Organic farming could provide ample food for the whole human population, while causing less pollution and fewer health problems than conventional agriculture, according to a team of American scientists
The lead author on the new paper, John Reganold, was also an author on a previous paper that concluded: “In spite of lower yields, organic agriculture was significantly more profitable than conventional agriculture and has room to expand globally. Moreover, with its environmental benefits, organic agriculture can contribute a larger share in sustainably feeding the world.”
1. Organic farmers could feed the world – Euractiv.com
2. Organic agriculture key to feeding the world sustainably – Washington State University press release
3. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century – new study abstract
1. Organic farmers could feed the world
by Romain Loury, translated by Samuel White
Euractiv.com, 5 Feb 2016
* Organic farming could provide ample food for the whole human population, while causing less pollution and fewer health problems than conventional agriculture, according to a team of American scientists. Our partner Journal de l’Environnement reports
One of the stock arguments used by proponents of conventional agriculture is that it provides better yields than organic farming, and is the only possible means of feeding the 9 billion people that will inhabit the Earth by 2050.
But in a paper published on Wednesday (3 February) in the journal Nature, John Reganold and Jonathan Wachter, agronomists at Washington State University in the United States, argued that another way exists.
An analysis of 40 years of scientific literature comparing the two types of agriculture showed that yields from organic farms were indeed between 8% and 25% lower than those of conventional farms, depending on the crop. With effective use of organic polyculture, this gap narrowed to 9%, and with increased crop rotation it shrank to just 8%.
Organic farms more resistant to drought
But according to the scientists, one area where organic farming can trump conventional methods is in periods of severe drought; a phenomenon set to become increasingly common as the global climate is disrupted.
The weight of evidence argues that yields from organic farms are more reliable in periods of drought, because their healthier soil retains more moisture. And there is nothing to stop farmers from using seeds that are better adapted to organic farming methods to further close the productivity gap.
Quite apart from the difference in the amount of food they produce, organic farmers often make a rather healthier living than their pesticide-spraying colleagues, with revenues between 22% and 35% higher. Organic products sell for on average 32% more than conventional products. With the price gap reduced to just 5%, the two types of farm would be equally profitable, proving that the sector still has significant room for manoeuvre in encouraging the uptake of organic eating habits.
For the two agronomists, mankind’s conversion to organic farming should not rest solely on the question of yields. “We should also reduce food waste, improve access to food distribution, stabilise the global population, eliminate the conversion of crops into biofuels and adopt a more plant-based diet,” they stated.
Pollution and chronic diseases
The downsides of conventional farming are clear to see. It uses pesticides, pollutes water with nitrates and phosphates, causes high greenhouse gas emissions and reduces biodiversity on cultivated land. As well as contributing to a variety of chronic diseases, conventional farming methods also produce food with lower nutritional values than organic methods; a finding supported by 12 of the 15 studies identified by the researchers on this subject.
The final factor the American team analysed was the social impact of the two farming methods. Here too, organic farming came out on top. The consensus in the literature was that organic farms create more jobs, are less damaging to their employees’ health and actually improve their diet, promote interaction between producers and consumers and provide better conditions for animals.
“Hundreds of scientific studies now demonstrate that organic farming should play a greater role in feeding our planet. 30 years ago, there were only a handful of studies comparing organic and conventional agriculture. In the last 15 years their number has massively increased,” Reganold observed.
2. Organic agriculture key to feeding the world sustainably
Washington State University, 3 Feb 2016
Washington State University researchers have concluded that feeding a growing global population with sustainability goals in mind is possible. Their review of hundreds of published studies provides evidence that organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment and be safer for farm workers.
The review study, “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century”, is featured as the cover story for February issue of the journal Nature Plants and was authored by John Reganold, WSU regents professor of soil science and agroecology and doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter. It is the first such study to analyze 40 years of science comparing organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economics, environment, and community well being.
“Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic ag should play a role in feeding the world” said Reganold, lead author of the study. “Thirty years ago, there were just a couple handfuls of studies comparing organic agriculture with conventional. In the last 15 years, these kinds of studies have skyrocketed.”
Organic production currently accounts for only one percent of global agricultural land, despite rapid growth in the last two decades.
Critics have long argued that organic agriculture is inefficient, requiring more land to yield the same amount of food. The review paper describes cases where organic yields can be higher than conventional farming methods.
“In severe drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change, organic farms have the potential to produce high yields because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils,” Reganold said.
However, even when yields may be lower, organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. Higher prices can be justified as a way to compensate farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.
Numerous studies in the review also prove the environmental benefits of organic production. Overall, organic farms tend to store more soil carbon, have better soil quality, and reduce soil erosion. Organic agriculture also creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s more energy efficient because it doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. It is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes as well as genetic diversity. Biodiversity increases the services that nature provides like pollination and improves the ability of farming systems to adapt to changing conditions.
Reganold said that feeding the world is not only a matter of yield but also requires examining food waste and the distribution of food.
“If you look at calorie production per capita we’re producing more than enough food for 7 billion people now, but we waste 30 to 40 percent of it,” Reganold said. “It’s not just a matter of producing enough, but making agriculture environmentally friendly and making sure that food gets to those who need it.”
Reganold and Wachter suggest that no single type of farming can feed the world. Rather, what’s needed is a balance of systems, “a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, mixed crop/livestock and still undiscovered systems”.
Reganold and Wachter recommend policy changes to address the barriers that hinder the expansion of organic agriculture. Such hurdles include the costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labor and markets, and lack of appropriate infrastructure for storing and transporting food. Legal and financial tools are necessary to encourage the adoption of innovative, sustainable farming practices.
Citation: Reganold, John P. and Jonathan M. Wachter. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nature Plants. Vol. 2 (2016) DOI: 10.1038/NPLANTS.2015.221.
3. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century
John P. Reganold* and Jonathan M. Wachter
Nature Plants 2, 3 Feb 2016. ARTICLE NUMBER: 15221 | DOI: 10.1038/NPLANTS.2015.221
Organic agriculture has a history of being contentious and is considered by some as an inefficient approach to food production. Yet organic foods and beverages are a rapidly growing market segment in the global food industry. Here, we examine the performance of organic farming in light of four key sustainability metrics: productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing. Organic farming systems produce lower yields compared with conventional agriculture. However, they are more profitable and environmentally friendly, and deliver equally or more nutritious foods that contain less (or no) pesticide residues, compared with conventional farming. Moreover, initial evidence indicates that organic agricultural systems deliver greater ecosystem services and social benefits. Although organic agriculture has an untapped role to play when it comes to the establishment of sustainable farming systems, no single approach will safely feed the planet. Rather, a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems is needed. Significant barriers exist to adopting these systems, however, and a diversity of policy instruments will be required to facilitate their development and implementation