AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com
Date: Jul 03 2000 13:33:58 EDT
Subject: Realities of organic farming
Alex Avery raises excellent questions that deserve answers.
First though I wish to say that I don't feel that my report of very high
organic corn yields amounts to "yield assertions" and they are certainly
not exaggerated. As I said, they are easily verified facts. The
certified organic corn was harvested by a new John Deere combine with a
state-of-the-art yield monitor. The harvest was witnessed by John Deere
reps who were demonstrating this new machine as well as many conventional
farmers who had heard about 200+ bushel corn at the coffee shop and came
to see if it was true. Please don't take my word for it: call Lakeland
Equipment Co. at 716-526-6325. Ask for Ed Presher who was one of the
witnesses. He can verify this and help you contact the other company
personnel who came with the combine. The grain was loaded onto trucks
and weighed. You can easily check this information.
My point is simply this: Because there are organic farmers presently
attaining very high yields, we can know with certainty that organic
farming is able to produce very high yields, just as conventional farming
Alex, I agree with your estimation of presently available nitrogen. If
we were to farm as conventional farmers do now and only substitute
organic inputs for conventional ones, we certainly would not have enough
nitrogen. But here is where we differ: that is not true organic farming.
I would call that "input substitution" and will be the first to tell you
that it won't work agronomically nor economically. It also doesn't
satisfy the long term requirements of organic certification standards.
Unfortunately that is exactly what some university studies comparing
organic to conventional yields and profits that I have reviewed were
doing. A true "systems comparison" is the only acurate way to evaluate
organic vs conventional yields and profits. The Rodale Institute in
Pennsylvania has done a long term systems comparison that comes as close
as any I have seen to doing this. You may be interested in reading it.
Jeff Moyer at the Rodale Institute could tell you more about this
Partly because of herbicide residues, conventional farms make little use
of cover crops. On a well managed organic farm, soil is kept covered
with legume cover crops in the fall, winter and early spring before land
is prepared for planting. Often, these crops are interseeded into the
crop so that as the crop matures and is harvested, the cover crop is
already established. This provides a large supply of extra nitrogen
that your studies don't take into account. It also prevents erosion and
and saves nutrients that would otherwise leach. We generally 'frost
seed' clover into our winter grains. After wheat harvest, a good stand
of clover will provide about 350kg/ha of nitrogen before the land is
plowed late in the following spring. This can easily produce 14000 kg/ha
of corn. Prof. Trewavas' calculations on nitrogen to protein conversion
in his recent post are incorrect. Protein is 16% nitrogen on the average
so that there is about 1 pound of nitrogen in 6.25 pounds of protein.
This illustrates the great importance of accuracy. Mistakes like this
can lead to wrong conclusions.
I must say that my direct knowledge of organic farming is limited to the
northern United States and I can't comment on practices used in other
areas in the studies that you cited.
Thank you for your excellent questions, Alex.
Prof. Trewavas also raised good points that I will address.
"There is no known method of conjuring nitrogen out of nowhere." You are
right! That statement also explains why your assumption that alfalfa can
only fix 200kg/ha can't be correct. Alfalfa in state yield trials in the
northern United States commonly averages about 17000kg/ha with top
varieties above 22000kg/ha. Alfalfa is not fertilized with nitrogen.
Assuming an 18.75% average protein content, which alfalfa often
surpasses, the crop contains about 3% nitrogen. ( I explained your error
in protein to nitrogen converson earlier ) The average annual removal of
nitrogen is 510kg/ha not counting that contained in roots or absorbed
into the soil. It can be more than 660kg/ha from the top varieties.
Your earlier post underestimated clover and soybean nitrogen fixation by
even wider margins.
