John Reganold

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Don’t be too quick to dismiss organic farming for Africa | 

By Lisa Stiffler, special correspondent

CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

A bean farmer tends her crop in DR Congo

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.

WSU

“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.

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