Can we feed the world organically? With some changes to the system, researchers say yes

It’s hard to find fault with consuming organic food, but those who are against it for whatever reason – like synthetic pesticide manufacturers – often claim it is not sustainable and would require too much land to pull off. Now, new research shows just how flawed that particular argument is. Indeed, a worldwide conversion to organic farming could be remarkably sustainable as long as some changes to current food production and consumption habits are made at the same time.

There are a lot of ways that industrial agriculture has increased the availability of food, but this has come at a significant cost to our environment. For example, it has led to an oversupply of reactive nitrogen that pollutes our water and soil, losses in biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions. This is in addition to the effects that pesticides and herbicides have on human and animal health.

Organic agriculture, on the other hand, eschews the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. With its focus on crop rotations, closed nutrient cycles, and soil fertility, it is certainly a better choice for the environment, but it tends to have lower yields, thereby requiring more land in order to produce the same amount of food.

Now, researchers from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Alpen-Adria University in Austria, ETH Zurich in Switzerland and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture have written an open-access article in Nature Communications that shows just how organic agriculture could feasibly feed the world after all.

They say that accomplishing this worthwhile endeavor requires just a few complementary changes in our global food system. For example, reducing the amount of arable land that is used to grow animal feed and the drop in livestock and animal-based products that goes along with it could help quite a bit as people consume less meat – something that would also have positive effects on human health.

Reducing food waste could also help make this transition a reality. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, as much as 40 percent of the food that is produced is wasted around the planet. Taking measures to try to stem this problem could go a long way toward a more efficient use of resources.

More than nine billion people could be fed sustainably with organic agriculture

By making these changes, organic agriculture could help to feed more than nine billion people in 2050 in a sustainable way, the researchers have determined. Best of all, none of these corresponding measures need to be implemented fully in order to make a difference; their partial implementation can be combined to help create a more sustainable future when it comes to feeding the world.

They added that past research into these matters has been too tightly focused on the yields and the impact on the environment for each unit output of a given crop and has failed to take into account other changes that could help make a difference.

They reached their conclusions using a mass-flow model of the planet’s food system known as an SOL-model that simulated the vital agronomic features of organic farming and allowed them to determine what impacts a conversion would have on the environment and food production. Then, they factored in the effects of the two aforementioned changes – food waste reduction and a reduction the arable land used for growing animal feed – to discover that such a transition is more viable than some believe.

They also say that all of the scenarios offer people the same number of calories. In fact. A 20 percent rise in the share of the organic cropping area devoted to legumes raised the protein-to-calorie ratio to double the minimum of 10 percent that the US National Academy of Sciences’ Food and Nutrition Board recommends.

Therefore, it’s entirely possible to feed a world population of more than nine billion without increasing land use and while curbing the negative effects of modern pesticide use. The researchers concluded that “a wise combination of production and consumption measures could provide an optimal food system.” Where can we sign up?

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