In earlier sections of this unit on agriculture, we've seen that we are simultaneously decreasing the carrying capacity ("K") of Earth for humans through land degradation , while at the same time human population (and the demand for agricultural products) continues to increase. Such contrasting trajectories (decreasing "K" and increasing population) would, over time, result in disaster, or something close to that. Fortunately, many agronomists, ecologists, economists, and others involved with food and population issues recognize this, and increased attention is being paid to "sustainable" or "alternative" agriculture.

What do "sustainable" or "alternative" agriculture mean?

"Alternative" agriculture is more loosely defined than is sustainable agriculture, and it generally refers to agricultural practices that are different than those used in conventional Green Revolution style agriculture. For example, farming practices that decrease reliance on inorganic fertilizers as the primary source of fertility (see "Soil fertility" below) might be considered "alternative."

"Sustainable" agriculture refers both to economic and ecological sustainability. Any farming system that is going to be truly sustainable must be so in both senses; a farmer cannot stay in the farming business if the farming operation is not economically viable, regardless of how fine it may be ecologically! While there is considerable debate about exactly what constitutes sustainable agriculture, in general it is defined in terms of practices that not only allow for quality of life and agricultural production for this generation, but also for generations into the future. Sustainable agriculture doesn't necessarily mean "organic" farming (farming without use of synthetic chemical inputs), although increased attention is paid to "organic components," particularly in fertility and pest control.

Sustainable (or alternative) agricultural practices are fundamentally a more ecologically based approach to raising food. These practices are based on understanding of, and respect for, ecological principles. In such systems, growers find themselves working with the ecology of the system, rather than against it.

Sustainable agriculture has gained increasing attention over recent years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a (small) sustainable agriculture program called "SARE" (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program), which, while not big budget, does provide some funding for research and education in sustainable agriculture. (This program was formerly referred to as "LISA," for "Low Input Sustainable Agriculture," but some groups objected to the "low input" part of this title, hence the name switch. If you are reading older literature about the US government and its involvement with sustainable agriculture, however, you may see the LISA acronym used.) Unfortunately, however, the fraction of the USDA research budget that is devoted to projects of relevance to alternative farming practices (including organic farming -- see below) remains very small -- in 1995, it was estimated at about 0.1% of the research budget (that is, one tenth of one percent).

Because of time constraints we'll be focused on sustainable agricultural practices for western style, energy-intensive agriculture (green revolution style agriculture). Much could be said about sustainable practices for farming systems that are less fossil fuel-intensive, as practiced in many of the lesser developed nations, but we don't have time!

You can read case studies about 50 farmers who are using various kinds of alternative agricultural practices in a book just published by USDA's SARE program, entitled "The New American Farmer.'' (Link takes you to an on-line version.)

What aspects of green revolution style agriculture have we touched on that might be viewed as being unsustainable?

BI390000.gif Land degradation attributable to soil erosion , overgrazing , salinization , and waterlogging

BI390000.gif High levels of fossil fuel energy inputs

BI390000.gif Reliance on inorganic fertilizer inputs at the expense of practices that do more to improve the soil

BI390000.gif Reliance on synthetic organic pesticides at the expense of more diverse pest control strategies

BI390000.gif Reductions in genetic diversity within crop varieties and at the landscape level

BI390000.gif Excessive and inappropriate use of irrigation water

Fortunately, there are ways of avoiding essentially all of these problems through changed agricultural practices -- and growers that are economically successful are implementing them! Three main factors are likely to influence the degree to which various alternative practices are adopted:

1. Availability of information to the farmers (which assumes that research on the techniques is funded and conducted).

2. Removal of policy and other institutional barriers to the adoption of the practices.

3. Availability of incentives (economic or other) to encourage grower adoption of the practices, often as enacted in the Farm Bills (see below). (We'll see some examples of this in the following sections; jump to Conservation Reserve Program if you want one preview.)

The 1990 and 1996 Farm Bills (Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act [FACTA] better known as the 1990 Farm Bill, and Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act [FAIR], the 1996 Farm Bill) made some major changes in farm programs and conservation options that allowed farmers to be more flexible in practices such as crop rotation, as did the 1985 Farm Bill. We'll see some examples of these changes in following sections, but for now, it is important to realize that these kinds of measures, which remove barriers to adoption of more sustainable practices and provide incentives for their adoption, are vital to the future of sustainable practices. Farmers are in business, and need incentives if they are to change their business practices! Several environmental groups targeted farm legislation that was before the US congress in 2001 as the nation's best opportunity for improving water quality, wildlife habitat, and human health, and, indeed the 2002 Farm Bill (the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act) and the 2008 Farm Bill (the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act) did include several important conservation provisions, as we'll see later.


