compost preparations, (iii) mineral fertilizers, and (iv) no fertilizer were investigated with and without the biodynamic field spray preparations. Both biodynamic and nonbiodynamic composts increased soil microbial biomass, respiration, dehydrogenase activity, soil C mineralized in 10 d (MinC), earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris) population and biomass, and metabolic quotient of respiration per unit biomass (qCO2) by the second year of study. No significant differences were found between soils fertilized with biodynamic vs. nonbiodynamic compost. Use of biodynamic field sprays was associated with more MinC and minor differences in soil microbial fatty acid profiles in the first year of study. There were no other observed effects of the biodynamic preparations. Organically and biodynamically managed soils had similar microbial status and were more biotically active than soils that did not receive organic fertilization. Organic management enhanced soil biological activity, but additional use of the biodynamic preparations did not significantly affect the soil biotic parameters tested.


Organic might not mean what you think it means. Consider recent data generated as part of the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) — This isn’t surprising information. It echoes results from previous PDP testing and with more comprehensive testing of organic samples in 2001-11 by the USDA and 2011-13 by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. What is interesting is that while the incidence of residue detection is somewhat lower for organic, the very low levels of chemicals found are quite similar to the low levels detected on conventional samples. The 2015 PDP study found residues of 68 different pesticides, pesticide metabolites, or plant growth regulators on organic fruits and vegetables.

Swedish co-op pesticide advert

The Company Behind The Viral 'Organic Effect' Video Is Getting Sued For Misleading The Public Kavin Senapathy; Forbes; 2 Jun 2016

Wine / Copper Sulphate

The Great Organic Grape Scam World Of Fine Wine; 29 Oct 2015

The producers are in on the joke, and the certifying organizations are in on the joke, and they implicitly nudge and wink at each other. Neither of them is really in it for the money. This is not a conventional rip-off. They are both just satisfying the demand created by a consumer base that is misinformed, or intellectually lazy, or just wants to feel good about what it is drinking and is looking for a quick ladybug fix. You get what you ask for, because it's a consumer driven marketplace. Organic wine will almost certainly do you no harm (excessive quantities obviously excepted), but neither is it any better for you or for the planet than most non-organic wine. It won't taste any better or any worse probably, but then again you might not be able to trust the label anyway.

French winemaker drops organic status for ‘better treatments’ Jane Anson; Decanter; 26 Jan 2016

A winemaker in the Vaucluse has become the latest producer to withdraw his wine from organic certification, citing his concerns over the environmental sustainability of organic winemaking.
‘I will reduce the use of copper build-up in the soils by changing my treatment programme to one that is more balanced between organic and synthesized products,’ said Vinceni. ‘The amount of oil used for tractors will also be halved, as I will not need to apply the treatments so regularly, so I will be lowering my carbon footprint’.

Winemakers drop organic status to support environment Andrew Porterfield; Genetic Literacy Project; 13 Mar 2016

a number of winemakers, particularly in France, are dropping their organic status, partly because of regulatory restrictions, but more because of increasing concerns about sustainability and the environment. Domaine de Fondrèche in Mazan, under the French appellation of Côtes de Ventoux, just announced that it planned to withdraw its organic certification, which it had been growing wines under since 2009. The winery cited copper buildup in its fields, the result of using copper sulfate, one of a number of pesticides allowed by organic certifiers around the world (including the French Ecocert, as well as the USDA’s National Organic Program).

Review of impacts on soil biota caused by copper residues from fungicide application Lukas Van-Zwieten, Graham Merrington and Melissa Van-Zwieten; The Regional Institute online publishing; 2004?

Unlike most other agricultural chemicals, a significant weight of evidence exists that copper based fungicides have a long-term impact on a wide range of soil biota. Effects can occur at relatively low Cu concentrations and influence a number of soil processes including microbial activity, earthworm activity and bioturbation. In most soils, copper residues are likely to remain indefinitely, and will continue to influence the health of the soil. This manuscript reviews Australian and International data on the effects of copper based fungicides on soil health, and the implications for future land management.

