Eco-Agriculture Can Feed World, While Healing Earth
By Lim Li Ching (*)
OAKLAND, (IPS) .- While few question that ecological agriculture is environmentally and
socially desirable, there are fears that it is insufficiently productive. This is not the
case. Recent studies show that yields from ecological agriculture are broadly comparable
to conventional yields in developed countries and significantly higher in developing
countries, particularly where the existing system is low-input, which is largely the case
A study of a global dataset of 293 examples (Badgley, 2007) found that the
organic/non-organic yield ratio was slightly less than 1.0 for studies in the developed
world but more than 1.0 for developing countries. On average, in developed countries,
organic systems produce 92 percent of the yield of conventional agriculture, whereas in
developing countries they produce 80 percent more than conventional farms.
The researchers found that hypothetically organic methods could produce enough food on a
global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even
larger population, without putting more farmland into production.
Moreover, contrary to fears that there are insufficient quantities of organically
acceptable fertilisers, the data suggest that leguminous cover crops could fix enough
nitrogen in the soil to replace the amount of synthetic fertiliser currently in use.
Thus organic agriculture could potentially provide enough food globally without the
negative environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.
In a review of 286 projects in 57 countries, farmers were found to have increased
agricultural productivity by an average of 79 percent by adopting a range of ecological
agricultural practices, including integrated pest management, integrated nutrient
management, conservation tillage, agro-forestry, water harvesting in dryland areas, and
livestock and aquaculture integration into farming systems. These practices not only
increased yields, but also reduced adverse effects on the environment and contributed
important environmental goods and services (e.g., climate change mitigation), as
evidenced by increased water use efficiency and carbon sequestration, and reduced
Disaggregated data show:
-Average food production per household rose by 73 percent for 4.42 million small farmers
growing cereals and roots on 3.6 million hectares.
-Food production was up 150 percent for 146,000 farmers on 542,000 hectares cultivating
roots (potato, sweet potato, cassava).
-Total production rose by 46 percent for the larger farms in Latin America .
In Africa the average crop yield increase was even higher than the global average of 79
percent: 116 percent for all African projects and 128 percent for the projects in East
Moreover, all food production case studies where data have been reported showed increases
in per hectare productivity of food crops, which overturns the popular myth that organic
agriculture cannot increase agricultural productivity.
Data from 2002, 2003, and 2004 from the Tigray Project (Ethiopia), underway since 1996,
showed that, on average, composted fields gave higher yields than those treated with
chemical fertilisers -sometimes double.
Except for field pea, the compost generally doubled the grain yield when compared to each
respective check (crops grown without any inputs). The difference was significant (95
percent confidence limit).
The use of compost also gave higher yields than the use of chemical fertiliser, though
differences were not as great as between the use of compost and the check.
Africa produced many other important findings:
-Soil and water conservation in the drylands of Burkina Faso and Niger have transformed
formerly degraded lands. The average family has shifted from being in cereal deficit of
644 kilos per year (equivalent to 6.5 months of food shortage) to producing an annual
surplus of 153 kilos.
-In Ethiopia, some 12,500 households have adopted sustainable agriculture, resulting in a
60 percent increase in crop yields.
-In Tigray, Ethiopia, yields of crops from composted plots were 3-5 times higher than
those treated only with chemicals.
-Integration of pond fish culture into low-input farm systems with some 2,000 farmers in
Malawi increased vegetable yields from 2,700 to 4,000 kilos per hectare, with the fish
ponds producing the equivalent of 1,500 kg/ha of fish, a new source of food for
Latin America also produced striking findings:
-In Honduras and Guatemala 45,000 families have roughly quintupled crop yields using
green manures, cover crops, contour grass strips, in-row tillage and animal manures.
-Farmers in the high mountain regions of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, among the world’s
most difficult areas for farming, tripled potato yields, particularly by using green
manures to enrich the soil.
-In Brazil, use of green manures and cover crops increased maize yields by between 20-250
percent, while in Peru, restoration of traditional Incan terracing led to increases of
150 percent for upland crops.
-In Honduras, soil conservation practices and organic fertilisers have tripled or
quadrupled yields. In Cuba, with more than 7,000 organic urban gardens, productivity has
jumped from 1.5 to nearly 20 kilos per square metre.
In Asia, participatory irrigation management in the Philippines has increased rice yields
by about 20 percent. Yield increases of 175 percent were reported from farms in Nepal
adopting agro-ecological practices. In Pakistan, yields of mango and citrus fruits
increased by 150-200 percent after adopting organic agriculture techniques such as
mulching, no-till production, composting, and planting the fruit trees in double-dug beds.
It is clear from these results that ecological agriculture is productive and has the
potential to meet food security needs, particularly in developing countries. The
International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for
Development concurs that an increase and strengthening of agricultural knowledge,
science, and technology toward agro-ecological sciences will contribute to addressing
environmental issues while maintaining and increasing productivity (IAASTD, 2008).
Moreover, ecological approaches allow farmers to improve local food production with
low-cost, readily-available technologies and inputs without causing environmental damage.
(*) Lim Li Ching is a Senior Fellow at the Oakland Institute and works with the biosafety
programme at Third World Network (TWN).