I'm sorry if I gave the impression that the fields I mentioned earlier
were only cropped every other year. They are intensively farmed every
year with a rotation that allows cover crops to supply large amounts of
nitrogen just ahead of crops with high nitrogen requirements. Beans or
light nitrogen feeding crops are planted at points in the rotation when
nitrogen supply is lower. A common rotation would be Year 1: wheat
underseeded with clover, Year 2: corn, Year 3: soybeans, Year 4: spelt
(interseeded at soybeans' yellow leaf stage or sown immediately after
soybean harvest in year 3) underseeded with clover, Year 5: vegetables
such as sweet corn which are harvested early enough for a cover crop to
be grown. In each year when cover crops are grown, please notice that
they have much time to grow after the main crop is harvested (wheat and
spelt are harvested in July, sweet corn is harvested in July-August)
before they are plowed in May of the following spring. This results in 2
very heavy growths of clover, one between July-December and one between
March-May. Additionally, the soil is protected from erosion during this
vulnerable time. In a sense, this is double cropping the land. There is
no need to take land out of production for a year to accumulate nitrogen
with this type of rotation. Please also note that we use no animal
manure to acheive adequate nitrogen levels. Animal manure use is
certainly not as ubiquitous or as necessary on organic farms, as people
seem to think.
The high corn yield I spoke of was not a one time event on only one
field. Similar yields were harvested from other fields and in other
crop years. For example on a different field, 13100kg/ha of corn was
harvested in 1998 followed by 3400kg/ha of dark red kidney beans in 1999.
That was more than twice average yield of conventional kidney beans in
drought-stressed 1999 for this area. The field is now nearing harvest of
a good crop of spelt and the clover cover crop is already 20 cm high.
Again, don't just take my word for it. You may call Skip Stickler at the
Agway Bean Company in Geneva, NY, 315-781-1990, for confirmation of these
facts. I guess I feel there is nothing 'old fashioned' about corn or
bean yields like this - we have not 'gone back to organic farming' nor
have we returned to the low yields and management style of the
pre-chemical era. Indeed, I feel that this type of farming requires a
very high level of management and an extensive understanding of science.
This information is not 'claims', these are observations that easily
verified. Please don't tell me that they are not possible, instead, just
follow this information up if you are still in doubt, rather than
disputing it. When direct observations like these contradict
assumptions, perhaps it is time to reconsider the assumptions.
I am quite familiar with both European and American organic standards.
There are Materials Lists of approved fertility amendments in both the
USDA proposed National Organic Program Standards and the EU 2091/92
regulation. They both prohibit artificial fertilizers but they allow the
use of natural mined minerals, such as potassium sulfate or zinc sulfate.
Organic farming does NOT mean no fertilizer. Many certifiers require
soil testing and the use of corrective mineral amendments where they are
needed and at appropriate rates to correct deficiencies when justified.
The organic farmers that I work with are very aware of their soil
fertility status and use organic fertilizers accordingly. Most try to
apply corrective fertility amendments to the cover crops. This is
particularly important when using materials such as rock phosphate which
breaks down slowly.
Mr. Nicholl also raised a very good point about organic prices.
I certainly do not understand why organic foods command such a premium
price in the market other than supply and demand, and that the market is
bearing the high prices. However, the premium seen in the store is not
terribly reflective of what the farmer is receiving. For example, the
organic premium to the farmer on processing sweet corn is 2.5 cents/lb.
This becomes less than 4 cents/lb over conventional in the finished
product after adjusting for the proccessing loss. To organic farmers,
this 2.5 cents is quite lucrative. We've noticed that organic
vegetables tend to be about double the price of conventional vegetables
in the store. While we certainly recognize there are costs involved in
processing and distribution, the processing/distribution costs for
organic product can't be double what they are for conventional products.
I would guess that this pattern holds true for other organic crops.
Someone is indeed making a lot of money on these products.
