A Path to Peace in the Food Wars

04/19/2016 01:11 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2017

Could there be peace in the cornfield and the bean patch?

Could the partisanship and hostility between organic and conventional farming, the two main competing camps of today's agriculture, be replaced by something smacking of collaboration?

It could. And it should.

The two camps already have much more in common than is usually recognized. And with openness to the other's ideas, I believe, they can both do better in ways that will benefit not only their interests, but the interests of everyone else on the planet.

So let's try to understand what the differences between these camps really are - and aren't. And with the benefit of that analysis, let's try to identify opportunities to work together, or at least borrow from each other, in constructive ways.

The key differences first:

Many conventional farmers use genetically modified seeds (GMOs) and use chemicals - synthetic fertilizers and pesticides - to improve their harvests. Organic farmers, by contrast, do not use GMO seeds, synthetic fertilizers and most synthetic pesticides.

Sharp distinctions, right? When you look more closely, maybe not so much:

Contrary to popular belief, for example, organic farmers do use chemicals. They just don't typically use synthetic chemicals.

USDA manages the National Organic Program and selects what chemicals or substances may be used in organic farming. Non-synthetic materials are allowed unless otherwise prohibited. Synthetic substances must be reviewed and approved prior to use. The current list contains a selection of synthetic substances that farmers seeking the "Certified Organic" label can choose from to control insects, weeds and disease as well as clean irrigation equipment or eliminate pests that would otherwise consume harvested crops. In any case, to grow crops such as grapes, broccoli or lettuce, for example, organic growers typically use non-synthetic chemicals such as copper hydroxide, sulfur, gibberellic acid, and more.

Moreover, because many of these naturally derived chemicals are less effective than their synthetic counterparts, organic farmers often have to use more of them per acre than conventional farmers. In the organic-conventional matchup, this is actually one of the many, not well-known ironies. And of course, just because these pesticides for organic farming are typically non-synthetic doesn't mean they don't require EPA oversight to ensure safe use. As with pesticides for conventional agriculture, EPA approves a label for each product that spells out how much can be applied for specific crops and the appropriate timing of those applications.

So the point, again, is this: When it comes to chemical pesticides, the differences between organic and conventional farming are more nuanced than is generally understood.

What's also clear is this: Differences between the two systems do not lead to differences in safety or nutrition. Both systems of crop production lead to safe and nutritious foods.

(Some organic partisans, I know, beg to differ. Readers seeking evidence for the safety of conventionally grown, genetically modified food, can refer to the views of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; explore the results of a European Commission study; and review the largest-ever review of studies on GMOs. Evidence of nutritional equality also is readily available, including in this 2009 paper from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and this 2012 paper from The Annals of Internal Medicine.)

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All of which leads to the question: Putting aside the differences in methods between the two cropping systems, are there any differences in outcomes?

The answer is yes. Organic farming produces less food per acre - and higher relative greenhouse gas emissions. Both of these characteristics make it less sustainable.

Organic partisans may well bristle at these statements, I know. But it is known that organic yields tend to run 20 percent or more below conventional yields. While the specific difference varies by crop and by the geography where they are grown, providing sufficient amounts of nutrients and controlling pests with less effective tools typically results in lower organic crop yields. For example, to control weeds, organic producers often employ extensive mechanical tillage or plastic mulching films, rather than modern herbicide systems for weed control. These use more energy and fuel and release more carbon from the soil than no-till or reduced tillage systems.

As a result, farming organically often results in greater greenhouse gas emissions. Lower yields mean organic farmers need to use more acres (including the land used to grow the crops to feed the animals that produce the manure used as organic fertilizers) to produce the same amount of food as conventional farmers.

Organic production currently accounts for about 1 percent of U.S. crop acreage. Any discussion of increasing the scale of organic production, must address these "yield & sustainability gaps." Otherwise a shift in farming from conventional methods to organic would require more conversion of forest, prairie, and pasture land to organic crop production, and lead to major increases in greenhouse gas emissions and loss of biodiversity habitats.

Meanwhile, conventional farming has environmental issues of its own: soil erosion and nitrogen runoff, to name two.

So here are my suggestions for how each kind of farming can help the other.

Organic farmers have pioneered tools like cover cropping and crop rotation. They have also led the way in emphasizing the importance of the soil biome and the role microbials (pro-biotics for plants) can play in plant nutrition and fighting plant diseases.

These are major agronomic improvements - and they are ones that conventional farmers can adopt at scale. They can produce significant environmental benefits for all of us.

Meanwhile, organic farmers could increase their adoption of these practices pioneered by conventional farmers:

  • Digital Agriculture - The marriage of big data and GPS enable farmers to manage fields - to plant, water, and fertilize - on almost a square meter by square meter basis. Farmers of all stripes can benefit from this 21st century innovation equally. Organic farmers could raise their yields, increase efficiencies and save on labor by embracing it.
  • Microbial seed treatments - Organic farmers were in this area first, but conventional agriculture has since jumped on it and advanced its progress. Organic farmers could embrace these advances. It might surprise you to learn that my company sells organic-certified microbial seed treatments through the BioAg Alliance partnership with Novozymes.
  • Genetic modification - Organic farmers do not, of course, use GMO seeds developed by my company and many others. By incorporating genes patterned after beneficial genes found in a soil bacterium, GMO technology could help organic farmers better manage insect pests and diseases, and improve their yields.
On the other hand, organic farmers absolutely
can
use better-performing seeds that have been developed with advanced molecular breeding techniques or through mutagenesis - techniques that alter DNA and produce new strains of seeds. To the extent that they increase their use of such seeds, they stand again to increase their yields. And in the future, who knows, they may even embrace the new gene editing and RNAi techniques that offer so much promise in both agriculture and medicine. The truth is our differences are not really that great. Organic and conventional farmers already share more than is often recognized. And if we would collaborate more, we would increase the sustainability of both kinds of farming while increasing food production to meet the demands of a world population of 10 billion people by 2050.