One of the biggest criticisms I hear about organic food is that it can’t feed us all.
The world’s population will exceed 9 billion by 2050, the argument goes, and even today we have 1 billion people starving. Organic yields are lower than conventional yields, they say, and so if we hope to increase production we need to do it with conventional farming, particularly with genetically modified foods.
The argument was very typically represented in a recent piece on American Public Media’s Marketplace. Marketplace quoted several players in the food industry arguing that the future calls for more conventional farming. Pedro Sanchez of Columbia University says, “There are just too many of us [for organic farming to feed]; we just need too many nutrients.” Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, adds, “organic production tends to have somewhat lower yields compared to non-organics. It’s not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.”
And there you have it, the argument in full: We’ll need to feed 2 billion more people in 40 years, and we can’t do it with organic farming if its yields are lower than conventional farming.
But it’s an argument I have a tough time swallowing.
First of all, organic yields are not much lower than conventional yields, and over time, they’ve been shown in multiple studies to actually increase yields. The year you convert a conventional farm to organic you’re going to see lower yields. But over time organic farming adds topsoil, makes the soil richer and creates a more drought- and pest-resistant environment for plants to grow. Yields will depend on many factors, including what you’re planting, where you’re planting it, and how you’re planting it; but it’s not at all clear to me that in the long run organic yields have to be lower than conventional yields.
Second, in the long run, conventional farming is no sustainable, period. It relies on fossil fuels for fertilizers and pesticides, and fossil fuels are finite. We run out of fossil fuels, we run out of fertilizers and pesticides, we run out of food. How is that more sustainable than organic farming?
Third, even if organic yields were lower in the long run than conventional yields, and even if projections are correct that we’ll have 2 billion more mouths to feed, does that mean we have to abandon organic agriculture? There are many ways to relieve a given problem, and the mere existence of a problem doesn’t mean we have to give in on all of our values in order to resolve it. The Soviet Union was a giant problem, but we didn’t have to nuke them to make it go away. The Ku Klux Klan was a major problem, but we didn’t curtail freedom of speech to shut them up. We did intern Japanese Americans during World War II, and we’ve regretted it ever since. Maybe there was a better way?
And maybe there are other ways to feed the world. Let’s take a couple. One, eat a little less meat. It takes ten calories of corn to produce one calorie of beef. If I eat a corn-based dinner instead of a beef-based dinner, I’m feeding nine other people corn, in addition to myself. But our population challenge doesn’t ask me to do that. Adding 2 billion people to a population of 7 billion people is like asking me to feed a quarter of a person in addition to myself. But I’ve just fed nine of them. This means I don’t even have to give up beef; I can just give it up one meal a week. Voila, problem solved, and without giving in to chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Two, stop mandating the use of ethanol. One third of U.S. corn production goes into our gas tanks. Stop doing that, and you feed a heck of a lot of people. Sure, you’ll need to use more fossil fuel (or find some other source of energy). But you can find more than enough by stopping conventional agriculture and converting to organic. 20% of the fossil fuel we use in the U.S. is burned in producing and distributing our food. 40% of that is used in producing and using fossil fuel based fertilizers. Cut that out and you don’t need the ethanol.
See, two solutions already and we haven’t had to sacrifice organic farming. (In fact, organic farming has helped us to realize one of these solutions.) Now, I’m not saying we have to eat less meat. I’m not saying we have to stop using ethanol. These are just two alternative solutions off the top of my head. But I am saying, I can assure you, we can feed the world with organic food. We may have to make some other changes, but these changes may even be aided (as with ceasing ethanol production) by the very conversion to organic food.
So take the message with a grain of salt when you hear someone question whether organic food can feed the world. It’s unusual that we have to rule something out in order to solve a problem we have 40 years to solve. Particularly when that something tends to ease many of the other problems (pollution, climate change, energy consumption) the world is facing today.
Do you think organic farming can feed the world?