Jun 1, 2009

The role of energy in organic farming

I love listening to NPR. One article featured in their Morning Edition related to Indian farmers going organic in Punjab, the "breadbowl" of India. You can download the mp3 here. This post presents some of my comments on the article.

The farmer who the reporter talked to reportedly switched to organic farming because he was getting marginally diminishing returns with each application of pesticides and fertilizers. This means that to maintain crop yields, one must use more pesticides and fertilizers every year. Now, I do not find anything wrong with using fertilizers and pesticides, as long as they are used wisely. However, farmer literacy about agrochemical use in India is sorely lacking. Moreover, the government subsidizes fertilizer prices for the farmers, thereby indirectly contributing to their overuse. Additionally, because the cost to the farmer varies directly with both unit cost of fertilizer (which has not been changed for many years, despite the wild swings in energy prices over the past 9 years) and the quantity consumed, even an increase in the amount of fertilizer/pesticide used per unit area can be a financial burden to the farmer. Therefore, in some cases, it makes sense to go organic altogether.

However, as the Punjab State Farmers' Association report noted, widespread adoption of organic farming will likely lead to short-term food shortages, because of reduced yields in the most productive farms. Therefore, I think that India should slowly shift away from farm subsidies, promote organic farming -but not to the extent that it would lead to short-term food shortages, and finally promote smarter use of resources, both agrochemicals as well as water. Examples include growing crops which fix nitrogen along with crops which require nitrogen, such as beans with wheat, and soybeans with corn.

"Environmental groups in India estimate that more than 300,000 farmers like Sharma have switched to organic growing methods in recent years, or have started the transition from conventional to organic farming. Comparisons between India and the U.S. are difficult because their economies and cultures are so different. But consider this: India has about three times the population of the U.S., but 30 times more organic farmers than the U.S."

The average farm size in India is a fraction of that in the U.S.

Nitrogen fertilizers are a double edged sword because firstly, the production of ammonia (from which most urea-based fertilizers are made) emits CO2 (by processes such as naphtha steam reforming). Moreover, after the nitrogen fertilizers are applied to the soil, the urea is oxidized to nitrates and nitrites. When fertilizers are over-applied, these nitrates are washed off into rivers, causing algal blooms and utrophication. On the other hand, the Haber process for the manufacture of ammonia is credited with increasing the crop productivity in many parts of the world. This is a question for future world leaders: How do we balance the need to feed our growing population with the need to promote smarter use of resources and prevent unintended consequences?

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