Organic agriculture is a fine luxury for the rich, but it could never feed the world as global population moves to 9 billion.
That’s what a lot of powerful people—including the editors of The Economist —insist. But the truth could well be the opposite: It might be chemical-intensive agriculture that’s the frivolous luxury, and organic that offers us the right technologies in a resource-constrained, ever-warmer near future.
That’s the conclusion I draw from the latest data of the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST), which Rodale calls “America’s longest running, side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic agriculture.” Now, Rodale promotes organic ag, so industrial-minded critics will be tempted to dismiss its data. But that would be wrong — its test plots have an excellent reputation in the ag research community, and the Institute often collaborates with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
Housed on Rodale’s 330 acre farm, the FST compares three systems for growing corn and soy, the first two organic and the third conventional:
Rodale’s researchers have been comparing crop yields and taking soil samples on these test plots for 27 years. Their latest findings? The three systems have produced equivalent corn yields over the years, while “soybean yields were the same for the manure and conventional system and only slightly lower for the legume system.”
So the old canard about how organic ag produces dramatically less food than chemical ag has been debunked, yet again.
But it gets more interesting. As the globe warms up, increased droughts are likely to reduce global crop yields. The ag-biotech industry is scrambling to come out with “drought-resistant” GMO crops. But organic ag might already have that covered: “In 4 out of 5 years of moderate drought, the organic systems had significantly higher corn yields (31 percent higher) than the conventional system.” Moreover, while conventional ag struggles with the “superweed” problem, brought on by Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant GMO crops, organic ag is showing it can coexist with weed pressure without sacrificing yield: “Corn and soybean crops in the organic systems tolerated much higher levels of weed competition than their conventional counterparts, while producing equivalent yields.” Meanwhile, herbicide use in the conventionally managed plot fouled groundwater….