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Organic Can Feed the World

Posted 4/22/2012 7:43pm by Don Lareau & Daphne Yannakakis.

It is an often heard statement that as great as organic may be it can not feed the world.  After watching Mythbusters the other night I decided it was time for me to start busting some myths, do not worry as I will not be blowing anything up.  The idea that Organic agriculture can not feed the world is the most common myth about organics that chemical agriculture puts out there.   

First of all note that I call it chemical agriculture not conventional agriculture because organic was the convention and will be again.  So called ‘conventional’ agriculture relies so much on chemistry and physics to get the job of growing done that it is much more appropriate to call it simply chemical agriculture.  Basically the premise of the “green” revolution is to take a field, use tractors and chemicals to rid it of every biological organism in order to put in the one biological organism that you want to grow in order to guarantee success.  It does work but what of the soil?  

This is where we see that indeed organic agriculture can not only feed the world but also increase soil health.  Why is that?  Because organic agriculture does not live in fear of biology, which can turn against what you want to grow, think of a moldy pumpkin left in the root cellar too long or a leaf covered in powdery mildew.  Organic agriculture embraces biology and in fact adds it to the soil in the form of manure, compost, compost teas, and a large variety of microbe foods to name a few.  And it is this biology that makes organic agriculture able to feed the world.  

There have been several studies done, long term studies, such as the Rodale Institutes 30 year Farming Systems Trial Report, and the 13 year ISU Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment.  Both of these studies have shown several things of great importance.  Such as from the Rodale institute study:  Organic yields match that of chemical yields, organic outperforms chemical in drought years, organic systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, organic systems use 45% less energy, chemical systems produce 40% more greenhouse gasses, and most importantly organic systems are more profitable.  The Iowa study showed similar results mostly for a corn and soybean rotation.   

There are several studies internationally that have also shown how organic agriculture can feed the world, most significantly the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  They reported that in Africa the only way of solving hunger would be transitioning to organic systems as they have outperformed “industrial” systems  while providing environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, water retention and drought resistance.   

Now realize that organic agriculture does not have very much money to actually do research.  Of all the research dollars spent on agriculture in the US organics does not even get its fair share.  Biotechnology and the like get more than their fair share.  So perhaps if Organic Ag actually got its full share of the research money more studies like these could be undertaken.   

The other point to be made is that agriculture is not feeding the world right now, there are many who go to bed underfed or undernourished.  Organic local agriculture offers the best opportunity for people to feed themselves.  Also chemical agriculture is based on the abundance of cheap fossil fuels, and abundant water two things that are no longer assured in this day and age.  So encouraging people to feed themselves through sustainable means that do not depend on expensive chemicals and petroleum based inputs is the only clear path to a world where we can feed ourselves and each other.   

So the next time that you hear about how Organic Agriculture can not feed the world you will be assured that indeed it can not only feed the world.  It can do so while leaving our soils, waters, and air in better shape.  It can feed the world and make us more resilient to droughts, pests and diseases.  Organic can feed the world, so go on and plant a seed!

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