Proponents of organic agriculture say it leads to better soil management, uses fewer pesticides and fertilisers, and is a better protector of biodiversity. However, when it comes to increasing food production for a growing global population, others argue that organic’s lower average yields would mean clearing more land for agriculture.
According to a 2012 meta-analysis, organic crop yields average about 80% of those of conventional crops – but there is huge variation depending on the region and crop variety. The researchers found that while organic fruit trees, beans and alfalfa delivered just 5% lower yields, major cereal crops and vegetables yielded about 25% less than their conventionally grown counterparts.
Reducing non-renewable inputs
But while much of the debate has focused on whether organic can match the yields of conventional agriculture, advocates suggest organic foods offer more long-term viability even if yields are lower.
But any move toward more organic systems therefore would need to reduce land use, rather than increase it – a big challenge when the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that food production will need to double by 2050.
A third way?
While debate over organic’s role in future food production tends to pit organic against conventional farming, conservation farming may provide a compromise. It doesn’t explicitly prohibit any farming practices, but encourages soil and water conservation and the use of mulch to minimise runoff and erosion.
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