More land around the world is being dedicated to organic farming. The Worldwatch Institute says since 1999 there’s been a more than three-fold increase to 37 million hectares.
“Organic farming is farming without chemical inputs, like pesticides and fertilizers. Instead of using those inputs it uses a variety of natural techniques, like rotating crops and applying compost to fields – and growing crops that will return nutrients to the soil naturally instead of via chemicals,” said Worldwatch researcher Laura Reynolds, who co-authored a new report on the growth of organic agriculture.
She said it has a range of public health and environmental benefits.
“It delivers fewer pesticides and chemicals to what we eat and to the farmers growing the food. It also delivers a range of economic benefits to farmers growing organically because they found they can get a much higher price if their food is certified organic,” she said.
Last year, Stanford University researchers said that they “did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives.” They based their findings on a review of previous studies on the subject.
Reynolds said, “I agree that it won’t change the nutritional content of certain foods, probably cereals. That’s not the entire point of growing organically. If you look at chemicals and toxic elements in the food, there’s definitely a huge difference. So, if you’re getting all of your nutrients, but you’re also eating chemicals, then you sort of want to know the whole story. I found that that report looked at a very small element or organic food.”
Worldwatch says the Oceania region has most of the certified organic agricultural land – more than 12 million hectares spread over Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island nations. Europe is next with 10 million hectares, followed by Latin America with 8.4 million. Asia has about three million hectares devoted to organic farming and Africa about one million.
The study says the United States has “lagged behind other countries in adopting sustainable farming methods.” However, sales of organic foods in the U.S. are rising rapidly, amounting to $31.5 billion in 2011.
In order to be certified organic, farmers must keep strict records of how they grow their crops. There’s a lot of red tape or bureaucracy involved and it can be an expensive process.
“Certifications are growing as there are a lot more companies or third parties that are doing certifications. There’s a whole range in the U.S. and it’s becoming more popular internationally, as well. As farmers see that there’s a niche organic market, they can get more money for their food than if they grew it conventionally. I’d say that sales of organic food are growing perhaps faster than the actual acreage that’s devoted to organic. In the U.S., it’s one of the fastest growing markets,” she said.
Reynolds said that organic farming methods are proving their worth during climate change.
“Organic farming involves a lot of different techniques that deliver nutrients to the soil and help the soil conserve water, which is going to be very key in climate affected areas. Climate change involves more widespread droughts and more temperature variations – extreme heat waves – and plants often cannot stand up to that pressure. But if land is farmed organically, a lot of those techniques will help farmers very much stand up to climate change,” she said.
Those techniques include using mulch or growing naturally heat resistant crops or crops that have extensive root systems.
Reynolds said that organic farming is just one element of food security.
“We already grow enough food to feed everyone in the world. It’s more now a matter of disseminating that food, making it accessible and affordable to people. While organic food can definitely help long-term sustainability of food production, it’s definitely just one piece of the puzzle of making food available to everyone. It’s also important to bear in mind what you grow organically. If you’re applying organic methods to grow millions of acres of corn or soybeans, that’s not really going to help food security on a global scale,” she said.
As more farmers grow organic foods and competition increases, she said, prices should fall.
The Worldwatch Institute report says that sustainable food production will become more important in developing countries, “as the majority of population growth is concentrated in the world’s poorest countries.”
Despite the increase in land dedicated to organic farming, the total represents just under one-percent of global agricultural land.