Date: Jul 03 2000 19:12:54 EDT
From: "Paul Ebert"
Subject: History demands thorough testing of new biological and chemical
To all interested in Biotechnology,
As we all know, history is filled with poorly thought through attempts to
improve upon the natural environment. Most in an attempt to improve the
planet for humankind. Although, from the earliest times humans have
manipulated the environment with disastrous results. Scientist from fields
as diverse as Archeology, Biology, Physics, Chemistry and there many
subcategories can name many instances. The question is will we use our
intellect to restrain ourselves from the many things we can develop. Do we
learn from history or do we again rush to implement our technical
achievements to improve the human condition? Or perhaps our own financial
I am not a Luddite. I am not an environmentalist that believes stopping
new technologies is the answer to making Earth a beautiful place of natural
balance. I am a pharmacist. My profession has learned many hard lessons
about trying to improve the human condition through technology. I would
like to make a few humble suggestions to the agricultural biotechnologists.
- The US FDA does not treat foods in the same manner as drugs. The
testing required is far less rigorous for non-drugs. If many drugs can
it through clinical trials and then can be found to be harmful, then I
we should be even more careful with agricultural product testing. The
consequence of a harmful drug slipping through is often injury or death.
Once discovered the drug's risk benefit ratio is reexamined and often the
drug is pulled from the market.
In the case of a bioengeniered food the pre-marketing testing is much less
rigorous, therefore the opportunity for a harmful food reaching market is
much greater. If a food were to be pulled from the market it would be much
more difficult. The people eating the BioAg product would not be being
monitored by a medical professional, so it would be much more difficult to
diagnose a problem. The person may not even be aware that they are
ingesting the product if it is an ingredient in a more complex food. Any
unanticipated effects to the environment could take years to come to light.
Pulling the BioAg product may be impossible. It may reproduce on its own,
cross with another plant or irrevocably change the environment in any
I am not defending the pharmaceutical industry. In fact I am very
of it. The creation of drug resistant bacteria and viruses, for example.
My mission is to point out the need for all scientists be concerned about
the unattended consequences of their actions.
Maybe society is making a mistake to think genetic manipulation is all
right for other species, but not for humans. I believe that the
consequences of genetic manipulation are important in all species, not just
humans. One idea that deserves investigation in BioAg is one the
pharmaceutical scientists have considered. It is a reversible way to
manipulate genes. In humans it would entail introducing a gene that
included a sequence or protein that would allow the gene to be turned on or
off. If the gene had negative affects it could theoretically be turned off
by denying or giving the "drug" molecule that served as agonist or
antagonist. A minimum requirement should be a non-replication "killer"
that would not allow a bioengineered species to reproduce. This should be
requirement until significant post marketing follow up has been completed
insure that long-term safety studies are completed.
We have done enough harm to humankind and those species that share this
time and space with us. Please do your best, history will be your judge.
Date: Jul 03 2000 14:50:23 EDT
Subject: Re: Responses to Wytze
I inserted my comments and remarks in your message.
On 3 Jul 2000, at 15:10, AgBioView wrote:
> AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com
> Date: Jul 01 2000 13:45:07 EDT
> From: Andrew Apel
> Subject: Re: Divine and Sacred
> If there is a religious dimension to biotechnology, it is one which
> should be approached very carefully and thoughtfully, because religion
> is dangerous stuff when made an element of controversy...any
> controversy whatsoever.
I agree. But since the debate on Creation or evolution has not been
decided yet we have to count with both options. Personally, yes I
find the idea of a Creator more plausible than the idea of a chance-
> Religious and scientific faith are quite different things, so it may
> not be fair to compare them. Religious faith is belief independent of
> proof. As such, religious truths are not falsifiable in terms of
> Scientific faith is dependent on proof, so much so that the prime test
> of any scientific statement is whether or not it is falsifiable.That
> being the case, the best scientific faith can offer is a kind of
> agnosticism; it is a belief that X is true and will remain so until
> evidence to the contrary shows up.
