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Organic farming can deliver food sustainably, but only with compelling science to boost its use, argues Ged Buffee.

With increased yields and ecological stability becoming critical concerns for agricultural development, there's hope that organic farming can anchor agro-ecological sustainability.

The stakes for organic agriculture have never been higher, yet the convincing research that could drive its future is absent, deficient or not competitive compared with the evidentiary-based research backing other agricultural technologies such as genetically modified organisms.

Organic agriculture is stagnating, with 37.2 million hectares farmed organically worldwide in 2011, compared with 37.1 million in 2009. This equates to an ultra-niche 0.09 [1] per cent share of global agriculture in terms of the area of land being farmed.

One reason for this stagnation could be that research hasn't mobilised a shift from conventional to organic farming. Since policymakers, funders and farmers rely on robust research to make decisions, this would put research at a premium. Organic research which is not credible, sufficiently validated or scientifically persuasive would therefore be ignored.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, advances in organic agriculture over the last 40 years have come from organic farmers themselves not from research. In addition, conflicting and confusing views abound over organic farming.

Take the question of whether it is better for the environment than conventional farming. A review of 300 studies of farm-management systems by the independent Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) showed that 80 per cent indicate that organic practices bring environmental benefits.

But the results appear to conflict with other research. For example, a 2012 study by the chemical firm BASF on the environmental impacts of conventionally and organically grown apples over their entire life cycles concluded that the organic system of cultivation used 15 to 25 per cent more energy, generated five to 15 per cent more carbon dioxide emissions and required 30 per cent more land than a conventional one. [2]

Lack of fire power

Without a credible global institute of proven worth, such as the CGIAR — a consortium of international agricultural research centres — producing influential studies that can compellingly override seeming apathy among agricultural policymakers and farmers, organic farming will lack the fire power to make headway.

Specialist organic research institutions can be quick to claim that too much money is invested — particularly by big funders — in industrial agricultural research that ignores organics.

However, in securing the first-ever Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) grant for organics in September 2009, I brought one of the world's largest agricultural funders to the organics research table.

Linking BMGF, FiBL and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), I scheduled scoping meetings that outlined the Foundation's need for research capable of delivering rapid agronomic benefits or alleviating specific problems — such as soil infertility or fertiliser inaccessibility — for small farmers.

BMGF assiduously sought research propositions related to organic cultivation practices that subsistence farmers can use to increase soil nutrient levels and improve soil's water-holding capacities, helping agro-ecosystems to regenerate and adapt to climate change.

But funders of BMGF's calibre are only likely to invest if satisfied that propositions for strategic and innovative agricultural research for development demonstrate certain outcomes and return-on-investment.

It appears that on this occasion what was proposed in relation to research and strategy did not meet the Foundation's requirement, and they withdrew their interest at the end of 2010.

Meanwhile, last year the BMGF — finding more viable approaches from conventional agriculture — awarded a grant of almost US$10 million to the John Innes Centre, an independent UK plant science research institute, for a project around the same themes discussed with FiBL and IFOAM [3].

Confusing research landscape

A further complication is the ever-changing, and confusing, organic research landscape. Multiple initiatives have fizzled without impact. The Global Organic Research Network, for example, whose creation was announced at the UN's Rio+20 summit last June, was superseded just six months later by the Technology Innovation Platform of IFOAM.

A massive overhaul of organic research is needed for its growth. It is no longer an option to rehash the organisations and people that have failed to advance the field.

Without fundamental change, other large funders may, like BMGF, discount organic cultivation as an inadequate proposition and legitimately question whether the organisations that back it can play any role in solving agriculture's big challenges.

A new, purpose-driven and transformational global research initiative is needed to create a research pipeline, from laboratory to field trials to commercialisation and delivery of technology upgrades.

Science-based evidence quantifying organic farming's full range of social, agricultural and economic benefits must be rapidly assembled, articulated in the context of sustainability, disseminated and applied on the ground.

These pragmatic arguments help reconceptualise, reframe and repurpose the value proposition of organic farming and drive the argument "why not organic"? Only then will farmers, policymakers and agricultural extension workers be empowered.

The Rodale Institute, a non-profit US research organisation focused on organic farming, offers an example of this. It relates organic farming's multiple benefits in areas such as soil fertility, yields, nutrition and energy use to the challenge of making global agriculture sustainable. [4]

At the core of a new, joined-up global organic research initiative must be high-impact research organisations capable of delivering sustainable and catalytic improvements alongside an ability to secure large, multi-year grants from large funders.

The goal is for this research to be an engine that can at least double organics' global market share every five years, and lead to a 20 to 30 per cent share of the food and agricultural system. Only then can organics move from their marginal position to become the foremost standard of agricultural sustainability.

Ged Buffee is president of the African Organic Farming Foundation. He can be contacted at [email protected].


[1] FiBL The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics & Emerging Trends 2012 (FiBL and IFOAM, 2012)

[2] BASF Apples — organic compared to conventional? (BASF, retrieved June 2013)

[3] John Innes Centre Major investment to persuade bacteria to help cereals access nitrogen from the air (John Innes Centre, 15 July 2012)

[4] Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial: FST Fast Facts (Rodale Institute, retrieved June 2013)