A new review of four decades of science has come to this conclusion: organic agriculture has a key role to play in feeding the world.
To analyze the body of research, author John Reganold, Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University, and doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter compared conventional and organic farming using the metrics of productivity, environmental impact, economic viability, and social well-being.
"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," Reganold said.
In terms of productivity, they found that organic yields averaged 10 to 20 percent less than conventional—but that's not always the case.
"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," Reganold said.
Furthermore, as food system reform advocates like Food First's Eric Holt Gimenez have said, there's already more than enough food being produced for the world—low yields are not the root of hunger.
"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," Reganold 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."
On environmental impact, organic agriculture, which now accounts for one percent of global agricultural land, is the winner, as it supports more biodiversity, creates less water pollution and greenhouse gases, and is more energy efficient. On top of that, organically managed soils can hold more carbon and can reduce erosion.
Comparing the two using the economic metric, organic is the winner again, because consumers are willing to pay more. And while both approaches have drawbacks in terms of the social well-being metric, organic still has the edge because of less exposure to chemicals for communities and farm workers.
Still, Reganold and Wachter write that "no single approach will safely feed the planet. Rather, a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems is needed."
But to make that happen, policy changes are needed. Reganold explains in a Union of Concerned Scientists blog post:
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.
The new study was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature Plants.