Monday, April 30, 2012

Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?

I'd like to think that it can, but I have often wondered wether organic agriculture could feed everyone or whether we need more intensive agriculture. There are many environmental benefits to organic methods including reduced use of herbicides and pesticides such as neonicotinoids which are implicated in the decline of bee numbers. Another benefit is the greater diversity of vegetable varieties also associated with organic farming. This is for two reasons: to use varieties with greater natural resistance to pests and to use more flavoursome varieties to differentiate from non-organic produce.

 A recent study of studies of yield from organic methods compared with so-called conventional methods has recently been published in Nature and reported here by the BBC. From the BBC report:
The headline conclusion is pretty unequivocal; across the board, organic farming produces lower yields than conventional methods, by about 25%. For fruit, the difference is marginal, just a few percent. But for vegetables, organic yields are about 33% down on conventional, with barley and wheat a little lower still.
 A lower yield from organic farming over a given area of land is not surprising really; good organic farming would have a reduced crop growing area as there would be hedgerows and possibly field boundaries that are unplanted. Then the reduced fertiliser use can reduce yield and varieties bred for pest resistance may not be optimised for yield. Another factor affecting yields identified in the report was irrigation, with non-organic methods using more water. In many parts of the world, including southern Britain the future may not slow such profligate water use, thus closing the gap. In fact a study undertaken by the Rodale Institute showed that organic growing produced better yields of corn in drought years. Another review of the Nature report in the Guardian notes established organic production using the best organic practices and with the right natural conditions can be as productive as conventional methods.

But this still doesn't answer the question, can we feed the world organically?

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