By Lisa Stiffler, special correspondent
One of the world’s leading advocates of the need for agricultural reform in Africa, speaking in Seattle earlier this week, said organic farming methods are already being used by poor farmers and they aren’t working. Organic farming cannot alone meet our planet’s food needs was the message.
Organic farming has lots of benefits: It doesn’t require expensive and possibly toxic pesticides; it emphasizes natural practices to build richer soils over a heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers; and it grows food that’s arguably healthier.
But when you consider that one in seven people worldwide will go to bed tonight hungry, it does seem fair to ask: Can organic deliver the goods for the developing world?
New research says yes – but not everywhere and not for everything.
“This is not an argument that organic can or cannot feed the world,” said John Reganold, regents professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University in Pullman. “No one system can feed the world.”
A recent study in the journal Nature sought to answer the question of whether organic farming could match the output of conventional agriculture. The researchers, who did not include Reganold, compiled 316 comparisons of crops grown both ways and found that in developed nations, organic practices returned 20 percent less produce. The spread increases to 25 percent when data from developing nations are included.
But in a follow-up letter published in Nature this week, Reganold notes that the difference in yields between organic and conventional farming varies greatly between crops. For some fruits there was only a 3 percent yield difference in the farming practices, but the spread was more than 33 percent for certain vegetables.
The answer, then, to the organic-versus-conventional debate is clear as mud.
When considering farming in Africa, a hybrid system could be the best solution, Reganold said. The soils are so depleted and degraded in some places that farmers need to employ certain organic practices to rebuild the soil, while applying chemical fertilizers to pump up their yield.
“A particular system isn’t the answer everywhere. We, in developed countries …. we want to go with the silver-bullet approach,” Reganold said. “Let’s go in and let’s just solve the problem with fertilizer, or let’s just solve the problem with a particular hybrid crop, maybe it’s a G.M. (or genetically modified) crop. That’s not going to work.”
The debate over the best strategy or combination of strategies for easing global hunger has been heating up in recent months.
On Tuesday night, Calestous Juma, a Harvard University professor of international development, addressed the issue before a crowd at the University of Washington. Juma describes himself as a bit of ‘techno-optimist’ and argues that organic farming hasn’t served Africa very well so far.
And in his 2012 annual letter as the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates spoke to the challenge of world hunger.
“We can help poor farmers sustainably increase their productivity so they can feed themselves and their families,” Gates wrote. “But that will only happen if we prioritize agricultural innovation.”
He emphasized the promise of technology to fight plant diseases and to make crops more resilient as climate change leads to increased droughts and other weather disruptions. In his letter, Gates doesn’t call out genetically modified crops by name, but instead talks about high-tech plant breeding to create crops with desired new traits.
Critics of G.M. crops argue that their use won’t boost food production in the long term and that they’re not a sustainable solution. In March, protesters in Seattle called on the Gates Foundation to sever its ties to Monsanto, the world’s leading manufacturer of G.M. seeds.
But Roy Steiner, deputy director of the team working on agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, said the philanthropy’s work extends well beyond technological fixes.
“We do support some G.M. research, biotech research,” Steiner said. “That’s a very small part of what we do, and we only do that where it makes sense. It doesn’t make sense in some places, it makes sense in others.”
In his letter to Nature, Reganold encouraged people to consider the bigger picture when debating food security and production. To achieve sustainable agriculture, he said, they need to look at how much food is being grown, the environmental effects, how to make farming financially viable, and improving the well being of farmers – who are often women – and their communities.
“What’s going to save the world is good farming, period,” Reganold said in an interview. “Those two words.”
“You can’t just look at yield,” he said. “You have to look at the impact on soil and water and labor, and the impact of that (agricultural) system on women’s roles. There are these other dimensions that are important.”