Organic agriculture is the future
Organic Agriculture is the Future
The Real Scoop by Doug Gurian-Sherman
As our changing global climate threatens to make agriculture more challenging than ever, farmers and policy makers are seeking new ways to grow more food with less environmental impact. But they don't need to look as hard as many think. Though not yet widely adopted, modern organic and other low-external-input farming systems are already proving quite capable of producing large crop yields while also conserving energy and minimizing pollution.
Organic and similar methods rely on a sophisticated scientific understanding of how a farm operates within an ecosystem””indeed, how the farm itself is an ecosystem of interconnected plants, insects, and other animals. Organic farming systems incorporate techniques like long crop rotations to control pests and leguminous cover crops or manure to add nutrients and build soil. A recent summary of studies on farming systems around the world found that such systems are often nearly as productive as current industrial agriculture in developed countries, but importantly, much more so in developing countries.
The study demonstrates that the green and animal manures employed in organic agriculture can produce enough fixed nitrogen to support high crop yields. Where additional synthetic inputs are needed, other low-external-input methods are producing high yields with much reduced environmental impact.
These highly productive methods are needed to produce enough food without converting uncultivated land””such as forests that are important for biodiversity and slowing climate change””into crop fields. They build deep, rich soils that hold water, sequester carbon, and resist erosion. And they don’t poison the air, drinking water, and fisheries with excess fertilizers and toxic pesticides.
Some have dismissed the promise of these methods. Among these are State Department Science Advisor Nina Federoff, who in recent interviews characterized organic agriculture as some kind of retreat to a quaint past. She and others characterize organic farming and similar systems as inherently unproductive, sometimes suggesting that such methods are capable of supporting only about half the current world’s population.
Federoff’s view is at odds with the latest science, and represents a status quo kind of thinking. Today’s dominant industrial U.S. agriculture relies on huge monocultures of a few major crops like corn and soybeans, and requires large inputs of fossil-fuel based synthetic chemicals to control pests and fertilize the crops. Such an agriculture churns out a lot of commodity crops (most of which are turned into meat and processed foods) while also contributing greatly to air and water pollution. Industrial agriculture is a major contributor of heat-trapping emissions and a major cause of so-called dead zones such as that in the Gulf of Mexico. And industrial agriculture is ultimately its own worst enemy, as it causes massive degradation of the very soil that is vital to farming itself. This kind of agriculture is unsustainable. We will need to move away from it towards the biologically-informed approaches that can both keep yields high while reducing environmental harm.
Although many critics see genetic engineering as a major factor in this debate, it is in fact only a minor appendage onto the industrial agriculture system - one that has done little to either increase its productivity or mitigate its environmental harm.
Leaders who rely on industrial agriculture systems - with or without genetic engineering - are the ones truly stuck in the past. The challenges of the 21st century demand a fundamental rethink of agriculture that takes environmental harm into account. Promising methods and technologies like organic are in the vanguard of that effort. We cannot afford to move toward the future without such technologies.