A few notes about "organic" farming and labeling of foods as "organic." Organic farming has been one of the fastest growing sectors of US agriculture since the 1990's. Sales are growing fast, and are becoming more mainstream, as evidenced by large stores such as WalMart and Safeway stocking organic foods. The U.S. had less than a million acres of certified organic farmland when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. By the time USDA implemented national organic standards in 2002, certified organic farmland had doubled, and the acreage doubled again between 2002 and 2005. Organic livestock sectors have grown even faster. See the following site for details: http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/Organic/

Organic farms still represent a small percentage of the total crop and pasture land in the US. Percentages are higher for fruits and vegetables than for field crops such as corn, wheat or soy. As of 2006, it was estimated that 1% of US agricultural area was being farmed organically [Science 25 May 07]

Globally the total land area growing food or fiber organically increased 9% between 2003-2004! (WorldWatch Sept/Oct 06) (Remember that the total is a pretty small amount, so doesn't take that much absolute acreage to constitute a 9% increase…) Acreage devoted to organic agriculture is increasing rapidly not only in the US and Europe, but also in China, India, Cambodia and many other lesser developed nations, in part because farmers can command much higher prices for organically grown food, and also because of increasing concern about widespread pesticide poisoning.

However, until 2002, consumers in the US couldn't be sure what the label "organic" on foods and food products meant. In December 2000, however, the US adopted legislation concerning this; new labeling guidelines went into effect in 2001 and full implementation of the new labeling policies went into place in the fall of 2002. Labeling criteria are concerned with the practices and treatments used for producing, handling, and processing of foods. The USDA's (US Department of Agriculture's) "organic" term is defined and regulated via the National Organic Program, which defines organic production systems broadly as those which "respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity" (NOP Rule S205.2) Small farmers (with < $5,000 per year in sales) are exempted from labeling requirements. The USDA oversees the certification and labeling process. It accredits certification bodies, which monitor and administer organic certification for growers, processors, distributors, and so forth. In concert with the organic labeling standards in the US, the USDA announced a cost-share program that is intended to cover 70% of the certification costs (for testing, paperwork, etc.) for small producers in 15 states.

Some foods are labeled "100% organic," which means that the produce, meat, dairy, or processed food so labeled was produced without using synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge (which is sometimes used as fertilizer, but is often heavily contaminated with various pollutants), ionizing radiation, growth hormones, antibiotics [in the case of animals; I believe that antibiotics can be used on some fruit crops], or genetic engineering. Producers must use organically grown seed, seedlings, or planting stock (with some exceptions). USDA organic milk is certified as being hormone and antibiotic free.

Other foods will be called "Organic" which means that they contain at least 95% organically-produced ingredients. Some will be labeled "Made with organic ingredients" which indicates that the food contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients. Foods that contain < 70% organically produced ingredients cannot use the word "organic" on the primary display panel, but can identify specific ingredients that are organically produced on the ingredient statement. If milk is labeled "rBGH free" this means that the cows weren't treated with Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone, which is used to increase milk production, but it doesn't mean that the milk is organic in the strict sense.

The percentages by which organic status is determined, as described above, are determined by weight, for solids, or by volume, for liquids. The sum of weight (or volume) comprised of organic constituents (excluding water and salt) is divided by the weight (or volume) of the finished product to determine the percentage of organic ingredients in the product.

Click http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop for more information on the standards and practices that go along with the US's national labeling system.

You can find a listing of substances that are allowed or prohibited for use in organic farming at http://www.ota.com/listbackground05.html?printable=1

As mentioned previously, organic produce and organically-derived food products are a rapidly growing component of the food market. Growth of this market has been particularly strong in Europe and the UK, but it is increasing in the US as well. Less than 1% of the world's cultivated area is now organic, but in every nation for which data exist, 10 - 40% more organic acreage was being added every year through the 1990's and the increase continues into the 2000's. In the US, area under organic cultivation increased by 15 - 20% every year during the 1990's. Retail sales of organic produce and products in the US and Canada has increased by about 20% annually every year since 1989, and was estimated at about $10 billion in 1999. (Retail value of such products globally was estimated at about $25 billion in 2001).

