Organic Farming Can Feed the World. Here’s Proof.

Organic apple

“We all have things that drive us crazy,” wrote Steve Kopperud in a blog post this fall for Brownfield, an organization that disseminates agricultural news online and through radio broadcasts. Kopperud, who is a lobbyist for agribusiness interests in Washington, D.C., then got downright personal: “Firmly ensconced at the top of my list are people who consider themselves experts on an issue when judging by what they say and do, they’re sitting high in an ivory tower somewhere contemplating only the ‘wouldn’t-it-be-nice’ aspects.”

At the top of that heap, Kopperud put Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, a contributor to Atlantic Life and the author of Food Politics, the title of both her most well-known book and her daily blog.

“There’s a huge chunk of reality missing from Dr. Nestle’s academic approach to life,” Kopperud wrote. “The missing bit is, quite simply, the answer to the following question: How do you feed seven billion people today and nine billion by 2040 through organic, natural, and local food production?” He then answers his own question. “You can’t.”

What is notably lacking in the “conventional” versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can’t feed the world’s growing population.

As a journalist who takes issues surrounding food production seriously, I too have things that drive me crazy.

At the top of my list are agribusiness advocates such as Kopperud (and, more recently, Steve Sexton of Freakonomics) who dismiss well-thought-out concerns about today’s dysfunctional food production system with the old saw that organic farming can’t save the world. They persist in repeating this as an irrefutable fact, even as one scientific study after another concludes the exact opposite: not only that organic can indeed feed nine billion human beings but that it is the only hope we have of doing so.

“There isn’t enough land to feed the nine billion people” is one tired argument that gets trotted out by the anti-organic crowd, including Kopperud. That assertion ignores a 2007 study led by Ivette Perfecto, of the University of Michigan, showing that in developing countries, where the chances of famine are greatest, organic methods could double or triple crop yields.

“My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture,” Perfecto told Science Daily at the time.

Too bad solid, scientific research hasn’t been enough to drive that nail home. A 2010 United Nations study (PDF) concluded that organic and other sustainable farming methods that come under the umbrella of what the study’s authors called “agroecology” would be necessary to feed the future world. Two years earlier, a U.N. examination (PDF) of farming in 24 African countries found that organic or near-organic farming resulted in yield increases of more than 100 percent. Another U.N.-supported report entitled “Agriculture at a Crossroads” (PDF), compiled by 400 international experts, said that the way the world grows food will have to change radically to meet future demand. It called for governments to pay more attention to small-scale farmers and sustainable practices — shooting down the bigger-is-inevitably-better notion that huge factory farms and their efficiencies of scale are necessary to feed the world.

Suspicious of the political motives of the U.N.? Well, there’s a study that came out in 2010 from the all-American National Research Council. Written by professors from seven universities, including the University of California, Iowa State University, and the University of Maryland, the report finds that organic farming, grass-fed livestock husbandry, and the production of meat and crops on the same farm will be needed to sustain food production in this country.

The Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute is an unequivocal supporter of all things organic. But that’s no reason to dismiss its 2008 report “The Organic Green Revolution” (PDF), which provides a concise argument for why a return to organic principles is necessary to stave off world hunger, and which backs the assertion with citations of more than 50 scientific studies.

Rodale concludes that farming must move away from using unsustainable, increasingly unaffordable, petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and turn to “organic, regenerative farming systems that sustain and improve the health of the world population, our soil, and our environment.” The science the report so amply cites shows that such a system would

  • give competitive yields to “conventional” methods
  • improve soil and boost its capacity to hold water, particularly important during droughts
  • save farmers money on pesticides and fertilizers
  • save energy because organic production requires 20 to 50 percent less input
  • mitigate global warming because cover crops and compost can sequester close to 40 percent of global CO2 emissions
  • increase food nutrient density

What is notably lacking in the “conventional” versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can’t feed the world’s growing population. In an exhaustive review using Google and several academic search engines of all the scientific literature published between 1999 and 2007 addressing the question of whether or not organic agriculture could feed the world, the British Soil Association, which supports and certifies organic farms, found (PDF) that there had been 98 papers published in the previous eight years addressing the question of whether organic could feed the world. Every one of the papers showed that organic farming had that potential. Not one argued otherwise.

The most troubling part of Kopperud’s post is where he says that he finds the food movement of which Pollan and Nestle are respected leaders “almost dangerous.” He’s wrong. The real danger is when an untruth is repeated so often that people accept it as fact.

