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After comparing the yields of organic and conventional farms, Drs. Perfecto and Badgley looked at nitrogen availability. They multiplied the current farmland area by the average amount of nitrogen available for crop production if “green manures”—cover crops plowed into the soil to provide natural soil amendments in lieu of synthetic fertilizers—were planted between growing seasons. Doing this, they found, provided enough nitrogen to farm organically without synthetic fertilizers.
Organic farming is important because conventional agriculture—which involves high-yielding plants, mechanized tillage, synthetic fertilizers and biocides—is so detrimental to the environment, Dr. Perfecto emphasizes. For instance, fertilizer runoff from conventional agriculture is the chief culprit in creating dead zones: low-oxygen areas where marine life cannot survive. Conventional farming also causes soil erosion, greenhouse gas emission, increased pest resistance and loss of biodiversity.
For their analysis, the researchers defined “organic” as practices:
- Referred to as sustainable or ecological
- That utilize nonsynthetic nutrient cycling processes
- That exclude or rarely use synthetic pesticides
- That sustain or regenerate soil quality
Dr. Perfecto says the idea that people would go hungry if farming went organic is “ridiculous.”
“Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies, as well as fertilizer companies—all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food,” she says.