Organic can Feed the World

Organic can Feed the World
by Seleyn De Yarus

THE UNITED NATIONS AND LEADING RESEARCHERS CONCLUDE THAT ORGANIC FARMING IS A VIABLE OPTION FOR GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, AND SUSTAINABILITY.

There are an estimated 6.9 billion humans on planet Earth. Of those, there are an estimated 3 billion people living on less than $2 a day. Access to healthy food, housing, and drinkable water challenges nearly half of our species. However, evidence is mounting that organic agriculture can feed and provide income and sustainability to a growing number of the world’s poor while also ensuring healthier ecosystems and more nutritious food.

A shining example of how organic agriculture provides sustenance on many levels is the Tigray Project in Ethiopia.
Local and national experts have cooperated with farmers in the Tigray region and tapped the rich knowledge of the
farmers to understand and utilize local ecosystem elements rather than depend on fertilizers. Tigray has achieved higher yields, higher groundwater levels, better soil fertility, increased household income, and stronger livelihood opportunities for farmers than previous efforts with conventional agriculture. The Ethiopian government has now adopted this approach to mitigate soil damage and alleviate poverty in 165 local districts in the grain producing parts of Ethiopia.

A report showing further evidence that organic farming can feed the world was presented in October 2008 by the
United Nations Environmental Program. In a statement to The Independent, the head of the UN’s Environment Program, Achim Steiner, said the report “indicates that the potential contribution of organic farming to feeding the world may be far higher than many had supposed.”

The report analyzed 114 projects in 24 African countries and found that yields had more than doubled where organic or near-organic practices had been used as compared to conventional crops. Additionally, the study found that organic practices provided environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water, and resistance to drought. The research also highlighted the role that organic farming could play in improving in areas such as local education, agro-ecological knowledge, leadership training, adult literacy, computer knowledge and experimental farming programs. The report can be found at www.unep.org.

Out With The Green Revolution, In With The Organic Revolution
The Green Revolution, so named in the 1960s and 1970s, offered a package of hybrid seeds, farm technology, better irrigation techniques, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It was successful at meeting its primary objective of increasing crop yields and augmenting aggregate food supplies. Yet, despite its success, the Green Revolution as a development approach has not necessarily translated into benefits for the lower strata of the rural poor in terms of greater food security or greater economic opportunity and well-being.

Research shows that the latest scientific approaches in organic agriculture offer developing countries affordable, immediately usable, and universally accessible ways to improve yields. Rodale Institute is a 60-year-old research and education nonprofit with the longest ongoing comparative agricultural field trials in the world.

“Yield data just by itself makes the case for a focused and persistent move to organic farming systems,” explains Dr. Tim LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute. “When we consider that organic systems are building the health of the soil, sequestering CO2, cleaning up the waterways, and returning more economic yield to the farmer, the argument for an Organic Green Revolution becomes overwhelming. These methods also build the soil, increase drought and flood resistance as well as adaptability to climate change,” LaSalle says.

Remember the high yield goal of the Green Revolution? The quest for maximum yield in conventional agriculture has often resulted in declining nutritional quality, says Dr. Donald Davis of the University of Texas, Austin. He and his team analyzed 50 years of USDA nutrition data. According to a study published in 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 13 major nutrients in fruits and vegetables tracked by USDA from 1950 to 1999, six showed significant declines—protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C.

Dr. Davis noted that over many years of using yield potential as the dominant criterion in developing improved varieties, while average yields have risen, plant root systems have not been able to keep pace in drawing more needed micronutrients from the soil. When breeders selectively breed for one resource, using a selected trait like yield, fewer resources remain for other plant functions, the study explains.

Organic fruits and vegetables on other hand, are on average 25% higher in 11 key nutrients than their conventional, chemically produced counterparts, according to research published in March 2008 by The Organic Center. Organic fruits and vegetables also are 30% higher in antioxidants when compared to their conventional counterparts. The higher levels of antioxidants in organic food may also contribute to better taste, according to a 2006 Organic Center report.

Both international and national research is substantiating that food security, human health, economic development and ecological sustainability are better served through organic agricultural methods than previously recognized. The increased recognition of the downsides of chemically intensive agriculture combined with the growing body of evidence for the benefits of organic agriculture provides new momentum for more sustainable agricultural practices to be adopted globally. This is good news for the burgeoning populations of the developing world and their local environments.

Seleyn DeYarus is the development director of The Organic Center and has been an advocate of organic farming and ecological sustainability for 25 years. For more information, visit www.organic-center.org.