Proponents of organic agriculture say it leads to better soil management, uses fewer pesticides and fertilisers, and is a better protector of biodiversity. However, when it comes to increasing food production for a growing global population, others argue that organic’s lower average yields would mean clearing more land for agriculture.
According to a 2012 meta-analysis, organic crop yields average about 80% of those of conventional crops – but there is huge variation depending on the region and crop variety. The researchers found that while organic fruit trees, beans and alfalfa delivered just 5% lower yields, major cereal crops and vegetables yielded about 25% less than their conventionally grown counterparts.
They suggested that when conventional crops were near their maximum potential yields, pests and diseases in organic crops would have to be extremely well controlled to match up – factors that tend to be a greater challenge in organic agriculture.
A more recent meta-analysis published in January this year found a similar gap in the productivity of organic agriculture – an average of 19.2% – and suggested that the gap could be narrowed to 8 or 9% with different crop management techniques.
Reducing non-renewable inputs
But while much of the debate has focused on whether organic can match the yields of conventional agriculture, advocates suggest organic foods offer more long-term viability even if yields are lower.
US economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, for example, suggests that global agriculture must shift toward organic in order to reduce dependence on petrochemical-based fertilisers and pesticides, which are likely to see prices skyrocket in the mid- to long-term.
However, even though organic farming avoids non-renewable inputs, the land use dilemma remains. NGO Forest Trends claims that more than 70% of tropical deforestation since 2000 was for agricultural conversion, and more than 6m hectares of tropical rainforest are lost each year.
Any move toward more organic systems therefore would need to reduce land use, rather than increase it – a big challenge when the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that food production will need to double by 2050.
Food waste may be a significant part of the equation. One in three forkfuls of food is wasted or lost before it reaches the consumer, according to the FAO, so waste reduction could be a way to increase the amount of food on the average plate without having to cut down forest. But without waste reduction, ways to increase crop yields seem vital to our future ability to feed the planet.
Finally, the argument over whether the planet has enough land to sustain more cropland also assumes that dietary patterns will remain constant over the coming decades, but Western diets, at least, increasingly are moving away from meat consumption, which uses more grain than plant-based diets. With 40% of the world’s grain already being used for feed – estimated to increase to 60% by 2050, according to the FAO – a shift away from animal products could make organic agriculture a more viable mainstream option.
A third way?
While debate over organic’s role in future food production tends to pit organic against conventional farming, conservation farming may provide a compromise. It doesn’t explicitly prohibit any farming practices, but encourages soil and water conservation and the use of mulch to minimise runoff and erosion.
The FAO has called it “a concept for resource-saving agricultural crop production that strives to achieve acceptable profits together with high and sustained production levels while concurrently conserving the environment”.
Even UK-based organic advocacy organisation, The Soil Association, has argued that sustainable agriculture does not necessarily begin with organic production. Its chief executive, Helen Browning, said at a conference in 2013 that good food was about how it is produced – but said The Soil Association had sometimes become too associated with campaigns against genetic modification or pesticides.
“Unless we deliver positive real world solutions, policies that are genuinely likely to stand up, we will have failed,” she said. “I want us much more to be known for what we are for, rather than what we are against.”
According to Eurostat, only about 4% of agricultural land in Europe is organically managed, despite consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for organic foods in many markets. The European organic market has increased fourfold over the past decade according to EU figures, but organic agricultural land has only doubled over the same period.