The accumulation of copper in a New Zealand orchard soil R.K. Morgan & H. Johnston; Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand; 1991

Overseas research has demonstrated that high concentrations of copper can build up in orchard soils as a result of the use of copper-based fungicide sprays. However, there appear to be no published estimates of copper accumulation in New Zealand orchard soils. In this study, soil and grass samples were taken from an orchard in North Otago, and from a nearby pasture site, to assess the accumulation of copper derived from fungicide sprays. The mean total copper content of the orchard soil was 100 µg/g (±SD 46.80 µ/g), compared with the pasture site with 32.38 (µ/g (± 0.94 (µ/g). The grass samples from the orchard had a mean total copper concentration of 19.98 µ/g (± 17.18 µ/g), while the corresponding figure for the pasture grass samples was 6.71 µ/g (+ 2.19 µ/g). We conclude that, after only 16 years of spraying, the use of copper-based fungicides has resulted in significantly higher concentrations of copper in the orchard soil, compared with the nearby pasture soil. The mean concentration is approaching levels at which some plants can show signs of toxic effects, and the implications of the use of old orchard soils, which might contain substantial concentrations of accumulated copper, for other purposes are discussed.

Copper contamination of soil and vegetation in coffee orchards after long-term use of Cu fungicides J.Ø. Loland, B.R. Singh; Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems; Jul 2004 (paywalled)

The repeated use of Cu fungicides to control coffee berry disease can result in increased Cu content in soils and vegetation and thus raising the pollution levels and a concern for potential effects on human health. Therefore a field survey of coffee orchards of the Kilimanjaro and Arusha regions of Tanzania, where Cu fungicides are frequently used, was conducted to determine the possible Cu contamination of soils and vegetation. Soil samples were collected from 0–5, 5–15 and 15–30 cm depth at a distance of 0.5 m from the trunk of coffee trees. Plant leaf samples of beans and maize crops intercropped with coffee trees as well as leaves of coffee trees, were also collected at the same time and places. Soil and plant samples were collected both from small farms and commercial estates. Copper in the soil samples was extracted with CaCl2 (CCu), whereas for the total Cu, samples were digested with aqua regia (HNO3 and HCl(1:3) (ACu)). Plant samples were drying ashed and digested with HNO3. Copper concentration in the extracted and digested solutions was determined with atomic absorption spectrophotometry. A significant Cu enrichment of the soils was observed and the Cu concentration in the 0–5 cm soil depth was about three times higher than in the 15–30 cm depth. A large variability in the soil Cu concentration between fields of the same farm and within the same orchard was observed. The differences in the total Cu concentration (ACu) between small farms and commercial estates were not statistically significant, but the extractable Cu (CCu) was higher and soil pH was lower in the estates of the Kilimanjaro region than at small farms. The soil organic carbon (SOC) content increased significantly with increasing altitudes, and it was also higher on small farms than on commercial estates. The SOC content showed a close and positive correlation with total Cu. At soil pH below 5.3, the CCu fraction increased steeply. Bean plants from coffee fields showed a high concentration of Cu, suggesting a possible Cu toxicity problem in bean plants. Coffee leaves also showed extremely high Cu concentration.

Organic v. conventional

Why small, local, organic farms aren’t the key to fixing our food system Tamar Haspel; Washington Post; 22 Sep 2017

