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Can Organic Feed the World?

Not Your Grandfather's Organic

Many of us, organic supporters and skeptics alike, tend to think of organic agriculture as a return to the traditional methods used around the world until the dawn of the Green Revolution. But is that the real comparison between organic and conventional agriculture?

No, says Paul Hepperly, New Farm research and training manager at the Rodale Institute. In an article published on Newfarm.org, he argues, "Modern research has increased the capacity of traditional organic farming beyond the production systems that fed civilizations for 6,000 years."3 In addition to assuming that organic agriculture is old fashioned, with old-fashioned low yields, many people assume conventional agriculture is always maximally efficient, with correspondingly high yields—an assumption that is simply not true.

Catherine Badgley and Ivette Perfecto, researchers at the University of Michigan who recently published a paper on organic agriculture and the global food supply in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, note that the substitution of modern organic practices for conventional methods led to impressive increases in yields. They are quick to point out that these increases don't necessarily mean that organic agriculture is superior, but that "many existing farming practices do not involve optimal amounts of synthetic fertilizer, and may not be managed optimally in numerous other ways. The adoption of organic methods in these settings is a huge improvement."4

Organic yields, moreover, don't appear to be as uncompetitive as once thought. The Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial has been comparing organic and conventional systems since 1981, the oldest such scientifically controlled comparison in the United States. Initially, the results didn't look promising for the organic system. However, after several years, organic and conventional yields became equivalent and remained so for nearly a decade, more than answering the question of whether organic production can compete. That’s not the end of the story, though: for the subsequent decade, organic corn yields were slightly higher, on average, probably a result of the years of soil-building practices that also seem to have given the organic crops greater drought and heavy rain tolerance. As Hepperly notes, "It's in this way that organic soil can potentially out-compete conventional production systems over the long run. It takes time to use healthy soil practices to restore the biological life, but this time creates a biological and structural foundation for future improvements."5Can Organic Feed the World

A 2004 study at Iowa State University compared long-term yields of non-GMO hybrid varieties of corn and soybeans grown conventionally and organically. Local farmers were especially interested in how crops would perform during the three-year transition phase required for organic certification, when farmers are unable to sell their products as certified organic but are required to use organic practices. Soybean yields during the first three years were not statistically different, while corn yields were equivalent. In later years, organic yields sometimes surpassed conventional. The organic and conventional plots used different rotation cycles and crops, but still indicate that organic practices can rival conventional.6

These studies don't give a definitive answer, but they are exciting. Of course, most organic devotees haven't been all that interested in simply comparing yields, choosing instead to focus on the clear benefits of organic agriculture: no synthetic chemicals, healthier soil and water, and integrated farming systems with diverse crops and livestock managed with respect for the environment.

Even if organic agriculture could not produce the yields of conventional, the very benefits listed above might more than offset the drop, according to a new Danish report presented to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The report noted that if conventional production intended primarily for export were changed to organic production with greater diversity of crops and food, and greater focus on local consumption, then food security, measured by access to and ability to afford food, in sub-Saharan Africa would increase.7 An FAO paper pointed out another compelling benefit of organic agriculture: "The strongest feature of organic agriculture is its reliance on locally available production assets, and thus, its relative independence from crude oil availability and increasing input prices."8

Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?

Can organic agriculture feed the world? Absolutely. The real question is whether conventional agriculture can do it, or at least without fatally damaging the very soil on which we need to grow the crops of the future. So, what do we say to that dreaded question? We stop regarding it as a dreaded question, smile, and say, "Given all the advantages of organic agriculture, don’t we owe it to the world to change our course once and for all?"

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