Can Organic Farming Feed The World?

The only people who think organic farming can feed the world are delusional hippies, hysterical moms, and self-righteous organic farmers. Right? Actually, no. A fair number of agribusiness executives, agricultural and ecological scientists, and international agriculture experts believe that a large-scale shift to organic farming would not only increase the world’s food supply, but might be the only way to eradicate hunger. This probably comes as a surprise, even to the readers of this newsletter. But last year—inspired by a field trip to a nearby organic farm where the farmer reported that he raised an amazing 27 tons of vegetables on six-tenths of a hectare in a relatively short growing season—a team of scientists from the University of Michigan tried to estimate how much food could be raised following a global shift to organic farming.

The team combed through the literature for any and all studies comparing crop yields on organic farms with those on non-organic farms. Based on 293 examples, they came up with a global dataset of yield ratios for the world’s major crops for the developed and the developing world.

Author: Brian Halweil Worldwatch Institute

As expected, organic farming yielded less than conventional farming in the developed world (where farmers use copious amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in a perennial attempt to maximize yields), while studies from the developing world showed organic farming boosting yields. (Examples from growing areas as diverse as India, Guatemala, and Kenya found that the sophisticated combination of old wisdom and modern ecological innovations that help harness the yield-boosting effects of cover crops, compost, manure, beneficial insects, and crop synergies in organic farming were particularly useful in dry areas with poor soils where farmers aren’t likely to afford agrochemicals any time soon.)

The team then ran two models. The first was conservative, and the second was optimistic, based on yield gaps between organic and non-organic practices in developed and developing countries. The first model yielded 2,641 kilocalories (“calories”) per person per day, just under the world’s current production of 2,786 calories but significantly higher than the average caloric requirement for a healthy person of between 2,200 and 2,500. The second model yielded 4,381 calories per person per day, 75 percent greater than current availability—and a quantity that could theoretically sustain a much larger human population than is currently supported on the world’s farmland.

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Skeptics may doubt the team’s conclusions—as ecologists, they are likely to be sympathetic to organic farming—but a second recent study of the potential of a global shift to organic farming, led by Niels Halberg of the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, came to very similar conclusions, even though the authors were economists, agronomists, and international development experts. Like the Michigan team, Halberg’s group made an assumption about the differences in yields with organic farming for a range of crops, and then plugged those numbers into a model developed by the World Bank’s International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). This model is considered the definitive algorithm for predicting food output, farm income, and the number of hungry people throughout the world.

Given the growing interest in organic farming among consumers, government officials, and agricultural scientists, the researchers wanted to assess whether a large-scale conversion to organic farming in Europe and North America (the world’s primary food exporting regions) would reduce yields, increase world food prices, or worsen hunger in poorer nations that depend on imports, particularly those people living in the Third World’s swelling mega-cities. Although the group found that total food production declined in Europe and North America, the model didn’t show a substantial impact on world food prices. And because the model assumed, like the Michigan study, that organic farming would boost yields in Africa, Asia, and Latin America,  the  most  optimistic  scenario  even  had  hunger-plagued  sub-Saharan  Africa  exporting  food surpluses. In other words, studies from the field show that the yield increases from shifting to organic farming are highest and most consistent in exactly those poor, dry, remote areas where hunger is most severe.

Still, these conclusions won’t come as a surprise to many organic farmers. But even some supporters of organic farming shy away from even asking whether it can feed the world, simply because they don’t think it’s the most useful question. First, even if a mass conversion over, say, the next two decades, dramatically increased food production, there’s little guarantee it would eradicate hunger. The global food system can be a complex and unpredictable beast. It’s hard to anticipate how China’s rise as a major importer of soybeans for its feedlots, for instance, might affect food supplies elsewhere. (It’s likely to drive up food prices.) Or how elimination of agricultural subsidies in wealthy nations might affect poorer countries. (It’s likely to boost farm incomes and reduce hunger.) And would less meat eating around the world free up food for the hungry? (It would, but could the hungry afford it?)

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What is clear is that organic farming will yield other benefits that are too numerous to name. Studies have shown, for example, that the “external” costs of organic farming—erosion, chemical pollution to drinking water, death of birds and other wildlife—are just one-third those of conventional farming. Surveys from every continent show that organic farms support many more species of birds, wild plants, insects, and other wildlife than conventional farms. And tests by several governments have shown that organic foods carry just a tiny fraction of the pesticide residues of their non-organic alternatives, while completely banning growth hormones, antibiotics, and many additives allowed in many conventional foods. There is even some evidence that crops grown organically have considerably higher levels of health-promoting antioxidants. A recent study by the International Fund for Agricultural Development found that the higher labor requirements often mean that “organic agriculture can prove particularly effective in bringing redistribution of resources in areas where the labor force is underemployed. This can help contribute to rural stability.”

These benefits will come even without a complete conversion to a sort of organic utopia. In fact, some experts think that a more hopeful, and reasonable, way forward is a sort of middle ground, where more and more farmers adopt the principles of organic farming even if they don’t follow the approach religiously. In this scenario, both poor farmers and the environment come out way ahead. And it’s likely that the greatest short-term benefits will come as the principles of organic farming rub off on nonorganic farmers, who will come to depend on just a small fraction of the chemicals that are currently used. Anywhere this middle path is adopted, pollution will go down, and yields will go up. And, since it will cost farmers less than the full- blown conversion, many more regions will likely adopt it.

So, the myth of low-yielding organic farming may be fading, but without a massive change of conscience from the world’s agricultural researchers and officials, we still won’t be pointed in the organic direction. And that could be the real problem for the world’s poor and hungry.

Brian Halweil is a Senior Researcher at Worldwatch and the author of Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket,which recently entered its second printing. The original version of this article appeared in WorldWatch Magazine (May-June 2006).

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