Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?

I'd like to think that it can, but I have often wondered wether organic agriculture could feed everyone or whether we need more intensive agriculture. There are many environmental benefits to organic methods including reduced use of herbicides and pesticides such as neonicotinoids which are implicated in the decline of bee numbers. Another benefit is the greater diversity of vegetable varieties also associated with organic farming. This is for two reasons: to use varieties with greater natural resistance to pests and to use more flavoursome varieties to differentiate from non-organic produce.

 A recent study of studies of yield from organic methods compared with so-called conventional methods has recently been published in Nature and reported here by the BBC. From the BBC report:
The headline conclusion is pretty unequivocal; across the board, organic farming produces lower yields than conventional methods, by about 25%. For fruit, the difference is marginal, just a few percent. But for vegetables, organic yields are about 33% down on conventional, with barley and wheat a little lower still.
 A lower yield from organic farming over a given area of land is not surprising really; good organic farming would have a reduced crop growing area as there would be hedgerows and possibly field boundaries that are unplanted. Then the reduced fertiliser use can reduce yield and varieties bred for pest resistance may not be optimised for yield. Another factor affecting yields identified in the report was irrigation, with non-organic methods using more water. In many parts of the world, including southern Britain the future may not slow such profligate water use, thus closing the gap. In fact a study undertaken by the Rodale Institute showed that organic growing produced better yields of corn in drought years. Another review of the Nature report in the Guardian notes established organic production using the best organic practices and with the right natural conditions can be as productive as conventional methods.

But this still doesn't answer the question, can we feed the world organically?

We have more than 7bn mouths to feed and population growth predictions indicate that by 2050 we may have 9bn. The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s saw development of hybrid crops resulting in higher yielding and drought resistant strains which have been instrumental in feeding the world a the population had grown from 3bn to 7bn. Increases in land given over to farming and subsequent loss of natural habitats has also increased overall food production but how can we cope with another doubling of population? Supporters of generic modification, e.g. Monsanto and well, ehm, Monsanto, are trying to sell the idea that we need GMOs to feed a more populace and affluent world.

So with lower yields and growing population is organic doomed to be nothing more than a lifestyle choice for the world's more affluent consumers?

I don't think so. Possibly wishful thinking, but like for like yield is only one part of the whole. We could accommodate a reduced yield if the we halved food waste, for example.  An estimated one third of food produced is wasted globally, so halving the waste would increase the available food by 25%. Then there is selection of appropriate crops.  Using limited fresh water to grow roses in Kenya for export to Europe is probably not the most effective use of either the water or the land. Or growing a thirsty crop like cotton in semi-arid parts of Uzbekistan and Kazakstan.

Other considerations that could increase food production without using more land include altering the balance between meat and other produces, limiting the growth of energy crops for biofuels and undertaking systematic research to determine the optimum techniques for different crops, soils and climates.

Organic production techniques are much less polluting and more sustainable than the modern agri-business techniques however debate will continue regarding whether they are the future or an expensive luxury, while producers and consumers will continue to look for that edge to justify the extra cost: are they tastier, more nutritional, less contaminated, or do we just feel better knowing we are doing less damage to the planet and supporting local farmers?

Related Links:
BBC Article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17829764
Guardian Article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2012/apr/26/organic-conventional-farming-feed-world
Rodale Institute

Related Posts:
Oxfam Food Price Spike Map
The Aralkum Desert - created from the Aral sea due to over abstraction for irrigation.
Biofuels could provide 27% of Transport Fuels by 2050.
Population Time Bomb


  1. It's an interesting question and you're right that you have to see the whole food issue as one (so reducing food waste is vital). I think the important thing is to reduce the use of pesticides etc so that even if not all farming becomes organic, conventional farming becomes less harmful than it is.

    1. The Royal Society report mentioned in the Guardian article appears to suggest using the best of organic and conventional farming. In addition to the pesticide issue, there are problems with over use of fertilisers resulting in too many nitrates and phosphates in aquatic habitats.