The food movement has a problem: It’s right about what’s wrong with our system, but wrong about how to fix it.
Buy fresh, buy local. Support the small, diverse, organic (or organic-ish) farm that supplies the farmers market and local restaurants with fresh vegetables. And that’s a great idea; local agriculture brings a host of benefits, from delicious strawberries to a much-needed reminder that food has to come from somewhere.
But it cannot fix that chemical-intensive system that crowds out biodiversity, depletes the soil, pollutes the water, etc. And that’s not a lack of confidence in, or enthusiasm for, that kind of small farm. It’s simply a recognition that there are economic, logistic, topographical and even arithmetic reasons that those farms can only be a small slice of a reimagined, responsible, food system. There are at least four reasons:
  • They don’t grow the right stuff.
The crops these farms grow are fruits and vegetables, and, even if we all eat a produce-rich diet, fruits and vegetables cannot be more than a sliver of our agricultural system.
  • They can’t grow the right stuff.
The reason small, local, diverse farms grow vegetables (and sometimes livestock) is that those are high-margin products. The crops that carpet the vast swaths of the Midwest cannot be successfully grown small and local, because you need economies of scale to make those crops profitable. What’s great about staple crops such as oats, lentils, barley and, yes, corn and soy is that they produce huge amounts of nutritious, affordable food per acre.
  • The land is in the wrong place.
Look at a chart where the cropland is and where the people are. They don’t match. Take the Northeast (from Maine to the District): It’s got 3 percent of the cropland but 20 percent of the population. By contrast, the northern plains (the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska) have 24 percent of the land but 2 percent of the population.
  • Seasons.
In most parts of the country, local food is available only for a limited season. This is not just a problem with an image of American agriculture as a patchwork of small local farms; it’s one of the key reasons that the crops grown on the large farms — the grains and legumes — are, as they always have been, the backbone of the human diet. They are storable.


Land sharing v. land sparing

Feeding the World Without Costing the Earth WWF; Vimeo; 2016

Dr. Andrew Balmford of Cambridge University’s Conservation Science Group discusses impacts of land sparing and land sharing on biodiversity in agricultural systems.


Michael Pollan on the Links Between Biodiversity and Health Jack Hitt; Yale environment 360; 28 May 2013

Author Michael Pollan has often written about people’s relationship to the natural world. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, he talks about researching his latest book and what he learned about the connections between ecology and human health.

The problem with monoculture Andrew Kniss; Control Freaks; 17 Aug 2013

Pollan may be the most recognizable, but he is certainly not the only one to blame monoculture for many of the problems of modern agriculture. This is a pretty common refrain from the anti-GMO camp, and also from many folks who are just not big fans of conventional agriculture. There are even some who claim to be allergic to monocultures. So is monoculture evil as Pollan says? Well, it may depend on what you mean by monoculture.

Monocultures – the great evil of modern Ag? Iida Rusholms; Thougthscapism; 17 Mar 2016

One real problem with monoculture is that it is often used as a strong argument but in a poorly defined way. The influential food journalist Michael Pollan has gone as far as to claim that monoculture is the “real problem”, the “great evil in american agriculture”. Another common worry is that modern biotech crops lead to “more monoculture”. A major problem with these arguments is that monoculture as a concept is very broad. Before we specify which type and degree of monoculture is the issue, we don’t really know what we are talking about. What is monoculture, and what is it not? In this piece I take a look at this ominous method and its role in modern farming.

The Anti-Monoculture Mania Thomas R. DeGregori; Butterflies and Wheels; 12 Jul 2003

the Green Revolution ... has increased food production by 2.7 times on about the same land under cultivation, accommodating a doubling of the population over the last 40 years
also about Bt resistance - first seen in organic crops
This last question is vitally important for those opposed to Vitamin A enhanced rice who blandly state the need for greater crop diversity. Fine! Very fine in fact! Who is opposed to the families of poor subsistence rice farmers eating more mangoes and fruits and vegetables of various kinds, and even some meat or fish? Do the critics really believe that the poor families need their activist saviors to tell them that such dietary diversity would be nutritionally beneficial as well as desirable in every other way? If the critics have ways of bringing about this changed pattern of cropping, why don’t they simply do it, and stop wasting their time attacking a system that by their reckoning is a failure? If there are ways of doing agriculture that require fewer inputs but provide the same if not greater yields per unit of land, then why are they not out there showing the farmers how to do it? Farmers the world over may be on the conservative side, but in the modern era they have been one of the most world’s responsive groups when it comes to producing a better crop.