What about labeling of cosmetics? The USDA agreed in 2005 to include cosmetics under the USDA organic label, however, only 95% of the ingredients must be organic for the label to apply (OEC Nov. '06).

Several myths are associated with organic farming: (For more information, see the article in your assigned readings on Environmental, Energetic and Economic Comparisons of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems; see also the Leopold Center's summary of findings from more than 70 peer-reviewed scientific publications on various aspects of organic agriculture and comparisons to conventional agriculture.)

(1) Myth #1: Profitability of organic farming can never match that of conventional farming. Reality: a number of studies comparing organic and conventional farming find that organic farms are often more profitable per acre (example: apples in WA state). Basically, economic costs associated with fossil-fuel intensive, off-farm inputs (fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, machinery) used in conventional farming have increased greatly. Even though, in many cases, yields have increased along with these practices, the conventional farmer's bottomline (profit) has often not changed -- they may get higher yields, but they spend more as well. (This applies to comparisons between costs/earnings in 1950 to those in 1998 in the US). A 9-year study of corn and soy production in Iowa, sponsored by Iowa State University's Leopold Center, compared conventional and organic yields, soil properties, and profitablity, and found that all were higher under the organic production system by the 4th year of the study. Profitability often works out well for organic growers, because they can command higher prices for their produce than can conventional growers. Organic systems tend to be more labor intensive than conventional systems, and that contributes to higher grower costs in the US. However, in most lesser developed countries, labor is actually cheaper than chemical inputs, so organic systems in such countries can easily be more profitable than conventional systems.

(2) Myth #2: Yields from organically-farmed lands cannot be as high (per unit area) as those from conventionally-farmed lands. Reality: While yields from organically-farmed lands are often lower in the first years after conversion from conventional farming, they generally increase greatly as the health of the soil improves, populations of beneficial insects increase, and so on. Within a few years, yields from organic farms are often as high as from conventional farms, even for "mainline" crops such as soybeans and corn in Iowa. (See a paper in Science Vol 296: page 1589 and in the same volume, pages 1694 - 1697 (from 2002), which is one of the first controlled, long-term (21 years of data) studies comparing organic and conventional farming in terms of yields, soil quality, and energy efficiency. Over the two decades, yields averaged about 20% lower on the organic plots than on the conventional plots, but this varied between crops (winter wheat, for example, did better than potatoes in this comparison). However, purchased inputs of inorganic fertilizers were not used in the organic system (of course), and the researchers estimated that plants in these plots received less than half of the nutrients given to the conventional crops -- "To add that much less fertilizer and still get 80% of conventional yields is outstanding," says one of the authors. Authors estimated that the organic systems required up to 56% less fossil-fuel energy per unit yield, suggesting that, even though yields were somewhat lower, farmers' costs were lower, so that profitability worked out reasonably well. So, in high tech agriculture, as practiced in most of the US for example, organic yields are sometimes lower than those from conventional systems. However, in lesser developed nations, organic systems usually outyield more modern systems -- at least in part because, over time, the organic systems improve soil properties (fertility, water holding capacity, etc) (WorldWatch May/June '06). In fact, a variety of studies and models suggest that we could feed the current human population, or a larger one, as well or better than we do today using organic practices and without having to bring more land under cultivation.

(3) Myth #3: Organic farming will not be useful in lesser developed countries, because organically-grown food costs too much (in dollars). Reality: the opposite can be the case! Farmers in many nations are simply too poor to farm in ways that rely heavily on purchased inputs (such as inorganic fertilizers and pesticides), and this is partly why people in these nations are hungry. When they learn about ways to use local inputs (such as manure from mixed crop + livestock farming, nitrogen from legumes or nitrogen-fixing trees, and so forth), they can produce fine yields at relatively low cost. In fact, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently proclaimed that organic farming can help to decrease world hunger. Cuba is a strong example of the successful implementation of organic practices in a lesser developed nation. They have extended "farming" into cities very successfully as well -- in Havana and other urban areas, there are > 35,500 hectares of small plot, high production and container gardens which have created an estimated 350,000 jobs, and produced tons of fruits and vegetables -- and, since these are grown locally, fossil fuel use for transporting the products to market is minimal. However, in some cases, it probably won't be possible for poor farmers to convert entirely to organic inputs for fertilizer -- they use manure for fuel and use all crop residues for fuel or fodder for animals (Conservation Mag. July-Sept. 08).

