Can organic farming feed the world during drought?

Can organic farming feed the world during drought?

Politicos and agricultural leaders are addressing the drought disaster in the short-term, but are they setting up the country's farmers for long-term success? Here's why organic farming may be the antidote.

"Begin with the end in mind," one of Steven Covey's seven habits of highly effective people, seems not to apply to today's agricultural politicos and leaders.

This week, news of the nation's drought disaster—the worst since the 1950s according to the National Climatic Data Center—is pushing mainstream. The question on our leaders' minds is how to protect current farmers from the immediate consequences of lower crop yields.

While this question is necessary and should be answered, there's another that speaks to the root of the problem. Instead of considering ways of alleviating the monetary situation through the farm bill, leaders should be thinking about the ultimate "end" they want to achieve through such legislation.

The "end" should not be focused on mitigating drought's effects in the short term—a band aid at best. As the planet heats up, it's likely that droughts will continue to worsen, reads a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The "end" should be: How can we feed the world during drought conditions? The answer goes far beyond ensuring that farmers don't go bankrupt this year.

Biotech falls short

Last month, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report that found Monsanto's DroughtGard crop did not outperform non-engineered alternatives to the drought problem. In other words, traditional breeding and improved farming practices beat biotech.

"Farmers are always looking to reduce losses from drought, but the biotechnology industry has made little real-world progress on this problem," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with UCS's Food & Environment Program and author of the report titled "High and Dry: Why Genetic Engineering is Not Solving Agriculture’s Drought Problem in a Thirsty World."

DroughtGard—the only crop engineered for drought tolerance approved for commercial use—reduced crop losses by about 6 percent. By comparison, breeding and improved farming practices have increased drought tolerance by roughly 1 percent per year over the past several decades, reads a UCS press release.

Plus, DroughtGard only works well under moderate drought conditions, which is not helpful or applicable to the current situation.

Could organic agriculture be the answer?

Scientific evidence supports this solution, at least when it comes to one of the nation's king crops: corn.

The Rodale Institute's Farming Systems Trial, a 30-plus year study comparing organic and conventional agriculture, found that organic and conventional crop yields were equivalent throughout the trial, except organic corn yields were 31 percent higher than conventional in years of drought.

The genetically modified corn, which is advertised as "drought-tolerant" only increased 7 percent to 13 percent over its conventional (non-drought resistant) varieties.

But a long-term solution to drought is much more than simply planting fruits and vegetables that are naturally drought tolerant. Using diversified organic management techniques that "improve the soil's ability to absorb and hold water" is key, said Alison Grantham, interim director of research at the Rodale Institute.

The drought antidote

In a recent Mother Jones column, Tom Philpott proposes that the solution most U.S. policymakers love—engineered "drought tolerant" seeds and chemical farming methods—will not fix the problem.

"I think the answer lies outside of some Monsanto-funded university lab and right beneath our feet: in the dirt. Or, more, accurately, in how farmers manage their dirt," he writes.

Philpott cites “Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture,” a paper published in Nature last year. The study found that during extreme weather—such as drought or excessive rainfall— soils managed with organic methods showed improved water-holding capacity, water infiltration rates and produced higher yields than conventional systems.  

The trick is in the amount of carbon present in the soil. Organic farming methods trap carbon in the soil, whereas conventional methods rely on a steroid-like injection of nitrogen to feed plants. A dearth of carbon in conventional soil leads to a dearth in water retention.

A Michigan State University research project also found that improving soil quality decreased risk of losing a crop during drought. The research looked at red clover that was frost-seeded into wheat. Frost-seeding is an economical way of distributing seed into soil to keep it from germinating until there's enough moisture in the spring.

Researcher Dale Mutch hypothesized that adding nitrogen in the conventional wheat field stimulated above ground growth of red clover cover crops, but not below ground root growth. The cover crops in the organic wheat field survived, but no cover crops survived in the conventional wheat field.

"Without adequate moisture, the conventional system’s red clover is more susceptible to dying as compared to our organic soils," he said.

Is organic enough?

The true solution to feeding the world during drought lies beyond even organic farming methods. Farmers must take a wholesale sustainable approach to agriculture in the U.S. and abroad—and they must be compensated for it.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' "Save and Grow" report makes a case that the present paradigm of intensive crop production cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium. However, if farmers were incentivized to switch to "conservation agriculture" that minimizes tillage and protects the soil, farmers could "reduce crops' water needs by 30 percent."

Conservation agriculture's basic tenet is doing more with less. Rather than plowing entire fields, farmers till and plant evenly-spaced portions of their land in order to reduce soil erosion and run-off during rainfall.

This technique has not yet caught on globally, however, and the system may not be able to produce the food needed to feed 9 billion by 2050.

While the perfect system may not be available yet, we'll be more effective if we seek long-term agricultural solutions that keep the real "end" in mind.

Do you think organic farming can feed the world during drought? Share in the comments.

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