How organic agriculture can feed the world.
July/August Issue 2012 | Greg Nichols
“The green desert.” Flying over Paraguay, I can see how the nickname makes perfect sense. Paraguay, about the size of California, is the world’s fourth largest exporter of soybeans. Starting in the 1970s, when genetically modified strains and chemical fertilizers began powering large-scale agribusiness, many of the country’s diverse ecosystems were replaced by the green desert of soy that is visible from my airplane window.
Which makes the San Francisco Agriculture School, located an hour outside Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, such a surprise. Operated by social enterprise Fundación Paraguaya, the school gives students with agricultural backgrounds the chance to live and study in a self-sustaining organic community. “Our focus is self-sufficiency,” Luis Cateura, the school’s bespectacled, soft-spoken manager explains as we walk a gravel path toward a thriving vegetable garden. “This is a way of life. We teach an integrated system.”
In addition to maintaining the organic garden, which keeps 150 high school students well fed throughout the year, the school raises cotton and sugar, keeps chickens, pigs, goats and bees and operates a dairy known for some of the tastiest cheeses in Paraguay. These systems are interconnected, fully organic and wildly fruitful. “We are transferring this technology to the students so they can apply it in their own communities,” Cateura says as we tour the campus, an oasis of tall trees and small growing plots in a region dominated by factory farms. “We can replicate this in any part of the world, in any situation.”
And there’s another surprise: If San Francisco’s techniques were, in fact, replicated on a large enough scale, studies show that organic agriculture could feed the world.
The idea confounds most critics, who insist that organic is a fad whose benefits are outweighed by seasonal unpredictability and limited yields. As a way to assuage the guilt of eco-conscious consumers in the developed world, the argument goes, organic is fine, but chemical fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms are the only ways to ensure adequate production year in and year out for a growing global population.
But organic techniques like those employed at the San Francisco school are finding increasing relevance beyond niche markets in wealthy nations. New science has made organic systems more potent while chipping away at long-standing barriers to entry for farmers. As unlikely as it seems, research now shows that well-managed organic techniques compete with or outperform conventional chemical techniques by most critical measures—yield, production cost and long-term sustainability. Whether the data on organic agriculture will manifest as a global farming revolution is another question, one that involves the tangled interests of growers, social development workers and the multi-billion-dollar chemical agriculture sector.
What is organic, exactly? Accreditation programs, such as the USDA National Organic Program and the Japanese Agricultural Standard, each have unique and complex certification criteria. This multiplicity makes a standard definition of “organic” elusive. In spirit, though, organic processes are those that avoid synthetic inputs, such as ammonium nitrate fertilizer and chemical herbicides and pesticides, in favor of techniques like composting, biological pest control and crop rotation.
Mark Smallwood, executive director of the Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit at the forefront of organics research, views organic farming as a collection of sustainable, soil-focused practices. “Conventional farming uses a science called chemistry,” says Smallwood. “Organic uses a science called biology. Organic deals with the life in the soil. That’s the most important thing. It’s the biology that lives in the soil itself.”
The old gardener’s adage “Feed the soil, not the plant” has become a rallying cry for organics advocates. Conventional chemical growers use water-soluble fertilizers to augment nutrients in the field. As water passes through conventional systems, macronutrients and micronutrients in chemical fertilizers are carried to plant roots or wash away. By contrast, successful organic systems promote specific biological processes within soils. Sand, silt and clay are the basic components of dirt. Aerobic bacteria and beneficial fungi work to break up compacted layers and aggregate these building blocks into porous soil that retains water. Plants rooted in fluffy, healthy soil have access to both the nutrients produced by the decomposition of biological matter—compost—and essential minerals in sand, silt and clay without the need for additional inputs.
“So why do inorganic fertilizers work?” asks Elaine Ingham, chief scientist at the Rodale Institute and one of the country’s leading compost researchers. “Well, because in the chemical world, we’ve killed the biology that was in the soil.” Inorganic fertilizers help plants grow stronger in unhealthy soil. If you apply inorganic fertilizers to systems that have healthy soil with good biology, Ingham explains, you’re not going to see any benefit. This is a crucial point. Inorganic fertilizers don’t increase yields in any absolute sense. Instead, they provide a shortcut—a costly one in the long run—for dealing with unhealthy soil.
In 1981, the Rodale Institute began the Farming Systems Trial, now the longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture in the world. The study focuses on corn and soybean production, which account for 49 percent of the total cropland in the U.S. After 30 years, the results of the trial are unequivocal. During seasons not marred by drought, the study’s six growing systems (two distinct organic systems and one conventional synthetic system, each with till and no-till components) show no appreciable difference in terms of yields. In years of drought, the organic systems have out-yielded the conventional systems—which mimic large-scale farming—by an average of 31 percent.
This is because loose, well-structured soil, the cornerstone of successful organic growing, acts as a sponge. Soils in the conventional systems, which lack a porous structure, have trouble retaining water and so underperform in drought years. Interestingly, the conventional systems have trouble during periods of heavy rainfall for the exact same reason. The more compacted soils—those in which the productive biology hasn’t been maintained or has been killed off by salts in chemical fertilizers—percolate 15 to 20 percent less water by volume than the organic systems. More water leaves as runoff, which leads to the loss of crucial topsoil and to contamination of local waterways.
Some surveys contradict the Rodale trial’s findings. Most notably, an article published online by the journal Nature in April suggests yield discrepancies favoring conventional techniques by up to 34%. But the report, a survey of 66 side-by-side trials, also demonstrates the broad variance of techniques that fall under the “organic” umbrella. As the authors point out, “differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics.”
Conventional yields are far more standardized than organic yields, which rely on variables like compost make-up, tillage techniques, and pest management systems—variables the authors of the Nature survey were unable to account for due to limitations in trial data. The best organic practices will result in the best yields. Indeed, best practices are necessary to ensure successful organic growing, a reality that many organics advocates have been slow to acknowledge.
Yield is just one area where the Farming Systems Trial demonstrates the advantages of organic techniques. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that agricultural land use accounts for 12 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. With fertilizer applications and on-farm fuel use, the conventional systems in the Rodale trial emit almost 40 percent more greenhouse gas per pound of crop produced than the organic systems. In combination with reduced waste runoff and more-efficient water use, organic agriculture, if widely adopted, can go some of the way toward repairing the environmental damage done by decades of input-intensive chemical agriculture.
The Farming Systems Trial is unique for its longevity, but it is far from the only trial of its kind. A 13-year study conducted by Iowa State University backs the Rodale Institute’s findings on both yield and production costs, and a similar 22-year trial out of Cornell University confirms the heavy energy and water savings with organic approaches. Of course, this research is only the first step. To feed the world with organic farming, advocates must figure out how to spread these techniques across a varied agricultural landscape. While the complexity of the task is daunting, a look at these two arenas—commercial farming in established markets like the U.S. and small farming in the developing world—can provide insight into how it just might be accomplished.