(4) Myth #4: Organic produce can't be as nutritious as conventionally produced produce, since it is grown without synthetic fertilizer. Reality: organic produce is raised with an abundance of fertility; fertility derived from organic sources. (An organic farmer can't hope to make it if he/she doesn't pay careful attention to soil fertility!). In fact, some studies suggest that organic produce may be more nutritious than conventionally grown produce -- results vary depending on the study and the crop. Certainly, however, whenever organic and local production go hand in hand, the produce is likely to be more nutritious, simply because it hasn't lost nutrients during a long storage and transportation process. The Organic Center carried out the largest ever comparison of 11 constituents in conventional and organically grown crops, and found that the organic crops were superior in 61% of cases. While conventionally grown crops tended to be higher in phosphorus, potassium and total protein than organically grown crops, the organics tended to be higher in Vitamin C, antioxidants, and polyphenols, all of which are good for human health (Union of Concerned Scientists Summer 08).


You've probably been hearing a lot lately about the importance of "eating locally" -- to support your local small farmers, decease transportation-associated fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions, come into closer appreciation of seasonal foods, be more certain about the pesticides that your food has been exposed to, and so on? Perhaps you've read Barbara Kingsolver's book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" or Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" or Gary Paul Nabhan's "Coming Home to Eat" (All are great reads related to the topic...) The idea is "think globally, eat locally," in a nutshell. The average typical piece of fresh fruit or vegetable in an Iowa grocery store has traveled 1,500 miles to get there! Just think of the fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions! Over the past couple of decades, "food miles" (distances traveled by food from source to consumer) have increased by more than 25% in the US. We think nothing of eating bananas in Oregon, or fresh raspberries from who-knows-where in the middle of winter. But, is such eating really sustainable? Does it help to sustain our local food growers? What kinds of labor practices -- and pesticides -- are used in the far away places from which we get fresh or exotic produce in the dead of winter?

There's a lot of debate these days about whether to support local agriculture or organic agriculture, and indeed in many parts of the US, that choice is a real one. Some think, for example, that the transportation of organic produce over long distances -- say from CA to a WalMart in NY -- negates much of the benefit associated with the organic production system....Some disagree and feel that the organic system is still to be valued despite the transportation costs...Others argue that the fossil fuel costs of food can't be judged simply by how far it is transported, because those will depend on the kinds of growing practices used at the production site as well -- if you're growing food with low fossil fuel inputs in one place, it might be possible to transport it for long distances while still coming out ahead in terms of fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions (Cons. Mag. July-Sept 08). A complex matter!!

We are amazingly lucky in Corvallis, though, in that we can have both readily! We have a vibrant year-round farmer's market (indoors in winter -- on Wednesdays at the Benton County Fairgrounds), active Community Supported Agriculture programs on the part of several local organic growers (you pay them up front at the beginning of the growing season and then you get a box of fresh produce delivered each week), we have several groceries who focus on stocking local and organic produce ....We can also grow our own food most months of the year! (I actually do get food directly from my garden every month of the year, because I leave my potatoes in the earth until I want some to cook...)

Oregon Department of Agriculture hired a full time staff member to work on a farm-to-school program, which aims to promote local food purchases for public school foods (G-T 12/31/07). One of my duaghters, in fact, is the farm-to-school coordinator with the Edible Corvallis Initiative, a program run by the Corvallis Environmental Center.

See the following web sites for more information on finding sources for and eating locally grown food -- that is, on becoming a "locavore!"

Ten Rivers Foodweb

Find a local grower

From Our Own Soil -- a report on efforts to make locally-grown food more available to economically-disadvantaged members of our Benton County area

Food Sources -- a report by the Leopold Institute on sources for commonly eaten fruits and vegetables in the US

The US has implemented Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), which madated that, as of 2008, meat, fish, perishable agricultural products, peanuts and a few other items must be labeled as to their country of origin. Large retailers are required to include this information on the product's label. The US also now offers a certified label for 100% grass fed beef.

Click on ">>" to move to the next section, which discusses trophic issues related to sustainable agriculture (what do we eat and how does that affect farming intensity?), or choose one of the other topics in the Topic Outline. Click on "NAVIGATE" for reminders about how to move within and among these pages.

Page maintained by Patricia Muir at Oregon State University. Last updated Nov. 21, 2012.