The Reality of Organic Farming

How anything in this BBC article about organic milk should come as a surprise is beyond me:

Buy a pack of organic milk and generally you feel you have done the world and the environment a service – albeit a small, litre-sized one.

After all, you think, a happy cow in a grassy field is probably a good thing, environmentally speaking.

Which is probably why Arla decided to say its organic milk was “good for the land” and “a more sustainable future”.

Arla Foods is no small-scale outfit. It is a massive European milk co-operative ranked as the fourth-largest milk producer in the world.

The organic farming movement would have people believe that their products are grown in allotments or hand-reared in small farms of the type that appear in Famous Five stories. What is amusing is the dim middle classes, particularly professional women with a surplus household income, actually believe it.

Of course Arla Foods is an enormous corporation. If the consumption of organic produce is limited to a few hippies living in wigwams then sure, you don’t need any industrial-scale operation to meet demand. But once the numbers increase the suppliers are going to have to scale up, particularly if the customers are all living in cities (and they almost all do: most consumers of organically farmed products wouldn’t know a combine from a cattle grid). How many people consume organic products in London, say? Over a million, probably. This demand isn’t going to be met by farmer Giles on his local farm using practices from the 1950s.

It’s the same reason I get annoyed when people sing the praises of their jolly local butcher who is a little bit more expensive but is oh so much better than those nasty supermarkets. What they don’t realise is their local butcher is selling to wealthy, niche customers while the supermarkets provide for the masses. If the supermarkets weren’t there and the butcher was the only option, they’d be selling overpriced offal with tubes sticking out.

The argument for organic milk is not as straightforward as you might imagine.

Organic dairy producers do feed their animals with crops grown without the use of synthetic pesticides. They don’t use antibiotics. They use less energy in producing and carting around concentrates. All those are plus points.

But organic farms produce less milk per head of cattle. So they use more land and more cows per litre. And there is the awkward matter of methane, a greenhouse gas, which cows produce in abundance.

Firstly, why is not using antibiotics automatically assumed to be a good thing? Animals get sick just the same as we do, and treating them with antibiotics is as sensible as it is for humans. Would we think denying antibiotics to a child suffering from tonsillitis is virtuous? Probably not, but apparently letting a cow suffer from an infected sore is. Now I get that the agricultural industry has been irresponsible in its use of antibiotics, using them as preventive measures to stop intestinal infections caused by feeding them shite, and that practice should be eliminated. But a blanket ban on antibiotics is stupid.

Secondly, that organic farms are less efficient than conventional ones is something Tim Worstall was pointing out a decade ago. Almost by definition, organic farms need more land (meaning more hedges destroyed, more wetlands drained) and use more resources and energy (more weeding, larger areas to plough) to produce the equivalent yield of a conventional crop. As with everything, it’s a trade off:

“Organic farms perform better in terms of soil and water quality, and species biodiversity, but can perform worse in terms of methane emissions.”

And on a host of other criteria, I expect.

We’re going to see the same thing with electric cars if they ever actually take off (which I doubt, but I might be wrong). A few thousand virtue-signalling celebrities and public-sector employees in places like Norway might not produce much by way of externalities, but if that gets scaled up to the millions or tens of millions across multiple cities, what do things look like then? Where does the electricity come from? Where do the chemicals and metals in the batteries come from? How do we dispose of them?

From what I can tell, most environmental campaigns are designed to relieve the dim but wealthy middle classes of a portion of their income in exchange for making them feel good about themselves. I can only marvel at their effectiveness.


14 thoughts on “The Reality of Organic Farming

  1. “Firstly, why is not using antibiotics automatically assumed to be a good thing?”

    In NZ antibiotics are used for dairy cows, however they cannot supply milk to the supply chain. The US does have issues with the overuse of antibiotics for dairy cows.

    The other thing being that organic milk is processed in exactly the same way as non-organic milk, but the margins are very significantly better. That BBC piece is yet more free marketing for a high value product.

    Just wait till they find out about night milk or A2.

  2. I read the Famous Five books when I was a nipper and I remember not a thing about them. William Brown, now, he was different (as we have agreed before).

    I took a dim view of Alice in Wonderland but that isn’t entirely relevant to your post. Or perhaps, on reflection, it is.

  3. I took a dim view of Alice in Wonderland

    I thought some of it was genius, a clever satire on the earnestness of Victorians. You are old, Father William is hilarious.

  4. We have an issue in Oregon now (and probably many places) related to non-GMO crops. Those farms are suing the regular farms because their seeds are blowing n the wind into non-GMO farms and contaminating their crops. Apparently, European and Japanese customers are rejecting their products, as a result. How you’re supposed to prevent seeds from flying around, I have no clue.

  5. Years ago, when Traitor Blair was prime minister, he promised that GM crops wouldn’t interfere with non-GM crops because there would be a margin of one metre around the GM crops.

  6. Those farms are suing the regular farms because their seeds are blowing n the wind into non-GMO farms and contaminating their crops.

    The irony is that conventional farmers used to get pissed off with the organic farmers for not keeping the weeds and other unwanted vegetation down, which would then come into their own fields.

  7. We’re going to see the same thing with electric cars if they ever actually take off (which I doubt, but I might be wrong).

    Yep, they’re going to need antibiotics pretty quickly.

  8. If electric cars take off then won’t they be electric planes? Am I missing something?

  9. It’s all organic. Everything. Even concrete is organic.

    If they want to say chemical free, then then they should say it. But please al-beeb, don’t dress up organic stuff as, er, really organic.

  10. The trouble with electric cars is twofold:

    1) Energy Density … say it slowly so it sinks in. It means in essence, how much energy can you pack into a given volume or weight? Battery makers are desperately trying to find a way to reach a specific energy of 450 Wh/kg (Watt-hours per kilogram). Petrol, on the other hand, already offers 12,000 Wh/kg. In other words, petrol has at least 26.6 times more energy per kilogram than the very best of batteries. Dumping a tank full of petrol into a car takes a minute or two, recharging a battery, overnight at best.

    2) Transmission losses. Electricity is generated (surprise, surprise!) in power stations and then transmitted to the point of use. The loss in converting and transmitting the power around the country and then converting the transmission voltage into usable voltages for battery chargers entails losses. Plus, unless you go nuclear, burns fossil fuels. It is more efficient to burn the fossil fuel where you are using it than indulge in the losses and inefficiencies inherent in the systems.

    In short, unless you have a very niche market (such as electric milk floats – remember them?) it is not a viable technology ever. Yes, Petunia, some point in the future those clever scientists might overcome the laws of Physics and make batteries that can store enough power to rival petrol and recharge in a minute or two but by then we’ll have Star Trek matter transporters too so the discussion is moot.

  11. @PhilB, have you accounted for the thermodynamic efficiency of the combustion engine in that comparison?

  12. I once had someone ask me if I produced “organic beef.” My response was what does that mean? I can tell you exactly how the animal was bred, fed, and handled from end to end. If that means organic, or not, well there you go. I followed USDA regulations plus what I considered best practices as a small producer. Most people were satisfied with the knowledge that I happily fed my own kids with what I produced.

    The interesting conversations were with the Rabbi and the Imam. No nonsense there, and their requirements were plain spoken.

  13. I believe that when the organic farmers claim to “not use antibiotics”, they are referring to routine antibiotic use on farm animals for the purpose of increasing the animals weight and maximizing meat production.

  14. JerryC,

    That is what they imply, but they prohibit the use of all antibiotics. I am not convinced this is better for the animal than the practice of treating them with antibiotics when they’re sick.

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