Can Organic Agricutlure Feed the World?
by Noel Clinton
Before any discussion on whether organic farming methods can feed a growing world population is undertaken it is important to first take a quick look at how the current global food system (GFS) is managing at feeding the current world population.
Well contrary to the press releases from the agribusiness sector which give figures showing that higher inputs = higher yields = less hunger; reports from 2014 show that over 800 million people, roughly 1 in 9 of the world population, were considered chronically undernourished and go to bed hungry at night (FAO, 2014).
However, Gardner and Halweil (2000), report that the number of obese people in the world now equals those that are underfed. Surely a GFS that is currently producing more than enough food to feed the entire population yet allows for nearly a quarter of that population to be malnourished either by over eating of low nutrient foods or by not eating enough food at all must be broken and needs a serious overhaul no matter which agricultural practices are used to produce the food.
Not much research has been done on exactly how much food we waste which is surprising given that we are told we will need to increase production for the growing population. Attention must be paid to the substantial losses which occur throughout the current GFS chain and how we can mitigate against these losses (FAO, 2011).
Roughly one-third, or 1.3 billion tons, of food produced for human consumption gets wasted each year according to a survey carried out by the FAO in 2011. And it is not just the food that is wasted. The huge amount of resources, both natural and manmade, that were used to produce the food and the emissions created during their production are used and created in vain (Parfitt et al., 2010). We are literally eating fossil fuel and the bastardised children of chemical warfare stockpiles.
There are many elements which are important to the question of whether organic production methods can feed the world. Each of these elements deserves, and has been the subject of, studies in their own right. This paper will examine some of the factors which are most prevalent to the issue beginning with the main points which are given for a failure of organic methods to achieve global food security before looking at some of the factors which suggest otherwise.
Why organics cannot feed the world
1: Reduced yields. The most commonly touted numbers suggest that Organic Farming produces 20% less food than conventional (de Pontii et al., 2012; Seufert, et al., 2012) and changing to organic methods of production would therefore be counterproductive when trying to feed a growing population.
2: Lack of suitable organic Nitrogen fertiliser: critics have suggested that there is not enough organically acceptable fertiliser to meet the needs of production (Smil, 2000).
3: These two points combine in the third, and possibly most used, argument which is that due to decreased yields and lack of suitable fertiliser a switch to Organic Farming would require more land to be brought into production (Unwin et al., 1995). This undermines any ecological advantage that organic farming has over conventional as it would accelerate the loss of habitat (Trewavas, 2001).
However, Badgley et al., (2007) conducted an extensive study in response to these claims and the results suggest that not only could a switch to organic methods meet the current and future feeding requirements of the world population on the existing agricultural land base but that the land base could be reduced whilst still maintaining fertility if the organic approach were adapted. Organic yields in the developing world actually exceeded current conventional yields due to the lack of expensive inputs and adopting intensive agroecological techniques such as crop rotation, agroforestry and water management (Pretty et al., 2003)
There are a number of other factors which are important which are relevant to the question
Research has been carried out showing that Organic Farming has a positive effect of the local economy helping to create employment (Smith and Marsden, 2004; Midmore et al., 2003) and improve the retention of a larger proportion of the expenditure associated with farming within the local economy (Smithers et al., 2008). The current conventional model for food production is based on commodity crops which are highly processed using fossil fuel. The prices paid to farmers are kept to a minimum and backed up with government subsidies from the tax payer. The removal of subsidies must be the key issue concerning the economic policies of governments towards agriculture. This will level the playing field in global food production and allow countries to before more food secure.
If farmers are to be paid by government then that money should be used to de-standardise the countryside and increase the aesthetic, environmental and economic diversity of our food producing regions. Paying a small number of large farmers to grow commodity based monocultures whilst sucking on the chemical teat goes against any realistic plan to allow the world to feed itself keeping the majority of the population dependant on an ever decreasing number of giant food companies where profit and not social equality is the key goal (Altieri, 2009). Small scale agriculture has fed the world for centuries and is still the case in many parts of the developing world where smaller plots of land are proven to be more productive with less inputs (Altieri, 2004; Pretty et al.,).
Food security is an important factor in ensuring that a growing population can be adequately fed. An improved distribution network, as touched on above, is one way of achieving this. However, in order for food to be evenly distributed it must first be grown therefore attention must be paid to the health of the earth’s most vital and abused resource. Soil, dirt or earth, call it what you will but without a healthy medium in which to grow the crops or graze the animals we will be unable to feed the world no matter which farming method is used.
The benefits of organic production methods to soil health have been well documented (Clark et al., 1998; Drinkwater et al., 1995; Reganold, 1995). Reduced tillage, crop rotations and the exclusions of chemicals are all factors in creating the microbial diversity, high levels of organic carbon and nitrogen and improved nutrient cycling present in organic soils over conventional (Reganold, 1988).
