Can Organic Feed the World?

Posted on April 27, 2012

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I haven’t had much time to blog lately, but I wanted to share part three of this series of articles with you.  (Here’s part 1 and part 2 in case you’re just dropping in now.)

Feeding the world is a hot button issue.  Politicians talk about it, activists talk about it, and big agri-businesses talk about it. In October of 2011 the world population reached the 7 billion mark, and the question of how we’ll feed them all is a legitimate concern. Large agricultural companies have become particularly fond of touting GMO crops as a solution to this problem, while at the same time stating that organic production isn’t up to the task. But is it true? Is organic food production really incapable of feeding all 7 billion of us?

Before we get into production methods, it’s important to realize that a large portion of the food we are already growing is routinely wasted or lost. In January of 2011 The Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology completed a study they had undertaken at the request of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“The results of the study suggest that roughly one third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year. This inevitably also means that huge amounts of the resources used in food production are used in vain, and that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by production of food that gets lost or wasted are also emissions in vain.” 1

In other words, simply by learning how to control our food waste, we could effectively increase useful food production by a third. It turns out that industrialized and developing nations as a whole are actually wasting food at very similar rates (though the amount per person is much lower in developing nations); these losses are just occurring at different points in the process. The study suggests that in industrialized nations most waste occurs when consumers and retailers simply throw away uneaten food. Some food is even rejected by retailers simply because its appearance is not uniform enough. In developing countries food is lost before it ever reaches retailers or consumers, often due to a lack of infrastructure for transportation and storage. This lack of distribution channels is a major hurdle to feeding developing nations, regardless of production rates.

Let’s set aside the question of waste and assume a perfect system for a moment.  If all the food that was produced was also eaten, could organic production keep pace with conventional production? Critics claim that only industrial farming and GMOs created to increase yields can provide for our current levels of consumption. This claim has recently been refuted by a 30 year study carried out by the Rodale Institute. The results showed that organic and conventional production of soy, corn, and wheat was equivalent.  Organic crops were better able to tolerate competition from weeds, and, “Organic corn yields were 31% higher than conventional in years of drought. These drought yields are remarkable when compared to genetically engineered “drought tolerant” varieties which saw increases of only 6.7% to 13.3% over conventional (non-drought resistant) varieties.” 2  An ongoing study at the University of Iowa had similar findings, concluding that, “Skilled management is an adequate replacement for synthetic chemicals.”3  In other words, organic production generally equaled or even outstripped that of conventional and GMO crops.

A large part of the productivity and resilience in organic agriculture is likely due to the health of organic soil. Compaction, erosion, heavy fertilizing with synthetic nitrogen, and the lack of rotation can all lead to poor, depleted soils on large scale conventional farms. 4 Organic farmers use composted plant matter or animal waste to fertilize their fields, resulting in a richer mix of nutrients in the soil.  Rotating crops, especially with nitrogen fixing varieties, also helps keep the soil from getting depleted. Healthy soil plays host to a greater array of insects and microbial life, and contributes to healthier root systems, 5 which in turn reduces erosion and helps plants develop greater disease resistance.  When we think in terms of sustainability, it’s important to consider long-term productivity, and you can’t get that without healthy soil.

Another advantage to organic production is the built-in diversity.  Regular crop rotation (changing what is grown in a field from one planting to the next), and planting multiple crops in the same field both help to keep down weeds, pests, and disease. When the same crop is planted in a field year after year, weeds can adapt to the plant’s growing cycles. If this happens, they can continue to deposit seeds into the soil, growing bigger and more numerous season by season. By varying crops and mixing plants with different lifecycles, organic farmers make it more difficult for weeds to establish a longterm presence in any particular field. 6  These natural methods of disease, pest, and weed control can help to bring down costs and reduce the use of chemicals, yet another contribution of organic farming to agricultural sustainability. But even if all of these changes back to organic rather than conventional production were undertaken tomorrow, an additional concern remains—is there enough land?

This is a very difficult question to answer. Some people claim that increases in production will continue to offset the need for increased land use.  Others believe just as firmly that we simply cannot feed everyone without creating more farmland.  A combination of the two approaches may be more feasible than adopting either position exclusively. Limiting urban/suburban expansion into areas currently used for farming and cutting back on the production of biofeuls (on land that could be used for food crops) will allow us to make the most of land that is already being farmed.  It is even possible to reclaim lands that have been degraded and return them to a usable state, thus increasing available arable land without the need for increases in deforestation. 7 Finally, there is the possibility of carving out more space for farming in the areas where we live and work. Square-foot gardening can be an attractive and low maintenance way for homeowners to produce some of their own food. Larger cities can invest in rooftop gardening, or create public gardens in parks and empty lots. Vertical farming may enable some urban areas to feed their populations without the need to ship food into the city. Even those of us who live in apartments can grow a few things—on windowsills, porches, and balconies, or along front walks.

In the end, it seems that feeding the world is a question of infrastructure, personal responsibility, and a willingness to change. If we continue to waste food and engage in practices which mismanage the Earth’s finite resources in pursuit of short-term gain, we will likely see the resulting shortages within our lifetimes. The population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Only by thinking ahead and taking care of our planet can we ever hope to feed them all.

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1: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ags/publications/GFL_web.pdf
2: http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/FSTbookletFINAL.pdf
3: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/pubs-and-papers/2011-11-long-term-agroecological-research-ltar-experiment.pdf
4,5,6: http://grist.org/food/2010-02-23-new-research-synthetic-nitrogen-destroys-soil-carbon-undermines/
7: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/327/5967/812.full

This article was adapted from one first published in the GreenTree Cooperative Grocery Newsletter of Spring 2012.

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