Why organic food might be worth the price – ‘When you look at ecosystem services, organic agriculture really shines’Posted by Jim at Sunday, February 14, 2016
By Mandy Oaklander
4 February 2016
(TIME) – The most infamous fact about organic food is that it’s expensive—about 47% more expensive, according to a recent analysis from Consumer Reports. But a new review study published in Nature Plants analyzed everything research currently knows about organic farming versus the conventional kind and found that organic offers a lot of good that outweighs its sticker shock.
When organic farming first began, it was derided as an idealistic and inefficient way of feeding people. Not surprisingly, there was little research about it. “There were just a couple handfuls of studies back in the ‘80s,” says John Reganold, professor of soil science and agroecology at Washington State University and co-author of the new study. Reganold has been studying organic agriculture for more than 30 years. “At the turn of the century, it just skyrocketed, and now there are probably at least 1,000 studies,” he says.
Reganold analyzed 40 years of available data and focused on how organic farming impacts several types of sustainability: productivity, impact on the environment, economic viability and social wellbeing.
“If I had to put it in one sentence, organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment and support social interactions between farmers and consumers,” Reganold says. “In some ways, there are practices in organic agriculture that really are ideal blueprints for us to look at feeding the world in the future.”
Organic may even be our best bet to help feed the world in an increasingly volatile climate, he says.
At first, this might sound unlikely, given that the crop yields of organic agriculture are typically 10-20% lower than conventional. That’s because conventional growers can use synthetic fertilizers, most of which aren’t allowed in organic food production. “When farmers add fertilizers, those nutrients are immediately available to the plant, and the plants can grow faster,” Reganold explains. Organic crops, on the other hand, are fertilized by organic matter like compost or animal manure, which takes more time to decompose and release its nutrients. (This slow, steady approach is called building the soil.)
But Reganold found one scenario where the research shows that organic yields are consistently greater than conventional: during periods of drought. Organic soil is built up with organic material, which can hold onto water, he says. That means that by the time a farmer plants and grows a crop, the plant has access to more water, so yields increase. For every inch of rainwater soaked up by soil, a plant can produce another 7-8 bushels of wheat, Reganold says.
Organic farming typically uses less energy, too. “When you look at ecosystem services, organic agriculture really shines,” he says. “The value they bring in areas like biodiversity, pollination, soil quality—if you were to put an economic value on those, and some researchers have, then it more than makes up for the higher price or price premium of organic food.” [more]
ABSTRACT: Organic agriculture has a history of being contentious and is considered by some as an inefficient approach to food production. Yet organic foods and beverages are a rapidly growing market segment in the global food industry. Here, we examine the performance of organic farming in light of four key sustainability metrics: productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing. Organic farming systems produce lower yields compared with conventional agriculture. However, they are more profitable and environmentally friendly, and deliver equally or more nutritious foods that contain less (or no) pesticide residues, compared with conventional farming. Moreover, initial evidence indicates that organic agricultural systems deliver greater ecosystem services and social benefits. Although organic agriculture has an untapped role to play when it comes to the establishment of sustainable farming systems, no single approach will safely feed the planet. Rather, a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems is needed. Significant barriers exist to adopting these systems, however, and a diversity of policy instruments will be required to facilitate their development and implementation.