For decades, a growing number of consumers have turned to organic produce as a healthier alternative to vegetables and fruits grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
It turns out that organic crops are better suited for farmlands subjected to drought conditions, according to a study published today in the the journal Nature Plants.
John Reganold, the lead author of the paper, has visited hundreds of farms – organic, conventional and everything in between – in his study of soil science and agriculture at Washington State University. He says there’s one thing organic farmers all have in common:
When you visit their farms, they want to show you their soil.
“They want to talk about earthworms and the life in the soil, but I don’t see it with conventional farmers,” Reganold says. Conventional farmers want to talk about yields, he says, “bushels per acre, tons per hectare.”
The key to withstanding the effects of climate change, while feeding a growing global population, lies in building healthy soil, Reganold says.
Organic farmers can’t rely on synthetic fertilizer to enrich their soils so they use other methods, like mixing in compost, manure and plant debris to fertilize soil. That added organic material locks in moisture and nutrients more effectively than soil that has been conventionally farmed and contains less organic material, Reganold says.
“It holds more water. It holds more nutrients. It allows water to get into the soil and go through the surface layer and let the soil hold it instead of running off and taking soil with it,” Reganold said.
And while conventional agriculture does yield more produce per acre, in drought conditions, some research suggests the tables have turned.
“There have been a number of studies that show that organic farming can produce the same amount and sometimes more in a drought condition because of the water being held in the soil,” Reganold said.
Since 1999 the global organic food and beverage market has increased five-fold to $72 billion and total acreage of organically farmed land has almost tripled, according to the study.
Last year in the U.S. organically certified food and beverages made up 5 percent of the market, up from less than 1 percent in 1998.
“It’s not that it’s going to take over the world but it can probably, in the next 15 years, can it get up to 10 percent? Easily, I think, because people want it,” Reganold said.
Organic farming methods have trickled into mainstream agriculture in the decades since the organic movement began. Techniques like planting cover crops, rotating crops and spreading manure and compost instead of relying heavily on synthetic fertilizers are all hallmarks of organic farming. Those methods also date back to a time before large-scale agricultural operations took hold.
Reganold says for many conventional farmers today, getting the organic certification is too expensive and complicated, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t adapting their practices to be more environmentally sustainable, and limit chemical use, erosion and nutrient runoff.
“I think it’s going to be no single approach for safely feeding the planet, it’s going to be a blend of these organic and other innovative systems that are needed. And I think the advantage of organic is it is kinda showing the way,” Reganold said.