Can organic farming produce enough food to feed the world by 2050, when the world’s population is expected to hit nine million? A special report by the Economist a few weeks ago tackled that question. The report noted that while “organic farming could feed Americans and Europeans well…it cannot feed the world.” However, a Grist response to the Economist article disagreed. “Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage,” author Tom Philpott claimed.
Which view is correct? A number of studies indicate that the author of the Grist article is correct, including the studies cited by Christos Vasilikiotis of the ESPM-Division of Insect Biology at University of California, Berkeley in his report on organic farming. The first study Vasilikiotis looked at was a project at the University of California (UC), Davis. The UC Davis study compared conventional farming systems with organic farming systems. The tomato yields from one of the organic farming systems studied were lower for the first three years but reached the levels of conventional systems after the first three years, and during the last year of the experiment had higher yields.
The second study Vasilikiotis looked at was a farming systems trial at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. The soybean project, started in 1981, compared intensive soybean and maize production under a conventional system and two organic systems. The organic systems had a higher yield, and during 1999, one of the worst droughts on record, the yield from the organic systems was 30 bushels per acre while the conventional system had 16 bushels per acre. The corn yields were comparable in the conventional and organic systems, but the soil was more fertile in the organic systems. The conventional system had the most impact on the environment, with 60 percent more nitrate ending up in groundwater over a five year period.
The third study Vasilikiotis looked at was an over 150 year old experiment at the Rothamsted Experimental Station in the U.K. The experiment compared a manure based fertilizer system (not organic certified) with a synthetic fertilizer. The wheat yields were slightly higher in the manure based system, and soil was more fertile. Fertility increased 120 percent over 150 years in the manure based plots, but only 20 percent in the synthetic based plots.
The fourth study looked at by Vasilikiotis actually consisted of six studies by Midwestern universities since 1978. In all of the studies, the organic systems were either equivalent or better than the conventional systems.
The last study looked at by Vasilikiotis compared conventional and organic farms in the Central San Joaquin Valley of Calif0rnia, considered to be the agricultural center of the world. The tomato yields from the organic and conventional systems were “quite similar,” but soil health was better under the organic systems.
A study by John Ikerd of the University of Missouri, pointed out that “industrial agricultural now creates more problems than it solves.” One of the main problems industrial agricultural creates, according to Ikerd, is pollution of the environment. As a major agricultural area, the San Joaquin Valley suffers from polluted groundwater and has one of the worst air basins in the country. A UN independent expert on water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, toured the U.S. from February 22 to March 4, and visited the southern San Joaquin Valley town of Seville as part of the tour. Seville’s water is contaminated with nitrates to such a degree that residents, the majority of which are farm workers, must purchase drinking water.