Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

Post Source: Socialist Pakistan News (SPN)

By: Sonja

“I am struck, every hour of every day, by the contrast between what could be in this world, and what is… everyone who is ever liable to be born could be well fed, forever, … to the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy… But the food chain we have now is not designed to feed people… it is designed to produce the maximum amount of cash in the shortest time… The global free market … is disastrous (for farming)…

      When cash rules, sound biology goes to the wall and common sense and humanity are for wimps.”               (Colin Tudge. “Feeding people is easy”, 2007)

What is the problem?

     We are in a constant state of crisis: Every day at least 16,000 children die of malnutrition, almost 1 billion people of today’s 6.3 billion world population are undernourished (Worldwatch Institute) while another 1 billion is “malnourished” (or “overnourished”) – meaning to be overweight or suffering from diabetes or heart disease – and every day global warming and its consequences further increase the food crisis (Krugman). Today basically everybody suffers from rising food prices, unhealthy food (Schlosser 195 ff.), toxins (Colborn et al. 138/139 ff.) and food-supply shortcomings which can and will have political consequences, as just seen in the form of uprisings in the Middle East, for example (Krugman). It is also a well-known fact that the modern food production contributes to global warming and the ongoing energy crisis since modern industrial farming – including the whole food processing and distribution process – consumes almost 20% of all the fossil fuels used in the US (Ziesemer 5). So it seems almost as if modern industrial farming – which in the last 40 to 60 years was regarded as crucial to have helped to feed the world, is now entering a vicious circle where it will only increase the crisis instead of showing a way out. (Since modern industrial farming contributes to global warming, resulting in droughts and floods, which will just further destroy the harvest and therefore furthermore increase the food crisis; Krugman).

       In 2050 nine to ten billion people are expected to live on this planet (Dugger/Gillis) while the soil we plant our staples in or try to feed our livestock with is going to be depleted of its nutrition and will further erode (Montgomery 4 ff.). At the same time ground water supplies, like our water in general, will be even more contaminated than it is already through the toxins which are used in modern industrial farming (Rodale 12 ff.). 

     Organic farming could show a way out of this crisis. It is more sustainable, less toxic and uses the accumulated knowledge and common sense of thousands of years of experience which human kind has acquired through natural history, biology, farming and general survival skills.

       Can we feed the world relying on organic farming or not? Biologists like Colin Tudge from the UK and Michael Pollan from the US strongly believe so. The corporate-owned media seem to disagree (as expressed in an editorial in The Economist: “The 9 billion-people question”). Whatever the answer to this question is, it is an important one. Can we live healthy in the future? Can everybody live healthy? Are people going to be able to live at all? We are facing a serious crisis. Are we running out of food, soil and water? Can we sustain a food industry which relies on fossil fuels even if we know that we are running out of oil? People will have to eat. And they should be able to eat healthy. UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan expressed his opinion that if we solve the global food problems we can also solve the health care crisis (especially in the US), the energy crisis and the global climate disruption problems (Pollan. “Farmer in Chief”). That would definitely mean that we would have to produce locally as well.

     Almost nobody states these days that organic farming is “bad”. Most people agree that it could be a solution for the ongoing problems we face these days. However, Jay Ambrose is an exception, who thinks that organic farming is “worse than global warming”, but not many people seem to take him very seriously. The main question for most of us in regards to organic farming is if it can produce efficiently enough to feed the growing world population or if it might be too labor-intensive and too costly and therefore would just remain a “niche” and privilege for the upper middle-class to afford and enjoy. More studies on this topic are available and are becoming more easily accessible these days, what might be connected to the fact that organic farming became recently one of the most expanding and profitable food industry market segments (Szymkowiak 26ff.).

     For all logical reasons it seems that actually only organic farming can show a possible way out of the permanent food, energy and climate (environmental) crisis (and maybe even the healthcare and unemployment crisis!). Let’s add some facts and research results to our common sense.

Why did I choose this topic?

     I love food. But recently, I started to become scared of food as well. Especially after reading Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire. Since then I’ve gotten very worried about my daily nutritious intakes. I decided that I really don’t want to eat gen-manipulated staples anymore after reading Pollan’s concerns about “biological pollution” which he states is much more dangerous than any chemical pollution, since there is no way to control the gen-manipulated pollens once they are “out there” and cross-pollinate. Pollan writes: “Harmful as chemical pollution can be, it eventually disperses and fades, but biological pollution is self-replicating” 213). I also have to admit that I never wanted to know that most of the food I am usually eating is on a regular basis treated with at least seven different poisons before the food even enters the food processing process (where several more toxins will be added…). Well now, thanks to Pollan, I know, unfortunately. And I can either stop eating – which I can’t really, or change my eating habits and switch entirely to organic food. I know organic food is available. But can it produce enough food for everybody in an efficient way?