You have far from convinced me on this point, but let's apply your words
What you describe as scientific faith apllies to theories that cannot be
I have been looking for the scientific theory that justifies the use of GE
have not found much and what I found was very weak. On the
other hand, there is that part of science that can build on hard
facts. In biology we know a number of hard facts and transgenics is
a clear violation of some of them.
So, in the lack of a convincing theory and in obvious violation of
established scientific facts you may expect strong questions
concerning your scientific faith in this technology.
> Accordingly, de Lange's insinuation that science demands the same sort
> of belief which people accord religions has no factual basis nor any
> theoretical justification.
I can tell you at this point that several of the religious schools I
attended had more convincing stories when they tried to proof the
existence of God to me.
> Belief in scientists, as opposed to belief in science, is another
> thing entirely, and has nothing whatsoever to do with religious faith.
> It is a common phenomenon, related to trust. For instance, when the
> photocopier breaks down, we call on the photocopier technician to fix
> it, trusting that he or she not only has expertise beyond our own, but
> also expertise more relevant to the task, than, say, a poet or a
> In the case of agricultural and food biotechnology, we have to trust
> molecular biologists because they know more about molecular biology
> than those who are not molecular biologists. There is, quite
> literally, no one else who knows more about that topic than they do,
> and therefore, nobody truly capable of ruling them unworthy of trust
> than other molecular biologists.
Agriculture and food biotechnology have a long history with a very
strong base in biology and in religion because it did not take much
for a farmer to realise that he is extremely dependant on the
weather for his crops to succeed. A Dutch MP recently said that
agriculture has secularized. Indeed it has just like much of the rest
of society so now agriculture has to put up with incredible amounts
of pesticides and now GE.
> To suggest anything different is to suggest paranoia, or perhaps
> anarchy; the former, because it is distrustful in spite of logic; the
> latter, because it denies the authority which is inherent in
> expertise. Paranoia and anarchy, I might point out, are prominent
> features of the modern eco-reactionary movements.
> The notion of treating biotechnology as a branch of science which
> touches "on the Divine and Sacred" also needs to be untangled. Since
> the time of Aquinas, Western culture and tradition has to varying
> degrees treated the scientific enterprise as one dedicated to
> uncovering the ingenuity of the Creator.
> To equate this with "arrogance" is quite novel. It is not based on
> theory, tradition, logic or experience.
You have misunderstood me. Aquinas recognised and
acknowledged a Creator, not a survival of the fittest chance
evolution. Arrogance is applied to people who patent things that
are not theirs, call something "junk" when they do not understand it
and start messing around in a matter long before the knowledge to
do so in a real responsible manner is present.
> What it does suggest, however, is something far worse, something
> deviously dangerous. If we decide that a particular branch of science
> touches on "the Divine and Sacred" in a special and unique way, that
> would mean that priests and adherents of religion, who also claim a
> special handle on "the Divine and Sacred," will be tempted to stand up
> and claim to be just as credible as scientists on the topic.
> This is the standpoint one must assume in order to call scientists
> "arrogant," just as Charles of Wales felt justified in denouncing
> science in the name of God. It is as though scientists are improperly
> trespassing on the Church's real estate, perhaps even poaching (with
I indeed share the many of the spiritual concepts and views that
Prince Charles recently expressed.
> This is a grave mistake, because as I pointed out above, scientific
> and religious faith are quite different things. Furthermore, attacking
> a discipline shackled with a dependence on facts and proof, using a
> discipline which has little need for facts, is disingenuous. This is
> also a dangerous mistake, because mixing religious fervor into a
> controversy can lead to all manner of wretched excess.
> For all of these reasons, de Lange's observations about faith,
> scientists and the Divine are not only wrong, they are dangerously
Maybe to you. We simply disagree and we have to find out who is
right. To me faith is faith be it religious or scientific. Both by the
way have as one of its objectives to establish the truth. To which
discipline do you refer when you say "the discipline which has little
need of facts?"
W. de Lange