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Dear Friends and Colleagues

Organic Delivers More Benefits Than Conventional Agriculture

A recently published paper (Item 1) compares organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability: productivity, economics, environment, and social wellbeing. The research reviews 40 years of science comparing the long-term prospects of organic and conventional farming.

Unlike conventional farming which has resulted in biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, organic farms were found to have better soil quality, produce less soil and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, be more energy-efficient, and have greater genetic and bio-diversity. Organic agriculture was also more profitable for farmers, provided more jobs, and reduced farm workers’ exposure to pesticides.

Although organic farming produced, on average, 10 to 20% lower yields than conventional, it could out-yield the latter in cases such as during droughts because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils, and delivered equally or more nutritious foods that contained less (or no) pesticide residues. The researchers contend that these advantages far outweigh any lower yields. (Item 2)

Currently, only 1% of global agricultural land is under organic production.  The researchers believe that organic agriculture is a relatively untapped resource for feeding the world, especially in the face of climate change. Barriers to organic agriculture adoption include existing policies, the costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labor and markets, and lack of appropriate infrastructure for storing and transporting food. The study recommends policies to develop a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry and integrated farming; greater financial incentives for farmers to adopt organic and integrated practices; expanding technical assistance to farmers; and increasing publicly-funded research and breed ing resources for organic systems.

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Item 1

ORGANIC AGRICULTURE IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

John P. Reganold and Jonathan M. Wachter
Nature Plants
http://www.nature.com/articles/nplants2015221

Abstract

Organic agriculture has a history of being contentious and is considered by some as an inefficient approach to food production. Yet organic foods and beverages are a rapidly growing market segment in the global food industry. Here, we examine the performance of organic farming in light of four key sustainability metrics: productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing. Organic farming systems produce lower yields compared with conventional agriculture. However, they are more profitable and environmentally friendly, and deliver equally or more nutritious foods that contain less (or no) pesticide residues, compared with conventional farming. Moreover, initial evidence indicates that organic agricultural systems deliver greater ecosystem services and social benefits. Although organic agriculture has an untapped role to play when it comes to the establishment of sustainable farming systems, no single approach will safely feed the planet. Rather, a blend of or ganic and other innovative farming systems is needed. Significant barriers exist to adopting these systems, however, and a diversity of policy instruments will be required to facilitate their development and implementation.


Item 2

ORGANIC AGRICULTURE IS KEY TO HELPING FEED THE WORLD SUSTAINABLY

Union of Concerned Scientists Science Network
http://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/organic-agriculture-is-key-to-helping-feed-the-world-sustainably

Organic agriculture is a relatively untapped resource for feeding the Earth’s population, especially in the face of climate change and other global challenges. That’s the conclusion my doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter and I reached in reviewing 40 years of science comparing the long-term prospects of organic and conventional farming.

Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic agriculture can produce sufficient yields, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment, and be safer for farm workers. Thirty years ago, there were just a couple handfuls of studies comparing organic with conventional agriculture. In the last 15 years, the number of these kinds of studies has skyrocketed.

The review study, “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century,” is featured as the cover story for the February issue of the journal Nature Plants. It is the first to compare organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economics, environment, and social wellbeing.

The yield question
Critics have long argued that organic agriculture is inefficient, requiring more land to yield the same amount of food. It’s true that organic farming produces lower yields, averaging 10 to 20 percent less than conventional. Proponents contend that the environmental advantages of organic agriculture far outweigh the lower yields, and that increasing research and breeding resources for organic systems would reduce the yield gap. Sometimes excluded from these arguments is the fact that we already produce enough food to more than feed the world’s 7.4 billion people but do not provide adequate access to all individuals.

In some cases, organic yields can be higher than conventional. For example, in severe drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change in many areas, organic farms can produce as good, if not better, yields because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils.

What science does tell us is that mainstream conventional farming systems have provided growing supplies of food and other products but often at the expense of other sustainability goals.

Environmental benefits
Conventional agriculture may produce more food, but it often comes at a cost to the environment. Biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and severe impacts on ecosystem services have not only accompanied conventional farming systems but have often extended well beyond their field boundaries. With organic agriculture, environmental costs tend to be lower and the benefits greater.

Overall, organic farms tend to store more soil carbon, have better soil quality, and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture also creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions.  And it’s more energy-efficient because it doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes as well as genetic diversity. Biodiversity increases the services that nature provides, like pollination, and improves the ability of farming systems to adapt to changing conditions.

Profitability
Despite lower yields, organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers because consumers are willing to pay more. Higher prices, called price premiums, can be justified as way to compensate farmers for providing ecosystem services and avoiding environmental damage or external costs.

Wellbeing
Although studies that evaluate social equity and quality of life for farm communities are few, what is available suggests that both organic and conventional farming leave room for improvement. Still, organic farming comes out ahead when it comes to providing jobs for workers and reducing farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides and other chemicals. Many organic certification programs also have wellbeing goals for farmworkers, as well as animals.

Beyond organic
Organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment, and support social interactions between farmers and consumers. Yet, no single type of farming can feed the world. Rather, what’s needed is a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, mixed crop/livestock, and still undiscovered systems.

Policy changes needed
With only 1% of global agricultural land in organic production, organic agriculture can contribute a larger share in feeding the world.  Yet, significant barriers to farmers adopting organic agriculture hinder its expansion. Such hurdles include existing policies, the costs of transitioning to organic certification, lack of access to labor and markets, and lack of appropriate infrastructure for storing and transporting food. Governments should focus on creating policies that help develop not just organic but also other innovative and more sustainable farming systems. Specifically, agricultural policies should:

-  Offer greater financial incentives for farmers to adopt conservation measures and scientifically sound sustainable, organic, and integrated crop or livestock production practices.

-  Expand outreach and technical assistance that will provide farmers with better information about these transformative practices.

-  Increase publicly funded research to improve and expand modern sustainable farming.

 


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