Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world
We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies. But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.
The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found “evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields.” In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can’t feed the world depend as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.
Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger.
Building Healthy Soil
Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches David visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility
David no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In his view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. He now sees adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers he visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.
Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms he visited that adopted these transformational practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.
No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever.
So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.
We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.
Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why is David so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers David met showed him they already are.
Ref: David R. Montgomery Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington