In addition to analyzing data from our
research trials and developing new domestic and international
research initiatives, Don reviews dozens of research
studies each week. He'll present the most interesting
of his findings every week on the web site.
One of the enduring issues in the world food debate is crop yield
performance and agriculture’s ability to feed the world. While
it has been shown in numerous studies that the world hunger problem
is one of distribution of food, and that one third of the world’s
grain goes for animal consumption, crop yields continue to be the
focus of this debate.
Enormous investments were made in fertilizer and pesticide intensive
“green revolution” approaches to agricultural development
during the 70’s and 80’s, and then, starting in the
90’s, biotechnology and genetic engineering became the focus
of investment. Organic agriculture generally gets short shrift in
this debate, and is usually out-and-out dismissed. New evidence,
however, is showing that organic agriculture can hold its own with
the green revolution approach, even in Asian rice, the sine qua
non crop of world food production.
Two recent studies out of the Philippines are showing that organic
rice production produces yields comparable with conventional rice,
and is superior from an economic point of view. A University of
Philippines study over four crop seasons and two sites showed rice
yields in organically managed systems to be 17% higher than conventional.
A flaw in this particular comparison is that a higher proportion
of the organic farmers owned their farms than the conventional farmers,
and farm-owners will always get higher yields than tenant-farmed
crops, all other things being equal. Another smaller study out of
Xavier University (one site and one season) showed conventional
rice with a 22% yield advantage over organic. The upshot of this
is that organic rice yields in tropical Asia are probably within
the 90% range that has been shown for organic vs. conventional comparisons
in other crops.
Where the organic systems really excel, however, is in economics
and profitability. In both studies the net returns were, on the
average, 70-100% higher on the organic farms compared to the conventional,
even with occasional lower yields. With the proportion of farm costs
like chemical fertilizers and pesticides so much higher in developing
countries like the Philipinnes, where labor costs are low, the organic
alternative wins out. And with pretty much the whole world heading
away from farm subsidies and towards a market-based agriculture
(except for the U.S., who nevertheless has been its most vocal proponent),
this bodes well for the organic approach. And if economists would
ever get their heads out of the sand and include environmental costs
of agriculture in the equation, the organic approach will get even
more attractive. I will be discussing these issues with respect
to American farming in a later column.
Both research results were presented at the International Federation
of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) conference in Victoria,
British Columbia in August 2002. Crop yields world-wide are discussed
in my forthcoming paper in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture
(February 2003 issue).