Organic growth set to double – but it won’t feed the planet alone: Study

By Kizzi Nkwocha

- Last updated on GMT

'Adopting truly sustainable farming systems on a wide scale is our best opportunity for meeting this grand challenge and ensuring future food and ecosystem security,' write the authors. © iStock
'Adopting truly sustainable farming systems on a wide scale is our best opportunity for meeting this grand challenge and ensuring future food and ecosystem security,' write the authors. © iStock

Related tags: Organic agriculture, Organic farming, Agriculture, Sustainable agriculture

Sales of organic food and drink are set to double by 2018 but this is not enough to feed the world – a truly sustainable farming system is needed for future food and ecosystem security, say researchers.

“The challenge of feeding a growing population expected to reach 9 to 10 billion people by 2050 while protecting the environment is daunting,” ​writes lead author of the study, John Reganold of Washington State University, who says much of the growth in organic agriculture can be attributed to concerns over the sustainability of conventional farming methods.  

“Adopting truly sustainable farming systems on a wide scale is our best opportunity for meeting this grand challenge and ensuring future food and ecosystem security.

“Concerns about the unsustainability of conventional agriculture have promoted interest in other farming systems, such as organic, integrated and conservation agriculture.”

Worldwide sales of organic foods and beverages grew almost fivefold between 1999 and 2013 to €64 billion (US$72 billion).

Balancing multiple sustainability goals

The authors note that, while critics dismiss organic agriculture as an inefficient approach to food security, the number of organic farms is rising.

The study says: “The number of organic farms, the extent of organically farmed land, the amount of research funding devoted to organic farming and the market size for organic foods have steadily increased.

“Sales of organic foods and beverages are rapidly growing, increasing almost fivefold between 1999 and 2013 to US$72 billion; this 2013 figure is projected to double by 2018. Moreover, recent international reports recognise organic agriculture as an innovative farming system that balances multiple sustainability goals and will be of increasing importance in global food and ecosystem security.”

However, despite the growth in organic agriculture, the report notes that this increase will not be enough to feed the planet by itself.

Instead the authors stress that, in order to establish a sustainable farming system, a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems is needed.

The study adds: “Whether organic agriculture can continue to expand globally will primarily be determined by its financial performance compared with conventional agriculture.

“The main factors that determine the profitability of organic agriculture include crop yields, labour and total costs, price premiums for organic products, the potential for reduced income during the organic transition period (usually three years), and potential cost savings from the reduced reliance on non-renewable resources and purchased inputs.”

Government policy remains main barrier

The study says the biggest criticism of organic agriculture is its lower yields compared with conventional agriculture:  “A particularly salient challenge given the task of feeding a growing world population without further agricultural expansion.”

However, it adds: “Conversely, some contend that the environmental advantages of organic agriculture far outweigh the lower yields, and that increasing research and breeding resources for organic systems would reduce the yield gap.”

John Reganold told FoodNavigator that, in practice, government policy remains a major barrier to the adoption of organic agriculture.

He said: “We need policies that offer greater financial incentives for farmers to adopt conservation measures and scientifically sound sustainable, organic crop and livestock production practices.”

Reganold said there was little evidence to support the view that organic agriculture could ultimately result in higher food prices.

“Studies show that the total costs of organic and conventional farming systems are similar, with labour costs higher on organic farms and fertilizer and pesticide costs higher on conventional,”​ he said.

“Initial evidence indicates that organic farms provide ecosystem services or benefits to society, which justifies the higher price premiums for organic farmers growing the food.”

Source:  Nature Plants

“Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century.”

First published online 3 February 2016, doi: 10.1038/NPLANTS.2015.221

Authors: John P. Reganold and Jonathan M. Wachter

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