Biotechnology *


Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural) BRUCE N. AMES, MARGIE PROFET, LoIs SWIRSKY GOLD; PNAS; Oct 1990

ABSTRACT The toxicological significance of exposures to synthetic chemicals is examined in the context of exposures to naturally occurring chemicals. We calculate that 99.99% (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves. Only 52 natural pesticides have been tested in high-dose animal cancer tests, and about half (27) are rodent carcinogens; these 27 are shown to be present in many common foods. We conclude that natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests. We also conclude that at the low doses of most human exposures the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.

environmental impacts of meat v veg, different food sources

Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices1–3 Lucas Reijnders and Sam Soret; American Society for Clinical Nutrition; 2003

ABSTRACT Quantitative environmental evaluations of meat, fresh vegetables, and processed protein based on soybeans suggest that the environmental burden of vegetarian foods is usually relatively low when production and processing are considered. The environmental comparison of cheese varieties made from cow milk and directly from lupine and the evaluation of energy inputs in fish protein and vegetable protein also suggest an environmental advantage for vegetarian food. In the evaluation of processed protein food based on soybeans and meat protein, a variety of environmental impacts associated with primary production and processing are a factor 4.4–> 100 to the disadvantage of meat. The comparison of cheese varieties gives differences in specific environmental impacts ranging between a factor 5 and 21. And energy use for fish protein may be up to a factor 14 more than for protein of vegetable origin. Assessment suggests that on average the complete life cycle environmental impact of nonvegetarian meals may be roughly a factor 1.5–2 higher than the effect of vegetarian meals in which meat has been replaced by vegetable protein. Although on average vegetarian diets may well have an environmental advantage, exceptions may also occur. Long-distance air transport, deep-freezing, and some horticultural practices may lead to environmental burdens for vegetarian foods exceeding those for locally produced organic meat. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;78(suppl):664S–8S.
KEY WORDS Life cycle impact assessment, environmental impact, meat, cheese, fish, soybeans, processed protein, vegetables, vegetarian meals

Global Warming: Role of Livestock Veerasamy Sejian, Iqbal Hyder, T. Ezeji, J. Lakritz, Raghavendra Bhatta, J. P. Ravindra, Cadaba S. Prasad, Rattan Lal; chapter from Climate Change Impact on Livestock: Adaptation and Mitigation

This chapter provides an overview of the current state of knowledge concerning global warming with special reference to contribution from livestock resources. Global warming pertains to the effect of natural greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and halogenated compounds on the environment. These GHGs are generated by humans and human-related activities. Carbon dioxide, CH4, and N2O are the principal sources of radiative forcing (Fifth IPCC Report of 2013). Interestingly, livestock contributes to climate change through emissions of CO2, CH4, and N2O into the atmosphere. Globally, the livestock sector directly and indirectly contributes 18 % (7.1 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent) of GHG emissions. While direct GHG emissions from livestock refer to emissions from enteric fermentations in livestock, urine excretion, and microbial activities in manures, indirect GHG emissions are those not directly derived from livestock activities but from manure applications on farm crops, production of fertilizer for growing crops used for animal feed production, and processing and transportation of refrigerated livestock products. Other indirect emissions include deforestation, desertification, and release of carbons from cultivated soils due to expansion of livestock husbandry. According to FAO’s Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM), the GHG emission from livestock-related activities was estimated to be around 7.1 gigatonnes CO2-eq. per annum, representing 14.5 % of human-induced emissions. This clearly indicates the significant role for livestock contributions to climate change.

UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet

Lesser consumption of animal products is necessary to save the world from the worst impacts of climate change, UN report says

Can we feed the world and stop deforestation? Depends what’s for dinner Laura Kehoe; The Conversation; 19 Apr 2016

It’s a tricky thing to grow enough food for a ballooning population without destroying the natural world. And when I say a tricky thing, I mean it’s one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced. Luckily for us, it is theoretically possible, and the easiest way to get there is by drastically cutting down on meat.

What's Driving Deforestation? Union of Concerned Scientists

Peters et al

Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios Christian J. Peters, Jamie Picardy, Amelia F. Darrouzet-Nardi, Jennifer L. Wilkins, Timothy S. Griffin, Gary W. Fick; Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems; 04 Jul 2007

