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Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard some environmental advocates claim that organic farming could produce enough food to feed the world. Is this true?
April 2006--Gabe Morello, Lynnwood, WA
Advocates of modern agriculture reliant on pesticides and widespread single crop plantings (known as “monoculture”) have bragged for decades about the increased productivity their high-tech methods can yield. Indeed, several studies in the U.S., Britain and Australia have shown that such methods produce as much as 40 percent more than the more benign methods that served mankind well for thousands of years.
As a result, seed growers and pesticide makers are now working in poor countries to promote the same “green revolution” there, capable, they say, of growing enough food to feed the desperately hungry.
But a spate of new research has shown that organic farming actually yields better results than modern techniques when evaluated more holistically. A series of peer-reviewed papers published by the international journal, Nature, showed that organic methods for growing rice, corn and wheat all produced significantly higher yields--and at less the cost--than monoculture farms. And research at England’s Essex University has shown that farmers in India, Kenya, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras have doubled or tripled their yields by switching to organic agriculture. Cuban farmers, who cannot access fertilizers and pesticides due to the U.S. embargo, have also realized greater yields by taking up organic farming.
According to Dr. Christos Vasilikiotis of the University of California, Berkeley, a vocal advocate of organic farming, chemically intensive farming is highly undesirable due to the toll it takes on the land and the pollution it generates. “Organic…farming methods continually increase soil fertility and prevent loss of topsoil to erosion, while conventional methods have the opposite effect,” he says. He further maintains that “only a conversion to organic farming will allow us to maintain and even increase current crop yields.”
Dr. Liz Stockdale of Britain’s Institute of Arable Crops Research agrees, and points out that even when organic yields are less than conventional ones, organic farmers make up the financial difference by not having to buy costly pesticides and fertilizers. She adds that improved growing techniques and new natural pest controls could eventually level the playing field, giving organic farmers the economic advantage.
According to the trade group, Organic Consumers Association, only slightly more than two percent of all farms in the U.S. are currently organic. But with sales of domestic organic food growing about 20 percent annually, the organization expects that figure to rise exponentially in years to come.
Still, though, feeding the world is a tall order, and everyone from organic farmers to environmental leaders to human rights workers agrees that ending hunger is dependent more upon political will than agricultural prowess. “Until governments tackle the social and political factors involved in poverty and food distribution, millions of people will continue to go hungry,” concludes Stockdale.
CONTACTS: Organic Consumers Association, www.organicconsumers.org; U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program, www.ams.usda.gov/nop
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