I’m getting tired of hearing that sustainable, organic agriculture can’t feed the world. It’s the objection that people often raise after they first call you an elitist snob for wanting to eat local, organically grown foods in season. Never mind that until 100 years ago, all food was local and organic. These days if you buy from local farmers and ranchers, you’re obviously trying to keep the poor and downtrodden oppressed. And, you want children to starve in Africa.
Okay! I’ll turn off the sarcasm and turn on the inspiring news story.
According to the researchers at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, organic agriculture is just as productive as conventional, chemical-dependent agriculture. The center runs the Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment (LTAR), the longest running experiment of its kind. (They’ve been going since 1998.) Plus, given that organic foods can sell for considerably more than conventional foods, growing organic yields even more economic returns.
So, can organic feed the world?
Tom Philpott explains:
At the LTAR fields in Adair County, the (LTAR) runs four fields: one managed with the Midwest-standard two-year corn-soy rotation featuring the full range of agrochemicals; and the other ones organically managed with three different crop-rotation systems. The chart below records the yield averages of all the systems, comparing them to the average yields achieved by actual conventional growers in Adair County:
So, in yield terms, both of the organic rotations featuring corn beat the Adair County average and came close to the conventional patch. Two of the three organic rotations featuring soybeans beat both the county average and the conventional patch; and both of the organic rotations featuring oats trounced the county average. In short, Borlaug’s claim of huge yield advantages for the chemical-intensive agriculture he championed just don’t pan out in the field.
And in terms of economic returns to farmers—market price for crops minus costs—the contest isn’t even close. Organic crops draw a higher price in the market and don’t require expenditures for pricy inputs like synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.
While this is the latest news from the LTAR’s ongoing study, this is certainly NOT the first time that organic agriculture has been championed as more productive in a scientific study or report. This past spring, the United Nations reviewed a host of studies on the subject and issued a report claiming that small-scale sustainable farming would double food production within 5 to 10 years in undeveloped countries. Before that, we had a steady stream of study after study claiming that sustainable, organic agriculture could produce equal or greater food yields.
So, let’s put this notion that we need synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to rest. Not only does the system make little sense long-term (it’s called “unsustainable” for a reason), but it’s also completely unnecessary to feed the world.
(photo by friendsoffamilyfarmers)