Agriculture faces a multitude of challenges in the 21st century, and new tools are needed to help determine how it should respond. Among these challenges is a need to reconcile how human food consumption patterns should change to both improve human nutrition and reduce agriculture's environmental footprint. A complete-diet framework is needed for better understanding how diet influences demand for a fundamental agricultural resource, land. We tested such a model, measuring the impact of fat and meat consumption on the land requirements of food production in New York State (NYS). Analysis was confined to this geographic area to simplify the modeling procedure and to examine the state's ability to reduce environmental impact by supplying food locally. Per capita land resource requirements were calculated with a spreadsheet model for 42 diets ranging from 0 to 381 g d−1 (0 to 12 oz d−1) of meat and eggs and 20 to 45% total calories from fat. Many of these diets meet national dietary recommendations. The potential human carrying capacity of the NYS land base was then derived, based on recent estimates of available agricultural land. A nearly fivefold difference (0.18–0.86 ha) in per capita land requirements was observed across the diets. Increasing meat in the diet increased per capita land requirements, while increasing total dietary fat increased the land requirements of low meat diets but reduced the land needed for high meat diets. Higher meat diets used a larger share of the available cropland suited only to pasture and perennial crops. Thus, only a threefold difference was observed for the potential number of people fed from the NYS land base (2.0–6.2 million). In addition, some high-fat vegetarian diets supported fewer people than lower fat diets containing 63–127 g d−1 of meat (approximately one- to two-thirds of the national average per capita consumption in the US). These results support the assertion that diet should be considered in its entirety when assessing environmental impact. To more completely understand how diet influences land requirements and potential carrying capacity, this model should be applied across a larger geographic area that encompasses a wider variety of climates and soil resources. To better understand the ability of a local region to supply more of its own food, the model should be moved into a geospatial framework.

Diet for small planet may be most efficient if it includes dairy and a little meat, Cornell researchers report Susan S. Lang; Cornell Chronicle; 4 Oct 2007

A low-fat vegetarian diet is very efficient in terms of how much land is needed to support it. But adding some dairy products and a limited amount of meat may actually increase this efficiency, Cornell researchers suggest.
The study, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, is the first to examine the land requirements of complete diets. The researchers compared 42 diets with the same number of calories and a core of grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy products (using only foods that can be produced in New York state), but with varying amounts of meat (from none to 13.4 ounces daily) and fat (from 20 to 45 percent of calories) to determine each diet's "agricultural land footprint." They found a fivefold difference between the two extremes.

Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios Christian J. Peters, Jamie Picardy, Amelia F. Darrouzet-Nardi, Jennifer L. Wilkins, Timothy S. Griffin, Gary W. Fick; Elementa Science of the Anthropocene; 22 Jul 2016

Strategies for environmental sustainability and global food security must account for dietary change. Using a biophysical simulation model we calculated human carrying capacity under ten diet scenarios. The scenarios included two reference diets based on actual consumption and eight “Healthy Diet” scenarios that complied with nutritional recommendations but varied in the level of meat content. We considered the U.S. agricultural land base and accounted for losses, processing conversions, livestock feed needs, suitability of land for crops or grazing, and land productivity. Annual per capita land requirements ranged from 0.13 to 1.08 ha person-1 year-1 across the ten diet scenarios. Carrying capacity varied from 402 to 807 million persons; 1.3 to 2.6 times the 2010 U.S. population. Carrying capacity was generally higher for scenarios with less meat and highest for the lacto-vegetarian diet. However, the carrying capacity of the vegan diet was lower than two of the healthy omnivore diet scenarios. Sensitivity analysis showed that carrying capacity estimates were highly influenced by starting assumptions about the proportion of cropland available for cultivated cropping. Population level dietary change can contribute substantially to meeting future food needs, though ongoing agricultural research and sustainable management practices are still needed to assure sufficient production levels.


I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly George Monbiot; Guardian; 6 Sep 2010

In Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie pays handsome tribute to vegans for opening up the debate. He then subjects their case to the first treatment I've read that is both objective and forensic. His book is an abattoir for misleading claims and dodgy figures, on both sides of the argument.

