Organic Agriculture can Feed the World’s Hungry

Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World’s Hungry

A farmer on a farm.

The verdict is in: According to projections released this past fall, the world’s population is expected to hit more than 9.5 billion in 2050, and continue climbing up to 11 billion or more by 2100, if the current trend continues. But as research on world population growth and climate change moves forward, farmers, economists, and policymakers are still struggling to address a major concern: How will the Earth feed all these people? Further, can we do so without destroying the remainder of the planet’s resources?VegeHead200pp

As it turns out, happily, the planet already produces enough food to feed everyone, but the problem of unequal distribution and poverty remains, leading to two of the leading causes of illness across the world: Chronic hunger and obesity.

Scientists and experts of all sorts have weighed in with potential solutions to the ongoing problem of feeding a growing population and ending world hunger. Up until recently, most of these solutions have focused on utilizing conventional agricultural technology to produce more food. Solutions have ranged from embracing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to indoor farming, among other, technology-based fixes. On the flip side, small farmers and organic agricultural methods have hardly been researched, or even considered, because, as previous experts have noted, these farms simply cannot compare to their conventional counterparts when it comes to production. Or can they?

According to recent research conducted by scientists at the University of California Berkeley, small farmers could play an important role in saving world hunger, after all. The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society earlier last month found that when organic farmers utilized certain diversification methods, the yield gap between organic and conventional producers essentially vanished, proving what organic food devotees the world over already suspected — that organic food can help to feed the world. The UC Berkeley study “found relatively small, and potentially overestimated, differences in yield between organic and conventional agriculture, despite historically low rates of investment in organic cropping systems.”

One of the most important merits of organic agriculture on a global scale is that, unlike conventional methods, organic agriculture doesn’t rely on synthetic chemical inputs, and is therefore much easier on the environment than conventional farms. Since agriculture is one of the largest contributors to climate change, the idea that organic agriculture could compete with its conventional counterparts is monumental.

The report notes that while our current, conventional agricultural system is “tremendously productive,” it also “causes many environmental problems, often trading off long- maintenance of ecosystem services for short-term agricultural production.”

The UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) also points out that while experts may have a tendency to ignore the small farmer’s contributions, “the world’s smallholders produce 70 percent of the world’s food on 25 percent of the land.” So while one small farmer may not seem to make much of a difference, the reality is that they absolutely do. And further, because small farmers are often important members of smaller, local communities, they have one of the biggest roles to play in helping to curb world hunger.

Professor Hilal Elver, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, would agree. In her first public speech in September, Elver noted that the focus on small farmers and alternative agricultural models “is critical for future agricultural policies. Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness. This must change. Governments must support small farmers.” According to the UN, 80% of subsidies and 90% of research funding in the European Union goes to supporting conventional industrial agriculture.

Source: Thinkstock

Despite the fact that organic agricultural methods are just now beginning to gain traction as a viable solution to world hunger and climate change, in actuality the UC Berkeley’s study isn’tthe first to suggest that the “yield gap” between conventional and organic agriculture may be much smaller than previously thought, although the study has found new clues as to whyorganic agriculture has historically been less productive.

The study notes that agroecology, more so than simply “organic” practices are among the key differences which help to narrow the “yield gap” between conventional and organic farming. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “agroecology” has been defined by the UC Berkeley as “a scientific discipline that uses ecological theory to study, design, manage, and evaluate agricultural systems that are productive but also resource conserving.” Organic agriculture,notes FoodFirst, an activist group advocating for a sustainable food system, isn’t inherently synonymous with agroecological methods of farming, but, in the same way that a rectangle isn’t always a square, many organic farms utilize agroecological methods and philosophies as a sort of natural extension or byproduct of their organic practices.

Agroecology isn’t a new philosophy of farming, though it is just beginning to find greater support and traction amongst the scientific (and political) community. Agroecology, the report explains, is “a traditional way of using farming methods that are less resource oriented, and which work in harmony with society.” The study adds that “further investment in agroecological research has the potential to improve productivity of sustainable agricultural methods to equal or better conventional yields.”

fresh fruits and vegetables

fresh fruits and vegetables

In September, the UN’s FAO launched a new agroecology initiative, calling on governments to invest more money on researching alternative agricultural models, such as agroecological ones. In a speech, Dr. David Fig, who serves on the board of Biowatch South Africa said, “we are being far too kind to industrialized agriculture. The private sector has endorsed it, but it has failed to feed the world, it has contributed to major environmental contamination and misuse of natural resources. It’s time we switched more attention, public funds, and policy measures to agroecology, to replace the old model as soon as possible.”

