(Beyond Pesticides, August 25, 2017) While organic agriculture still represents only a fraction of the world’s food production, organic food sales have enjoyed remarkable growth over the past couple of decades, which is captured in a recent article, Building a global platform for organic farming research, innovation and technology transfer, published by Springer online. This growth of organic is propelled by consumers and farmers who recognize significant environmental and health advantages of organic, compared to chemical-intensive agriculture. In this context, studies conclude that organic agriculture may be the best way to meet the world’s food security and environmental needs.
A bit of history for some context on this issue: for millennia, of course, all agricultural was “organic.” Even the Industrial Revolution — which brought the combustion engine that enabled machines that made tilling, planting, and harvesting less animal-bound and human-labor intensive — had minimal impact on other aspects of how food was planted, raised, and harvested.
In the 1960s, the so-called “Green Revolution” took hold, powered in part by the post-WWII technological and industrial boom in scientific and technical discoveries and applications, and in part by a rapidly growing global population that shared inequitably in the world’s food production. This “revolution” introduced and promoted intensive, largely petroleum-based and synthetic chemical inputs (primarily fertilizers and herbicides/pesticides), and genetic manipulation techniques. Although the adoption of this approach resulted in significant increases in production, it has, during its 50-year hegemony in parts of the globe, brought with it alarming levels of pollution and degradation of the natural environment, poorer soil and animal health, and increased plant vulnerability to climatic stresses, diseases, and pests.
Those are among the issues that organic agriculture successfully addresses. It improves soil health and quality; sequesters carbon; reduces erosion; increases biological activity that suppresses disease and pests, and boosts plant immunity to infection; improves cycling of nutrients in soil, making them more bioavailable to plants; and yields more healthful forage for livestock. In addition, organic yields are sometimes more stable in the face of environmental or weather stresses; and organic protocols boost populations of pollinators and beneficial insects, and lower pesticide residues.
Moving to organic agriculture seems obvious, so why isn’t it happening at a faster clip? Perhaps it is because there is still disagreement about efficacy and question of feeding the world, but also, because, as discussed in the article, there are barriers to broader adoption, including technological obstacles; policies that continue to favor use of chemical inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides); dependency in livestock practices on petrochemical inputs and dubious animal health approaches; and an economic system in which food prices fail to reflect the environmental, health, and social costs of food production.
On the persistent question of whether organic agriculture could produce enough to feed the 7.5 billion people who inhabit the planet (and the 11.5 billion the U.N. predicts by 2100), studies have reached different conclusions. However, most research has focused on the question of yield.
Proponents of organic see organic yields and cost of production as competitive. “There are actually myriad studies from around the world showing that organic farms can produce about as much [as], and in some settings, much more [than], conventional farms. Where there is a yield gap, it tends to be widest in wealthy nations, where farmers use copious amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in a perennial attempt to maximize yields.” More recent research showed organic yields in North America and Europe at 80% of conventional yields, and some studies show an even narrower gap. And notably, in the world’s poorer countries, where food insecurity is most extreme, “the yield gaps completely disappear.”
Assessing yield gaps between conventional and organic agriculture is a real “apples to oranges” conundrum, not least because production varies with myriad factors, including geography, soil characteristics, weather, farm-specific practices, etc. A very large, 2015 meta-study found organic yields to be 19.2% (with a ±3.7% margin of error) lower than conventional yields, and identified “entirely different effects of crop types and management practices on the yield gap compared with previous studies. For example, we found no significant differences in yields for leguminous versus non-leguminous crops, perennials versus annuals, or developed versus developing countries. Instead, we found the novel result that two agricultural diversification practices, multi-cropping and crop rotations, substantially reduce the yield gap (to 9 ± 4% and 8 ± 5%, respectively) when the methods were applied in only organic systems.”
Beyond Pesticides has long advocated for organic food and agriculture, noting that an “Organic Green Revolution,” using integrated farming practices such as cover crops, organic no-till, and composting, can not only substantially improve yields, but also, protect and restore soil and environmental health. In 2009, Beyond Pesticides said, “Organic agriculture can increase world food security as it offers affordable, immediately usable, and universally accessible ways to improve yields and access to nutritional food in developing countries. A 2008 report cited in a paper from the United Nation Environmental Programme (UNEP) notes that not only can organic agriculture feed the world but it may be the only way we can solve the growing problem of hunger in developing countries. UNEP states that its extensive study ‘challenges the popular myth that organic agriculture cannot increase agricultural productivity.’ In an analysis of 114 farming projects in 24 African countries, UNEP reports that organic or near-organic practices result in a yield increase of more than 100 percent.”
