Organic farming is key to helping feed the world sustainably


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 PhD student Jonathan Wachter and I came to when reviewing 40 years of science comparing the long-term prospects of organic and conventional agriculture.

Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment, and be safer for farm workers. Thirty years ago, there were only a few studies comparing organic farming to conventional farming. Over the past 15 years, the number of these types of studies has exploded.

The review study, “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century,” is featured as the cover story of the journal’s February issue natural plants. He is the first to compare organic and conventional agriculture through the four sustainability goals identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economy, environment and social well-being.

The issue of performance

Critics have long argued that organic farming is inefficient, requiring more land to produce the same amount of food. It is true that organic farming produces lower yields, on average 10 to 20% less than conventional. Proponents argue that the environmental benefits of organic farming far outweigh the lower yields, and that increasing research and breeding resources for organic systems would close 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 we are not providing adequate access to all individuals.

In some cases, organic yields can be higher than conventional ones. For example, under severe drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change in many regions, organic farms can produce as good or even better yields due to the higher water-holding capacity of cultivated soils. in organic farming.

What science tells us is that traditional conventional farming systems have provided increasing supplies of food and other products, but often at the expense of other sustainability goals.

Environmental benefits

Conventional agriculture can 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 agricultural systems, but have often extended far beyond the boundaries of their fields. With organic farming, the environmental costs tend to be lower and the benefits greater.

Overall, organic farms tend to store more carbon in the soil, have better soil quality, and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic farming also creates less soil and water pollution and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s more energy efficient because it doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Organic farming is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes as well as genetic diversity. Biodiversity increases the services provided by nature, such as pollination, and improves the ability of agricultural systems to adapt to changing conditions.

Profitability

Despite lower yields, organic farming is more profitable for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. Higher prices, called price premiums, can be justified as a means of remunerating farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.

Welfare

Although studies that assess the social equity and quality of life of farming communities are few, what is available suggests that organic and conventional agriculture has room for improvement. Yet organic farming comes out on top when it comes to providing jobs for workers and reducing farmworker exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. Many organic certification programs also have welfare goals for farm workers, as well as animals.

An assessment of organic agriculture compared to conventional agriculture shows that organic systems better balance the four areas of sustainability: production (orange), environment (blue), economy (red) and good. – being social (green). Source: Nature Plants

Beyond organic

Organic farming has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and the environment, and support social interactions between farmers and consumers. Yet no one type of agriculture can feed the world. What is needed instead is a mix of organic farming systems and other innovative systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, crop/livestock combination and still unknown.

Policy changes needed

With only 1% of the world’s farmland in organic production, organic agriculture can contribute a greater share of the world’s diet. Yet, significant barriers to the adoption of organic farming by farmers are hampering its expansion. These barriers include existing policies, costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labor and markets, and lack of appropriate infrastructure to store and transport food. Governments should focus on creating policies that help develop not only organic farming systems, but also other innovative and more sustainable farming systems. More specifically, agricultural policies should:

  • Provide greater financial incentives to farmers to adopt science-based conservation measures and sustainable, organic and integrated crop or livestock production practices.
  • Expand outreach and technical assistance that will provide farmers with better information on these transformative practices.
  • Increase publicly funded research to improve and develop modern sustainable agriculture.

To obtain a copy of the study, please email John Reganold.

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