More and better food for more people
The UN funded Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa report from 2008 found that a switch to organic agriculture led to an increase in yields in all cases observed. It also noted that organic agriculture leads to better nutrition in communities because it doesn't require any expensive materials to be purchased from outside, so it is available to anyone with access to land. Organic farming, it argues, makes use of, and builds upon, the knowledge already held by many small scale farmers, and has had many additional benefits such as strengthening communities, building self-esteem and giving farmers greater control over their food supply and ultimately their lives.
This resoundingly positive study was a joint project between the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who came together to form the Task Force on Trade, Environment and Development (CBTF). It had a broad evidence base, including the in-depth analysis of 15 case studies in East Africa, and much secondary literature.
More and better food for more people
It found that, in all case studies where crop productivity was measured, it had increased on the switch to organic methods.1 Not only does it assert that organic agriculture is a successful way of dealing with declining food supplies, it quite explicitly contradicts what it calls the "conventional wisdom" that the food supply can be increased by further 'modernising' or industrialising agriculture, because such systems have in the past always failed to reduce food poverty.2 A key factor that the report acknowledges is one of access: one reason why chemical intensive agriculture does not bring food security to small farmers is that synthetic products are prohibitively expensive, while biological compost relies on materials that are locally available and free, and thus poorer people, many of them women, can afford to nurture their soils for better crops.3
It listed one of the potential benefits of a switch to organic as the premium price it fetches on the world markets, but balances this with the caution that monocropping systems focused on export, whether organic or chemical intensive, "still leave farmers vulnerable to export price fluctuations and crop failure"4. Elsewhere it acknowledges that the costs of third-party organic certification, while necessary for world markets, can be prohibitive for small farmers, and only represents a "subset" of organic agriculture as a whole, and one which is unnecessary when products are sold or exchanged directly between people who know and trust each other.5 In other words, it implies that in many cases people are better off selling or swapping in the most localised markets, or at least in their own cities, rather than depending on cash crops for export.
The report identifies several other benefits in the cases studies it examines, none of which are unique to organic agriculture, but certainly which are not associated with the increasing inequalities of the so-called Green Revolution in agro-chemical farming. It suggests that organic farming has enabled better community support, as people have worked together to manage shared natural resources, formed co-operatives for the sale of their goods, and worked each other's land to compensate for illness.6 Other benefits more convincingly integral to organic agriculture include what the report describes as "improvements to human capital". If the language chosen here is a little alienating the examples they give are not: organic agriculture, it states, "gives incentives to preserve and build upon" the knowledge already held in communities about food production and local ecosystems; it enables farmers to experiment and solve their own problems; and it requires education and sharing of knowledge about more complex issues, such as how to encourage beneficial insects.7 It also lists knock-on effects from the increases in health and wealth it is likely to bring: families able to afford to educate their children, better-fed people more likely to survive disease.8
Environmentally, in addition to the avoidance of toxic chemicals and the much lower energy inputs, it stresses in particular the reduction of soil erosion and improvements in the water table as benefits of organic farming. Feeding the soil, rather than just the plant as artificial fertilisers do, increases its ability to retain water so that there is more to drink during dry periods. Prevention of erosion and other means of enriching the soil means that it is more productive not only in terms of total output, but also extends the growing season and makes marginal land more viable.
1: Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, United Nations report 2008, p39