As the world begins to wrestle with rising food insecurity associated with climate change, a report from Worldwatch points to the crucial role organic farming plays.
Not only is organically produced food more nutritious, but it sustains livelihoods of millions of people in developing countries, because unlike conventional agriculture, it relies on labor. And it increases crop yields.
Organic farming also enhances biodiversity, reducing the vulnerability of the region to climate change.
Over the past decade, the amount of certified organic acreage has tripled across the world, but it still accounts for for less than 1% (0.9%) of the world's agricultural acreage, says Worldwatch Institute.
As of 2010, over 91 million acres are certified organic and 84 countries have organic certification standards, up from 74 in 2009.
Organic acreage is highest in the Oceania region, including Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island nations, with 29.6 million acres, followed by Europe (27.4 million acres), and Latin America (20.7 million acres).
North America has just 6.4 million acres.
Acreage doesn't tell the whole story, however. 80% of the 1.6 million global certified organic farmers live in the developing world, not surprising since organic farming is more labor intensive. India has the greatest number of certified organic producers with 400,551 farmers, followed by Uganda (188,625) and Mexico (128,826).
Millions more farmers in developing countries practice organic agriculture, even though they aren't certified.
“Although organic agriculture often produces lower yields on land that has recently been farmed conventionally, it outperforms conventional practices—especially in times of drought—when the land has been farmed organically for a longer time,” says Laura Reynolds, a researcher with Worldwatch’s Food and Agriculture Program. “Conventional agricultural practices often degrade the environment over both the long and short term through soil erosion, excessive water extraction, and biodiversity loss.”
"Conventional produce (and grains like wheat) contain significantly fewer vitamins and minerals than they did 50 years ago. In our quest to grow more-more-more by using pesticides, GMOs, and not allowing fields to lie fallow, the soil has been robbed of its vital nutrients. This may grow lots of good-looking peppers, tomatoes and corn, but tests show they are less nutritional," says Natural Vitality Living.
In fact, one farmer wants to change the criteria so that farms are measured in terms of how much they grow, but in the nutrient content of its crops. Farmers growing high-nutrient crops would get higher prices and consumers would reap the healthful benefits.
Half the fossil fuels are used on organic farms than conventional farms, and common organic practices - such as crop rotation and cover crops, mulching and maintaining wildflowers, and native shrubs and trees - improve water retention and stabilize soils, reducing vulnerability to harsh weather patterns. Such practices also improve the quality of the soil, which then serves as a top source of carbon sequestation.
Organic farms have 30% greater biodiversity, including birds, insects, and plants, than conventional farms do.
Countries Taking Notice
Organic farming projects in 57 nations have demonstrated average gains in crop yields of 80%, according to a United Nations report.
That report concludes food production in entire regions can be doubled within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty ... by using these practices.
A 2-year, $250 million program in Brazil has restored the land on over 2,000 farms, recovering degraded pastures and implementing no-till agriculture to improve the soil as well as other practices, according to a NY Times editorial.
Similarly, 1000 projects in Niger have benefited more than 100,000 people by implement sustainable agriculture, fishing and livestock management on 9000 hectares. They have reduced soil erosion and water consumption, while increasing plant cover and the amount of carbon stored.
In Vietnam, more than a million farmers have increase yields and cut methane emissions by intermittently draining rice paddies. The approach, started in 2007, is now used on 185,000 hectares.
"If food prices are not kept under control and populations are unable to feed themselves ... we will increasingly have states being disrupted and failed states developing," say Olivier de Schutter, the UN reporter on the right to food.
Bhutan, a tiny country of 700,000 people between China and India, has pledged to go 100% organic. Only 3% of the nation's land is dedicated to agriculture, although two-thirds of its citizens depend on farming for their livelihood.
Read about Rodale's 30-year study on the benefits of organic food.