Organic farming could provide ample food for the whole human population, while causing less pollution and fewer health problems than conventional agriculture, according to a team of American scientists. Our partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.
One of the stock arguments used by proponents of conventional agriculture is that it provides better yields than organic farming, and is the only possible means of feeding the 9 billion people that will inhabit the Earth by 2050.
But in a paper published on Wednesday (3 February) in the journal Nature, John Reganold and Jonathan Wachter, agronomists at Washington State University in the United States, argued that another way exists.
An analysis of 40 years of scientific literature comparing the two types of agriculture showed that yields from organic farms were indeed between 8% and 25% lower than those of conventional farms, depending on the crop. With effective use of organic polyculture, this gap narrowed to 9%, and with increased crop rotation it shrank to just 8%.
Organic farms more resistant to drought
But according to the scientists, one area where organic farming can trump conventional methods is in periods of severe drought; a phenomenon set to become increasingly common as the global climate is disrupted.
The weight of evidence argues that yields from organic farms are more reliable in periods of drought, because their healthier soil retains more moisture. And there is nothing to stop farmers from using seeds that are better adapted to organic farming methods to further close the productivity gap.
Quite apart from the difference in the amount of food they produce, organic farmers often make a rather healthier living than their pesticide-spraying colleagues, with revenues between 22% and 35% higher. Organic products sell for on average 32% more than conventional products. With the price gap reduced to just 5%, the two types of farm would be equally profitable, proving that the sector still has significant room for manoeuvre in encouraging the uptake of organic eating habits.
For the two agronomists, mankind’s conversion to organic farming should not rest solely on the question of yields. “We should also reduce food waste, improve access to food distribution, stabilise the global population, eliminate the conversion of crops into biofuels and adopt a more plant-based diet,” they stated.
Pollution and chronic diseases
The downsides of conventional farming are clear to see. It uses pesticides, pollutes water with nitrates and phosphates, causes high greenhouse gas emissions and reduces biodiversity on cultivated land. As well as contributing to a variety of chronic diseases, conventional farming methods also produce food with lower nutritional values than organic methods; a finding supported by 12 of the 15 studies identified by the researchers on this subject.
The final factor the American team analysed was the social impact of the two farming methods. Here too, organic farming came out on top. The consensus in the literature was that organic farms create more jobs, are less damaging to their employees’ health and actually improve their diet, promote interaction between producers and consumers and provide better conditions for animals.
“Hundreds of scientific studies now demonstrate that organic farming should play a greater role in feeding our planet. 30 years ago, there were only a handful of studies comparing organic and conventional agriculture. In the last 15 years their number has massively increased,” Reganold observed.