The organic industry is often asked, “but can organics feed the world?”
The question seems to imply that “organic” is a warm and fuzzy idea or a trendy menu item, but certainly not a realistic system for addressing world hunger.
As the world population hits seven billion, perhaps it is time to give the question serious thought.
Yield is usually the first concern.
Many studies comparing organic and non-organic production systems have found that yields are similar. Sometimes organic production is a bit greater; sometimes, a bit less.
In general, organic production is furthest ahead in smaller scale systems, vegetable production, diverse systems, resource poor systems and peasant agriculture. Organic yields are often less for large scale mono-cultures.
Organic agriculture emphasizes biological soil fertility, microbial diversity, increasing organic matter and the use of composts, green manures and animal manures. This is especially beneficial for depleted soil, helping it to become more resilient in the face of climate change.
Biological methods are also more affordable for peasant farmers than are agrichemicals. A recent report from the ETC Group indicates that at least 70 percent of the world’s population is fed by peasants.
What about the other 30 percent, those fed by industrial agriculture?
Reduced yields here need not signal an increase in hunger, but it may necessitate a change in the way we think about our food.
For instance, studies suggest that in industrial countries, up to 40 percent of our food is wasted. Reducing waste could be as beneficial as increasing yields.
Of course, yield is not the whole answer. People go hungry in countries that export food. Poverty causes more starvation than true scarcity. Feeding the world includes making food affordable and accessible. This is best done by supporting peasants that provide food in local self sustaining communities.
Peasants lose land to single commodity agriculture for export, often because governments need exports to provide money to pay debts. Reducing our support for these commodities, perhaps even forgiving some international debt, may allow more peasants to stay on the land.
In rich countries, we think of organic foods as more costly because they tend to reap a premium. This is partly a reflection of supply and demand, with higher prices for organic products because they are less abundant and more desirable. Extra costs are also needed to cover the extra management required.
The extra costs of non-organic production are less obvious. For instance, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers come with an environmental cost in
terms of greenhouse gas emissions, energy use and runoff into streams and rivers.
Costs for organic, pasture-raised meat are generally much higher than those for industrial meat. Intensive livestock operations are based on rapidly converting cheap grain into cheap meat.
Costs such as pollution of land, water and air are not paid as part of the price of a burger or nugget.
It takes longer, and thus is more expensive, to raise an animal on pasture. Some animals, such as cattle, are healthiest when grazing. Other animals, such as pigs and poultry, may need some grain, but they still benefit from forage and foraging. This takes time and management, and thus is costly.
So can organic feed the world? Can it produce enough food, cheaply enough that everyone can be fed? Perhaps the question is so difficult to answer in part because it depends on so many interactions.
Can organic production help improve soil and yields in the small scale peasant holdings that feed most of the world? It seems so.
Can organic production be part of export commodity agriculture? Certainly, but further research and additional techniques may be necessary to bring yields in line with non-organic production.
Can organic systems provide the entire world with $1 burgers and nuggets? Not likely. Can the industrial food system continue to produce these indefinitely? Not without environmental consequences.
Can organic production be part of a food system that provides enough quality food for seven or more billion people? Yes.
As we try to feed more people with less environmental damage, less waste, more diversity and better resilience, organic production methods will be part of that solution.
Nov 19: Alberta Organic Producers Association annual general meeting, Namao, Alta., Kathy, 780-939-5808
Nov 22: Be Prepared for the Global Organic Market, Toronto, Julia, firstname.lastname@example.org
Feb 15-19: Biofach trade show, Nuremberg, Germany, Julia, email@example.com
Brenda Frick, Ph. D., P. Ag. is an extension agrologist and researcher in organic agriculture. She welcomes your comments at 306-260-0663 or email