Greener Farming Methods Can Make As Much Green As Industrial Ones

By Ashley P. Taylor | October 26, 2012 10:52 am

soybean field

“Integrated pest management” is a mouthful. But the farming method, involving growing multiple crops together and playing their strengths and weaknesses off each other, could be key to using fewer chemicals to grow more food. Though it’s been discussed for decades, a set of recent experiments reported in the journal PLOS ONE puts more weight behind it: using this style of farming with moderate use of fertilizers and pesticides, the study found, is just as productive as industrial agriculture while requiring fewer chemicals. On about 20 acres of Iowa farmland over eight years, agronomists tested out different methods for raising crops. One field was grown the industrial way: corn and soybeans were planted in alternate years and given the customary dosages of fertilizer and herbicides. In two other fields, crops were grown in three- or four-year rotations, adding oats and either alfalfa or red clover to the mix. With more species around, it was harder for weeds to take hold, reducing the need for herbicides; when the researchers did apply the chemicals, they did so on an as-needed basis, choosing formulas targeted to the particular weeds they saw and applying them to specific rows rather than spraying whole fields. The alfalfa and red clover naturally fertilized the soil, and the researchers spread manure on the fields, as well. Like herbicides, synthetic fertilizer was applied only when necessary.

The fields with more diverse rotations used eight times less herbicide than the conventional fields, and needed 86% less synthetic fertilizer, while yielding just as much biomass. Though this hybrid is more labor-intensive than industrial farming—monitoring crops to see when to apply chemicals takes work—the savings on fertilizer and herbicides can make up for those added labor costs, John Reganold, a soil scientist from Washington State University who was not involved in the study, told Brandom Keim of Wired. With integrated pest management, then, perhaps farmers can go green while staying in the black.

Image courtesy of Don Graham/Flickr

  • useful in parts

    this video from food myth busters is worth a look

    as its on the related topic of whether the industrial approach to farming is something we need to feed the growing population

  • useful in parts

    and the transcript on their site has at the end lots of useful reference material on this subject

  • JerryU

    OK. Interesting article but why do you have to mix your comparison currencies? 8 times less herbicide and 86% less synthetic fertilizer? Does that mean the reduction for herbicide is more dramatic than for synthetic fertilizer or the other way around? I’m not a statistician. I always have trouble conceptualizing x times less of something. I’m figuring that 8 times less is the same as 1/8 as much. If that’s correct, 1/8 is 12.5% and that would mean 87.5% less. Wouldn’t it? And that’s pretty close to the 86% less for synthetic fertilizer. So, it turns out the reduction is about the same for both. Since I think your point is that much less herbicide and fertilizer is used, why not just say that about 8 times MORE herbicides and 7 times MORE synthetic fertilizers are used in conventional fields. That’s a lot easier to understand, at least for me, and it makes the point much clearer.

  • John Lerch

    Too bad they didn’t make some calculation about how many man-hrs (person-hrs) go into making the industrial chemicals and infrastructure for an industrial farm.
    I must say though is it really true as the link above implies that organic (which is the best measure of s sustainable farm) food has to be so expensive because the buyers hold a monopoly?

  • zackrobbin

    @useful in parts: Those Food Mythbusters raise some interesting points, but they are every bit as ideology-driven as their opponents — they are just presenting the other one-sided side of an artificially polarized debate. There’s lots of room in the middle for food to be grown sustainably, and industry doesn’t need to be the enemy of the small farmer. Please devote your energy to the solution and not the argument.

    @John Lerch
    1. The article mentions that the cost of the additional labor might well be offset by reduced expenditures, which is the important thing. I don’t see the relevance of the labor involved in the production of the fertilizers and whatnot, only how much it costs the farmer. To put it another way, when you buy a tractor for your farm, you want to know what it costs, not how long it took to build. At any rate, the cost is a rough proxy for the labor.

    2. Unfortunately, Organic Certification is absolutely not a measure of sustainability.
    Organic standards have nothing to say about social justice, water or fuel use, biodiversity, soil erosion, or clearcutting forests. Organic agriculture can use “organic” fertilizers and pesticides, which can pollute streams and groundwater, and Organic Certification has nothing to say about that, either. Of course, plenty of Organic farming IS done sustainably, but Organic Certification itself doesn’t tell you that.
    Conversely, plenty of sustainable agriculture can’t be certified Organic because of occasional, low-intensity, essentially harmless application of “chemical” inputs. (Chemicals in quotes there, because of course it’s all chemistry, whether it’s made in a compost pile or a factory.)
    IPM as described above is probably more sustainable than any given organic plot, because the yield is better, which means less land devoted to production.

  • Ken Crepeau

    I’m not sure why this is heralded as “new.” This approach was seemingly common among the American Indian farming communities. The Powhatan and others planted many crops at once as exemplified by the Wendat (Huron) Garden in the Crawford Lake Conservation Area (Halton, Ontario.) My understanding is the planting was so thick and varied that English did not recognize it as tended agriculture.

  • wshun

    @Ken: I believe this is an ancient practice shared by many cultures before the introduction of industrial farming. Sometimes, old ways will return if there are new knowledge about it.

  • Kaviani

    This addresses food security, land management, and employment issues. Great news. Even if people are not keen on agrarian jobs, it could be outsourced to gov’ts as probationary or work-release options without raising the dubious specter of “illegals”.

  • KJMClark

    @JerryU: this seems to be a problem with journalism in general. Somehow the “x times less” pattern, though pretty meaningless to those of us accustomed to math, has become common. In general, I read “x times less” to mean n/x, and “x times more” to mean nx, though neither of those parse right. “X times less” is just meaningless, though I think you’d have to read it as n-nx. “X times more” is only a little better, since that would really mean n+nx, when I think they generally mean nx.

    I really pity the kids that have to translate this stuff on tests. If we say “x times” something, it’s pretty clear we mean nx. If we say “x times more” something, how are they supposed to interpret that? If we say “one eighth as much”, we clearly mean “1/8”. If we say eight times less, what’s that? I sure hope the English majors aren’t involved in writing the math portions of the SAT & ACT.

  • KJMClark

    Although – – points out this particular muck up in English goes back to Stuartian England. I guess the key is to “know what it means” without thinking about it too much.

    On the original topic – Hooray Organic! Have to look at the original research for ideas, being a part-time organic farmer myself.

  • KJMClark

    Although again – that post mistakenly uses all of its examples. If you read the examples at the ‘volokh’ website, the usage of “less” for the referenced scholars all refer to a not very commonly used today meaning of “less” – small. That’s probably why there’s a usage note that “less” should only be used for singular nouns, and “fewer” for plural nouns. That’s because the earlier meaning of “less” meant smaller (e.g. Herschel “the sun on Saturn appears to be a hundred time less than on the earth”). That is, *strictly*, smaller. It didn’t mean fewer. So, “eight times less herbicide” would mean “eight times smaller herbicide”, whatever that would mean – smaller drums? The problem comes in that today people are trying to use a ‘smaller’ concept when they mean a smaller quantity, but the quantity is a plural number or measurement, not a physical or apparent object.

  • Thomas Boyden

    @zackrobbin: Great points on organic certification and labor.

    @ken and @wshun: This type of integrated pest management has been going on for centuries, but was cast aside with the rise of industrial agriculture. Farmers of Forty Centuries is a great modern book to read up on the practices of Japanese, Korean and Chinese farmers before the advent of modern agriculture.


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