Can organic farming ensure food security?

By Kate Chaillat
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Chemicals v earthworms: a food (Credit: SAMRAT MUKHERJEE / CSE)there has been a long-standing debate on whether organic agriculture can ensure global food security. Even some advocates of organic are not sure about this. A recent study claims organic farming can produce as much food as chemicals-based farming does.

The study says organic methods of food production can contribute substantially to feeding the human population, using the current agricultural land-base, and maintaining soil fertility.

Catherine Badgley and Ivettte Perfecto, researchers from the University of Michigan, conducted the study that was published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (Vol 22 No 2).
Going about it They analysed globally available data on food production, including statistics of the Food and Agriculture Organization, on patterns of food production and agricultural land mass in 2001. The study also analysed data by a slew of other researchers.

In a departure from similar analyses, the Michigan study also took into account uncertified organic farming for local consumption in remote parts of Africa and Asia. The authors argue this is relevant, because uncertified organic farming makes a significant contribution to global food supply.

Badgley and Perfecto employed two models to analyse the differences in organic and chemical farming. The first model analysed data from a global perspective; the second distinguished between developing and developed countries. Their analysis suggests that a shift to organic farming in developing countries can produce 80 per cent of the present yield. In developed countries, it can match up to 90 per cent of the yield. Comparing organics The debate over the efficiency of organic farming to feed the world has arisen as experts often compare organic agriculture in developing countries with resource-poor subsistence farming. The Michigan duo says this comparison is uneven--organic farmers have access to natural resources and purchased inputs.

Critics say the researchers have attempted to extrapolate local results to a global scale. "Any study is constrained to a particular time and place. Organic agriculture needs to be adapted to the ecology and economics of each location," says John R Teasdale, researcher for usda-ars' Sustainable Agricultural Systems Lab. The study at hand, he says, ignores this.

Satish Gupta, who is researching organic farming at the University of Minnesota, says, "Organic has a role in developing countries, like India. But in the context of the population, I don't feel organic yields could be as high as what chemical farming produces." Gupta says organic agriculture is not free of risks. A research team led by him recently found traces of antibiotics in plants that were administered contaminated manure (see box Impure manure).
Soil dynamics The availability of soil nitrogen in organic farming has been questioned. fao data shows the world used 82 million tonnes of synthetic nitrogen in 2001. The Michigan study stresses that a shift to organic increases soil fertility, claiming 140 million tonnes of nitrogen can be produced by nitrogen-fixing plants, cutting synthetic nitrogen use.

Badgley and Perfecto point out that organic nitrogen present in the soil would increase over the years because it is more stable in the soil, unlike chemical nitrogen which evaporates both during the application and from the soil. They say the use of cover crops (of nitrogen-fixing plants like legumes) increases soil moisture in arid and semi-arid regions and lowers the susceptability of plants to diseases.

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  • The Organic Farming has limitations in India.
    The most common demerits faced by the organic farming are the cost factor of the organic products. The organic products are quite expensive for the common people to afford and hence most of the organic products remain out of reach to the common people whether it is food or cloths. The second disadvantage that can be associated with organic farming is its very labor intensive as in case of organic farming extensive observation is required on a regular basis in comparison to the mechanical agriculture. It is known that, organic farming is a time taking process and hence, an organic farmer need to be very patient and skilful too. Since, the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are strictly prohibited in organic farming so the farmers have too look out for the weeds, pests and insects even manually on the farm as chemicals cannot be used to encounter them. It is very difficult for a traditional farmer to adopt and learn the technology and practices of organic farming and the process of transition can take lots of time. In addition to that, a new organic farmer will require proper guidance from a trained organic farmer time to time. No process can be perfect and has its own pros and cons but the fact cannot be denied that organic farming has its own benefits that are far bigger than the related disadvantages of organic farming. Thus, it is very essential to create awareness among the people about the benefits of this process so that it can be adopted on a large scale that can minimize the present issues linked to organic farming due to bulk production.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

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