Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?
The only people who think organic farming can feed the world are delusional hippies, hysterical moms, and self-righteous organic farmers. Right?
Actually, no. A fair number of agribusiness executives, agricultural and ecological scientists, and international agriculture experts believe that a large-scale shift to organic farming would not only increase the world's food supply, but might be the only way to eradicate hunger.
This probably comes as a surprise. After all, organic farmers scorn the pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other tools that have become synonymous with high-yield agriculture. Instead, organic farmers depend on raising animals for manure, growing beans, clover, or other nitrogen-fixing legumes, or making compost and other sources of fertilizer that cannot be manufactured in a chemical plant but are instead grown-which consumes land, water, and other resources. (In contrast, producing synthetic fertilizers consumes massive amounts of petroleum.) Since organic farmers can't use synthetic pesticides, one can imagine that their fields suffer from a scourge of crop-munching bugs, fruit-rotting blights, and plant-choking weeds. And because organic farmers depend on rotating crops to help control pest problems, the same field won't grow corn or wheat or some other staple as often.
As a result, the argument goes, a world dependent on organic farming would have to farm more land than it does today-even if it meant less pollution, fewer abused farm animals, and fewer carcinogenic residues on our vegetables. "We aren't going to feed 6 billion people with organic fertilizer," said Nobel Prize-winning plant breeder Norman Borlaug at a 2002 conference. "If we tried to do it, we would level most of our forest and many of those lands would be productive only for a short period of time." Cambridge chemist John Emsley put it more bluntly: "The greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to ‘organic farming'-an estimated 2 billion people would perish."
In recent years, organic farming has attracted new scrutiny, not just from critics who fear that a large-scale shift in its direction would cause billions to starve, but also from farmers and development agencies who actually suspect that such a shift could better satisfy hungry populations. Unfortunately, no one had ever systematically analyzed whether in fact a widespread shift to organic farming would run up against a shortage of nutrients and a lack of yields-until recently. The results are striking.
There are actually myriad studies from around the world showing that organic farms can produce about as much, and in some settings much more, than conventional farms. Where there is a yield gap, it tends to be widest in wealthy nations, where farmers use copious amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in a perennial attempt to maximize yields. It is true that farmers converting to organic production often encounter lower yields in the first few years, as the soil and surrounding biodiversity recover from years of assault with chemicals. And it may take several seasons for farmers to refine the new approach.
But the long-standing argument that organic farming would yield just one-third or one-half of conventional farming was based on biased assumptions and lack of data. For example, the often-cited statistic that switching to organic farming in the United States would only yield one-quarter of the food currently produced there is based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture study showing that all the manure in the United States could only meet one-quarter of the nation's fertilizer needs-even though organic farmers depend on much more than just manure.
More up-to-date research refutes these arguments. For example, a recent study by scientists at the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture in Switzerland showed that organic farms were only 20 percent less productive than conventional plots over a 21-year period. Looking at more than 200 studies in North America and Europe, Per Pinstrup Andersen (a Cornell professor and winner of the World Food Prize) and colleagues recently concluded that organic yields were about 80 percent of conventional yields. And many studies show an even narrower gap. Reviewing 154 growing seasons' worth of data on various crops grown on rain-fed and irrigated land in the United States, University of California-Davis agricultural scientist Bill Liebhardt found that organic corn yields were 94 percent of conventional yields, organic wheat yields were 97 percent, and organic soybean yields were 94 percent. Organic tomatoes showed no yield difference.
More importantly, in the world's poorer nations where most of the world's hungry live, the yield gaps completely disappear. University of Essex researchers Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine looked at over 200 agricultural projects in the developing world that converted to organic and ecological approaches, and found that for all the projects-involving 9 million farms on nearly 30 million hectares-yields increased an average of 93 percent. A seven-year study from Maikaal District in central India involving 1,000 farmers cultivating 3,200 hectares found that average yields for cotton, wheat, chili, and soy were as much as 20 percent higher on the organic farms than on nearby conventionally managed ones. Farmers and agricultural scientists attributed the higher yields in this dry region to the emphasis on cover crops, compost, manure, and other practices that increased organic matter (which helps retain water) in the soils. A study from Kenya found that while organic farmers in "high-potential areas" (those with above-average rainfall and high soil quality) had lower maize yields than nonorganic farmers, organic farmers in areas with poorer resource endowments consistently outyielded conventional growers. (In both regions, organic farmers had higher net profits, return on capital, and return on labor.)
Contrary to critics who jibe that it's going back to farming like our grandfathers did or that most of Africa already farms organically and it can't do the job, organic farming is a sophisticated combination of old wisdom and modern ecological innovations that help harness the yield-boosting effects of nutrient cycles, beneficial insects, and crop synergies. It's heavily dependent on technology-just not the technology that comes out of a chemical plant.
So could we make do without the chemical plants? Inspired by a field trip to a nearby organic farm where the farmer reported that he raised an amazing 27 tons of vegetables on six-tenths of a hectare in a relatively short growing season, a team of scientists from the University of Michigan tried to estimate how much food could be raised following a global shift to organic farming. The team combed through the literature for any and all studies comparing crop yields on organic farms with those on nonorganic farms. Based on 293 examples, they came up with a global dataset of yield ratios for the world's major crops for the developed and the developing world. As expected, organic farming yielded less than conventional farming in the developed world for most food categories, while studies from the developing world showed organic farming boosting yields. The team then ran two models. The first was conservative in the sense that it applied the yield ratio for the developed world to the entire planet, i.e., they assumed that every farm regardless of location would get only the lower developed-country yields. The second applied the yield ratio for the developed world to wealthy nations and the yield ratio for the developing world to those countries.
"We were all surprised by what we found," said Catherine Badgley, a Michigan paleoecologist who was one of the lead researchers. The first model yielded 2,641 kilocalories ("calories") per person per day, just under the world's current production of 2,786 calories but significantly higher than the average caloric requirement for a healthy person of between 2,200 and 2,500. The second model yielded 4,381 calories per person per day, 75 percent greater than current availability-and a quantity that could theoretically sustain a much larger human population than is currently supported on the world's farmland. (It also laid to rest another concern about organic agriculture; see sidebar at left.)
The team's interest in this subject was partly inspired by the concern that a large-scale shift to organic farming would require clearing additional wild areas to compensate for lower yields-an obvious worry for scientists like Badgley, who studies present and past biodiversity. The only problem with the argument, she said, is that much of the world's biodiversity exists in close proximity to farmland, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. "If we simply try to maintain biodiversity in islands around the world, we will lose most of it," she said. "It's very important to make areas between those islands friendly to biodiversity. The idea of those areas being pesticide-drenched fields is just going to be a disaster for biodiversity, especially in the tropics. The world would be able to sustain high levels of biodiversity much better if we could change agriculture on a large scale."
Badgley's team went out of the way to make its assumptions as conservative as possible: most of the studies they used looked at the yields of a single crop, even though many organic farms grow more than one crop in a field at the same time, yielding more total food even if the yield of any given crop may be lower. Skeptics may doubt the team's conclusions-as ecologists, they are likely to be sympathetic to organic farming-but a second recent study of the potential of a global shift to organic farming, led by Niels Halberg of the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, came to very similar conclusions, even though the authors were economists, agronomists, and international development experts.
Like the Michigan team, Halberg's group made an assumption about the differences in yields with organic farming for a range of crops and then plugged those numbers into a model developed by the World Bank's International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). This model is considered the definitive algorithm for predicting food output, farm income, and the number of hungry people throughout the world. Given the growing interest in organic farming among consumers, government officials, and agricultural scientists, the researchers wanted to assess whether a large-scale conversion to organic farming in Europe and North America (the world's primary food exporting regions) would reduce yields, increase world food prices, or worsen hunger in poorer nations that depend on imports, particularly those people living in the Third World's swelling megacities. Although the group found that total food production declined in Europe and North America, the model didn't show a substantial impact on world food prices. And because the model assumed, like the Michigan study, that organic farming would boost yields in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the most optimistic scenario even had hunger-plagued sub-Saharan Africa exporting food surpluses.
"Modern non-certified organic farming is a potentially sustainable approach to agricultural development in areas with low yields due to poor access to inputs or low yield potential because it involves lower economic risk than comparative interventions based on purchased inputs and may increase farm level resilience against climatic fluctuations," Halberg's team concluded. In other words, studies from the field show that the yield increases from shifting to organic farming are highest and most consistent in exactly those poor, dry, remote areas where hunger is most severe. "Organic agriculture could be an important part of increased food security in sub-Saharan Africa," says Halberg.
That is, if other problems can be overcome. "A lot of research is to try to kill prejudices," Halberg says-like the notion that organic farming is only a luxury, and one that poorer nations cannot afford. "I'd like to kill this once and for all. The two sides are simply too far from each other and they ignore the realities of the global food system." Even if a shift toward organic farming boosted yields in hungry African and Asian nations, the model found that nearly a billion people remained hungry, because any surpluses were simply exported to areas that could best afford it.
These conclusions about yields won't come as a surprise to many organic farmers. They have seen with their own eyes and felt with their own hands how productive they can be. But some supporters of organic farming shy away from even asking whether it can feed the world, simply because they don't think it's the most useful question. There is good reason to believe that a global conversion to organic farming would not proceed as seamlessly as plugging some yield ratios into a spreadsheet.
To begin with, organic farming isn't as easy as farming with chemicals. Instead of choosing a pesticide to prevent a pest outbreak, for example, a particular organic farmer might consider altering his crop rotation, planting a crop that will repel the pest or one that will attract its predators-decisions that require some experimentation and long-term planning. Moreover, the IFPRI study suggested that a large-scale conversion to organic farming might require that most dairy and beef production eventually "be better integrated in cereal and other cash crop rotations" to optimize use of the manure. Bringing cows back to one or two farms to build up soil fertility may seem like a no-brainer, but doing it wholesale would be a challenge-and dumping ammonia on depleted soils still makes for a quicker fix.
Again, these are just theoretical assumptions, since a global shift to organic farming could take decades. But farmers are ingenious and industrious people and they tend to cope with whatever problems are at hand. Eliminate nitrogen fertilizer and many farmers will probably graze cows on their fields to compensate. Eliminate fungicides and farmers will look for fungus-resistant crop varieties. As more and more farmers begin to farm organically, everyone will get better at it. Agricultural research centers, universities, and agriculture ministries will throw their resources into this type of farming-in sharp contrast to their current neglect of organic agriculture, which partly stems from the assumption that organic farmers will never play a major role in the global food supply.
So the problems of adopting organic techniques do not seem insurmountable. But those problems may not deserve most of our attention; even if a mass conversion over, say, the next two decades, dramatically increased food production, there's little guarantee it would eradicate hunger. The global food system can be a complex and unpredictable beast. It's hard to anticipate how China's rise as a major importer of soybeans for its feedlots, for instance, might affect food supplies elsewhere. (It's likely to drive up food prices.) Or how elimination of agricultural subsidies in wealthy nations might affect poorer countries. (It's likely to boost farm incomes and reduce hunger.) And would less meat eating around the world free up food for the hungry? (It would, but could the hungry afford it?) In other words, "Can organic farming feed the world?" is probably not even the right question, since feeding the world depends more on politics and economics than any technological innovations.
"‘Can organic farming feed the world' is indeed a bogus question," says Gene Kahn, a long-time organic farmer who founded Cascadian Farms organic foods and is now vice president of sustainable development for General Mills. "The real question is, can we feed the world? Period. Can we fix the disparities in human nutrition?" Kahn notes that the marginal difference in today's organic yields and the yields of conventional agriculture wouldn't matter if food surpluses were redistributed.
But organic farming will yield other benefits that are too numerous to name. Studies have shown, for example, that the "external" costs of organic farming- erosion, chemical pollution to drinking water, death of birds and other wildlife-are just one-third those of conventional farming. Surveys from every continent show that organic farms support many more species of birds, wild plants, insects, and other wildlife than conventional farms. And tests by several governments have shown that organic foods carry just a tiny fraction of the pesticide residues of the nonorganic alternatives, while completely banning growth hormones, antibiotics, and many additives allowed in many conventional foods. There is even some evidence that crops grown organically have considerably higher levels of health-promoting antioxidants.
There are social benefits as well. Because organic farming doesn't depend on expensive inputs, it might help shift the balance towards smaller farmers in hungry nations. A 2002 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization noted that "organic systems can double or triple the productivity of traditional systems" in developing nations but suggested that yield comparisons offer a "limited, narrow, and often misleading picture" since farmers in these countries often adopt organic farming techniques to save water, save money, and reduce the variability of yields in extreme conditions. A more recent study by the International Fund for Agricultural Development found that the higher labor requirements often mean that "organic agriculture can prove particularly effective in bringing redistribution of resources in areas where the labour force is underemployed. This can help contribute to rural stability."
These benefits will come even without a complete conversion to a sort of organic utopia. In fact, some experts think that a more hopeful, and reasonable, way forward is a sort of middle ground, where more and more farmers adopt the principles of organic farming even if they don't follow the approach religiously. In this scenario, both poor farmers and the environment come out way ahead. "Organic agriculture is not going to do the trick," says Roland Bunch, an agricultural extensionist who has worked for decades in Africa and the Americas and is now with COSECHA (Association of Consultants for a Sustainable, Ecological, and People-Centered Agriculture) in Honduras. Bunch knows first-hand that organic agriculture can produce more than conventional farming among poorer farmers. But he also knows that these farmers cannot get the premium prices paid for organic produce elsewhere, and that they are often unable, and unwilling, to shoulder some of the costs and risks associated with going completely organic.
Instead, Bunch points to "a middle path," of eco-agriculture, or low-input agriculture that uses many of the principles of organic farming and depends on just a small fraction of the chemicals. "These systems can immediately produce two or three times what smallholder farmers are presently producing," Bunch says. "And furthermore, it is attractive to smallholder farmers because it is less costly per unit produced." In addition to the immediate gains in food production, Bunch suggests that the benefits for the environment of this middle path will be far greater than going "totally organic," because "something like five to ten times as many smallholder farmers will adopt it per unit of extension and training expense, because it behooves them economically. They aren't taking food out of their kids' mouths. If five farmers eliminate half their use of chemicals, the effect on the environment will be two and one-half times as great as if one farmer goes totally organic."
And farmers who focus on building their soils, increasing biodiversity, or bringing livestock into their rotation aren't precluded from occasionally turning to biotech crops or synthetic nitrogen or any other yield-enhancing innovations in the future, particularly in places where the soils are heavily depleted. "In the end, if we do things right, we'll build a lot of organic into conventional systems," says Don Lotter, the agricultural consultant. Like Bunch, Lotter notes that such an "integrated" approach often out-performs both a strictly organic and chemical-intensive approach in terms of yield, economics, and environmental benefits. Still, Lotter's not sure we'll get there tomorrow, since the world's farming is hardly pointed in the organic direction-which could be the real problem for the world's poor and hungry. "There is such a huge area in sub-Saharan Africa and South America where the Green Revolution has never made an impact and it's unlikely that it will for the next generation of poor farmers," argues Niels Halberg, the Danish scientist who lead the IFPRI study. "It seems that agro-ecological measures for some of these areas have a beneficial impact on yields and food insecurity. So why not seriously try it out?"
Brian Halweil is a Senior Researcher at Worldwatch and the author of Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket.
Enough Nitrogen To Go Around?
In addition to looking at raw yields, the University of Michigan scientists also examined the common concern that there aren't enough available sources of non-synthetic nitrogen-compost, manure, and plant residues-in the world to support large-scale organic farming. For instance, in his book Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, Vaclav Smil argues that roughly two-thirds of the world's food harvest depends on the Haber-Bosch process, the technique developed in the early 20th century to synthesize ammonia fertilizer from fossil fuels. (Smil admits that he largely ignored the contribution of nitrogen-fixing crops and assumed that some of them, like soybeans, are net users of nitrogen, although he himself points out that on average half of all the fertilizer applied globally is wasted and not taken up by plants.) Most critics of organic farming as a means to feed the world focus on how much manure-and how much related pastureland and how many head of livestock-would be needed to fertilize the world's organic farms. "The issue of nitrogen is different in different regions," says Don Lotter, an agricultural consultant who has published widely on organic farming and nutrient requirements. "But lots more nitrogen comes in as green manure than animal manure."
Looking at 77 studies from the temperate areas and tropics, the Michigan team found that greater use of nitrogen-fixing crops in the world's major agricultural regions could result in 58 million metric tons more nitrogen than the amount of synthetic nitrogen currently used every year. Research at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania showed that red clover used as a winter cover in an oat/wheat-corn-soy rotation, with no additional fertilizer inputs, achieved yields comparable to those in conventional control fields. Even in arid and semi-arid tropical regions like East Africa, where water availability is limited between periods of crop production, drought-resistant green manures such as pigeon peas or groundnuts could be used to fix nitrogen. In Washington state, organic wheat growers have matched their non-organic neighbor's wheat yields using the same field pea rotation for nitrogen. In Kenya, farmers using leguminous tree crops have doubled or tripled corn yields as well as suppressing certain stubborn weeds and generating additional animal fodder.
The Michigan results imply that no additional land area is required to obtain enough biologically available nitrogen, even without including the potential for intercropping (several crops grown in the same field at the same time), rotation of livestock with annual crops, and inoculation of soil with Azobacter, Azospirillum, and other free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
Food Versus Fuel
Sometimes, when humans try to solve one problem, they end up creating another. The global food supply is already under serious strain: more than 800 million people go hungry every day, the world's population continues to expand, and a growing number of people in the developing world are changing to a more Western, meat-intensive diet that requires more grain and water per calorie than traditional diets do. Now comes another potential stressor: concern about climate change means that more nations are interested in converting crops into biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels. But could this transition remove land from food production and further intensify problems of world hunger?
For several reasons, some analysts say no, at least not in the near future. First, they emphasize that nearly 40 percent of global cereal crops are fed to livestock, not humans, and that global prices of grains and oil seeds do not always affect the cost of food for the hungry, who generally cannot participate in formal markets anyway.
Second, at least to date, hunger has been due primarily to inadequate income and distribution rather than absolute food scarcity. In this regard, a biofuels economy may actually help to reduce hunger and poverty. A recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization report argued that increased use of biofuels could diversify agricultural and forestry activities, attract investment in new small and medium-sized enterprises, and increase investment in agricultural production, thereby increasing the incomes of the world's poorest people.
Third, biofuel refineries in the future will depend less on food crops and increasingly on organic wastes and residues. Producing biofuels from corn stalks, rice hulls, sawdust, or waste paper is unlikely to affect food production directly. And there are drought-resistant grasses, fast-growing trees, and other energy crops that will grow on marginal lands unsuitable for raising food.
Nonetheless, with growing human appetites for both food and fuel, biofuels' long-run potential may be limited by the priority given to food production if bioenergy systems are not harmonized with food systems. The most optimistic assessments of the long-term potential of biofuels have assumed that agricultural yields will continue to improve and that world population growth and food consumption will stabilize. But the assumption about population may prove to be wrong. And yields, organic or otherwise, may not improve enough if agriculture in the future is threatened by declining water tables or poor soil maintenance.