     I’d like to live healthy, but it seems sometimes as if that is not possible anymore. Toxins are everywhere and we are not only threatened by them because we eat them; they also – as the whole industrial farming process in general – accelerate the depletion, destruction and contamination of our soil and (ground) water supplies. The more I read about this topic, I come to the conclusion that modern industrial farming is not sustainable and will destroy our environment and increase global warming and thereby worsen the food crisis we face already in several ways. The only “way out” seems to be the “way back”: the way back to natural, organic farming. This is how human kind was able to feed itself for thousands of years.

 What is “Organic Farming”?

     Organic farming is in general mainly described as a farming system which does not use chemical (“artificial”) herbicides or pesticides nor gene-manipulated organisms (GMO’s) and tries to be self-sufficient, using “green manure” for fertilizing and biological (natural) pesticides to protect the crops. Organic farming also uses the techniques of crop rotation and mixed farming. Usually, it is aimed at producing locally and supports biodiversity instead of any kind of monoculture which has led to soil depletion and erosion and many other problems so far. Wikipedia states that

Organic foods are those that are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irridation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives (“Organic Food”).

Others insist that organic farming needs to be a kind of farming which “envisages a comprehensive management approach to improve the health of (the) underlying productivity of the soil” (Bhattacharyya and Chakraborty 115). The same authors also cite “the most recognized definition” of organic farming as

the concept of the farm as an organism, in which all the components – the soil, minerals, organic matter, microorganisms, insects, plants, animal(s) and humans – interact to create (a) coherent, self-regulating and stable whole. Reliance on external inputs, whether chemical or organic, is reduced as far as possible. Organic farming is (a) holistic production system (115).

It is also historically the oldest traditional form of farming, the system of farming which was used since the last 10,000 years (Bhattacharyya and Chakraborty 111).

How “efficient” is Organic Farming?

     Actually, the fact alone that organic, traditional farming has led to a 200 fold increase of the human population in the last 10,000 years (Tudge: “Can Organic Farming Feed the World?” 7) should prove the efficiency of this “old fashioned” farming system, which can be applied almost everywhere, specifically in all the areas which are “organic… by default” (Bhattacharyya and Chakraborty 118). Especially in the developing world where farmers don’t have the money to buy chemical fertilizers and where a lot of areas are not suited to be cultivated with heavy machinery (even if the farmers had the money to purchase them) organic, traditional farming will remain the most commonly used farming technique “by default”. Why change a system which has worked almost perfectly for over 10,000 years? Organic farming did not only help the human race to survive so far, it helped to increase the number of the world population by thousands and millions in the last 10,000 years.

     Today it seems to be a proven fact that organic, traditional farming is more energy efficient than modern industrial farming. Susan Lang, reporting for the Cornell University News Service, for example, informs about a study which showed that “Organic Farming produces (the) same corn and soybean yields as conventional farms, but consumes less energy and no pesticides”. The fact that organic farming is more energy efficient than conventional farming, is also confirmed in a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) from Jodi Ziesemer. Here, the author claims that organic agriculture uses up to 50% less energy in its production of food than industrial farming, but – on the other hand – uses 33% more manual labor (Ziesemer 23).  Other studies support these findings. In his book The Botany of Desire Michael Pollan writes in reporting about his interview with an organic farmer that the organic farmer basically has the same yield – the same results in obtaining crops in regards to the amount of cultivated land – using organic farming than the industrial farmers have. But Pollan also concludes that, “of course”, organic farming uses more labor (1/3 more of manual labor than conventional farming) and that it therefore can’t really be compared with industrial farming in regards to efficiency – even though it “only spends a fraction as much on inputs” as conventional farming (224). Most studies confirm these findings or observations: Organic Farming uses less energy (up to 50% less), but more labor (ca. 30% more), but has in general, or can have at least, the same yield, the same crop harvest outcome, as industrial farming. Even though one study came to the conclusion that the yield of organic farming was 20 % lower than conventional farming, the authors had to “admit” that at the same time the “input of fertilizer and energy was reduced by 34 to 54 % and (the) pesticide input by 97 %” (Maeder et al.). Newer studies do not confirm this result that organic farming is less efficient than industrial farming. A research study by Catherine Badgley et al. from the Michigan University actually states that if organic farming in the developing countries would be brought up to the more efficient standards of the developed world, it could easily be able to feed the (world) population, and the yield results could be increased by 50%, while conventional, industrial farming would not only be impossible to pursue in many regions but would also be counterproductive, even damaging, for these countries. This study is especially important because it also comes to the result that the yield increase can be reached without any more land use and that enough “green manure” or natural, biological nitrogen fixation could be created to fertilize the soil in a natural way:

Model estimates indicate that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base. We also evaluated the amount of nitrogen potentially available from fixation by leguminous cover crops used as fertilizer… leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use (Badgley et al. 86).

