Can organic farming feed the world?

This is a question that comes up on a regular basis in any discussion about organic farming – and its a good question.  The usual assumption is that this is a rhetorical question – of course it can’t!  How could a system of food production which eschews the use of chemical fertilizers hope to produce the same yield as conventional farming?  However, scratch the surface of the issue and things start to look a little different:  The truth is we are not really feeding the word today.  Despite full-on commercial farming techniques used in many parts of the world, something like a billion people suffer hunger and food shortages on a regular basis.  Although at present a poor harvest in one of the major food-producing regions of the world is balanced up by production from other areas, were we to have a series of below-par harvests across several regions, we could be in trouble.  The high price of wheat and other agricultural commodities in recent years is one indication that the era of massive over-production is over.  So here follows a few key points that should be considered in this debate:

  • organic food is often derided as being poncey “pesticide-free food for the concerned middle classes”, but it is in fact sustainably-produced food, based on a system of rules, regulations and guidelines which are designed to ensure that food is grown in a planet-friendly way.
  • Yes, the headline yield from organic farming is lower than what can be achieved by full-on conventional techniques, BUT in terms of energy efficiency, organic substantially outperforms conventional production, i.e. it produces more calories of food per calorie of energy input.  In terms of this blog which examines the implications of future energy supplies, we know we are facing an energy constrained future, and therefore a system of farming which produces more food from less inputs must have a significant part to play.
  • Substantial amounts of cereals, soya and other products are consumed by livestock to produce meat, eggs and dairy products – an inefficient use of resources.  If we reduced the amount of meat in our diet, or switched to eating grass-fed beef and lamb instead of cereal-fed pork and chicken, this would substantially reduce the pressure on global food supplies.
  • Large acreages globally are used to grow tobacco and crops used to produce alcohol.  Reduced smoking and alcohol consumption would boost the land available for food production.

So can organic farming feed the world?  I don’t think that organic certification will increase much beyond it’s current acreage, however the techniques that are part of organic production will, I believe, be increasingly seen to be the answer to many of the problems we face:  Better use of organic material to improve soils; use of green manure crops to fix nitrogen and reduce leaching; mixed farms with mutually-beneficial interactions between different enterprises; direct relationships between the producer and consumers of food.  In the future we will very likely be eating less meat, more seasonal produce, more local produce, and most importantly food we have produced ourselves – in gardens, on allotments, and in a thousand other places urban or rural.  And if the world’s 1.7 billion Christians led the way by doing that now, it would make an incredible difference to our food landscape.

Andy

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