Why I'm eating my words on veganism – again George Monbiot; Guardian; 27 Nov 2013

In 2010, after reading a fascinating book by Simon Fairlie, a fair part of which was devoted to attacking my views, I wrote a column in which I maintained that I'd been wrong to claim that veganism is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world's most urgent social justice issue. Diverting to livestock grain that could have fed human beings, I'd argued, is grotesque when 800 million go hungry. Fairlie does not dispute this, and provides plenty of examples of the madness of the current livestock production system. But he points out that plenty of meat can be produced from feed that humans cannot eat, by sustaining pigs on waste and grazing cattle and sheep where crops can't grow. I was swayed by his argument. But now I find myself becoming unswayed. In the spirit of unceasing self-flagellation I think I might have been wrong about being wrong. Part of the problem is that while livestock could be fed on waste and rangelands, ever less of the meat we eat in the rich nations is produced this way.

I’ve converted to veganism to reduce my impact on the living world George Monbiot; Guardian; 9 Aug 2016

he world can cope with 7 or even 10 billion people. But only if we stop eating meat. Livestock farming is the most potent means by which we amplify our presence on the planet. It is the amount of land an animal-based diet needs that makes it so destructive. An analysis by the farmer and scholar Simon Fairlie suggests that Britain could easily feed itself within its own borders. But while a diet containing a moderate amount of meat, dairy and eggs would require the use of 11m hectares of land (4m of which would be arable), a vegan diet would demand a total of just 3m. Not only do humans need no pasture, but we use grains and pulses more efficiently when we eat them ourselves, rather than feed them to cows and chickens. This would enable 15m hectares of the land now used for farming in Britain to be set aside for nature. Alternatively, on a vegan planet, Britain could feed 200 million people.


Cowspiracy: stampeding in the wrong direction? Danny Chivers; New Internationalist; 10 Feb 2016

There’s much to admire in Kip Andersen’s viral documentary, but its political framing – and a head-slapping statistical error – threaten to undermine its core message.

Cowspiracy: stampeding in the wrong direction Danny Chivers; Climate & Capitalism; 13 Feb 2016

By focusing on veganism to the exclusion of all else, Cowspiracy implies that anyone who eats meat isn’t a ‘proper’ environmentalist. This is deeply offensive and elitist, and it harms the movement we need to build.

Artificial meat / substitutes

Lab-g Price of Lab-Grown Burger Falls from $325K to $11.36 Natalie Shoemaker; big think; 2015

Lab-grown meat could be on your plate within the next five years. For the past few years, the barrier to getting test-tube meat into the hands of consumers has been the cost of production. In 2013, it was around $325,000 to make this stuff in a lab, but the process has been refined, and the cost now is just $11.36.
"And I am confident that when it is offered as an alternative to meat that increasing numbers of people will find it hard not to buy our product for ethical reasons," Peter Verstrate, head of Mosa Meat, told the BBC.

Team wants to sell lab grown meat in five years Pallab Ghosh - Science correspondent; BBC News; 15 Oct 2015

The Dutch team who have grown the world's first burger in a lab say they hope to have a product on sale in five years.
The lab-grown burger was developed by Prof Mark Post at his laboratory in Maastricht University, The Netherlands.
The burger is made from stem-cells: the templates from which specialised tissue such as nerve or skin cells develop.
An independent study found that lab-grown beef uses 45% less energy than the average global representative figure for farming cattle. It also produces 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires 99% less land.
The process starts with stem cells being extracted from cow muscle tissue. In the laboratory, these are cultured with nutrients and growth-promoting chemicals to help them develop and multiply. Three weeks later, there are more than a million stem cells, which are put into smaller dishes where they coalesce into small strips of muscle about a centimetre long and a few millimetres thick.

The strips are then painstaking layered together, coloured and mixed with fat.

Impossible Foods

Impossible Foods website

Why this "bloody" veggie burger may become the Tesla of food Katherine Hicks and Jeff Stein; Vox; 7 Jul 2016

This delicious burger could change food the way that Tesla changed cars Ben Gilbert; Tech Insider; 6 Jul 2016

The Impossible Burger is Ready for Its (Meatless) Close-Up KURT SOLLER; Wall St Journal; 14 Jun 2016

A long-awaited vegan burger from Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods hits select restaurants this month. But can coconut oil and potato proteins compete with the red-blooded original?

