Apologists for industrial food production often level what they see as a devastating charge against organic agriculture: that it could never "feed the world."
The claim goes like this: industrial ag produces higher yields, and as global population grows, we’re going to have to squeeze as much food as possible out of the earth, by any means necessary, to produce enough sustenance.
Not so long ago Norman Borlaug, that aging lion of industrial ag, growled:
[D]on’t tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That’s when this [pro-organic] misinformation becomes destructive.
(Borlaug and his followers rarely mention that even in this age of petrochemical-charged agriculture, some 820 million lack enough food to eat.)
But mounting evidence suggests that organic agriculture at least matches, and may even outperform, chemical agriculture, even in terms of yield. The latest evidence: a study from Iowa State University.
After a nine-year study involving what researchers believe to be the "largest randomized, replicated comparison of organic and conventional crops in the nation," the researchers found that for corn organic yields beat conventional, while for soy the two styles performed similarly.
And while conventional agriculture has been shown to degrade soil structure and impede its ability to hold water, organically managed soil holds up much better.
[Head researcher Kathleen] Delate said the organic plots infiltrate more water, which reduces soil runoff and more effectively recharges groundwater supplies. The organic soils also cycle nutrients more efficiently, making them available when and where the plants need them. Soil structural stability also remained good, despite increased tillage involved with the organic rotations.
Thus organic ag seems to not only produce as much as or more than conventional, it also does a much better job of conserving soil and water in the process — surely an important consideration for any long-term plans to "feed the world."
The Iowa State findings echo those of other studies. This past summer, researchers at the University of Michigan found that in developed countries, organic and conventional growing styles yield roughly the same amount of food.
But in the global south, "food production could double or triple using organic methods."