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Conventional farming

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There is a common perception that organic farming will save the environment. Is this true?

Note that there are many factors in how sustainable farming practices are, besides use of chemicals. E.g.:

  • Erosion
  • Transport used - not just distance, but the type of transport.

Why do farmers use chemicals?

Green revolution:W Modern farmland is claimed to produce 200 percent more wheat than the same area did 70 years ago, and switching to organic farming today is likely to mean a reduction in output, e.g. by 20% for corn.[1] The figure is plausible, but we need more than one unattributed figure.[2]

Pesticides and health

Most of the pesticides in our food, by far, are natural pesticides produced by the plants. This leaves open the question of whether the artificial chemicals are worse for us. After all, not all substances are the same, and some (such as DDT) linger in the environment for far longer. It's also true that something is harmful given to lab rats in large quantities, yet not significantly harmful in small quantities - or even beneficial, since there has been research suggesting that toxins in small doses actually benefit an organism by making it react to the mild stress.[verification needed]

Many natural chemical compounds are also toxic or carcinogenic in large quantities, but we consume them in small quantities. Everything has a toxic dose - even water, salt or any nutrient.

There is a common perception that "the poisons are killing us." So why are we living longer than ever? If there is a negative effect from these traces of chemicals, the effect is much smaller than positive changes (e.g. better medicines and medical treatments).

Note that these arguments are not saying that "pesticides are good for you" - using them inappropriately, without following directions, has the potential to be very harmful. But when used properly, they appear to not be significantly harmful, and may not be harmful at all. Worrying about them may do us more harm than the chemicals themselves.

Fertilizers

There's actually little doubt that fertilizers harm ecosystems. But is this inevitable, and what are the alternatives?

Limited use and precise application reduce the effect of eutrophication on waterways.

More recent discoveries, e.g. the role of soil fungi, the impact of compost teas, and terra preta, show that there may be much greener ways to create abundance in food production.[verification needed] However, this knowledge is still in its early years - the knowledge is still being developed, and the valuable knowledge that already exists has not yet spread widely.please expand

Nitrogen - where does it come from?

Borlaug said:[2]

Even if you could use all the organic material that you have--the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues--and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people (and) you would have to increase cropland area dramatically... At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure.

This appears to not consider the impact of nitrogen fixation,W for example by legume crops. (This is another argument for vegetarianism and veganism being greener - less methane-producing cows, and more legume crops to replace them, which will also produce nitrogen.

Currently enormous amounts of nutrients are thrown away in our sewage. Through humanure this can be salvaged, but is not suitable for many food crops, especially where the food is close to the ground.

Notes

  1. Exposing the organic myth, BusinessWeek.com (msnbc.com). (The claim about the 200% increase for wheat is made on page 2).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Billions Served: Norman Borlaug interviewed by Ronald Bailey, April 2000, on Reason.org - this is a consistently skeptical and conservative site, so it needs to be checked for bias and selective reporting; however BorlaugW is a Nobel laureate and an influential scientist, so his interview is certainly notable.