The quest for environmentally-friendly agriculture

Tuesday, 11 May 2021 00:18 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The search for a cleaner agriculture is laudable. Very few will disagree. However, many aspects of our current system need to adjust to a fully organic system – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


  • We looked far and wide, missed all middle ground and stumbled upon an extreme solution! 

By D.V.P. Prasada 

The following article is a personal reflection pertaining to the re-emerging debate on the topic of environment-friendly agriculture in Sri Lanka. Let me start with a bit of disclosure: As someone who loves nature and environment, I ‘prefer’ a complete nature-based solution as much as the next person does. 

Scientific evidence on organic agriculture as a substitute to conventional farming: 

Even a layperson would guess that organic farming systems are more environmentally-friendly compared to high (external) input conventional practices. Based on considerations of food safety, biodiversity (both above and below ground) and energy use, it is a formidable guess that would stand robust against many a scientific comparison. 

In the absence of large-scale field experiments to evaluate the relative merits of organic farming within Sri Lanka (at least among those published) , we can only rely on the global evidence to discuss alternative merits of organic systems. Let us take a detailed comparative look based on published scientific evidence. 

The first order issue that everyone is interested in: Can organic crops yield harvests that are comparable with the status quo (i.e. conventional farming)? Considering many high level empirical studies published within the last 10 years, across all crops, organic yields are between 20% and 25% lesser than that of conventional yields. In particular, the cereals and tuber crops show reductions in excess of 20 % while fruit crops, pulses, oil crops display yield reduction within the 10-20% range. 

Results for vegetables are less consistent across studies and fluctuate above and below the 20% mark (however, evidence of very high reductions in excess of 30% have been reported for vegetables). The most hopeful group of crops using the averages across studies is the fruit crops, followed by pulses and oil crops, all of which are still consistently below the yields reported for conventional production. In terms of plant type, perennials crops perform better than annual crops in the comparison. 

Few other contextually important comparisons are revealing. With respect to the soil conditions (in terms of acidity of soils), studies report that, on average, the yield reductions of organic crops fall as far as 30% in strongly acidic soil. In strongly alkaline soils, the yield reductions become more concerning falling below the 40 % threshold. Thus, in (acidity) balanced soils, the relative performance of organic crops stay at the average level of 25% reduction compared to conventional crops. 

The relative performance of organic crops are shown to be better under optimal management regimes and with longer time since conversion to organic. However, even in these circumstances, they display above 10% yield reductions compared to conventional. Also worth noting, that irrigated organic crops fare worse than the rain-fed ones in terms of yield reductions with relative reduction being 35% on average under irrigated conditions compared to that of 20 % under rain-fed. 

Aligned closely with the comparison based on the level of management, data displays that high income (industrialised ) countries, which largely practice optimal management regimes, display yield reductions around the 20% mark while the low income countries show relative yield reductions in organic crops in excess of the 40%. The last observation is something that we Sri Lankans should be wary of, if nothing else. 

The ‘rupees and cents’ version of the comparison

Here again, we resort to the collective wisdom of the comparative analyses conducted globally in the last decade. In contrast to the yield comparisons reported above, the economic comparisons are often reported in terms of relative likelihood of the performance of organic compared to conventional. The interpretation of relative likelihoods is not technically identical to the interpretation of percentage reductions. However, for the present purpose, we could think of the relative likelihoods in the same spirit without any compromise of validity. 

Let me explain things non-technically while providing important contextual information that should accompany an economic comparison. Organic production in a market environment inevitably has to respond to costs and incentives in the market. Consumers respond to higher quality (and organic identity) by paying a premium margin. In fact, such premiums will drive the producers to convert to organic if such margins offset the incremental costs of conversion. 

However, if the whole system of production became organic overnight due to regulations (unrealistic as it sounds), the argument based on ‘premium’ for organic is not substantive since there cannot be reference conventional prices to speak of (theoretically). As a result, markets will not be driven by the incentive of a premium in the case of a system-wide conversion (needless to say, premiums can have an effect in the case of a partial or phased conversion of the system). 

Now, in the absence of economic incentives in the form of premiums, the push to convert to organic has to be supported by relative cost reduction of organic production (now, we are treading closely to the well-known economic evils of subsidisation). The evidence suggests that there are hardly any differences in fixed and variable costs associated with organic systems compared to conventional ones. The labour costs however are reported to be higher for organic in relative likelihood terms (a log response ratio between 0.15 and 0.2) compared to conventional. 

