Can or­ganic agri­cul­ture solve the world’s hunger prob­lems?

Lodi News-Sentinel - - Agriculture - By Amina Khan

Agri­cul­ture could go or­ganic world­wide if we slashed food waste and stopped us­ing so much crop­land to feed live­stock, a new study finds.

The analysis, pub­lished in the journal Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, shows that it will take sev­eral strate­gies op­er­at­ing at once to feed the grow­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion in a more sus­tain­able way — and some of those strate­gies may re­quire peo­ple to shift their di­etary pat­terns, too.

The world’s pop­u­la­tion is ex­pected to hit 9.8 bil­lion by 2050, which means an ex­tra 2 bil­lion or so mouths to feed. This will re­quire in­creas­ing agri­cul­tural out­put by an ad­di­tional 50 per­cent, the study au­thors wrote — which is made an even greater chal­lenge as di­etary pat­terns have been chang­ing and the de­mand for meat has been ris­ing. (Rais­ing live­stock leaves a large car­bon and wa­ter foot­print rel­a­tive to grow­ing plant-based foods.) All of this puts an ad­di­tional strain on an al­ready taxed en­vi­ron­ment.

“It is, there­fore, cru­cial to curb the neg­a­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of agri­cul­ture, while en­sur­ing that the same quan­tity of food can be de­liv­ered,” the study au­thors wrote.

Ex­perts have thrown out sev­eral strate­gies to deal with the im­pend­ing food se­cu­rity prob­lem, with­out com­ing to a clear agree­ment on which one would be best. Among the op­tions: im­prov­ing ef­fi­cien­cies in pro­duc­ing crops and us­ing re­sources; re­duc­ing food waste; cut­ting down the an­i­mal prod­ucts we eat; or re­sort­ing to more or­ganic agri­cul­ture.

“Or­ganic agri­cul­ture is one con­crete, but con­tro­ver­sial, sug­ges­tion for im­prov­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity of food sys­tems,” the study au­thors wrote. “It re­frains from us­ing syn­thetic fer­til­iz­ers and pes­ti­cides, pro­motes crop ro­ta­tions and fo­cuses on soil fer­til­ity and closed nu­tri­ent cy­cles.”

Re­gard­less of whether or­ganic fruits, veg­eta­bles and other crops are bet­ter for you, there’s ev­i­dence show­ing they may be bet­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment. Since or­gan­i­cally grown crops can’t use syn­thetic ni­tro­gen fer­til­izer, it means that less ex­cess ni­tro­gen acid­i­fies the soil and ends up in wa­ter­ways, or es­capes into the air as a green­house gas. It also means no man-made pes­ti­cides, mean­ing fewer chem­i­cals in the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment and less risk to in­sect bio­di­ver­sity — which is im­por­tant be­cause many in­sects are cru­cial play­ers in their lo­cal ecosys­tems.

But those ben­e­fits are off­set some­what by what’s known as the yield gap: the idea that or­ganic crops re­quire more land be­cause their yields are lower than the fer­til­izer-fed, pes­ti­cide-pro­tected con­ven­tional crops — po­ten­tially re­sult­ing in some ex­tra de­for­esta­tion. Still, could or­ganic crops al­low fu­ture food needs to be met with less en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact?

“Be­cause of the yield gap, there are op­pos­ing voices that say it’s not pos­si­ble ... (and) there are pro­po­nents that say this yield gap is not re­ally im­por­tant and one could over­come it,” said lead au­thor Adrian Muller, an en­vi­ron­men­tal sys­tems sci­en­tist at the Re­search In­sti­tute of Or­ganic Agri­cul­ture in Switzer­land. “We just wanted to look at it from a food-sys­tems per­spec­tive, be­cause we think only look­ing at the yield gap is not enough. It is im­por­tant to re­ally look at pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion to­gether and to see what or­ganic agri­cul­ture can con­trib­ute on such a food-sys­tems level.”

To find out, Muller and col­leagues de­vel­oped mod­els based on data from the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions, look­ing at the ef­fects that go­ing or­ganic would have un­der dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios, mod­u­lat­ing the sever­ity of climate change, the amount of food waste and the share of crops used to feed live­stock in­stead of peo­ple, for ex­am­ple.

The re­searchers found that the hu­man pop­u­la­tion’s needs could be fully met by all-or­ganic agri­cul­ture — but only if food waste was cut in half and the com­pet­ing feed sources for live­stock were elim­i­nated al­to­gether. Since that would se­ri­ously scale back the amount of live­stock, that might be a hard sell with to­day’s meat-filled di­ets.

Muller said a more fea­si­ble so­lu­tion might be one where or­ganic crops make up about 50 per­cent of crops, food waste is cut by half, and the com­pet­ing feed sources are cut by half (al­low­ing for more acreage to grow hu­man food).

“We need to uti­lize all the po­ten­tial strate­gies we have, with­out sup­port­ing one ex­treme and leav­ing out other ap­proaches,” he said.

Get­ting to that point may still be a chal­lenge. Or­ganic crops make up a tiny frac­tion of agri­cul­ture over­all, nowhere near that 50 per­cent tar­get. But there are some things that can be done now, Muller pointed out, such as putting an ex­tra “ni­tro­gen tax” on pro­duc­ers so that the en­vi­ron­men­tal cost of ex­cess fer­til­izer be­comes an eco­nomic one.

“I think we are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion,” Muller said, “and as an op­ti­mist I think, yeah, some­how, it will work.”


A box of pro­duce from Har­vest Fields Or­ganic Farm. A new re­port in­di­cates that in­creas­ing or­ganic agri­cul­ture and slash­ing food waste and meat con­sump­tion could al­le­vi­ate some of the world’s hunger prob­lems.

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