Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Can Feed the Planet: Scientists

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Could it, or could it not? The perennial discussion as to whether organic food production could actually feed the globe is back at the debate table. And the data culled for this latest report suggests that turning to increased organic food production to feed the globe isn't really a far-fetched idea.

The report, Organic Agriculture for the 21st Century, authored by Washington State University Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology John Reganold and doctoral student Jonathan Wachter, compares the efficacy of organic and non-organic farming according to the four pillars of sustainability: economics, environment, productivity and community well-being.

Organic agriculture, says Reganold and Wachter, can meet the needs of tomorrow's populations. "Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic [agriculture] should play a role in feeding the world," says Reganold, who looked at 40 years of conventional and organic farming in the study and maintains that even with the effects of climate change, "organic farms have the potential to produce high yields because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils."

The team concedes in the study that production yields can be lower with organic farming. The outcome in nutrition, environmental benefits and lack of pesticide residues, they argue however,  offers strong benefits of their own that are necessary for adequately feeding a burgeoning population.

"[Initial] evidence indicates that organic agricultural systems deliver greater ecosystem services and social benefits," yielding in the process, a healthier planet and community, the paper states.

The WSU paper isn't the first study to suggest that organic agriculture can and should have a greater role in the world's food production. As Reganold points out, there has been a dramatic upswing in studies on this topic in the last two decades. One study authored by researchers Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine found that increasing sustainable farming techniques directly correlated with an increase in productivity. When the researchers looked at farms that converted to organic methods that supported the four pillars of sustainability, summarizes one report by the WorldWatch Institute, they "found that for all the projects-involving 9 million farms on nearly 30 million hectares-yields increased an average of 93 percent."

Pretty's and Hine's conclusions were supported by another study by Wasiq Khan, and economist at the Franklin College in Switzerland, who also looked at the viability of organic farming in global food production and the impacts of conventional farming.

"There is every indication  that the productivity of the industrial agricultural system will have diminishing yields as the agricultural environment is degraded, and as a result require more energy-intensive chemical inputs to maintain the level of yields that have already been achieved," says Khan, who presented his findings at the Conference of the Association for Heterodox Economics, Nottingham Trent University, U.K.

There has been some debate in the past as to whether organic farming is adequate for rain-watered crops like fruit trees, alfalfa and beans. Researchers in rain-restricted Israel however, have been working to address that issue and have been finding that the challenge isn't the availability of rain, but the watering techniques. New technology now allows farmers to manage the irrigation of fruit trees and save water, as well as regulate the water demands of large crops without flood irrigation.

National and international policies largely govern the success of organic agriculture, state Reganold and Wachter. At the present time, the team says, only about one percent of the world's food production is grown organically. Options that would incentivize and make it easier for farmers to grow organically, they say, include:

  • Establishing economic incentives to adopt better conservation methods and more sustainable livestock production
  • Increasing technical support for farmers to educate them on the benefits of more innovative organic farming methods
  • Incentivize public funded-research into sustainable farming methods

Reganold and Wachter admit that "[No] single type of farming can feed the world." Instead, they argue, a careful blend of organic and innovative farming that takes advantage of the "ABCs" of sustainable farming is the answer. Using sustainable methods that wrap in the principles of organic agriculture, the researchers propose, can support the food production for the planet' growing population and protect and nurture the planet's environmental balance at the same time.

View a video on the subject here.