“Before we go back to organic agriculture in this county, somebody must decide which 50 million Americans we are going to let starve or go hungry.” Those were the words of Earl Butz, the US Secretary of Agriculture in 1971. The public opinion of the practicality of organic farming to sustain an entire country hasn’t changed much since then. Organic Farming is farming without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge, and genetically engineered plants or products. Most of the population believes that without genetically modified food and synthetic fertilizers, agriculture couldn’t produce enough food at a fast enough rate to feed the population. However, despite the pervasiveness of this myth, it simply isn’t true.
The History of Organic Farming
The basic concepts of organic farming were developed in the 1900s by Sir Albert Howard, F.H. King, Rudolf Steiner, and other individuals who believed the best farming system involved components such as animal manures, cover crops, crop rotation, and biologically based pest controls. These ideas were derived from Howard’s time as an agriculture researcher in India. He observed the sustainable farming practices there and advocated for them to be adopted in the United States.
Howard wasn’t alone in his desire, and other environmental activists were pleading for the same thing. Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in the 1960s, documenting the environmental damage resulting from the use of insecticides. These doubled forces placed pressure on the agriculture industry to respond to these concerns.
Debunking the Myths
Doctoral students Jonathan Wachter and John Reganold published a study in Nature Plants looking at organic farming in the 21st century and comparing the long-term implications of organic farming and conventional farming. Wachter and Reganold compared the two farming practices across the four main metrics of sustainability identified by the US National Academy of Sciences: be productive, economically profitable, environmentally sound, and socially just.
While they found that organic farming produces 10-20% less than conventional farming, organic farming ranks higher in terms of profit and environmental friendliness, while conventional farming focuses solely on productivity at the expense of the other three components. Another study published by Karl-Heinz Erb, Christian Lauk, Thomas Kastner, Andreas Mayer, Michaela C. Theurl, and Helmut Haberl in Nature Communications proved the practicality of providing enough food for the global population solely relying on organic farming. The study assessed the feasibility of 500 different scenarios where global food demand is matched by cropland supply and livestock grazing intensity remains within ecological thresholds. Nearly two-thirds of the 500 scenarios proved that feeding the world on organic farming was ‘feasible’ or ‘probably feasible.’
They found a sufficient amount of food could be produced with lower-yielding organic farming if an increased number of people adopted vegetarian or vegan diets. For vegetarian diets, the success rate was 94%. If people adopted completely organic diets, the success rate would be 39%. If no diet changes occurred and people continued eating a traditional Western-style diet, the success rate was 15%.
Organic farming can take over the agriculture world. The benefits of organic farming include fewer pesticides, reduced soil erosion, decreased nitrate leaching into groundwater and surface water, and recycled animal waste back into the farm. And while organic food is traditionally more expensive than nonorganic, organic food sales have been steadily increasing since the late 20th century, increasing retail sales from $20.39 billion in 2008 to $47.9 billion in 2019. Higher demand means organic food will become more accessible to all socioeconomic groups.
Benefits of Organic
Organic farmland is more resilient to droughts than traditional farmland. The reason for this stems from the fact that organic farms have healthier soil that retains more moisture than the nutrient-stripped soils of traditional farms. Organic farms can obtain this standard of health in their soil because of the way they conduct crop rotation, which has largely been abandoned by the modern farmer because it isn’t as conducive to the mass production of food products.
Organic farming has a higher capacity to create jobs than traditional farming because it relies less on massive machine-operated systems. Additionally, organic food is known to be better for overall health, which increases resilience to disease and sickness, giving people, on average, a better standard of living and overall health.
Downsides of Organic
Of course, it is impossible not to address the obvious downsides of organic farming. The fact that organic farming requires more manpower while providing more jobs does have implications for a slower production rate than traditional farming. The food industry is a fast-paced environment, and any slowdown could have serious consequences for stores, restaurants, and companies that depend on frequent shipments. In addition to slower production times, the average American relies on fast food and other pre-packaged processed meals that are quick and easy to accommodate a fast-paced life. Few Americans have the time to create homemade meals three times a day. Considering this factor, it could be more difficult than imagined to change a culture that depends on food that can be mass-produced quickly. Not only this, but studies have shown that genetically modified processed foods are addictive, making a shift toward organic food even more difficult to pull off. While there have been significant changes in the culture, we still haven’t arrived.
Many studies, including Wachter and Reganold’s, are predicated on the idea of a culture living vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. I do not think that assuming that the entire American population will assume a 100% vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is reasonable, nor do I think adopting these lifestyles is in the best interest of the health of people. Those who adhere to a strict vegetarian or vegan lifestyle very often are severely lacking in needed protein and other essential vitamins and minerals. While it isn’t impossible to have a healthy diet while vegetarian or vegan, it is definitely more difficult, and considering those implications, I think it would be unwise to recommend everyone, especially children who depend on those essential fats, proteins, and minerals for early development, to adopt such a drastic diet change.
Yes, organic farming can feed the world, and it is unfair to throw the baby out with the bath water because organic farming has some drawbacks. With more time and creative problem-solving, I believe organic farming could become a force to be reckoned with.
Edited by Sean Mulryan
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