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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bad Science

This week I'm at a Carbon, Energy and Climate conference in Michigan.  At this conference, there is a lot of research presented.  Lots of numbers.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a numbers gal.  If I have to pick, I like qualitative research over quantitative any day.

But as a scientist (a biologist with a minor in geology), I've done research (geologic research on global climate change) and had to write research papers.  I know the importance of a good study, of accuracy, of comparison.

I tell you that to tell you this...

My blood pressure is high today.  Very high.

I spent the afternoon on field tours, looking at research plots and fields.  One study in particular has my blood boiling.  This trial compared corn, soybeans and wheat rotations comparing conventional production, minimum input production, no-till production and organic production.  This trial also used cover crops. This trial has been going for 15 years.  They are using cover crops of red clover, rye and oilseed radish, planted in monoculture.  The purpose of this long-term study was to determine the yield and organic matter data of these different production systems.

Here are my issues:

  • In many organic systems, perennial crops such as alfalfa or grasses are used in crop rotations for several years.  This allows soil biology to regenerate and thrive as in a no-till environment.  In the 15 years of this trial, no perennial rotations were used.  Tillage was the main tool, at times the only tool, used for weed management.  What about rotary hoes, roller crimpers, flaming, or harrows?  All of these techniques minimize soil disturbance and would preserve the valuable soil structure.
  • Cover crops were used as monocultures.  Many organic farmers plant mixes of cover crops to increase biomass both above and below the soil surface.  Different crops provide, scavenge, or use different nutrients in the system.
Finally, and most importantly,

  • The conventionally farmed fields/plots were treated with synthetic fertilizer.  The organic fields/plots were not amended in any way.  No animal manures, no compost.  When questioned on this production practice, the research staff responded "We wanted to see how the organic responded on its own with no outside inputs."
OK, when you learn how to structure a comparative research study, one of the most important parts is that you have to have data to compare.  And that data has to be gathered from comparable systems.  These systems are anything but comparable.  It's not even apples to oranges.  It's apples to rocks.  Organic production is a system.  It is a sophisticated balance of systems that work together.  It is NOT conventional production with the absence of synthetic chemicals.  As Hubby said when I was ranting to him, "Well, they should take the crutches out from the conventional system and see how long it will last."  But of course they wouldn't do that because no conventional farmer would farm that way.  Well, I've got news for you, no organic farmer farms THAT way!

The piece of research that gave me hope was that the no-till plots and the organic plots both showed increases in organic matter throughout this time.  Even with mismanagement, their version of organic is still building soil!

As we were leaving the plots and walking to the wagon, one of the extension agents said, "If I was an organic farmer, I'd be pissed.  That doesn't sound like any organic farm that I know."  I almost hugged him!  

I AM pissed.  This is the kind of shoddy research that will  hit the headlines in a year or two and tout "This Proves That Organic Can't Feed The World!"  And when it does, I will agree.  Your version of organic production isn't organic at all, it's starvation.  It will determine how long the soil can continue to produce in the absence of a whole systems approach to organic farming.  But it will not determine the production capacity of organic production.  

My blood pressure may be high, but so is my resolve to question and urge good science practices.  And apparently, teach land-grant university researchers about organic production...


  1. grrr...now my blood pressure's up! If THAT was organic farming, how on earth would humans have survived before the synthetic chemicals arrived on the market a 100 years or so ago? I understand the drive to make money that synthetic manufacturer's have, but why not do it by making their own products more sustainable instead of trying to destroy the other side of the fence?
    I once worked at a gov agri-research farm, the absolute close-mindedness to any possibility that organic might actually work drove me bonkers. These people are in charge of a country's agricultural research? Sigh. I'm so glad I don't work there anymore. And my veggie garden is safe from their gm hands.

    1. Amen to that! I was thinking the same thing. "Thank goodness I can go home and do my own thing."


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