Study defines role of organic agriculture in feeding the world

Numerous studies in the review point to the environmental benefits of organic production.

By Lorraine Stevenson
OrganicBiz staff

Organic agriculture can play a important role in feeding the world, according to a new study comparing conventional and organic farming systems’ ability to produce yields, benefit farmers’ bottom line, and sustain the environment.

That’s the conclusion drawn by Washington State University (WSU) researchers after a review of 40 years of science-based evidence comparing organic and conventional agriculture.

“Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic ag should play a role in feeding the world” said John Reganold, WSU professor of soil science and agro-ecology, lead author of of Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century.

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. — John Reganold, soil science professor

The evidence is mounting that organic farming has this legitimate role, he asserts.

“Thirty years ago, there were just a couple handfuls of studies comparing organic agriculture with conventional,” he said in a release. “In the last 15 years, these kinds of studies have skyrocketed.”

Their analysis of the two systems show organic, as a system of farming not reliant on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides while boosting soil quality and lowering green house gas emissions has capacity to sustain both farmers and a healthy healthy environment for food production.

The review also describes cases where organic yields can be higher than conventional farming methods, which squares off with the main criticism of organic farming as an inefficient farm system because it requires more land to yield the same amount of food.

“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.

Feeding the world is not only a matter of yield but reducing food waste and improving distribution systems, he said.

“If you look at calorie production per capita we’re producing more than enough food for seven billion people now, but we waste 30 to 40 per cent 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.”

Reganold and fellow study author Jonathan Wachter concludes that no single type of farming will feed the world, but rather a balance of systems including ‘a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, mixed crop/livestock and still undiscovered systems.’

Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century is the cover story for this month’s issue of the journal Nature Plants.