According to an exhaustive report, which analyses 40 years’ worth of scientific findings over four key areas of sustainability, organic farming is the key to feeding the world, whilst protecting the natural life support systems we all depend on.
Researchers at Washington State University who reviewed hundreds of papers for the project said feeding a growing global population with sustainability goals in mind is possible, adding that their research suggests organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment and be safer for farm workers.
WSU Soil Science and Agroecology professor John Reginald authored the study, along with doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter. It is the latest research to provide a side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture, but the authors said the scope is wider, looking as it does at the four goals of sustainability identified by the US 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 Prof Reganold on Wednesday. “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. However, the WSU reviewers describe 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,” Prof Reganold said.
Even when yields may be lower, organic agriculture can be more profitable for farmers due to the ‘organic premium’ that the produce currently attracts. Higher prices can be justified as a way to compensate farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.
Discussing the environmental aspects, the researchers said that, overall, organic farms tend to store more soil carbon, have better soil quality, and reduce soil erosion. Organic agriculture was also shown to create less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions. It also has a greater potential for building circular systems to minimise waste and drive up efficiency, because it doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilisers or pesticides.
As organic groups in the UK have claimed, there was evidence of higher biodiversity (of plants, animals, insects and microbes) associated with organic farmland, as well as genetic diversity which experts and policy makers have agreed will be key to ensuring farming remains healthy in the face of climate change.
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,” the professor 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.”
However, though their findings are persuasive, 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” will create the patchwork needed to create the farming system the world needs, the reviewers said.
Even so, they 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.