Given that the current food production system, which is really a 75-year-old experiment, leaves nearly one billion of the world’s seven billion humans seriously undernourished today, the onus should be on the advocates of agribusiness to prove their model can feed a future population of nine billion — not the other way around.

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  1. Dear Friends,

    Henry Ford once said: “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, your right.” These are salience words for a discussion about feeding the world’s population. We are beaten before we even try if we think we can’t. Actually, the human family must learn how to feed itself using sustainable methods. In the long term, there isn’t an option to do it in any other way. Peak oil is upon us.

    If organic methods cannot feed the world we will have a three level food system. The rich and privileged will get the best fresh, organic, contamination-free food available. The masses will get conventionally produced, contaminated, nutrient poor foods that are highly processed for long shelf life. The people that have the misfortune to live in an area with natural or human-made disaster will get nothing or learn to live off emergency relief. Gee, this sound like right now.

    If you want to feed the world using sustainable methods, more people will be involved in food production. We would have to give up on the notion that some central force could feed the world. In fact, food security is a local and regional problem and can only be solved on a local and regional basis with local and regional solutions. Parachuting in with “help” can be culturally insensitive and have unintended consequences. People need to take care of their own basic needs. Personally, I have found this to be a very empowering experience.

    It is amazing how much food a family can produce on a city sized lot. Unfortunately, there are more and more rules making it difficult for people that want to grow their own food to do so. As a society we would have to change government policies to allow people to find their own solutions to living a more sustainable life. We will have to change bylaws so families that want to produce their own food can do so. Bylaws will have to be changed so a family could have a few chickens for eggs and meat. If the family has enough land, bylaws need to be changed to allow for a miniature goat for fresh milk. How many laws would need to be changed to allow people to build passive solar, earth-rammed houses, which would reduce our family’s needs for heating and electrical energy?

    Fresh meat, eggs, milk, vegetable and fruits are the basis for a healthy diet. All of these foods can be produced on less than an acre of land. This is food security. Food security does not involve government and their big plans but people taking control of their lives. We the people, have to push back the forces that would make us dependence on a central system for food and energy. The question is not if we can, the question is if we will.

    Caroline Cooper
    Weston A Price Foundation Kamloops Chapter

  2. GBMAXX says:

    If you look at history, right after the Cuban missile crisis, Cuba was cut-off from most world trade; the government of Cuba issued a mandate to its people to begin growing food wherever possible. Backyards, rooftops and any unused strip of land were transformed into a produce producing area. The answer is simple, grow and sell the produce locally. The quality of the food goes up, and transportation costs go down. It’s just a matter of time, before fuel costs here in the United States rise to the level that all food production will make sense at the local level.

  3. Here’s a recent study from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Ag on organic vs. conventional commodity crop farming.

  4. The food lobby and ag biz lobby are very powerful and wield enormous influence over media and regulatory agencies via congress. They won’t be letting go of their power anytime soon, because there is just too much profit to be made. The way to make this transition happen is to educate, educate and then educate some more. A decades-entrenched system like this is very difficult to change from the top down – it will happen from the bottom up. Gardener by gardener, farmer by farmer, until the market tips and demand for chemical products is so low that manufacturing them becomes unprofitable. It’s the long tail approach.

  5. Francis Wairegi says:

    Gm technology is the latest solution put forward by anti organic experts in the quest to try and sort out global food insecurity, world population become more informed and conscious about health and the enviroment ,Gm is meeting insurmountable resistance.In Kenya, a donation of Gm food was turned down after a protracted national outcry.The donation was made to a famine stricken area.Kenyans came up in big numbers to donate for their own through a campaign by one of the media house.Even the most hungry are turning down free Gm offers.
    The debate on wether Organic agriculture offers lasting solution in feeding the world seven billion people now and in future is the work of profit driven multinational companies intended to cast doubts on the sustainability of organic agriculture..To feed a family unit one does not need Gm seeds,heavy doses of synthetic fertilizers or roundup free seeds.A simple compost pile is adequate to nourish your soil.A healthy crop is able to resist pest and disease attack.How about keeping afew chickens and a milking goat for a modest family.Such other methods that are environmental friendly, have been practised with alot of succes.Gobal food security should start at the family level .Technology should never be let to compromise mother nature.

  6. Francis Wairegi says:

    My comment is in support in support that organic agriculture can indeed feed the world can feed the world seven billion people.

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