Organic agriculture is a relatively untapped resource for feeding the Earth’s population, especially in the face of climate change and other global challenges. That’s the conclusion my doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter and I reached in reviewing 40 years of science comparing the long-term prospects of organic and conventional farming.
Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic agriculture can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment, and be safer for farm workers. Thirty years ago, there were just a couple handfuls of studies comparing organic with conventional agriculture. In the last 15 years, the number of these kinds of studies has skyrocketed.
The review study, “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century,” is featured as the cover story for the February issue of the journal Nature Plants. It is the first to compare organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economics, environment, and social wellbeing.
The yield question
Critics have long argued that organic agriculture is inefficient, requiring more land to yield the same amount of food. It’s true that organic farming produces lower yields, averaging 10 to 20 percent less than conventional. Proponents contend that the environmental advantages of organic agriculture far outweigh the lower yields, and that increasing research and breeding resources for organic systems would reduce the yield gap. Sometimes excluded from these arguments is the fact that we already produce enough food to more than feed the world’s 7.4 billion people but do not provide adequate access to all individuals.
In some cases, organic yields can be higher than conventional. For example, in severe drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change in many areas, organic farms can produce as good, if not better, yields because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils.
What science does tell us is that mainstream conventional farming systems have provided growing supplies of food and other products but often at the expense of other sustainability goals.
Conventional agriculture may produce more food, but it often comes at a cost to the environment. Biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and severe impacts on ecosystem services have not only accompanied conventional farming systems but have often extended well beyond their field boundaries. With organic agriculture, environmental costs tend to be lower and the benefits greater.
Overall, organic farms tend to store more soil carbon, have better soil quality, and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. 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.
Organic agriculture 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.
Despite lower yields, organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. Higher prices, called price premiums, can be justified as way to compensate farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.
Although studies that evaluate social equity and quality of life for farm communities are few, what is available suggests that both organic and conventional farming leave room for improvement. Still, organic farming comes out ahead when it comes to providing jobs for workers and reducing farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. Many organic certification programs also have wellbeing goals for farmworkers, as well as animals.
Organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment, and support social interactions between farmers and consumers. Yet, no single type of farming can feed the world. Rather, what’s needed is a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, mixed crop/livestock, and still undiscovered systems.
Policy changes needed
With only 1% of global agricultural land in organic production, organic agriculture can contribute a larger share in feeding the world. Yet, significant barriers to farmers adopting organic agriculture hinder its expansion. Such hurdles include existing policies, the costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labor and markets, and lack of appropriate infrastructure for storing and transporting food. Governments should focus on creating policies that help develop not just organic but also other innovative and more sustainable farming systems. Specifically, agricultural policies should:
- Offer greater financial incentives for farmers to adopt conservation measures and scientifically sound sustainable, organic, and integrated crop or livestock production practices.
- Expand outreach and technical assistance that will provide farmers with better information about these transformative practices.
- Increase publicly funded research to improve and expand modern sustainable farming.
For a copy of the study, please email John Reganold.
Dr. John Reganold is Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University and has spent 30-plus years bringing a blend of innovative research and teaching on sustainable farming systems into the mainstream of higher education and food production. His research has measured the effects of organic, integrated, and conventional farming systems on productivity, financial performance, environmental quality, and social wellbeing on five continents. His former students are on the front lines of sustainability around the world, bringing food security to sub-Saharan Africa for the U.S. Agency for International Development, adapting quinoa to the salty soils of Utah, working on agroecology for Pacific Foods in Oregon, and turning wastes into resources in Haiti.
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