The Impossible Burger wouldn’t be possible without genetic engineering Nathanael Johnson; Grist; 10 Aug 2017

soy leghemoglobin, or SLH, the key ingredient that makes the Impossible Burger uniquely meaty, is churned out by genetically modified yeast.
SLH may be produced by transgenic yeast, but it isn’t a GMO itself. He also pointed out that this isn’t unusual: nearly all cheese contains a GMO-produced enzyme.

Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat website

Beast Burger


Savory / holistic management

Eat more meat and save the world: the latest implausible farming miracle George Monbiot; Guardian; 4 Aug 2014

Allan Savory tells us that increasing livestock can reduce desertification and reverse climate change – but where is the scientific evidence?

Why George Monbiot is wrong: grazing livestock can save the world L Hunter Lovins; Guardian; 19 Aug 2014

L Hunter Lovins: George Monbiot’s recent criticism of Allan Savory’s theory that grazing livestock can reverse climate change ignores evidence that it’s already experiencing success
Savory’s argument, which counters popular conceptions, is that more livestock rather than fewer can help save the planet through a concept he calls “holistic management.” In brief, he contends that grazing livestock can reverse desertification and restore carbon to the soil, enhancing its biodiversity and countering climate change. Monbiot claims that this approach doesn’t work and in fact does more harm than good. But his assertions skip over the science and on the ground evidence that say otherwise.

Commentary: A critical assessment of the policy endorsement for holistic management David D. Briske, Andrew J. Ash, Justin D. Derner, Lynn Huntsinger; Agricultural Systems; Mar 2014 [paywall]

This commentary summarizes the evidence supporting holistic management (HM) and intensive rotational grazing (IRG) to demonstrate the extent to which Sherren and coauthors (2012) have overstated their policy endorsement of HM for rangeland application. Five major points are presented – distinction between HM and IRG, insufficient evaluation of the contradictory evidence, limitations of the experimental approach, additional costs associated with IRG, and heterogeneous capabilities and goals of graziers’ to manage intensive strategies – to justify why this policy endorsement is ill-advised. The vast majority of experimental evidence does not support claims of enhanced ecological benefits in IRG compared to other grazing strategies, including the capacity to increase storage of soil organic carbon.

Criticism of Savory's work Wikipedia

Holistic Management: Misinformation on the Science of Grazed Ecosystems John Carter, Allison Jones, Mary O’Brien, Jonathan Ratner and George Wuerthner; International Journal of Biodiversity; 23 Apr 2014

Over 3 billion hectares of lands worldwide are grazed by livestock, with a majority suffering degradation in ecological condition. Losses in plant productivity, biodiversity of plant and animal communities, and carbon storage are occurring as a result of livestock grazing. Holistic management (HM) has been proposed as a means of restoring degraded deserts and grasslands and reversing climate change. The fundamental approach of this system is based on frequently rotating livestock herds to mimic native ungulates reacting to predators in order to break up biological soil crusts and trample plants and soils to promote restoration. This review could find no peer-reviewed studies that show that this management approach is superior to conventional grazing systems in outcomes. Any claims of success due to HM are likely due to the management aspects of goal setting, monitoring, and adapting to meet goals, not the ecological principles embodied in HM. Ecologically, the application of HM principles of trampling and intensive foraging are as detrimental to plants, soils, water storage, and plant productivity as are conventional grazing systems. Contrary to claims made that HM will reverse climate change, the scientific evidence is that global greenhouse gas emissions are vastly larger than the capacity of worldwide grasslands and deserts to store the carbon emitted each year.

Localism / Leap Manifesto

The Locavore's Dilemma Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu

In The Locavore's Dilemma Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu explain the history, science, and economics of food supply to reveal what locavores miss or misunderstand: the real environmental impacts of agricultural production; the drudgery of subsistence farming; and the essential role large-scale, industrial producers play in making food more available, varied, affordable, and nutritionally rich than ever before in history."

Modern Environmental Fairy Tales: "Moving Back to the Land" and the 100 Mile Diet A Chemist In Langley; 24 Dec 2014

When I socialize with my environmental friends one of the most common themes is their dream to move “off the grid” and live off the land. This idea of moving to a neo-Walden and experiencing a Thoreau-like existence seems to be a common theme amongst my environmental friends and apparently I am not alone. In his 1992 book “Green Delusions” Martin Lewis wrote about the new “Arcadians”. The term was used to describe environmentalists who wanted to go back to a simpler time and live off the land.

