Can Organic Farming Feed a Hungry Planet?

Yields prove close to those of conventional ag in a recent study—but we need to think beyond the harvest.

Long touted as the only sensible alternative to an industrial agriculture system that has wreaked all sorts of environmental havoc, organic farming has nevertheless been forced to limp its way through the debates surrounding the future of our global food supply. The notion of farming without chemicals is dogged by an Achilles’ heel of epic proportion: Simply put, you can’t feed the planet with organic farms. At least that’s what the critics say.

Yet that bit of so-called conventional wisdom has been subjected to renewed scrutiny by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. In a study published last month, a team from the school’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management found that the gap in crop yields between organic and conventional farming isn’t as wide as has been reported, and that certain organic farming practices may cut the gap even further.

On average, the study finds, organic yields are 19 percent lower than conventional ones, although researchers say that difference can be cut almost in half through organic multi-cropping (growing several crops together in the same field) and crop rotation. The difference also varies widely depending on the crop.

That’s a significantly rosier picture for organic farming than, say, the one portrayed by a controversial 2012 study, which found organic farms produced, on average, 25 percent lower yields than conventional ones.

The Berkeley researchers analyzed the results of 115 studies comparing the yields of organic and conventional farms, a data set they say is three times larger than used in similar analyses conducted previously. They stress that many of the studies they reviewed were often biased in favor of conventional agriculture, suggesting that the average yield gap may be even lower.

Is that any surprise? That we now refer to the chemically intensive, increasingly GMO-reliant form of agriculture born out of the technological revolutions of the 20th century as “conventional” is itself enough to convey Big Ag’s sweeping success in dominating the global farmscape. It’s hard to study the effectiveness of any alternative when alternatives are hard to find. Despite the surge in popularity of things like farmers markets and the local food movement, less than 1 percent of agricultural land is organically farmed.

Naysayers will no doubt charge that a 19 percent gap in yield is still a 19 percent gap. Whatever the environmental ills associated with industrial agriculture, it would seem an act of eco-suicide to switch to organic farming if it means we’d need to plow under nearly 20 percent more land (i.e., forest and other natural habitat) to produce the same amount of food. That doesn’t even taken into account the 2 to 3 billion more people the world will need to feed over the next 30 years.

But the argument that we need to amp up production to feed a growing population is as oversimplified as it is outdated. It’s important to remember that our current agricultural system produces far more food than is needed to provide for everyone on the planet. Eradicating world hunger requires increasing the access to food, not simply the production.

As the United Nations has reported, roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption worldwide goes to waste every year; the estimated 40 million tons thrown away annually in the U.S. alone could satisfy the demand of the world’s 1 billion malnourished people, according to food waste activist Tristram Stuart.

Thus, we don’t need to produce more food; we need to work harder to get the food we already produce into the mouths of those who need it.

Big Ag’s relentless drive to boost yields tumbles even further down the global priority list when you consider how many of the crops we produce don’t actually feed people directly but livestock, which gobble up an outsize proportion of natural resources. On average, it takes 11 times more fossil-fuel-based energy to produce a single calorie of animal protein than it does to produce a calorie of protein from grain. As Parke Wilde noted at Grist, in response to the 2012 organic-versus-conventional-farming study, “Producing more grain is not the same as feeding the world.”

“Any time the high yields of U.S. corn production are mentioned, it should be noted that most U.S. corn goes to ethanol and animal feed.” “If the goal is to feed the world, then most of the calories produced in Iowa cornfields are squandered already, and this loss matters more than the organic yield penalty matters.”

-Parke Wilde

One thought on “Can Organic Farming Feed a Hungry Planet?

  1. If we would switch over to organic farming then we would not have to produce so much waste and we would all be eating nutrient foods everyday.This is a great article. Thanks.

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