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.