Friday, February 25, 2005

Can organic agriculture feed the world?

Now that the agricultural chemical industry isn't getting any traction from saying that pesticides don't hurt you, they have turned to another line of attack on organic agriculture: It can't feed the world. Never mind that in many places where farmers can't afford expensive chemicals it does feed the world. But the question needs to be taken seriously by organic enthusiasts. If turning every farm in the world into an organic farm tomorrow were to result in widespread starvation, few people would embrace such a move. That's why it is important to study whether yields can be made comparable. Already it's clear that profits for organic farmers can be higher since they don't have the huge input costs associated with artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The lower costs and the premium prices for organic crops and animal products can make them quite lucrative even when yields are smaller.

The smattering of studies done so far offers hope on the question of yields. Click here, here and here to get a general idea of the research. The usual pattern is that yields fall initially, but over time as the soil is improved yields begin to improve, sometimes dramatically. Organic farming is something people learn to do by doing it. Like anything, they get better at it over time by paying careful attention to the soil, the insects and the crops themselves. An organic beef farmer I know claims he hasn't had a sick animal since 1986. He said his crop yields are comparable to conventional farming, and he gets very little loss to insects. The secret: The return of biodiversity in the fields naturally controls insect pests and the enrichment of the soil helps to create healthy crops that resist disease.

It's time to prove what many people know anecdotally in a way that is incontrovertible.

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