Can organic feed the world?

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

Organic farming tends to have lower crop yields than conventional farming - but it is also less reliant on non-renewable inputs
Organic farming tends to have lower crop yields than conventional farming - but it is also less reliant on non-renewable inputs
Organic crops generally have lower yields than conventional crops – but that’s not the only way to measure their potential to feed the world.

Proponents of organic agriculture say it leads to better soil management, uses fewer pesticides and fertilisers, and is a better protector of biodiversity. However, when it comes to increasing food production for a growing global population, others argue that organic’s lower average yields would mean clearing more land for agriculture.

According to a 2012 meta-analysis​, organic crop yields average about 80% of those of conventional crops – but there is huge variation depending on the region and crop variety. The researchers found that while organic fruit trees, beans and alfalfa delivered just 5% lower yields, major cereal crops and vegetables yielded about 25% less than their conventionally grown counterparts.

Pest control

They suggested that when conventional crops were near their maximum potential yields, pests and diseases in organic crops would have to be extremely well controlled to match up – factors that tend to be a greater challenge in organic agriculture.

A more recent meta-analysis published in January this year​ found a similar gap in the productivity of organic agriculture – an average of 19.2% – and suggested that the gap could be narrowed to 8 or 9% with different crop management techniques.

Reducing non-renewable inputs

But while much of the debate has focused on whether organic can match the yields of conventional agriculture, advocates suggest organic foods offer more long-term viability even if yields are lower.

US economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, for example, suggests that global agriculture must shift toward organic in order to reduce dependence on petrochemical-based fertilisers​ and pesticides, which are likely to see prices skyrocket in the mid- to long-term.

However, even though organic farming avoids non-renewable inputs, the land use dilemma remains. NGO Forest Trends claims​ that more than 70% of tropical deforestation since 2000 was for agricultural conversion, and more than 6m hectares of tropical rainforest are lost each year.

Any move toward more organic systems therefore would need to reduce land use, rather than increase it – a big challenge when the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that food production will need to double by 2050.

Waste reduction

Food waste may be a significant part of the equation. One in three forkfuls of food is wasted or lost before it reaches the consumer, according to the FAO, so waste reduction could be a way to increase the amount of food on the average plate without having to cut down forest. But without waste reduction, ways to increase crop yields seem vital to our future ability to feed the planet.

Finally, the argument over whether the planet has enough land to sustain more cropland also assumes that dietary patterns will remain constant over the coming decades, but Western diets, at least, increasingly are moving away from meat consumption​, which uses more grain than plant-based diets. With 40% of the world’s grain already being used for feed – estimated to increase to 60% by 2050, according to the FAO – a shift away from animal products could make organic agriculture a more viable mainstream option.

A third way?

While debate over organic’s role in future food production tends to pit organic against conventional farming, conservation farming may provide a compromise. It doesn’t explicitly prohibit any farming practices, but encourages soil and water conservation and the use of mulch to minimise runoff and erosion.

The FAO has called it “a concept for resource-saving agricultural crop production that strives to achieve acceptable profits together with high and sustained production levels while concurrently conserving the environment”.

Even UK-based organic advocacy organisation, The Soil Association, has argued that sustainable agriculture does not necessarily begin with organic production. Its chief executive, Helen Browning, said at a conference in 2013​ that good food was about how it is produced – but said The Soil Association had sometimes become too associated with campaigns against genetic modification or pesticides.

“Unless we deliver positive real world solutions, policies that are genuinely likely to stand up, we will have failed,”​ she said. “I want us much more to be known for what we are for, rather than what we are against.”

According to Eurostat, only about 4% of agricultural land in Europe is organically managed, despite consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for organic foods in many markets. The European organic market has increased fourfold over the past decade according to EU figures, but organic agricultural land has only doubled over the same period.

Related topics: Organics, Market Trends

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7 comments

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Posted by Hugo Cabret,

It is such a crime that crap science is the fodder of so many. The Primitives will continue to spew the unfounded virtues and superiority of organic agriculture with little, often no, real science to back it up. Simply saying that organic agricultural products are "better" for children, the soil, the planet, blah, blah, blah, does not make it factual. Unfortunately, too many folks want to have something to hate and believe the baseless propaganda of the "greatness" of organic perpetrated by the self-crowned Masterminds and Primitives. WHO IS JOHN GALT!

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2012 Meta Data Analysis overlooks key research and presents tilted facts...

Posted by Scott A,

To Author Caroline Scott-Thomas, please look further than the 2012 Meta Data Analysis that you based this article on.
There is a key very rigorous scientific trail that has been going on for 35 plus years now by the Rodale Institute. The Farming Systems Trail is America's longest running side by side by side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture.
At the 30 year mark this study has proven that organic growing methods are superior to conventional systems. The scientific data is indisputable.
The facts are that Organic yields match conventional yields, Organic outperforms conventional in years of drought. Organic farming systems build rather than deplete soil organic matter, making it a more sustainable system. Organic farming uses 45% less energy and is more efficient and Conventional systems produce 40% more greenhouse gases. Most important is that Organic farming systems are more profitable than conventional.
The part that is our national challenge is that water leaching from conventional systems more frequently exceeded the legal limit for nitrate-nitrogen concentrations in drinking water. Leaching of other conventional chemicals sometimes exceeded the maximum EPA contaminate levels set for drinking water. Organic farms can always benefit from better USDA / NRCS conservation practices such as vegetated buffer strips between fields, streams and water bodies to have the cleanest runoff possible.

You missed key research from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The December 20, 2010 report (A/HRC/16/49) to the General Assembly cites that if the world footprint of agriculture was switched to Agro Ecological farming techniques that world food production could be DOUBLED without converting any more land to agriculture and that over time the soils would be improved and the environment cleaned up by natural biological processes of many of the current contaminants.
This is not a situation of us against them, we are all facing the changing face of population growth and need for food that is grown in a way that preserves our future capacity to produce food..
We need to bring all of agriculture together to incrementally improve our soils carbon content to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and improve water holding capacity and biological activity. Farmers of all types will benefit from these "old fashion" ways of soil building and erosion reduction.
This is a key human right for all of the planets nations to be able to produce abundant food now and into the long range future. Let's work together to make the future a food abundant one with air we can breath and water that we can drink... Scott

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Herd immunity

Posted by Mischa Popoff,

The 2012 meta-analysis you reference was deeply flawed because it failed to take into account how organic farms benefit from the pest control being carried out by neighboring conventional farmers.

It's the same with people who don't vaccinate their kids. They point out that their kids are healthy, but fail to see that diseases are prevented from even reaching their kids due to the high rate of vaccination in the population at large. This is called herd immunity.

Without pest control by neighboring conventional farmers, organic farmers would suffer unimaginable losses, right up-to-and-including total crop failure.

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