     The need to create green manure or natural fertilizer through nitrogen fixation using natural bacteria or compost might not even be always necessary. As Bhattacharyya and Chakraborty point out in their study “(a) lot of plants … are surviving with huge biomass years after years without (the) use of any fertilizer” (113). But according to Badgley et al.’s study bringing organic farming up to higher standards in the developing world, by for example, the use of (natural) fertilizer would increase the general crop yield worldwide up to 50%. To be clear: The researchers mean 50% more in food supplies and crop yields than we have right now using mainly industrial farming in the developed world and a traditional, organic way of farming on lower standards (which could be improved a lot) in the developing world. Badgley et al. conclude that “the estimated organic food supply exceeds  the current food supply  in all food categories, with most estimates over 50% greater than the amount of food currently produced” (91). An increase of 50% in our current food supply definitely is the least that needs to happen if it’s true what is stated on the Share the Worlds Resources (STWR) website – that “the world needs to double its food production to feed nine billion people by 2050” (“Only Sustainable Farming Will Meet Growing Food Demand”).

What does “efficiency” mean?

     But, the other question is: What does the term “efficiency” mean? British Biologist Colin Tudge states in his book Feeding People is Easy that organic farming is already “100 times more efficient” than the systems of industrial farming, since it uses so much less energy in the whole production system compared to industrial farming:

So it is that traditional farms, making no use of artificial pesticides or fertilizers, and using only the muscle power of people and animals … in general produce about 10 kcalories of food energy for every one kcal of energy expended on the cultivation. But in modern industrial farms the equation is typically the other way round: 10 kcal are expended, largely in form of fossil fuel, for every one which is created in the form of food energy. In terms of energy out “versus” energy in, therefore, the traditional systems are about 100 times more efficient (60).

 Another question would be: Do we talk about “short-term” or “long-term” efficiency?  A study published by the by the Indian Journal of Fertilisers concludes that organic farming might be less efficient in the beginning, but will be more efficient over time compared to conventional farming (Bhattacharyya and Chakraborty 114). This finding is also confirmed by the previously mentioned study Susan Lang is reporting about in the Cornell University News Service. Lang cites Prof. David Pimental, a Cornell University professor of ecology and agriculture, who conducted the study which reviewed a 22-year-long farming trial. He concluded that

… although organic corn yields were about one-third lower during the first four years of the study, over time the organic systems produced higher yields, especially under drought conditions. The reason was that wind and water erosion degraded the soil on the conventional farm while the soil on the organic farms steadily improved in organic matter, moisture, microbial activity and other soil quality indicators (Lang). 

      The efficiency of organic farming depends on environmental and weather conditions, on long-term or short-term conceptions, energy consumption, and a lot of other considerations, but – as stated earlier -, most “concerns” in regards to the efficiency of organic farming are expressed in relation to the amount of the manual labor it requires, since in organic farming no chemicals are used to get rid of weeds, for example. But even if organic farming is more labor-intensive – which it seems to be – , is that really “a bad thing”? People need jobs and working on a farm might be in some ways “nicer” and more rewarding than working in an office or in the biotech or chemical industry. Of course, the work conditions need to be taken into consideration, since there are some reports about high suicide rates among farm workers. But even these suicides are mainly connected to industrial farming, not organic farming, at least in the developed world. A research study, published by the the Soil Association (the oldest and biggest British organic food organization), detailed for the UK, for example that:

Farmers have one of the highest suicide rates of all occupations with an average of one farmer committing suicide every seven days. The lack of human contact outside the immediate family can exacerbate feelings of isolation and depression. With only 13% of farms in England employing any labor beyond family members, this is a common situation and problem (Maynard and Green 24).

     But working on a farm, especially on an organic one, is hard work. And even though it seems as if especially young people really enjoy organic farming, we should probably also start to find ways not only to improve crop rotation but also job rotation. But at the same time lot of farm jobs are already part-time or seasonal. And especially working on an organic farm provides not only biodiversity but job diversity as well. Organic farms conduct a lot of times on-the-farm food processing and have on-farm stores to sell their products. They independently deliver their products to local markets and customers, meaning they have their own “distribution centers” and delivery services as well. They usually also do their own marketing. There are a lot of diverse and high skilled jobs available in organic farming, which most people find to be rewarding and which help workers to socialize and to overcome isolation and depression (Maynard and Green 27).