There are proponents of both conventional agricultural and agroecological solutions to world hunger and climate change within the food systems community, but the two camps approach the planet’s problems in very different ways. According to FoodFirst, one of the profound benefits of agroecological methods is that “unlike genetically engineered crops (GMOs) which attempt to build resilience into the genomes of specific cultivars one trait at a time, agroecology strengthens the resilience of the entire ecosystem.”

The UC Berkeley study concurs, noting that it found the most effective management practices for increasing yields were practices “that diversify crop fields in space or over time,” such as “multi-cropping and crop rotations,” though the study also found that “these results suggest that polyculture and crop rotations increase yields in both organic and conventional cropping systems” (emphasis added).

Overall, the UC Berkeley study is reason for optimism; more and more experts seem united in viewing the problems inherent in today’s agricultural systems as obstacles with plausible and achievable solutions, and agroecology seems like a viable way forward for future research. FAO scientists recently described agroecology as a “well-grounded science, a set of time-tested agronomic practices and, when embedded in sound socio-political institutions the most promising pathway for achieving sustainable food production.”

It seems, in other words, that in order to solve today’s food crisis, we may need to look to the past, as well as into the future, embracing both traditional, ecosystem-conscious methods, as well as investing in new research and breeding for tomorrow’s farms.

Weed Resistance Spreading on Farms

Aug. 03-2015-  MOORHEAD, Minn. —

Weed Resistance in Spreading on Farms   from AgWeek

Tom Peters is often asked if he “works with weed resistance.”

“I say, no I do not: I work with weeds management,” says Peters, a sugar beet agronomist with University of Minnesota and North Dakota State University extension services, based in Fargo.

“It’s maybe a play on words, but weed resistance implies that we’ve had a failure, we’re in a defensive posture, and we’re backpedaling in order to salvage our crop,” he says.

“Weeds management, to me, implies that I’m in charge,” he adds, leaning a bit into the word. “I have a strategy, and I’m implementing the strategy, and that strategy is changing as I collect more data. It’s subtle, but for me it’s a more optimistic viewpoint of looking at weeds.”

Peters, who grew up on a Sauk Centre, Minn., dairy farm, got his doctorate from North Dakota State University in 1990. From then until 2014, he worked with Monsanto Co., where he was a program lead and agronomist, contributing to development and safety assessments of traits in crops developed through biotechnology, including Roundup ready sugar beets.

He started his extension position in February 2014, and says he appreciates the closer contact with growers.

With sugar beets, he faces one of the region’s most challenging weed management problems, “or opportunities,” he is quick to add.

The 60-mile jump

Peters says waterhemp is the No. 1 weed challenge for beet growers, ahead of common ragweed, giant ragweed and even kochia.

In the mid-2000s, the waterhemp weed became more prevalent in the sugar beet growing region — especially the herbicide-resistant biotypes. Even a few untreated weeds in a field can lead to major infestations within a couple of years.

Iowa State University scientists say the weed has flourished with adoption of reduced tillage, increased dependence on glyphosate (Roundup), and reductions in cultivation for weed management. The weed is aided by increased temperatures and soil moisture, according to the ISU website.

Peters says the southern Red River Valley represented an imaginary northernmost line of glyphosate-resistant waterhemp infestation in 2014. In 2015, that line seems to have migrated all the way up to Highway 2 in Grand Forks, N.D.

“Sixty miles in one year, can you imagine that?” Peters says.

Jeff Stachler, Peters’ predecessor and now the Auglaize County Extension Service agent for Ohio State University in Wapakoneta, agrees that waterhemp is a major threat, especially because of the acres it covers, and because it moves quickly.

Stachler wonders if the waterhemp was that far north earlier — perhaps hiding in soybeans — but went unnoticed until this year.

“If you’re using glyphosate alone, you’re going to find out what’s out there,” Stachler says. “You’re doing the maximum selection with glyphosate in beets.”

