Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries, as low-intensive methods on the same land, says a new study from the University of Michigan.
The research, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, could challenge the long-standing view that organic farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed the global population.
While yields of organic and conventional farms were approximately the same in developed countries, said the researchers, in developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods.
"My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can't produce enough food through organic agriculture," said lead researcher Ivette Perfecto.
According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA)'s 2006 Manufacturer Survey, organic products currently make up 2.5 percent of all retail sales of food in the US. The overall food organic market grew 28 percent since 2003 to reach a total value of $14bn in 2005, and is expected to reach $16bn by the end of 2006.
Yet despite the steady growth of the market in the past decade, one obstacle that still remains is the lack of adequate supply. The sectors hardest hit by supply shortages are the organic orange juice, meat and dairy sectors.
But in developing countries, yields of organic crops would equal or better conventionally produced crops using existing quantities of organic fertilizers, without putting more farmland into production.
Perfecto and co-workers compiled data from published literature to investigate the two chief objections to organic farming: low yields and lack of organically acceptable nitrogen sources.
Their findings challenge these arguments, said Perfecto, and confirm that organic farming is less environmentally harmful yet can potentially produce more than enough food.
And this could be good news for developing countries, where many farmers still do not have the access to the expensive fertilizers and pesticides. Yields in developing countries could increase dramatically by switching to organic farming, she added.
A comparison of nitrogen availability for both organic and conventional farming techniques, calculated by multiplying the current farmland area by the average amount of nitrogen available for production crops if "green manures" were planted between growing seasons, showed that planting green manures between growing seasons provided enough nitrogen to replace synthetic fertilizers.
For their analysis, researchers defined the term organic as: practices referred to as sustainable or ecological; that utilize non-synthetic nutrient cycling processes; that exclude or rarely use synthetic pesticides; and sustain or regenerate the soil quality.
Perfecto said the idea that people would go hungry if farming went organic is "ridiculous."
"Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies - all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food," she added.
Source: Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems
Volume 22, Pages 86-108, doi:10.1017/S1742170507001640
"Organic agriculture and the global food supply"
Authors: C. Badgley, J. Moghtader, E. Quintero, E. Zakem, M.J. Chappell, K. Avilés-Vázquez, A. Samulon and I. Perfecto