Farming, Food

On organic farming and the question of yields and food security


The question I get asked the most, and understandably so is the one relating to yields from organically cultivated lands. “Does organic cultivation mean lower yields because you do not use inputs such as fertilizers?” This oft-repeated question is understandable given that over years we have learned how fertilizers, pesticides, and GMO help farmers achieve more productivity out of the soil. I thought of sharing with you, my first-hand experience of dealing with farmers across the country’s length and breadth to dispel this myth – organic cultivation does not adversely affect yields in most of the cases. Importantly, in the long run, organic cultivation improves soil health and therefore its productivity.

In a nutshell, the answer to this question depends on how much the soil system has already been abused and whether we are seeking the answer in the near or long term. Very abused soil, over the years, will not show improvement in productivity in the near term. In irrigated lands, you can expect to see some decline in productivity and then a significant jump. In rain-fed lands, you can expect to see an increase in productivity much earlier.

History of soil-abuse matters. Learning from over the world

The usage of chemically derived agricultural inputs has been in vogue over the last century in the developed world. It is a known fact that developed countries which rose in the early 1990s driven by the industrial revolution tried to commoditize modern farming techniques. Each one of these countries has experienced deteriorating soil quality.

These economies eventually realized the benefits of organic farming have now adopted large lands to implement the same. When organic farming is done on soil which is already deprived of its nutritional powers over years, poorer yields are to be expected. Results such as these have been misinterpreted to show that organic cultivation leads to lower productivity. The history or nourishment (or lack thereof) matters.

In contrast, studies show that farming land that has been rain-fed are seeing high yields when they switch to the organic method. In India, where most of the farmers I have interacted with have also seen the same result. In rain-fed tracts of land, the yields improve with better soil health. Just an indication that it is not the organic farming techniques that cause poor yields, but it is more about how the soil was treated earlier and what inputs it was exposed to.

In fact, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has confirmed through study that ‘In rain-fed systems, organic agriculture has demonstrated to outperform conventional agricultural systems under environmental stress conditions.

FACT: Organic farming, when applied on natural and rain-fed farmlands, can provide high yields. National food security and organic farming.

Empirical experience and studies by international food organizations have demonstrated that organic food agriculture would ensure food security. Besides aiding food security, experts also see that organic farming can reduce food poverty across the globe and enable sustainable farming.

For those who attribute food security issues with organic farming, need to realize that the hungry and the food-deprived cannot be bailed only by more agriculture. There are many other factors too that need to be addressed to feed the needy. Getting more out of the soil impoverishes the soil.

Agriculture policymakers should focus more on reducing food wastage, improve logistics and soil health through natural restoration and less so on programs which emphasize taking more out from our soil.

Other costs which should be factored into the yield calculations.

Apart from the sweat and the hours the farmer puts in, the input costs which weigh in the most are seeds (especially GMO), fertilizers and pesticides. By design, the organic method does away with all of these costs. In other words, the farmer spends on water, electricity and a marginally higher time on the farm to create the natural inputs needed right on the farm.

The farm input costs are a leading cause of accumulating debt for the Indian farmer. For rain-dependant farmers in India, failed monsoons create an untenable debt position. The result? Many farming families are leaving their traditional occupation and moving to urban centers, as menial labour. The cost of this lack of economic interest in farming has a very long-term impact on farm productivity. Any analysis of yield should factor this cost in.

A cost which is often missed is the health impact of using pesticides and chemically derived fertilizers on farmers. Another cost factor which needs to be factored in yield calculations.

Any discussion on yield from organic cultivation should be dealt with holistically – factoring all costs in. The question of yield also needs to be answered in the context of a time frame. First-hand inputs of farmers should be sought. It is then, you’d see very different realities emerging. For marginal farmers, dependent on rains to get their produce, organic farming can help them get much better yields and rid them of their debt burden. For others, a long-term investment in organic cultivation will help improve soil health and therefore help achieve better yields.


Raj Seelam

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