Thursday, April 26, 2012

The future of agriculture

Image: USDA licensed under Creative Commons
A new report has highlighted the effect a rapidly growing human population is having on the world’s economy and environment. In the wide-ranging People and the Planet report, the Royal Society says that science and technology has a crucial role to play in offsetting these effects, including in the area of agricultural production.

According to the report, published this week, the global population will have reached 9.3 billion by the year 2050. While recognising the significant yield increases that have (and will be) achieved via the genetic improvement of crop plants, the authors also called for a focus on better crop management practices: “These include integrated pest control and inter-cropping systems, in addition to capital-intensive technologies such as precision agriculture which may offer large benefits in countries already practising intensive agriculture”.

The report recognises that technology will play “an increasing role” if more food is to be grown without requiring significantly more natural ecosystems to be turned over to farmland. 

So, if yield is so important, is there a future for organic agriculture? I’d argue yes, but as part of a new system which incorporates the best features of all agricultural ideals.

The Royal Society report comes as new research further confirmed the yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture but has shown that, given the right crop and growing conditions, organic can "nearly" match conventional yields.

Organic systems provide a number of tangible benefits over conventional agriculture, despite having generally lower yields. However, given the need for some crops, particularly cereals to keep pace with rapidly growing demand, the gap between that which can be provided by organic systems and which is required by a rapidly increasing global population is growing. 

In a paper published in the journal Nature this week, US and Canadian researchers used a meta-analysis of available information to conclude that, on average, organic yields are 25% lower than those produced in conventional agriculture. 

Depending on the type of crop examined, yield gaps varied significantly. For example, organic fruit production had, on average, just 3% lower yields than conventional fruit production. On the other hand, cereal production was seriously hampered by an organic system, with a yield reduction of 26% compared to conventional cereals, i.e. those produced with chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

The researchers showed that organic systems performed better in terms of yields, without matching conventional agriculture, when high levels of organic nitrogen were present, the organic system was well established and rain-fed irrigation systems were used.

Correct soil pH and the use of best management practices also influenced the yield gap, leading the authors to conclude that the results “suggest that today’s organic systems may nearly rival conventional yields in some cases—with particular crop types, growing conditions and management practices—but often they do not."

These new results support a study published earlier this year which also demonstrated a significant yield gap between organic and conventional. Researchers in The Netherlands used a meta-analysis to show that the yield gap was, on average, 20% in favour of conventional systems. 

These data should encourage further research in organic agricultural systems. The amount of research done on organic is tiny compared to conventional crop production. It is reasonable then to assume that, while perhaps never reaching the maximum yields possible with conventional systems, the advantages of organic, including biodiversity and soil conservation benefits should encourage us to look more closely at this type of agriculture.

the key will be to move away from the hard-line ideology of an organic versus conventional debate In my view, the key will be to move away from the hard-line ideology of an organic versus conventional debate and look to examine what features of all agricultural systems could be utilised in a multi-faceted approach, using complementary ideas from each camp. The importance of creating and maintaining high levels of soil biodiversity, such a crucial component of organic agriculture needs to be recognised in any new system. Conversely, the limiting factor that low levels of nitrogen in organic systems poses needs to be overcome. 

As the authors of this new research put it, there should not be winners and losers in this debate. The result should be a combination of what is best about organic and conventional crop production:

"There are many factors to consider in balancing the benefits of organic and conventional agriculture, and there are no simple ways to determine a clear ‘winner’ for all possible farming situations. However, instead of continuing the ideologically charged ‘organic versus conventional’ debate, we should systematically evaluate the costs and benefits of different management options. In the end, to achieve sustainable food security we will probably need many different techniques—including organic, conventional, and possible ‘hybrid’ systems—to produce more food at affordable prices, ensure livelihoods for farmers, and reduce the environmental costs of agriculture."

We need a new agriculture- one which is not limited by ideology but is informed by science and which is relevant for an era of a rapidly growing human population and an ever increasing demand for food and food security.

An edited version of this article appears on the Guardian's Notes and Theories blog. You can read it here.


  © Communicate Science; Blogger template 'Isolation' by 2012

Back to TOP