Soil loss through erosion (Evans, 2006; Fiener et al., 2011), compaction (Richard et al., 2001; Newall-Price et al., 2013) and polloution (Shepard and Chambers, 2007; Withers et al., 2001) is vastly more severe in conventionally managed land where excessive tillage, lack of soil cover and the application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides are common practice.
Organic production methods have been shown to give a greater level of food security to regions in which it is grown. (Altieri, 2004). Smaller farms with a greater emphasis on crop rotations, polycultures and local varieties as opposed to the conventional monocultures are more productive (Rosset, 1999) and have a greater resilience against pest and disease infestations and climatic conditions such as drought or flooding (Lotter et al., 2003). Security is achieved through diversity and balance.
Organic production methods and standards promote the idea that biological Nitrogen fixation through the use of leguminous crops are sufficient to meet the Nitrogen needs for crop production (Organic Trust, 2012). There have been many studies which have agreed or disagreed with this statement (Smil, 2000; Hoyt and Hargrove, 1986; Drinkwater et al., 1998).
Crews and Peoples, (2004) report little difference in terms of whether biological or fertilizer forms of Nitrogen are more beneficial in an ecological sense. However, they conclude that due to the biological process being derived from solar energy as opposed to fossil fuel it has the advantage of providing ample nitrogen based fertility to a greater proportion of the world’s farmers and thus security against fluxes in the supply and price of chemical Nitrogen imports.
The emphasis on using organic matter to maintain soil fertility is another method of organic productions which contributes to a more sustainable and secure food supply to the global population (Stockdale et al., 2001; Rosset, 1999). Organic matter can be produced on site without the need for expensive imports.
Sometimes when thinking of feeding our own species we have a tendency to forget the myriad of other species whose place within the ecosystem can be threatened by our agricultural practices (Tilman et al, 2001). Agricultural land represents a major land use throughout the world (Hole et al., 2005). This is particularly the case in Europe which has resulted in much of the continents biodiversity existing on land which is used for food production (Krebs et al., 1999). A number of studies have shown how the intensification of conventional agriculture has had a detrimental effect on farmland bird species (Donald et al., 2001) plant and insects (Wilson et al., 1999). Bengtsson et al., (2005) concluded that species richness, notably of plants, birds and predatory insects, is usually enhanced by organic farming methods. Conventional methods of production have led to an accumulation of agrochemicals, nutrients and sediments in watercourses (Gobin et al., 2004). Some would argue as to the importance of these in relevance to human food consumption as we generally do not eat wild birds and insects. However, a healthy ecosystem with clean water and diverse mix of species increases the resilience of our agricultural land against infestations of particular pest and pathogens (Lampkin, 1990). Organic methods are also more beneficial to pollinating insects such as Bees with a greater abundance and species diversity recorded in organic fields over conventional ones (Holzschuch et al., 2008).
The Meat Issue
By no means does a large scale adaption of Organic methods mean that we have to have an exclusively vegetarian or vegan diet. On the contrary, the keeping of livestock is seen as a valuable part in the management of soil fertility and the principles of rotation (Lampkin, 1990; Stockdale et al 2001).
There is a perception that farmers would have to reduce their herd numbers in order to comply with Livestock Units per Hectare (LU/ha) therefore reducing productivity and profitability (Trewavas, 2001). While an initial decrease in yields during the conversion period can be expected this is followed by a rise which is equal to or above that of conventional methods once soil the soil quality has been restored (Pimental et al, 2005).
Organic farmers in Ireland are known to have a higher stocking density than conventional through excellent grass management practices such as the use of red clover and holistic approaches such as ‘mob grazing’ (Teagasc, 2014; Butterfield et al, 2006). This allows them to reduce or erase the need to import supplementary feed which brings us to the most important factor concerning meat and the GFS.
Of all the food produced yearly which is fit for human consumption a staggering 35-40% is fed to animals which are farmed to provide food for humans (FAO, 2011). Worldwide one third of all cereals grown are fed to animals while in the EU that rises to almost two thirds (Chemnitz and Weigelt, 2015). Lotter, (2013) argues that if we decreased our meat consumption even by a small percentage then we would have no problems in feeding the world under organic production methods.
The final point on the meat issue goes back to the argument that more land will need to be cleared if organic practices were adapted (Trewves, 2001). By reducing the need to grow feed for permanently housed or corralled animals we would actually halt the land clearing practices common within the modern agri-business sector. These clearances involve the forcible eviction of native small holders and tenant farmers so that vast swaths of species rich land can be used to grow monocultures of a single crop for export to wealthier nations. An Gorta Mor 1845-52 ring a bell anyone??
The potential of organic agriculture to meet the dietary needs of an ever growing global population is one of the most pressing and contentious issues we currently face (Padel and Lampkin, 1994). However, the real question here is whether political and economic policies are committed to feeding the world as the results from reports such as those by Badgely et al., (2007) conclude that organic production methods can feed both the current and predicted population while at the same time ensuring the economic security and environmental stewardship.
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