Organic agriculture key to feeding the world sustainably, and better profits

(Feb 2016):  A recently released study which analysed 40 years of research comparing organic (biological) to conventional (chemical) farming methods, using 4 areas of sustainability, Washington State University has concluded that feeding a growing global population with sustainability goals in mind is possible.

Their review of hundreds of published studies provides evidence that organic farming can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment and be safer for farm workers.

An assessment of organic farming relative to conventional farming

An assessment of organic farming relative to conventional farming illustrates that organic systems better balance the four areas of sustainability. Credit: Reganold and Wachter, WSU.

The review study, “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century,” is featured as the cover story for the February issue of the journal Nature Plants and was authored by John Reganold, WSU regents professor of soil science and agroecology, and doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter.

It is the first study to analyse the science comparing organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economics, environment and community well being.

“Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic ag should play a role in feeding the world” said lead author Reganold (http://css.wsu.edu/people/faculty/john-p-reganold). “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.”

Organic production accounts for one percent of global agricultural land, despite rapid growth in the last two decades.

Critics have long argued that organic agriculture is inefficient, requiring more land to yield the same amount of food. The review paper describes cases where organic yields can be higher than conventional farming methods.

“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.

However, even when yields may be lower, organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. Higher prices can be justified as a way to compensate farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.

The study recommended policy changes to address the barriers that hinder the expansion of organic agriculture. Such hurdles include the costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labor and markets, and lack of appropriate infrastructure for storing and transporting food. Legal and financial tools are necessary to encourage the adoption of innovative, sustainable farming practices.

Source: | WSU News