Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?
Organic farming has long been debated as a possible answer to agriculture’s environmental problems. While it promotes sustainable agricultural methods, such as the avoidance of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, it also necessitates significantly more acreage than conventional agriculture to compensate for reduced yields. As a result, the researchers intended to investigate scenarios in which organic farming could meet world food demand while having a lower environmental impact.
They began by simulating how the conversion of conventional agricultural land to organic farming might affect a variety of environmental and food production indices. They next considered two further hypothetical improvements to the global food system: reduced food waste and reduced output of animal feed crops such as soybeans and corn.
With the world population expected to reach 9.1 billion by 20501, it is true that we will need to raise more food than ever before. However, there is a widespread misperception that organic is unsuitable for the job. This week, we will look at:
- Why the yield question may be the wrong question
- Why does so much current research on organic yield be incorrect
- Why more pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, no matter how precisely administered, aren’t the answer
Yields Are a Problem
Conventional and organic approaches are frequently compared based on crop yield per acre or crop yield per farmer. We are told that the only way to feed the globe is for larger farms with fewer farmers to obtain higher yields using modern technology such as chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and GMOs—the traditional American method.
This strategy results in farm consolidation and the isolation of farm laborers and rural communities, as well as environmental degradation such as soil erosion and increasing air and water pollution.
Organic Food for the World
Organic farmers safeguard the environment and prioritize soil health, wildlife habitat, clean air and water, and nutrient-dense produce by avoiding the most hazardous synthetic inputs. Their focus is often on developing healthy, resilient ecosystems rather than optimizing crop production.
However, it is false that the yield differential between organic and conventional is significant, or that organic never yields as much as conventional. In reality, organic outperforms conventional by up to 40% in harsh climatic circumstances such as drought.
As our climate becomes more volatile and more natural disasters occur, it is critical that our agricultural systems be not only resilient but also regenerative. Only organic can make that claim.
Current Research Challenges
Studies indicating that organic yields are unequivocally lower are typically short-term, collecting data over only a couple of years. Long-term research on the differences between organic and conventional farming is severely lacking. The long-term study is the only way to accurately reflect changes in soil health, weather patterns, and pest and disease cycles, providing a more complete picture of reality.
Our Farming Systems Trial, which began in 1981, is North America’s longest-running side-by-side organic and conventional trial. According to our data:
- After a 5-year transition period, organic yields are competitive with conventional yields.
- In drought, organic systems produce up to 40% higher yields.
- Organic methods use 45% less energy and do not leech hazardous chemicals into waterways.
- Organic produce 40% less greenhouse gas emissions.
- Organic farming generates 3-6 times more profit for farmers.
The Farming Systems Trial, on the other hand, is limited. Our climate in Pennsylvania does not mirror global growing conditions. As a result, we are expanding our research and replicating the trial in additional areas.
Nutrient Density as the Next Frontier
Cereal grains, particularly corn and soybeans, accounting for 70% of all crops farmed in the United States. The majority of that crop is converted into animal feed, high fructose corn syrup, and ethanol. While large-scale grain production will continue to play a role in global food and biofuel supplies, increasing crop yields will not feed the globe.
To truly feed the globe, we’ll need more foods that give complete nourishment, as well as more farmers to grow them. Currently, our food system overproduces carbohydrates, fats, and sweets while underproducing vitamins, minerals, and proteins.
Organic can compete with conventional yields and outperform them in harsh weather conditions. Small farmers that use organic methods have enormous potential to increase world food production. Organic approaches, on the other hand, actively replenish resources while protecting the environment from pollution and hazardous waste. We cannot afford anything less for a healthy future.