Organic farming can feed the world

Perfecto referred to the idea that people would go hungry if farming went organic as “ridiculous.” She blames corporate interests in agriculture and research for the widely held assumption that you need to have these inputs to produce food.

Catherine Badgley, a research scientist in the Museum of Paleontology is a co-author of the paper. Badgley and Perfecto decided to look more deeply into organic farming when they were visiting farms in Southern Michigan and were struck by how much food organic farmers were producing. The researchers set about compiling data from published literature to investigate the two chief objections to organic farming – low yields and lack of organically acceptable nitrogen sources – objections that now seem invalid.

According to Perfecto, organic agriculture is ideally suited to the developing world because farmers in developing countries often do not have access to the expensive fertilisers and pesticides that farmers in developed countries use to produce high yields. Perfecto argues that a switch to organic farming in developing countries could rapidly improve yields.

The research used a global data set of 293 examples to compare the yields of organic versus conventional or low intensive food production. The researchers then estimated the average yield ratio of different food categories for the developed and developing world. This data was used to model the global food supply that could be grown organically on the current agricultural land base.

The results from the scientific modelling indicates that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population – and potentially an even larger population – without increasing the agricultural land base. This shows that organic farming could contribute significantly to the global food supply and at the same time reduce the negative environmental impact currently associated with agriculture.

The study joins an increasing body of research highlighting the benefits of organic farming. Last year another report had a similar message. After studying more than 280 projects in 57 of the world’s poorest countries, researchers found that organic farming could increase crop yields by 79 per cent.

Co-author of the 2006 report, Professor Jules Pretty from the University of Essex, told the BBC that methods without an adverse affect on local biodiversity allowed farmers to benefit from growing crops in healthy soil. It also reduces water useage.

“Soils that are higher in organic matter are better at holding water” Professor Pretty said. “If you have diverse and higher soil quality then it is better prepared to deal with drought conditions when access to water becomes a critical issue.”

Conventional farming is far more damaging to the environment – exacerbating soil erosion, greenhouse gas pollution, pest resistance and loss of biodiversity. The essentials of a healthy environment such as a stable climate, and clean air and water, are being lost through unsustainable farming practices.

Organic farming is less harmful to the environment, produces food with greater nutritional value and, as mounting scientific evidence shows, can triple yields. This could create dramatic changes in the developing world, where malnutrition and hunger are rife. As New Scientist commented back in 2001:

"Low-tech ‘sustainable agriculture,’ shunning chemicals in favour of natural pest control and fertiliser, is pushing up crop yields on poor farms across the world, often by 70 per cent or more…
A new science-based revolution is gaining strength built on real research into what works best on the small farms where a billion or more of the world’s hungry live and work… It is time for the major agricultural research centres and their funding agencies to join the revolution."

More support is needed in the developing world to empower communities to make the switch to organic methods and reap the benefits.

More information on the study can be found here.

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