Under these cost assumptions and in the presence of assumption of 30% premium margin for organic produce compared to conventional produce, the net returns to organic farming is expected to be marginally higher (log response ratio of 0.2 relative to conventional). However, in the absence of any premium margins in prices, organic farming performs economically worse compared to conventional by approximately the same magnitude as above. 

In summary, the economic case for organic farming hinges largely on the market premiums in excess of 30% per unit output basis and/or potential future savings in cost reductions associated with cheaper technologies. 

Now, let us look at the economic picture with relation to crop categories as we did in the yield comparison. While the contrasts are not as stark as in the case of yield comparisons, global evidence displays that pulses and oil crops display marginally better net economic returns under the organic version compared to conventional. 

Cereals follow with slightly weaker but still favourable economic returns on a per unit area basis. Vegetables do worse under organic version implying that organic vegetable cultivation on a unit area basis is economically unviable, unless there are significant premium margins or cost subsidies. 

On the other hand, evidence suggests that organic versions of diversified or mixed cropping systems fare better than the monocultures in comparison to their conventional counterparts. Further, annual crops perform better than perennials under organic systems compared to respective conventional versions. 

The story does not end here… 

The above discussion does not amount to a complete picture on the matter. There are few loose ends worth paying attention to. These are issues and implications that are not possible to be included in a comparison performed on a per unit area basis. Let us come back to matters at home and discuss some of these issues. 

On the yield front, let us start with the global average evidence of shortfall under the organic version, i.e. 25% reduction of yield in organic compared to conventional. If the local production shortfall in agricultural output is 25% under organic, in order to support the gap in local food supply, under the same rate of land use efficiency, we have to find nearly 33 % more arable land (just using a back-of-the envelope calculation) unless we figure out local organic technologies that are more efficient than the global average. Yet, keep in mind that we noted earlier that the low-income country yield reduction is higher than 40%; not 25%. 

Another point of concern is the choice of technologies and future needs for input savings. We live ostensibly in an era of modernisation. We modernise education, telecommunication, electricity, transport, housing, retailing and many more by replacing natural systems with human-made interventions aimed at saving materials and energy. Whatever happened to “modernisation” of agriculture? Tissue culture, hydroponic and aeroponic cultivation are technologies that do depend on synthesised nutrients (the so-called chemicals). 

Therefore, this reversal of orientation to organic, if it is what we want, cannot be a superficial one. If we are serious about it, we have to transform our higher education, research and technology development along the same direction to see a modernised organic farming. Not to do so will amount to blatantly fooling ourselves, yet again. 

A final word on ideologies, beliefs, science and pragmatism 

Let me repeat myself: As someone who loves nature and environment, I ‘prefer’ a complete nature-based solution as much as the next person does. However, this preference seems only an ideal with no facet of reality that we live in supporting it. Of course, there is nothing wrong with pursuing an ideal. There is evidence of people chasing such ends in real life. 

Take for example, Elon Musk’s crusade for fully electric ground transportation (eventually to be based on solar power). While the mainstream is still shunning his adventurous pursuits, he has shown the world that practical solutions exist. However, just to quote Elon Musk: “Do not take a risk unless you really have to.”

We cannot risk our already-stretched trade balance further in order to import (certified organic!) food if there is a shortfall in local production. There is a lot at stake. We are not taking this risk because we are cornered with no other option or due to an absence of a middle ground. In the spirit of Musk’s quote, maybe we should look for organic solutions with low environment impact and genuinely try to scale them up first. We may have nothing yet that could be adopted at economy-wide commercial scale (but I hear that there are possibilities in the pipeline).

Finally, we should distinguish an ideological position from a scientific one. If our society was to adopt a fully “organic” approach (implying perfect environment friendly approaches with minimal disturbance to the ecosystem), we cannot stop at agricultural production. There are environmental considerations everywhere in our greater food system, industrial production, transport sector, power supply, public infrastructure, etc. that we cannot be proud of in terms of environment footprint. 

The search for a cleaner agriculture is laudable. Very few will disagree. However, many aspects of our current system need to adjust to a fully organic system. Agronomy, soil management, plant protection, agriculture extension, agricultural marketing are some of the pertinent areas that we need to rethink in order to convert the system fully to an organic one.

There are many studies conducted locally that propose organic and nature-based solutions. I personally know experts who have worked on these lines for over 30 years. Therefore, there is hope, but it seems that, in arriving at the present situation, we have missed all middle ground and stumbled upon an extreme solution (impacts of which could be far worse than the problem that we wish to solve in the first place).