Opinion: Organic farming can ensure food security for future generations

Organic farm in California
An organic farm in California. Courtesy of UC Davis

For you and me, organic groceries are a luxury. For the children of the future, foods from organic farming will be a necessity.

We often hear that agricultural industrialization is the key to feeding the world. But in the face of climate change, conventional agriculture will fail us when we need it most.

When this happens, organic farming systems will offer a sustainable solution – but only if we take action to support our organic farmers today, through changes in both policy and consumption habits.

The past five years constitute the five hottest years in recorded history, with 2018 being the fourth hottest year on record. The effects of climate change are increasingly severe, especially for the agricultural sector.

Higher temperatures mean more evaporation, which dries out soils. Chronically dry soils lead to reduced agricultural productivity. In 2015, California’s agriculture sector lost $2.7 billion and 21,000 jobs due to a severe drought.

Organic farms, however, are resilient to water-scarce conditions. Indeed, the soils of organic systems are able to absorb and retain more water than conventional soils.

The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial has shown that organic corn yields exceed conventional yields in drought years. Additionally, organic soybean plots produced 52% to 96% more than conventional soybean plots in 1999, a year of severe drought.

In a warm, dry future, biodiverse organic farms will outperform conventional monocultures.

Ironically, industrial agriculture is digging its own grave. Although immediately threatened by climate change, agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for around a quarter of global emissions.

Organic farming systems can help reverse this trend. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, organic farms require significantly less energy input than comparable conventional farms.

It may also be that organic farming is one of our greatest assets in the fight against climate change. Organic farms around the world have the potential to store up to 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in their soils each year.

Considering that a typical passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, that would be equivalent to taking nearly 522 million cars off the road.

There are concerns about the higher cost of organic products. But, as organic techniques are adopted around the world, production costs will fall and buyers will pay lower prices. This process is already underway — the cost of organic spinach has dropped more than 53% since 2004.

But for this trend to continue globally, we need to invest in organic farming now.

In the 2018 Farm Bill, policymakers took a step in the right direction. Funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative will be increased to $50 million per year by 2023.

However, the bill does not adequately support organic farmers. Crop insurance payments are primarily made to large producers of crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans.

If the Farm Bill were to reallocate some of that funding to support farmers in their transition to organic systems, more farmers would be incentivized to make the switch. This would create the basis for a growing network of organic growers in the United States.

Unfortunately, politics is riddled with vested interests and is often slow to change. As a result, consumers need to drive demand for organic foods today.

There are a number of actions you can take now to support organic farmers.

Buy products with the “USDA organic” label. Find out where your local grocery store gets its meats and produce. Encourage your friends and family to buy organic.

Go to farmers markets and talk to local producers. Fortunately, San Diego hosts about 50 certified markets.

On Sundays, the Hillcrest Market takes over from the DMV parking lot. Ocean Beach invites you to fill your Wednesday afternoons with live music and organic products. Every Saturday morning, Little Italy is home to one of the largest markets in the county, right in the heart of downtown.

There will come a day when conventional agriculture will no longer pay off, and organic farmers will have to be ready and able to feed the planet. A few more dollars spent on organic products today is an investment in the long-term food security of tomorrow.

For the sake of my future children and grandchildren, I will do my best to pay.

Jonathan Worley is an undergraduate student at Stanford University studying human biology. He grew up in Kensington and graduated from High Tech High in Point Loma in 2016.

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