Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

Is it possible to feed the world’s growing population primarily on organic production methods? This was a question we received from The Food Dialogues so we asked Dr. Robert Paarlberg, the Betty Freyhof Johnson Class of 1944 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, to respond.

Dr. Paarlberg, author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010, Oxford University Press),wrote on page 147:

It is no longer possible to feed the world with organic farming systems that exclude the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. In the past century the population of the earth has increased from 1.6 billion to more than 6 billion, and these larger numbers have been fed thanks to the higher crop yields made possible by synthetic nitrogen (since the 1930s, wheat yields in conventional farming have doubled). Vaclav Smil, an agronomist from the University of Manitoba, calculates that synthetic fertilizers currently supply about 40 percent of all the nitrogen used by crops around the world. Smil calculates that to replace this synthetic nitrogen with organic nitrogen would require the manure production of approximately 7-8 billion additional cattle, roughly a five-fold increase from the current number of 1.3 billion.  He says the United States alone would have to accept nearly one billion additional animals and an added two billion acres of forage crops to feed those animals, equal to all the land in America except Alaska. Currently in the United States, less than 1 percent of cropped land is certified organic. Certified organic corn producers in the United States get yields only 75% as high as non-organic producers. Organic production methods require significantly more land and labor than non-organic methods.

Advocates for organic farming, such as the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), do not address the problem this way. They assert that organic practices can increase yields, based on farming projects they have carried out in some of the world’s hungriest regions, such as Africa.  Organic methods do produce yield gains in Africa, if compared to no improved methods at all, but in Africa the most productive methods for restoring soil nutrients usually include a combination of both organic matter and synthetic nitrogen, and the organic standard makes such combinations impossible to use.  Organic farming has expanded in Africa recently, but mostly to supply export markets (certified organic products destined for supermarkets in Europe) rather than to provide for local food consumption.

We asked Dr. Paarlberg a few more questions about organic farming.

Why does organic farming require more land and labor?

Dr. Paarlberg:

They require more land because average organic yields are lower than non-organic yields, so to produce the same amount, you need more land. And, it requires more labor because soil nutrient treatments on organic farms require a number of different steps – composting animal manure, for example, or mulching to control weeds, a number of labor-intensive steps that aren’t required in conventional farming.

What are some of the pros and cons of organic farming?

Dr. Paarlberg:

Organic prevents you from using some of the techniques that do the best job of preserving the environment. Because organic yields are lower, you have to use more land to get the same amount of food, and that takes land away from the environment – you have to cut more trees, or plow up more land, or disturb more wildlife habitat. Second, if you’re an organic grower, it’s much more difficult for you to adopt no-till farming practices. No-till farming is the best method of protecting the soil, of conserving soil moisture, sequestering carbon and avoiding soil erosion. No-till farming works best if you’re using crops such as Roundup Ready soybeans, for example, where you can control weeds by spraying glyphosate. If you’re not able to use no-till farming, you end up tilling the soil and using more diesel fuel, which reduces soil moisture and promotes more soil erosion. Finally, if you are using a certified organic system, you are not permitted to plant any genetically-engineered seeds. Some of the genetically-engineered seeds now on the market such as Bt corn and Bt cotton allow farmers to control insect damage without spraying any insecticide. Some organic methods of pest control put naturally occurring insecticides in the field that can harm non-target insects as well as target insects. The organic standard limits the things you can do to protect the environment.

Click to hear Dr. Paarlberg’s comments about fertilizer.

black and white world” by Hans Splintermizo is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.