Debunking the Leap Manifesto – Demand #9: Local agriculture is not always better A Chemist In Langley; 17 Sep 2015

The “smaller is better”, “local is better”, “organic is better” memes in agriculture are some of the most pernicious myths to come out of the modern environmental movement and show a profound lack of understanding of how food is grown and energy is used.

Urban agriculture THIS IS WHY CITIES CAN’T GROW ALL THEIR OWN FOOD] University of Washngton; 26 Jan 2016

If every homeowner in Seattle ripped up their lawn and replaced it with edible plants, the resulting crop production would be enough to feed just one percent of the city’s residents, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington. Previous studies in various cities have surveyed land currently in use for urban agriculture, identified vacant parcels that could grow food, and estimated the percentage of specific categories of food such as eggs or vegetables that might be produced within city limits. The new study, published in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, takes a more comprehensive approach. “This is the first systemized way of looking at all the different crops a city could grow, as well as looking at the nutrition and actual amount of food people need to survive,” says senior author L. Monika Moskal, associate professor of environmental and forest sciences.

agricultural pollution

Fertilizer Runoff Overwhelms Streams and Rivers--Creating Vast "Dead Zones" David Biello; Scientific American; 14 Mar 2008

The nation's waterways are brimming with excess nitrogen from fertilizer--and plans to boost biofuel production threaten to aggravate an already serious situation. The water in brooks, streams and creeks from Michigan to Puerto Rico carries a heavy load of pollutants, particularly nitrates from fertilizers. These nitrogen and oxygen molecules that crops need to grow eventually make their way into rivers, lakes and oceans, fertilizing blooms of algae that deplete oxygen and leave vast "dead zones" in their wake. There, no fish or typical sea life can survive. And scientists warn that a federal mandate to produce more biofuel may make the situation even worse.



OUT OF THE MOUTH OF BABE Cotton Incorporated; 19 May 2016

Healthy living advocate Food Babe recently posted this negative and inaccurate characterization of cottonseed oil and cotton. Cotton Incorporated responded with a lengthy post that respectfully pointed out the numerous factual errors in the piece, including citations.



Why Isn’t Our Cannabis Sustainable Yet? It’s Complicated Lauren Terry; The Potlander; 4 Oct 2016

discussion of energy and other requirements of growing Cannabis, focus on Oregon

Evan Mills study

The carbon footprint of indoor Cannabis production Evan Mills; Energy Policy; 17 Apr 2012

The emergent industry of indoor Cannabis production – legal in some jurisdictions and illicit in others – utilizes highly energy intensive processes to control environmental conditions during cultivation. This article estimates the energy consumption for this practice in the United States at 1% of national electricity use, or $6 billion each year. One average kilogram of final product is associated with 4600 kg of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, or that of 3 million average U.S. cars when aggregated across all national production. The practice of indoor cultivation is driven by criminalization, pursuit of security, pest and disease management, and the desire for greater process control and yields. Energy analysts and policymakers have not previously addressed this use of energy. The unchecked growth of electricity demand in this sector confounds energy forecasts and obscures savings from energy efficiency programs and policies. While criminalization has contributed to the substantial energy intensity, legalization would not change the situation materially without ancillary efforts to manage energy use, provide consumer information via labeling, and other measures. Were product prices to fall as a result of legalization, indoor production using current practices could rapidly become non-viable

The Booming Pot Industry Is Draining the U.S. Energy Supply Tom Huddleston, Jr; Fortune; 21 Dec 2015

As the legal marijuana market expands, so grows the energy consumption associated with an industry that depends on growing facilities with high-wattage lights and powerful cooling systems.

Cannabis v. Hemp growing

Why Hemp and Marijuana Farmers Had a Messy Breakup—And What Happens Now Matthew Korfhage; The Potlander; 4 Oct 2016

In 2016, it would appear that hemp and weed farmers have reached at least an unstable compromise