By Rafia Virk, Nutrition PhD Student
There are many debates about how we can protect our ecosystem as well as follow agricultural practices that can effectively feed the world. Conventional (industrial) agriculture is the main type of agriculture currently used in developed countries like the United States. It exploits technological advances in order to increase production, convenience, and affordability of food at the expense of destroying the environment for future use. On the other hand, organic (sustainable) agriculture is a type of agriculture that has long-term benefits, including better food production practices and environmental security, which nurtures the ecosystem at large.
For agriculture to be sustainable, it has to last for a long period of time while meeting the current needs of the people and environment as a whole. The best coined definition of sustainability was provided by Brundtland in which the “essential needs of the present [are met] without depleting the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs”. Due to its sustainability, organic agriculture has greater potential to protect our ecosystem and save our world from food waste and stressors of climate change compared to conventional agriculture.
Food Production Yields
An environmental analysis by McGill University and the University of Minnesota, found that organic methods had lower crop yields than conventional methods. Typically, organic agriculture delivers about 5% less yield for legume and fruit crops, while for crops like corn, wheat and broccoli, the yield is 25% lower than produced with conventional agriculture practices. However, when farmers incorporate better management practices, then organic systems can do better than conventional systems.
Another study on theoretical yields of food production from organic agriculture found that organic agriculture has the potential to produce 92-180% of current caloric requirements, which is more than enough to feed the estimated 10-11 billion people worldwide by 2100.
Furthermore, we do not need as much yield as we get from current conventional methods. A healthy adult should consume around 2,200 – 2,500 calories and according to these standards, organic sustainable agricultural methods produce more than enough calories. Currently, the world produces around 22 trillion calories of food per year, which is more than 3,000 calories per person on Earth. If these numbers are correct, then why are people starving in some areas of the world? This evidence suggests that there is a problem with food distribution and food storage instead. Fair distribution of food needs to be implemented for the whole world to be properly fed. Currently, there are 840 million people who are unable to meet their basic food needs. The excess food produced from conventional agriculture is going to waste and therefore indirectly increasing external costs to the environment and nation, whereas organic agriculture will not have this problem since its yields are not in excess of the required need. Now the question is, should efforts be put forth to increase yields that are not necessarily needed or to protect the ecosystem?
Farming Practices and their impact on the Ecosystem
A report in 2008 concluded that conventional agriculture can by no means continue to feed the world in the future. This is due to the degradation of our soil and natural resources, as well as disruptions to our water supply, energy, and climate. Another report in 2009 confirms the possibility of an environmental crisis that could lead to food shortages and insecurities if conventional methods are continued.
According to a government panel, conventional agriculture has introduced very high levels of greenhouse gases into our environment by use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in production and livestock operational practices, amongst other examples. The overuse of chemicals depletes the soil of its natural biota and organic matter, which eliminates its capacity to nurture sufficient agroecosystems which will store carbon and help moderate climate change. The large doses of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers result in aquatic dead zones, where nitrogen-rich nutrients flow into aquatic areas and promote algal growth, depleting oxygen and leading to death of organisms in that area.
Despite the benefits of organic agriculture, there is an issue of whether enough nitrogen is available from sustainable agricultural practices. Critics say that cropping systems require a lot of nitrogen, which cannot be sufficiently obtained from the soil without using synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. The idea that more land is necessary to produce enough manure and organic nitrogen sources is used to justify how conventional practices are better and do not require as much farmland as organic methods. A study on the nitrogen availability obtained only from green manure rather than synthetic fertilizers found that assuming green manure can be used on the current agricultural land base, about 140 million mg of nitrogen can be fixed, which 58 million mg more than used as synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in 2001. This study shows that there is no need for more land to obtain useful nitrogen from organic fertilizers.
The USDA and IPC admit to the fact that organic practices in agriculture result in more storage of carbon in the soil, leading to lower levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The increase in quality of organic soil also leads to better water and moisture retention in soil, which helps farmers control climate disasters such as droughts and floods. For example, farmers practicing sustainable practices lost fewer resources and recovered faster from the disaster of Hurricane Mitch in Central America in the late 1990s than conventional-practicing farmers.
If we compare the responsibilities of conventional and organic farmers, we see how much knowledge is needed for both. A conventional farmer needs to know what to put into the farm to make it grow, as in what synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides to use and how to organize the crops. In contrast, an organic farmer needs to know how to manage the whole ecosystem, as in how to control pests by biological means, and how to rotate crops so as to promote fertile soil for other crops year-round. It is evident that an organic farmer requires more concentrated knowledge and understanding of best practices.
Organic agriculture has great potential to save the world since it is environmentally friendly and has sufficient food production yields. Conventional agriculture contributes to food waste and utilizes fertilizers without proper farming practices and therefore stresses the environment and the ecosystem more than organic agriculture. Conclusively, organic agriculture is a step towards providing sustainable food for the population for future generations to come without stressing our ecosystem, but it alone cannot be said to save the world from climate change. We need the government to step forward and update the agricultural policy to include more sustainable practices and reduce the environmental stressors to our ecosystem.
Peer-edited by Karen Hock, PhD Candidate in Public Health
Picture credit: © 2003-2021 Shutterstock, Inc.
- Beus, C. E., & Dunlap, R. E. (1990). Conventional versus alternative agriculture: The paradigmatic roots of the debate. Rural Sociology, 55(4), 590-616. https://doi-org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/10.1111/j.1549-0831.1990.tb00699.x
- Biello, D. (2012, April 25). Will Organic Food Fail to Feed the World? Retrieved February 28, 2017, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/organic-farming-yields-and-feeding-the-world-under-climate-change/
- Brundtland, G. H. (1991). Our common future. Oxford: Univ. Press. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf
- Chappell, M.J. (2007). Shattering myths: Can sustainable agriculture feed the world?. Food First Backgrounder, 13(3). Retrieved from http://foodfirst.org/wpcontent/uploads/2013/12/BK13_3-Shattering-Myths-Agroecology-2007.pdf
- Heinemann, Jack. Hope not Hype: The Future or Agriculture Guided by the International Assessment on Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development. 2008.
- Holt-Gimenez, Eric. “Measuring farmers’ Agroecological Resistance after Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua: a Case Study in Participatory, Sustainable Land Management Impact Monitoring” in Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 93 (2002), 87-105. https://www.panna.org/sites/default/files/HurricaneMitch-Agroeco.pdf
- Pretty J, Noble A D, Bossio D, Dixon J, Hine R E, Penning de Vries F W T and Morison J I L. 2005. Resource-conserving agriculture increases yields in developing countries. Environmental Science & Technology 40(4), 1114-1119. https://doi.org/10.1021/es051670d