There has been some fascinating research on how sustainable farming methods -- mainly organic and agroecological farming -- can increase crop yields. Conventional -- also called "industrial" -- farming methods rely heavily on synthetic inputs, like fertilizers and pesticides. In the short term, this increases yields, but over time, it harms soil health and even contributes to the growth of "superweeds" -- weeds that are resistant to pesticides. Sustainable farming focuses on soil health and natural pest control, rather than synthetic chemicals.
Rachel Shulman, owner of River Run Farm in Illinois, talked about her organic farm with me and how industrial farms, both conventional and organic, could take a page from small-scale organic farming to increase yields. For example, Shulman advocates spraying pesticides as-needed, rather than preventively. Overuse of pesticides is bad for the soil and bad for crops in the long term.
Shulman says focusing on soil health is the number one way to increase yields, and recent studies seem to back that up. One study in Africa is using long-term meteorological data to predict soil moisture to help farmers increase yields, and USDA chief meteorologist Ray Motha says this approach could double Africa's food production in just 10 years [source: George Mason University]. The U.N. got similar positive results working with small-scale farmers in Africa. Using agroecological methods, they saw crop yields increase 116 percent [source: Norström].
Organic farming has also seen some impressive results when it comes to increasing yields. A report from the Worldwatch Institute looked at long-term research on organic farming methods that focus on improving soil health, and found that organic farms yielded almost the same amount of food as conventional farms in wealthy countries and up to 20 percent more food in developing countries [source: Halwell].
Wealthier farmers did see a drop in yields when first switching to organic farming [source: Halwell]. The cause for that drop is also the main challenge that sustainable farmers face: The soil needs time to recover from years of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Farmers may not want to -- or be able to -- cope with lost income as their land recovers.