Organic food has long been the staple of health- and wellness-conscious Americans--and also the butt of jokes about “whole paycheck” prices. Organics feature a lack of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, so we feel more at ease with what is going into our bodies. The environmental benefits help relieve man’s impact on the planet. A new study out of the University of Washington suggests that organic production is well poised to break out of the health and wellness market and become an integral part of food production globally.
The study, titled Organic Agriculture for the 21st Century, conducted by Dr. John Reganold and Jonathan Walker, looked at 40 years of data on conventional and organic agriculture to assess the effectiveness of each set of practices. This is certainly not the first study to tout the effectiveness of organic production as compared to conventional practices. For example, late in 2014 the University of California Berkeley (UCB) conducted a study showing that yield gaps between organic and conventional systems are significantly smaller than previously thought. But, the Reganold and Watcherstudy is unique because it is the first to compare conventional and organic practices across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences: environment, social well being, productivity, economics,, and.
In the environment category, organic production surpassed conventional with a long list of benefits, including reduced soil erosion, reduced water, soil, and pollution, energy efficiency (it does not rely on synthetically manufactured chemicals), increased biodiversity, and increased adaptability to climate change.
Many environmental factors, particularly the lack of toxic chemicals, combined with increased job opportunities, also make organic production a clear winner in the social well being category.
On the other hand, productivity has long been the mire of organic agriculture because conventional practices produce greater crop yields. Now these gaps are getting smaller and smaller, and in certain conditions such as drought, organics actually produce more.
Lastly, in the economic category, Regenold and Watcher found despite conventional agriculture's ability to produce higher yields, the price premiums that organic agriculture demand make organics more profitable. They also recounted that as organic production expands, the premiums would drop without disturbing profits. A diagram of the full findings is below.
ILLUSTRATION: Reganold and Walker 2016
Lengths of the 12 flower petals are qualitatively based on the studies discussed in this Review and indicate the level of performance of specific sustainability metrics relative to the four circles representing 25, 50, 75 and 100%. Orange petals represent areas of production; blue petals represent areas of environmental sustainability; red petals represent areas of economic sustainability; green petals represent areas of wellbeing. The lengths of the petals illustrate that organic farming systems better balance the four areas of sustainability.
But, Reganold and Watcher are not taking an “organic or bust” stance. Rather, they see the utility of a multipronged approach to getting more nourishment to more people in a sustainable way. In his Union of Concerned Scientists Blog Post, Reganold explains:
Organic agriculture has been able to provide jobs, be profitable, benefit the soil and environment, and support social interactions between farmers and consumers. Yet, no single type of farming can feed the world. Rather, what’s needed is a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, mixed crop/livestock, and still undiscovered systems."
It seems, then, while Reganold and Watcher’s study is an loud argument against the agribusiness-as-usual sentiments of the Big Food industry, they are not proposing we leave behind conventional methods of farming. Rather they are calling for shifts in the way that we do things across the board when it comes to our food, starting with more support for organic agriculture.
Similar research echoed Reganold and Watcher’s this month, showing the far-reaching global benefits of more sustainable farming practices. A study out of the University of Southhampton found that biodiversity in freshwater systems can improve the global food economy, especially when it comes to fisheries. Organic agriculture, is known for its importance in mitigating chemical and effluent run-off in freshwater systems.
As we continue to learn how we in America, and everyone across the globe, can move towards a future in which everyone has access to healthy food, the organic movement is becoming more and more vital to our health and well-being.
PHOTO: via Smart Planet
- Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century via Nature Plants
- Organic agriculture key to feeding the world sustainably via Science Daily
- Organic Agriculture Is Key to Helping Feed the World Sustainably via Union of Concerned Scientists
- Global evidence of positive impacts of freshwater biodiversity on fishery yields via Golbal Ecology and Biogeography
- Genotypic diversity effects on biomass production in native perennial bioenergy cropping systems via GCB Bioengineering
- Financial Benchmarks and Economic Impact of Local Food Operations via University of Minnesota