Four main threats

To Peters, waterhemp is a threat because of its psychology and its biology.

The first problem appears right away.

“Waterhemp, at first, doesn’t intimidate anybody; it’s a thin, slender plant — you might almost say an elegant plant in the field,” he says.

Second, it is a prolific seed producer.

“That’s when it gets you,” he says. “It gets you in the third year by mass. One plant can produce up to 1 million seeds and in recent years the weed has emerged as a threat to soybean production across the nation.”

Third, the plant doesn’t go dormant in the summer like most weed threats, Peters says.

“Every time we get rain — and there’s waterhemp seed in the soil — we have an opportunity of a flush of weeds to occur,” Peters says. “Most of our common weeds go dormant when soil temperatures get high.”

And fourth, from a reproductive standpoint, there are male plants and female plants. With all of the seeds and without the dormancy, an infinite amount of contact occurs between males and females.

“In a sense, we’re making a tremendous amount of diversity (within waterhemp) because different plants are cross-pollinating,” he says. “That’s adding to the resistance concerns or the unique biotypes concerns.”

Different approaches

Stachler approached American Crystal Sugar Co. for a piece of land to dedicate to waterhemp research and started the plot there in 2012.

Known for his zeal for the resistance problem, he noticed the resistance on American Crystal’s land, just east of the company’s research center and its Moorhead sugar beet processing plant.

He thinks resistant kochia is a bigger problem because it is more difficult to stop in sugar beets.

Peters, who inherited the research sites, differs in style, but he largely follows Stachler’s research model, he says.

“I think Jeff had great foresight to establish the concept and approach,” he says.

In 2013, Stachler helped locate a second, replicated plot near Herman, Minn., nearly 85 miles south in Grant County, Minn. Peters tries to work in two distinct environments, and the sites complement each other, with the combination of the same weed in different environments. The crop is generally a bit more advanced at the southern location.

Peters is studying waterhemp control in four blocks — sugar beets, small grains, corn and soybeans.

“I’m interested in soil-applied herbicides,” he says.

They can be applied pre-emergent (right after planting) or applied in the lay-by concept, where the sugar beets are emerged to the two- to four-leaf stage and the weeds have not yet emerged. The predominant weeds in the test plots are two broad-leaf weeds — common lambsquarters and waterhemp.

Lambsquarters is always taller because it emerges earlier, in April. Waterhemp, an annual weed in the pigweed family, emerges toward the end of May and early June, so is shorter, but the density can suffocate the trial.

Crop safety first

From the get-go, Peters knows any chemical solution for beets first must demonstrate crop safety.

Peters thinks beet farmers likely will need pre-emergence herbicides to handle waterhemp. The likeliest help is metolachlor with the product names such as Dual, Magnum, Cinch and other generics. Metolachlor has a history of injuring beets when applied at high rates and under certain environmental conditions, Peters says.

“I’m looking at metolachlor, but not as a stand-alone concept,” he says. ” I’m looking at it at very low rates, as a way to buy time until farmers can get to their post-emergence (herbicide) program, or their lay-by program.”

The experiment compares various regimens: no herbicide; Roundup-ready varieties followed by glyphosate, or Roundup; various soil-applied herbicides (including metolachlor); metolachlor, followed by lay-by applications of various other herbicides.

In 2014, sugar beets were planted late. April brought a lot of rain and most farmers planted in May. The metolachlor strategy at low rates worked pretty well, Peters says.

But in 2015, because beets were planted in early April, so the metolachlor strategy didn’t work as well.

“The herbicide rate I used wasn’t adequate for season-long weed control,” he says.

Peters says, the lesson is the lay-by strategy — the concept of using soil-applied herbicides after the sugar beets have emerged — might be the best for crop safety and effectiveness.

“I’m really interested in a very low rate of metolachlor, soil-applied, pre-emergence, right after planting, and then followed by lay-by of Outlook, Warrant, or even more metolachlor again.”

Peters underlines that glyphosate remains an important place in a sugar beet weed management strategy.

“Roundup still controls a lot of weeds and I can see it in my plots, but for tough weeds — weeds like waterhemp — we need other programs, other strategies and we need to implement them in a timely fashion.”