Can Organic Feed the World: Part One The claims and a review of agricultural research


by and for Stoney Acres Farm

From the early nineties until the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008 the organic food market has been booming, with organic product sales growing by 20% per year and organic acreage growing 14.3 percent. Despite the current economic crisis organic agriculture continues to grow. Total U.S. organic sales, including food and non-food products, were $26.6 billion in 2009, up 5.3 percent from 2008 according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2010 Organic Industry Survey. In the past 10 years organic has increasingly become mainstreamed with more consumers demanding more products and more farmers finding supportive stable markets and other benefits with this method of agriculture. With increasing popularity, organic methods challenge the status quo as they offer a viable alternative to chemical dependant agriculture and the factory farming of livestock. This challenge raises questions about environmental sustainability, human health, and the quality of life in rural communities. In response, defenders of industrial agriculture have addressed this threat by feeding the public a diet of misleading and inaccurate statements, claiming, among other things, that organic farming offers no real benefits and organic products are no better than industrially produced foods. Beyond many baseless claims, one of the most common attacks is that “organics will starve us or starve the poor,” as this niche could not possibly produce enough food to feed the world without factory farm efficiency and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. We are particularly interested in looking into this claim. Can organic feed the world? We plan to look at yield based studies this week, and to focus on studies which look more closely at long term impacts of industrial versus organic systems next week. From what we have read it appears that organic methods can feed us.

Several recent national and international studies have helped to answer this question with their comparisons of conventional and organic methodology and their subsequent yields. In plain yield based terms, in short term trials it appears that organic agriculture is similarly productive on a national level, and in poorer areas can be much more productive. Research conducted by the UN Environment Program found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming and suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings with it. An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. That increase in yield jumped to 128 per cent in east Africa.

Nationally, the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WICST) project recently concluded 13 years of research comparing conventional and organic crop yields in the southern part of the state. According to the results, which were published in the Agronomy Journal organic systems produced corn and soybeans 90 percent to 98 percent as well as conventional systems. An analyses of similar field trial studies done during the past several years in Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Michigan shows that on average organic and low-chemical corn yields were 98 percent to 114 percent of conventional corn yields; soybean yields under sustainable systems averaged 94 percent to 111 percent of their conventional counterparts. However, organic systems can be particularly vulnerable to wet conditions early in the season. Since organic systems cannot utilize herbicides, they must rely on mechanical weed control such as rotary hoeing to control weeds. If excessive wet weather at the wrong times of the year makes it difficult to get weed-killing steel out in the field, yields suffer. Field trials show that when weather conditions prevent good mechanical weed control, corn and soybean yields average about 74 percent of their conventional counterparts.

Another issue in yield comparisons has to do with rotation as most organic systems are more complex than the corn-soy rotations that have come to dominate so much of conventional agriculture. A study at the USDA-ARS Beltsville Farming Systems Project and published in The Agronomy Journal revealed that in a traditional corn-soybean rotation organic yields were 76-82% of conventional, but when a more complex organic rotation of corn, soybean, wheat, and hay were used the result was a 30% increase in yields which were essentially the same as conventional if not better.

To conclusively answer the original question Professor Ivette Perfecto and colleagues, at the University of Michigan's school of Natural Resources and Environment, analyzed published studies on yields from organic farming. They looked at 293 different examples. "Model estimates indicate that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base," they wrote in their July 2007  report, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. Beyond the question of yield, is what is necessary to achieve those yields and the different methodologies impact on the land and broader environment so we can continue to be feed in the long term. Stay tuned, we will examine these questions next week.