David King, the British government's former chief scientist, caused a stir last month when he accused organic-farming activists of "keeping Africa poor." His argument was that Africa needs to significantly increase its food production and the only way to do that was to move toward technology-intensive, industrial-scale agriculture. Using small-scale organic agriculture, King said, would result only in "hundreds of people with little piles of their crops for sale"—hardly the most efficient way to go about feeding a continent.

It's a critique of organic farming that refuses to go away: Going organic results in lower per-acre yields, making it a fine choice for a handful of arugula-munching global elites, but not for poor countries, where starvation is a real concern. Yet the critique has little basis in fact. Switching to organic does result in lower per-acre yields when done in richer countries, but it can actually increase per-acre yields in the developing world. The reason is that organic agriculture is less-dependent on external inputs like fertilizer or other chemicals—inputs that can fluctuate wildly in price, especially in recent years, as fertilizer prices have soared. Farmers in poor countries who use green manure to add nitrogen to their soil are now faring better than their counterparts who depend on synthetic fertilizers.

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the U.N. just released a report pointing toward organic agriculture as the path to food security in Africa. The study doesn't argue that getting rid of pesticides and fertilizers on the few African farms that can afford them will magically cause yields on those farms to rise. Rather, it suggests that the most cost-effective way to increase food production on under-producing farms is to teach those farmers how to use low-cost organic technologies. You might call it a strategy of farming smarter, not harder. It makes a lot of sense in a world of crazily fluctuating input and commodity prices, where a farmer's own expertise is the one input that's not going to become too expensive to afford.

--Rob Inglis, High Country News