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Organic Farming Won’t Be Enough To Feed The 9 Billion, Study Suggests

Organic farm

Organic farming is widely recognized as a key to sustainably feeding 9 billion people by 2050, but as obvious as it may seem, it’s still a pretty hot debate.

It’s no secret that chemical fertilizers and pesticides are harming the environment, and if we want to continue living on this planet, we’re going to have to find safer alternatives. Surely organic farming is the safest alternative we can bet on, but the amount of food it provides is smaller than the amount created through conventional, industrial farming methods. A new analysis published in Nature observes the pros and cons of the two methods of farming, and how we could go about feed a growing population without destroying the Earth.

According to the analysis, farming without pesticides and fertilizers could supply food in some circumstances, but the bulk of the planet’s diet will need fertilizers in order to thrive.

The study reviewed 34 different crops in organic and conventional farming systems. Crop yields from organic farms are as much as 34% lower than traditional farming, and is particularly lower for the production of vegetables and cereal crops such as wheat, which make up a massive portion of food around the world.

One possibility why vegetables and wheat have trouble growing organically is because chemical fertilizers are applied to fields while the crops are still growing, delivering nitrogen and other important nutrients. In organic farming, crop residue is layered on the surface of the soil, building up nutrients over a longer period of time.

The study does note that it’s possible to create high yields of production with organic farming, even if it’s a limited number of crops. Researchers suggest farmers invest more time in land management practices, planting nitrogen-rich crops the same time they plant vegetables and wheat. Over time, this could help crops work together to take what they need and produce rich, plentiful food sources.

The next project researchers will tackle is analyzing the environmental impact of organic and conventional agriculture, and how they compare in developing countries, where yield increases are needed the most. It is expected that the world population will continue to grow until at least 2050, so now is the time to act if we all 9 billion of us want to be fed adequately in the future.

via Scientific American
Image CC licensed by Mr. T in DC:

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  • Steve at Urban GreenSpace

    I read an article recently that said the onus should be on ‘conventional’ ag to prove itself in a world of peak oil and failing GMO crops. Organic was ‘conventional’ up until a hundred years or so ago.

    When you look at the Rodale Institute’s 30 year study that showed organic to be very similar in yield but with far less environmental cost versus looking at a quantitative review – hard to compare farming methods even within organic as there re many approaches and there are new methods being developed and refined all the time. Look at no-tillage cropping or Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm for examples. It’s not a static field as many may think.

    Also the whole organic vs conventional argument is overly simplistic. Polyface Farm is a ‘beyond organic’ farm for example. 

    Few of these studies take into account the areas of land off the conventional farms where the fertiliser and feed comes from. They say organic farms take up more land. I’d like to have them answer that point more specifically.

    As long as we keep looking for silver bullets we will think we have to find a werewolf. The future will be a patchwork of solutions to problems such as food and energy. We need to look for those that offer long term benefits not high cost short term.