Over the years, agriculture has taken a sharp turn away from traditional methods. Many farmers use huge plots of land to grow what many people call “genetically modified organisms,” or GMO for short. Monsanto provides the seeds for these crops and has been controversially banned in many countries across the globe. At the same time, pesticides such as Roundup, a Monsanto product, have been used with increasing regularity. The implications of such widespread use of a product that is essentially a poison has sparked not just outrage, but a movement of its own known broadly as the organic movement, which claims that GMOs and pesticide are seriously harmful to our health and cause severe damage to the environment, creating sustainability issues.
Many people defending the methods of conventional farmers have argued that organic agriculture is not profitable and the yields are either not substantial enough, profitable enough, eaten by marauding wildlife, or all three at once.
Sects of the organic movement, however, have all too often been accused of using pseudoscience to prove their points, including some criticism from National Geographic in their March 2015 cover story. But today, the Whole Foods crowd gets a win. An official press release from Washington State University may be backing them up in their claims that organic farming is also sustainable farming.
Studies aiming to prove one argument or the other are almost innumerable and inconclusive at best. But what if a review of all of these studies is conducted? What can scientists conclude from putting all this data together to answer one question? Is environmentally friendly agricultural methods sustainable and substantial enough to feed the world? The granola crowd wins, says Washington State University researchers.
“It is the first such study to analyze 40 years of science comparing organic and conventional agriculture across the four goals of sustainability identified by the National Academy of Sciences: productivity, economics, environment, and community well being.”
Lead author of the study is WSU professor of soil science John Reganold, along with doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter. Their review study, titled “Organic Agriculture in the 21st Century,” is going on the February cover of the journal Nature Plants, says the press release.
“Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic ag should play a role in feeding the world… Thirty years ago, there were just a couple handfuls of studies comparing organic agriculture with conventional. In the last 15 years, these kinds of studies have skyrocketed,” says Reganold.
Despite it’s popularity among consumers, over the past 20 years, organic agriculture has only grown to about one percent of all global farming.
“In severe drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change, organic farms have the potential to produce high yields because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils,” he continued.
We all know how expensive those natural grocery stores can be. Are the health benefits really worth the higher price? That claim has yet to be proven, but the higher price of food can be considered a reward for farmers during times of low yield. This means that farming stays profitable so that farmers can work with sustainable methods and be rewarded for their service to the ecosystem.
“If you look at calorie production per capita we’re producing more than enough food for 7 billion people now, but we waste 30 to 40 percent of it,” Reganold said. “It’s not just a matter of producing enough, but making agriculture environmentally friendly and making sure that food gets to those who need it.”
Reganold and Wachter both agree that integration of organic methods need to be made through policy change, and that there needs to be variety in agricultural practice under differing circumstances.
Michael Specter from the New Yorker discussed the lack of evidence toward the claim that GMOs cause disease and negatively affect our quality of life, as well as the dangers of pseudoscience, in an influential TED Talk. Here, he argues that we should praise the triumphs of the scientific method and be weary of its impostors. Well in this study, we have real experts separating themselves from the rumors and raking their way through the garbage and miscellaneous data to produce an actual conclusion.
Perhaps there are answers to these questions after all.
[Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images]