You’ve probably heard the most common critique about organic agriculture: “It's great, but it can’t feed the world.”
Well, according to a new study, not only can organic farming feed the world, it may save it, too. The report published in the February edition of the journal Nature Plants reviews hundreds of studies from the last 40 years on organic agriculture. The vast majority of them, the authors say, conclude that organic practices positively impact “productivity, economics, environment, and community well-being.” And while yields on clean farms can be lower than on conventional ones, organic farmers can earn more because consumers are willing to pay more for their crops.
“Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic ag should play a role in feeding the world,” said John Reganold, lead author of the study, of Washington State University.
Most notably, the report points out that organic is the only food production solution that can feed a growing global population and combat climate change. It cites numerous studies that conclude that organic production is better for soils, carbon emissions, and biodiversity—including the survival of important pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Here in the United States, organic food sales have ballooned in the last decade. While information is not yet available for last year, 2014 set a record of $39.1 billion in sales—an 11 percent increase over the year before—with organics now comprising roughly 5 percent of all food sales, according to Organic Trade Association data. But while consumer demand worldwide is on the rise, production has struggled to keep up. It’s not for lack of desire, but rather a combination of high costs to achieve organic certification, a lack of access to labor and certain markets, and the need for additional infrastructure for transporting and storing food.
No doubt the conventional food industry and its boosters will still talk about these drawbacks while lauding the ability of technology—including genetic modification, pesticides, and herbicides—to dramatically increase the yields in the world’s food supply. But this misses the point, Reganold says.
“If you look at calorie production per capita, we're producing more than enough food for 7 billion people now, but we waste 30 to 40 percent of it,” Reganold says. “It's not just a matter of producing enough, but making agriculture environmentally friendly and making sure that food gets to those who need it.”