I recently read a fascinating post by Steve Savage, over on Sustainablog, who did some analysis of farming data collected by the USDA. His reported conclusions give us a glimpse of organic food’s place in American agriculture—and you need a magnifying glass to see it. According to Savage, harvested organic produce currently comprises a mere 0.52% of all cropland in the country in 2008. To an architect in New York City, where organic products seem to be available on every corner, the number caught me by surprise.
What You Get for Growing Against the Grain
Unsurprisingly, organic farming has the deck stacked against it. Without the rising industry standards of genetically modified crops and the slurry of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, it is difficult (read: impossible) for organics to match the yields of other growers in the variety of climates in America. Despite the premium that growers receive for organic produce, on average they only pull 60-80% of traditional farmers harvests from the ground, giving little incentive for farmers to switch at the end of the day—clearly, very few have.
The numbers do not paint a very hopeful picture for the future of organic farming. Savage goes as far to say that, “The fact that so little cropland is organic after more than 30 years of commercial and research progress suggests that organic will never be more than a niche.” While possible, I am not so sure that organics should be counted out just yet.
Losing at the Playing the Wrong Game
Organic’s “failure” in the world of agro-business is a bit relative and may actually be yet another indication of how broken the system is rather than how crazy some people are for wanting fresh, unadulterated produce. I may be great at telling the difference between Coke and Pepsi, but I doubt I could discern between the taste of an organic tomato and its standard counterpart. For me, the merits of organic are more about sustainability and the positive repercussions are numerous. Despite its berth, the American farming process is not the hallmark of examples that we should look to for the prowess of health and efficiency. Sure, large farms are good at pumping out food, but at what collective costs?
Water is certainly one. In the United States, we use 31% of our fresh water for irrigation purposes with most of that being comprised of farming. When you jump to the entire world, that number turns into 80%. When it comes to all of those chemicals that “protect” the crops in the field, they have a second life far less admirable than their first defensive tour of duty. Most of them find their way into stormwater runoff, which eventually mixes with our estuaries and aquatic ecosystems. According to Dr. Dickson Despommier, Professor at Columbia and expert on the concept of Vertical Farming, “agricultural runoff is responsible for more ecosystem disruption than any other single kind of pollution.” Even with the chemical miracles, crops are still vulnerable to the same climactic events as their organic brethren. The USDA estimates that only 50% of all crops planted in the U.S. reach the plate of a consumer.
We are not short on reasons why the face of American agriculture has to change (as well as plenty on why it won’t anytime soon).
It’s a Different World Inside
Many of the obstacles that face organic farming revolve around the inherent variability in natural, open farmland. Rain, insects and weeds are all ecological effects beyond the control of the farmer that can wreck havoc on unprotected crops. Large, non-organic farms solve these problems by a series of chemicals largely based in petroleum, but another solution is to migrate growing to the controlled environments of indoor farming; either greenhouses or, better yet, Vertical Farms. Indoor growing not only shields produce from all of the things we try to protect it from with chemicals, but in many cases it can do so with higher yields than open range, traditional ground farming with a fraction of the environmental footprint.
The ability to regulate temperature, humidity and water open up numerous possibilities that all point to higher, more consistent yields for many types of crops. When separated from the unknowns of nature, the very things that chemical products are meant to battle against are removed from the lifecycle of the plants. As a result, growing organically only makes more sense in an indoor environment. Where growing crops outdoors without fertilizers and pesticides results in a cost increase, growing inside without them is a cost savings (Biologist and author Janine Benyus cites that on average it requires roughly $2.70 worth of oil based inputs to produce $4.00 worth of American crops).
In his new book on Vertical Farming, Despommier also points to crop types like strawberries that can grow more plants per acre indoors than in the ground under the sun. These crops can also be grown year round, only further increasing the net annual yield. On top of that, with hydroponic or aeroponic growing, farming can save 70-90% of the water used in open field irrigation. For America, that could be anywhere from 88 to 114 billion gallons of water….a day.
Though also currently a small portion of overall crop production, indoor farming has plenty of room to grow. As we have yet to see any constructed models of a Vertical Farm, greenhouses comprise the entirety of this expanding marketplace. Greenhouse farming has grown in popularity over the past two decades in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. with all of them fighting for the coveted American consumer. As the price of materials as well as technologies for water purification and heating/cooling come down, the operating costs of greenhouses have dropped, making them more feasible to a larger population of growers. An article in the Jakarta Globe points to rooftop greenhouses becoming increasingly popular for restaurants that want to utilize valuable, sun-washed square footage while lowering the operating costs of their business.
Though not all types of veggies share the same successes in greenhouse farming, particular examples like tomatoes continue to shine. It is estimated that nearly 40% of all fresh tomatoes now sold in American stores come from greenhouses. Though not all of these facilities strive to be organic, the switch would arguably be much easier for them then farmers working in traditional cultivation methods.
Despite the strength in Savage’s analysis, there are still statistics pointing to a growing demand for organic products despite their cost premium. In December, the Organic Trade Association reported that U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009 (though this number includes more than Savage’s focus on organic fruits and vegetables), including back-to-back increases in 2008 and 2009 throughout the height of the recession. If organic farming is going to create a greater presence in American agriculture, indoor farming could be the vehicle it needs to meet burgeoning demand with fewer pennies and more picking.