Can Organic Food Feed the World?

Catherine Badgley says it’s our best hope; Steve Savage says the yields are too low.

     While still a tiny portion of food production overall, organic products have gotten more space on supermarket shelves in recent years. Stores and restaurants that specialize in organic food have grown in popularity. Farmers and others who grow and process organics have been reporting big increases in demand and sales.

     Some think organic one day could replace conventional agriculture. But do the technological limits that define organic farming—no synthetic fertilizers, irradiation or genetic engineering, for starters—leave it less room for growth?

     Backers of conventional agriculture say they have the same goals as organic farmers, including better environmental stewardship. But they add that their ideas aren’t constrained by a particular philosophy or by definitions.

     Meanwhile, both sides must balance concerns about the environment and health with realities of the market in a race to find solutions that will feed more people with limited resources. And ultimately, which type of farming prevails could depend not just on science, but on taste.

     Catherine Badgley, an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, makes the case that organic food can feed the world. Arguing against that is Steve Savage, who consults for the agricultural industry and also writes about food and farming.


Our Current Global Food System Does a Lot of Harm

By Catherine Badgley

     The global food system is at the root of many environmental and health crises. Synthetic fertilizers cause dead zones in our oceans. Fossil fuels hasten global warming while enabling harvests of wasteful and unhealthy foods. Mechanized, industrial farms decimate rural employment and lead to misuse of vital resources on a massive scale.

     Organic farming can reduce these problems, grow enough food for the world and provide robust economic returns. There are already millions of small and midsize organic farms world-wide. Sales of organic food and beverages grew fivefold between 1999 and 2013, according to the Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL.

Carbon capture

     Organic farming rejects synthetic biocides and fertilizers. It uses plant diversity and natural ingredients to fight pests, replenish nutrients in the soil and suppress weeds.       Organically grown crops require less fossil fuel than industrially grown crops.  They also can remove carbon from the atmosphere at higher rates than conventionally grown crops and return it to the soil, where it promotes crop growth.

     There can be trade-offs. Biocides, whether from natural or synthetic ingredients, may have troublesome side effects. Copper fungicides (approved for organic use) can be toxic to the plants they are intended to protect. Azoxystrobin (not approved) might require fewer applications but is toxic to aquatic organisms.

      A common misconception is that animal manures are the primary source of fertilizer, especially nitrogen, for organic farms. Many additional fertility sources are widely used, including legumes, free-living bacteria, composted plants and pond mud.

     Yields are the most contentious issue. When the same products are grown, organic yields are 8% to 19% lower on average than conventional-farming yields, depending on the cropping system, according to scientists at the University of California, Berkeley.      Organic could achieve greater yields if it received government research funding on a par with support for conventional farming. In the U.S., less than 2% of the Department of Agriculture budget for research, extension and education supports research in certified organic farming.

     But the gap in yields is not an obstacle to feeding the world. We currently grow far more food than is necessary. Only 43% of the cereal grains grown world-wide becomes food for people; 35% becomes livestock feed, and 10% goes to biofuels, high-fructose corn syrup and other processed products. One-third of food produced for human consumption, meanwhile, is wasted. By reducing waste and prioritizing crops as food, organic could feed the world even with lower yields.

More profitable

     Organic foods may cost more than conventionally grown, but they’re more profitable for farmers when price premiums are charged. With premiums, the benefit/cost ratios are 20% to 24% higher than for the same foods produced by conventional methods, according to scientists from Washington State University. For cereal grains and oilseed crops, which provide more than half of our daily food calories, the benefit/cost ratios are about 40% higher.

     The higher prices reflect actual costs in terms of labor and environmental benefits. As a culture, we should adjust to paying the true cost of food that benefits the soil and biodiversity, provides jobs and supports social interactions between farmers and consumers. People with low incomes could have access through support programs. If we factored into the price of conventionally grown food the externalities for the environment and public health, and the subsidies, it would cost as much as organic food.

     Adherence to ecological and social principles doesn’t limit the ability of organic farmers to innovate. Organic growers assess innovations based on which agricultural problems they solve and whether benefits are widely distributed or concentrated in the hands of powerful agribusinesses.

Dr. Badgley is an associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology and the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative at the University of Michigan. 

SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal 


Organic’s Yields Are Too Low; It Limits Innovation

By Steve Savage

     There are many reasons why organic-only agriculture will never feed the world.

     Let’s start with yields. Studies have shown that organic yields are lower than yields of conventional farming. Detailed survey data from the National                                         Agricultural Statistics Service for 2011 shows that for organic farming to equal conventional farming’s production of 14 staple, human-focused food crops in the U.S., 14.5 million more acres would be required—an area roughly equal to all of the farmland in Indiana.  Extrapolate that to the world, and it’s easy to see there is no possibility of an organic-only food supply.

Conventional crutch

     Much of organic agriculture as it is currently practiced is dependent on conventional crop and livestock farming. In an exception to the “all-natural” philosophy, many organic farms fertilize with manures and composts that come from conventionally raised animals fed conventional crops. Thus much of the nitrogen the organic farms are using was originally generated as “synthetic nitrogen” that has since passed through the animals. Without this nitrogen supply, organic scale would be even more limited.

     More significantly, when it does follow its own philosophy, organic farming sometimes limits itself in terms of productivity and innovation. Consider the use of fungicides. Organic farms often use copper-based fungicides, which must be applied at high rates and reapplied frequently. In organic fruit and vegetable crops, pest control, too, often involves sulfur, coppers or biological pesticides, which require many more tractor trips to deliver than their conventional-farming equivalents, thus increasing carbon in the atmosphere. 

     There are safe, federally approved chemicals that can be used at lower application rates; azoxystrobin, for example. But rules governing organic practice exclude them.

     While the organic movement is growing, let’s not overstate its size or success in the marketplace. The proportion of fresh produce marketed directly and/or locally may involve a great many farms but little volume. 

     An academic study by Washington State University that showed organic farming to be more profitable than conventional farming did not reflect many of the real conditions under which organic farms operate. The study was based on small plots and failed to take into account many of the economic drivers that limit profitability of farms—such as the availability of labor, land leasing arrangements, as well as biological and market risks.

     Claims that organic farming helps capture carbon in the ground and fights global warming are overblown as well. Most of that claimed carbon storage is in systems involving massive compost additions. Methane emissions during composting generate a huge carbon footprint that more than negates any sequestration benefit.

     Organic advocates say government research funds have favored conventional over organic methods, but public spending priorities should be driven by sound science, not philosophical or marketing issues.

Indoor systems

     Ideally we will meet the growing global demand for food in ways that are best for human safety, the planet and farmers’ economic viability. But organic was never designed to optimize those triple-best goals. Indeed, the rules that circumscribe organic farming make it difficult or impossible for farmers to employ many cutting-edge, sustainable farming practices.  These include minimum-tillage row-crop farming and delivery of just the right amount of fertilizers through drip irrigation. Some specialty crops can be grown at an ultra-local scale using hydroponic, LED-light-based, indoor systems.

     If we want a sufficient and sustainable food-production system, we should encourage all of the best innovations. Using genetic engineering, a key pest-resistance gene could be moved from a wild version of a crop to a commercially useful version in as little as five years, depending on the species. To accomplish that through organically approved plant breeding might take decades.

Dr. Savage consults for the agricultural industry and also writes about food and farming.