In 2009, Beyond Pesticides reported on a 2008 Rodale Institute research paper, titled The Organic Green Revolution, including a review of replicated research, shows that the latest scientific approaches in organic agriculture offer affordable, immediately usable, and universally accessible ways to improve yields and access to nutritional food in developing countries.
Some have predicted catastrophe should the world convert to organic farming. At a 2002 conference, award-winning plant breeder Norman Borlaug said, “We aren’t going to feed 6 billion people with organic fertilizer. If we tried to do it, we would level most of our forest and many of those lands would be productive only for a short period of time.” Cambridge University chemist John Emsley pulled no punches in his assessment: “The greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to ‘organic farming’ — an estimated 2 billion people would perish.” Still others believe that organic agriculture is an inefficient approach to food security. (For a primer on the question, see this Worldwatch Institute article.]
Despite the different perspectives, the impetus for organic growth is driven by a desire to address the multiple environmental and health problems that humanity faces. Still, challenges and obstacles to the advancement of organic abound.
IFOAM–Organics International, a consortium of 800 organizations across 100 countries — an umbrella of sorts for the organics movement — is acting on those challenges. In 2013 it formed its Technology Innovation Platform (TIPI) to advance organic farming through research, development, innovation, and technology transfer. By engaging stakeholders, including researchers, farmers, consumers, and all those along the “value chain” of food systems, it hopes to develop an agenda for advancing organic production and to advocate for funding initiatives that do so.
IFOAM notes that the kind of research and investment that can help organic farming practices grow and improve is currently insufficient to the task. In recent years, such investment has increased, but it is still a pittance compared to conventional/industrial agriculture’s spending on agrochemicals, genetic engineering, CAFOs (confined animal farming operations), and other approaches that organic practices disallow. Global investment in “organic supportive” research and development activity [as of 2011] was .5% of the total investment in agricultural R&D. During the past couple of decades, especially, there has been an overall decline in public funding of ag research, and a concomitant rise in the rate of corporate investment in proprietary biotechnology (think, e.g., of Monsanto and its dominance in GE soybean seeds in the U.S. because of its development of the glyphosate herbicide, Roundup). IFOAM also points out that “agroecological research seen as compatible with organic farming systems does not provide the same incentives for private sector investment in research and development because their benefits are long-term and are public goods.”
TIPI has identified three strategic research approaches for the sector: (1) develop research methods appropriate for organic food and farming systems; (2) renew partnerships between farmers, farm advisors, scientists, and consumers; and (3) integrate technological, social, and ecological dimensions of innovation. It also advocates for three “pathways,” or goals, for the advancement of organics: (1) organic agriculture becomes the preferred land use system in rural areas worldwide; (2) food and ecosystem security are attained through eco-functional intensification; and (3) organic agriculture produces healthful food in an equitable manner for the well-being of everyone. (See details on these strategies and their research implications in Table 2, here.)
A sampling of TIPI’s goals for enactment of those strategies includes: develop value-added food chains in rural economies; use local sourcing and processing; establish a norm of human, animal, soil, and plant health as primary axes of investigation; breed crops and livestock better suited to local conditions; design ag systems to enhance biodiversity; increase sustainable yields via use of polycultures, variety selection, improved crop rotation, and improved nutrient recycling; investigate relationships between organic food quality and human health; improve technologies to recover organic wastes and return them to the soil; examine and adapt traditional food processing to modern techniques to improve performance and quality of authentic, heritage foods; investigate ways to prevent contamination by pesticides, genetically modified organisms, and other contaminants in production and handling.
Organic agriculture can respond to our human and environmental sustainability needs, but it needs support from all corners. Beyond Pesticides advocates choosing local, organic goods whenever possible; see our Organic Agriculture pages for more information. As Paul Ehrlich and Lauren Ponisio point out, “The sustainability of society hinges on the future of agriculture.”