Organic farming can be equally detrimental to the environment it purports to protect, with yields on average 25 per cent lower than conventional farming, according to new research that says the world needs to move beyond the simplistic "organic" versus "conventional" debate and look at how to combine the most environmentally-friendly practices from both types of farming.
The Oxford University research is set to open a hotly contested debate in the world and thwart Kenyan government's spirited efforts to convert as many farmers as possible to organic farming with the promise of higher yields and protection of the environment. Kenya has an estimated 35,000 fully converted organic farmers, with hundred of thousands more practising partial organic farming.
However, the new research analysed data from 71 studies published in peer-reviewed journals that compared organic and conventional farms in Europe and found that while organic farming almost always supports more biodiversity and generally has a positive wider environmental impact per unit of land, it does not necessarily have a positive impact per unit of production.
Organic milk, cereals, and pork all generated higher greenhouse gas emissions per unit of product than their conventionally farmed counterparts – although organic beef and olives had lower emissions in most cases. In general, organic products required less energy input, but more land than the same quantity of conventional products.
“Many people think that organic farming has intrinsically lower environmental impacts than conventional farming, but the published literature tells us this is not the case,'said Dr Hanna Tuomisto, who led the research at Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU).
'Whilst some organic farming practices do have less environmental impact than conventional ones, the published evidence suggests that others are actually worse for some aspects of the environment. People need to realise that an "organic" label is not a straightforward guarantee of the most environmentally-friendly product.
The researchers suggest that rather than chasing the aim of being 'organic', the priority should be reducing the environmental impacts
of farming including introducing new techniques could help to reduce the environmental impact of all types of farms: such as anaerobic digesters to convert animal waste into biogas for heating and electricity, selective livestock breeding to reduce nitrogen and methane emissions, and developing new crops to more efficiently reduce the need for pesticides and harness nutrients.
The happiest outcome, the scientists say, would be to develop farming systems that produce high yields with low environmental impacts and that also take into account alternative land uses – such as setting land aside for wildlife habitats and sustainable forestry.
This represents a much broader perspective than the normal conventional versus organic farming debate, where the main difference is nitrogen, the chemical key to plant growth. Conventional agriculture makes use of 171 million tons of synthetic fertilizer each year, to add nitrogen that enables much faster plant growth than the slower release of nitrogen from the compost or cover crops used in organic farming. Scientists say when they talk about a Green Revolution, they mean a nitrogen revolution — along with a lot of
At the same time, another study by Canada's McGill University and United State's University of Minnesota has found yields from organic farming to be, on average, 25 per cent lower than conventionally-farmed produce.
The comprehensive analysis of current scientific literature compared 316 organic and conventional crops across 34 species from 62 study sites.
Organic cereals and vegetables fared worst with yields 26 per cent and 33 per cent lower than conventional agriculture.
However, other organic produce fared much better.The yields of organic legumes, like soybeans, were 11 per cent lower,while organic fruit yields were almost comparable with conventional farming, with yields just 3 per cent lower.
This double hit at the benefits of organic farming comes as numerous private and government initiatives seek to embrace organic farming as health conscious consumers both locally and internationally demand organically produced crops. Customers and supermarkets in the UK,which buy the bulk of Kenya's fresh produce exports, have in the recent past often demanded that produce originating from Kenya be grown organically.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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