The New York Times
APRIL 25, 2012
A paper in this week’s issue of Nature reinforces the argument that a hybrid path in agriculture — incorporating both industrial-style production and organic practices where they make sense — gives the best chance of feeding some 9 billion people by midcentury with the fewest regrets.
The paper, “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture,” is by a doctoral student, Verena Seufert, and the geography professor Navin Ramankutty, both of McGill University, and Jonathan Foley, the director of the Institute on the Environment of the University of Minnesota. They found that, over all, conventional farming methods produced 25 percent higher yields than organic techniques, but organic came close for certain crops in certain soils. The authors’ core conclusion?
[T]here are no simple ways to determine a clear ‘winner’ for all possible farming situations. However, instead of continuing the ideologically charged ‘organic versus conventional’ debate, we should systematically evaluate the costs and benefits of different management options. In the end, to achieve sustainable food security we will probably need many different techniques — including organic, conventional, and possible ‘hybrid’ systems —to produce more food at affordable prices, ensure livelihoods for farmers, and reduce the environmental costs of agriculture….
To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.
I caught up with Foley by e-mail, saying that the paper appeared to paint a picture in which cereals, particularly, benefit from fertilizer and the other inputs favored in large-scale farming, while specialty crops can offer smaller farming operations sustainable levels of income. Here’s his reaction:
We really need new “hybrid” approaches, taking the best of the conventional and organic paradigms, and deploying them when and where they make the most sense.
In this study we found that organic systems can compete very well with conventional farms when it comes to fruits and many kinds of vegetables. And they do very well (understandably) with legumes. That’s the good news for organic farming.
Where organic has a lot of ground to make up is in the major grains, especially staples like wheat and rice. There we found that organic farms have significantly lower yields than their conventional counterparts.. And since most of the world’s bulk calories come from these cereals, this is a really big deal.
Organic practices, as we know them today, just cannot produce the same volume of grain calories that conventional farms do on the same land base. That assumes, of course, that our goal is to grow calories — which is only one measure of food production and only one aspect of food security.
The bottom line? Today’s organic farming practices are probably best deployed in fruit and vegetable farms, where growing nutrition (not just bulk calories) is the primary goal. But for delivering sheer calories, especially in our staple crops of wheat, rice, maize, soybeans and so on, conventional farms have the advantage right now.
Looking forward, I think we will need to deploy different kinds of practices (especially new, mixed approaches that take the best of organic and conventional farming systems) where they are best suited — geographically, economically, socially, etc.