Can organic feed the world?

In recent years there has been a strong lobby claiming that organic agriculture could not feed the world. That is hypothetical nonsense. In the first place, the idea that 100% of agriculture would be organic, is so far from current reality, that it's comparable to talking about living on Mars. Secondly, there are many scientific and policy reports indicating the opposite. One report by the United Nations Environmental Program from 2008, for example, points out that in 114 projects in 24 African countries, the introduction of organic farming principles doubled the harvest.

There is enough production capacity

Many people emphasize that hunger in the world is not a matter of production, but of bad distribution and food waste. In 2006 the United Nations stated, by word of special rapporteur Jean Ziegler, that the world was producing enough at that particular moment to feed 12 billion people. According to FAO estimates, 30% of all food that is produced, is wasted. Also, a huge part of agricultural production is used inefficiently for fuel and cattle feed. Since the beginning of industrial farming food production has increased tremendously, but hunger in the world has kept pace. At this moment 1 billion people are suffering from hunger, while 1 billion people are overweight. A lot of famine occurs in countries that have badly neglected their domestic agricultural policy for decades, under pressure of international neoliberal politics. Hunger in the world is, in the first place, an economical and political matter.

According to USDA statistics, the current world production of grains including rice, amounts to 791 grams per world citizen, if you would have to share it with 9 billion people. And that's only grains. According to researchers of Penn State University, who made a more conservatieve estimate, a production increase of 26%, counting from 2014, would suffice to feed 9 billion people in 2050. See also this article (Dutch only, try using Chrome).

 

Hunger in the world is, in the first place, an economical and political matter.

The difference in yield between organic and conventional

Organic and conventional agriculture have a difference in yield per surface area. In Western countries, the yield of organic agriculture is less than conventional yield. Compared to subsistence agriculture in third world countries however, organic production has much higher yields. Our goal should not be to reach the highest level of production at any cost for future generations, but to reach sufficient production in a way that can be sustained. In 2007, scientist C. Badgley of Michigan University published the following results of modelling production per acre:

  • In Europe and North-America: with good growing conditions, and assuming high use of fertilizer and pesticides, the yield of organic is 60 to 100% of conventional, depending on te crop.
  • In the 2nd world: with moderate growing conditions and assuming more irregular use of fertilizer and pesticides, the yield of organic is 92 to 100% of conventional, depending on the crop.
  • In the 3d world: with adverse growing conditions, with low inputs, in areas of subsistence agriculture, the yield of organic is 100 to 180% of conventional.


According to Badgley e.a. (2007), the total worldwide production would grow by 32%, if the whole world would convert to modern organic methods - because of the production increase in subsistence area's. Badgley was heaviy criticized by A. Avery, an advocate of conventional farming. Badgley then replied in detail to his criticism.

Weighing in scientifically

In 2009 the IAASTD published the 600 page report "Agriculture at a crossroads". No less then 400 scientist all over the world contributed to this report. A short (but still comprehensive) outtake can be found here. The report states clearly that the current industrial approach, which is leading to soil degradation and exhaustion of resources, will not be able to feed a world with 9 billion people in 2050. The report makes a case for replacing agro-chemical pesticides by organic solutions, attibuting value to ecosystems, and improving organic techniques. The report notes that there has been a one-sided focus on increasing production and that we now need a more systems-oriented approach with sustainable resource management.

Agriculture at a crossroads

Sustainability in the long run

Organic agriculture can restore soils and ecosystems that have been degraded by conventional farming. The monocultures of the chemical-industrial approach do a lot of damage to ecosystems and to the climate. These monocultures depend on a finite reserve of fossil fuel and bring large risks for food security with them. In the long run it is clear that natural resources must be maintained in order to feed the world. This means that we need conservation agriculture with closed nutrient cycles, and organic farming techniques. Apart from food security there are advantages such as better health for farmers, better water storage in the soil, less damage to the climate, more biodiversity and food soevereignty of nations and peoples.

Economic yield differences

A 2009 FAO report states clearly that organic agriculture, in spite of lower production per surface area, is still more profitable than conventional production. This is the result of a literature review covering 50 studies. Organic farming requires more knowledge and labour, but less expensive inputs. This fits well with the situation in poor socities, where there is usually a lot of labour available, but a shortage of material means. Organic techniques are therefore a perfect match with selfsustaining agriculture. Studies by Brasilian professor Irene Cardoso show that Brasilian coffee farmers experienced a significant increase in prosperity when they changed from conventional to agro-ecological methods. There coffee production dropped a bit, but in return their costs dropped much more, and their income from secondary producs increased. Apart from a healthier and more pleasant lifestyle this also lead to a higher income.  

50% organic would already be spectacular

A worldwide 100% conversion to organic agriculture is an unrealistic scenario in the upcoming decades. At the moment, worldwide certified organic production is approximately 1% of total production. The International Food Policy Research Institute (Halberg e.a., 2007) looked into the effects of conversion to organic in different parts of the world. According to the study, a 50% conversion in Europe and North-America would have little effect on food production in those countries. For sub-Sahara Africa, a 50% conversion would potentially increase food production. 

a 50% conversion in Africa would increase food production

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