     Studies and articles by the Soil Association and Colin Tudge not only state that it could be very beneficial for the developed/industrial countries to provide more jobs in the organic farming industries, but that it would actually be very damaging to developing countries to reduce their work-force in the country side. Tudge explains in his article “Feeding People is Easy” (which summarizes the contents of his book of the same title) that “(I)n the Third World, 60 per cent of people live on the land. If poor countries industrialize their farming as Britain and the US have done, and as they are increasingly pressured to do, then this would put 2 billion out of work”. And, as we all know: Weeds might grow out of nowhere, but jobs usually don’t.

Conclusions:

     It seems to be proven that organic farming has the same efficiency results in regards to crop yields per acre as industrial farming in the developed world, and could even be more efficient over time compared to industrial farming since it doesn’t deplete the soil and since it is also especially suitable in times of droughts because it keeps the soil more moist. In times of global warming we will be facing more droughts in the nearer future, so organic farming seems to be the way to go. In the developing world crop yield could be increased up to 3 to 5 times (Bailey, Maynard and Green 50), depending on the exact area and environmental conditions, by using more organic fertilizer than traditional farming does produce right now. According to the previously mentioned study by Badgley et al. this would all add up to a possible increase of the world wide food supply by 50%. Unfortunately, UN experts suggest that we need to double our food supplies by 2050 (“Only Sustainable Farming Will Meet Growing Food Demand”). But maybe a change in our general diet, as suggested by Tudge and others (by eating less meat, for example), and a further improvement of farming methods can help with the last 50%…

     At least one thing is perfectly clear: Organic farming is – without doubt – much more energy efficient than industrial farming. Facing the energy crisis we have right now, the consideration of switching to a farming system which uses up to 50% less energy than industrial farming – like the organic farming systems do – does seem to make a lot of sense. The fact that at the same time organic farming is also more labor intense can be seen – as the Soil Association suggests – as quite beneficial and maybe even in some ways “efficient” as well as a lot of new jobs can be created in the developed world (at least 93,000 more in the UK, for example; Maynard and Green 36) in connection with organic farming while jobs wouldn’t be eliminated in the developing world if a conversion to intensified, industrial farming could be avoided in the “Third World” countries.

     Other benefits of organic farming as implied by Michael Pollan in his article “Farmer in Chief” would be potential savings in health care due to a less sickly population since organic produce is much healthier than other crops and – as already mentioned – no artificial toxins are used. According to an “Organic Farming: facts and figures 2005” sheet published on the Soil Association Website, organic food has much higher levels of vitamins, especially vitamin C, and minerals than non-organic food. Organic food also contains less additives, pesticides and antibiotics – all known to increase cancer, heart disease, allergies and other health problems.

     But in the end we also have to keep the big picture in mind and ask the question: What can be more beneficial and “efficient” than to try to save the world through a serious effort to protect the environment, decrease the impacts of the energy crisis, slow down global warming and, hopefully, to be able to feed the world in the future? To accomplish a goal like this, organic farming seems to be the only way to go.

Works Cited

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      6th Aug. 2009. Web. 4-25-2011.

Badgley, Catherine et al.: “Organic agriculture and the global food supply”. Renewable

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      Web. 4-25-2011.

Bailey, Laura. “Organic farming can feed the world”. The University Record Online.

     University of Michigan News Service 30th July 2007. Web. 4-29-2011.

Bhattacharyya, P. and Chakraborty, G. “Current Status of Organic Farming in India and

    other Countries”, Indian Journal of Fertilisers, 1 (9), Dec. 2005, 111-123.

    Web. 4-29-2011.

Colborn, Theo et al.: Our Stolen Future. New York at al.: Plume/Penguin,1997. Print.

Degger, Celia and Gillis, Justin. “World population growth to keep zooming, UN says”.

     San Francisco Chronicle 4th May 2011: A2 (also New York Times). Print.

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     farms, but consumes less energy and no pesticides, study finds”. Cornell University

      News Service July 2005. Web. 4/20/2011.

Krugman, Paul. “Droughts, Flood and Food”. New York Times 6th Febr. 2011. Web.

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Maeder, Paul et al. “Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming”. Science

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Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire. New York: Random House, 2002. Print.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print.

Rodale, Maria. Organic Manifesto. How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet,

     Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe. New York: Rodale, 2010. Print.

Szymkowiak, Marysia. “Daddy Greenbucks”. terrain Summer 2007. p. 26 ff. Print.

“The 9 billion-people question”, The Economist 24th Febr. 2011. Web. 5-03-2011.

Tudge, Colin. “Can Organic Farming Feed the World?” July 12th 2005. Web. 4-29-2011.

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