Can Organic Farming "Feed the World"?
By Christos Vasilikiotis, Ph.D.
The legacy of Industrial Agriculture
With the world population passing the 6 billion mark last October, the debate over our ability to sustain a fast growing population is heating up. Biotechnology advocates in particular are becoming very vocal in their claim that there is no alternative to using genetically modified crops in agriculture if "we want to feed the world". Actually, that quote might be true. It depends what they mean by "we." It's true if the "we can feed the world" refers to the agribusiness industry, which has brought the world to the brink of food disaster and is looking for a way out. Biotech just may be their desperation move. "We'll starve without biotech," is the title of an opinion piece by Martina McGloughlin, Director of the Biotechnology program at the University of California, Davis. Could be. Modern industrial agricultural — which forms the foundation for biotech — ranks as such a dismal failure that even Monsanto holds them up as the evil alternative.
"The commercial industrial technologies that are used in agriculture today to feed the world... are not inherently sustainable," Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro told the Greenpeace Business Conference recently. "They have not worked well to promote either self-sufficiency or food security in developing countries." Feeding the world sustainably "is out of the question with current agricultural practice," Shapiro told the Society of Environmental Journalists in 1995. "Loss of topsoil, of salinity of soil as a result of irrigation, and ultimate reliance on petrochemicals... are, obviously, not renewable. That clearly isn't sustainable."
Shapiro is referring to the 30-year-old "Green Revolution" which has featured an industrial farming system that biotech would build on: the breeding of new crop varieties that could effectively use massive inputs of chemical fertilizers, and the use of toxic pesticides. As Shapiro has hinted, it has led to some severe environmental consequences, including loss of topsoil, decrease in soil fertility, surface and ground water contamination, and loss of genetic diversity.
Do we really need to embark upon another risky technological fix to solve the mistakes of a previous one? Instead, we should be looking for solutions that are based on ecological and biological principles and have significantly fewer environmental costs. There is such an alternative that has been pioneered by organic farmers. In contrast to the industrial/monoculture approach advocated by the biotech industry, organic agriculture is described by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) as "a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity."
Despite the lack of support from government and university extension services in the US, consumer demand for organic products is driving the organic movement ahead at a 20% annual rate of market growth, primarily with the help of an increasing consumer demand for organic products. The amount of certified organic agricultural land increased from 914,800 acres in 1995 to 1.5 million in 1997, a jump of more than 60% in just two years.
Not surprisingly, agribusiness conglomerates and their supporters dismiss organic farming, claiming it produces yields too low to feed a growing world population. Dennis Avery, an economist at the Hudson Institute — funded by Monsanto, Du Pont, Dow, and Novartis among others — had this to say in a recent ABC News' 20/20 broadcast. "If overnight all our food supply were suddenly organic, to feed today's population we'd have plowed down half of the world's land area not under ice to get organic food ... because organic farmers waste so much land. They have to because they lose so much of their crop to weeds and insects." In fact, as a number of studies attest, organic farming methods can produce higher yields than conventional methods. Moreover, a worldwide conversion to organic has the potential to increase food production levels -- not to mention reversing the degradation of agricultural soils and increase soil fertility and health.
Comparisons of organic and conventional chemical farming systems
A survey of recent studies comparing the productivity of organic practices to conventional agriculture provides an excellent example of the wide range of benefits we can expect from a conversion to sustainable agricultural methods. The results clearly show that organic farming accomplishes many of the FAO’s sustainability aims, as well as showing promise in increasing food production ability.
- Sustainable Agriculture Farming Systems project (SFAS) at UC, Davis.
An ongoing long-term comparison study, SFAS is an interdisciplinary project that compares conventional farming systems with alternative production systems that promote sustainable agriculture.
The study examines four farming systems that differ in crop rotation design and material input use: a 2-year and a 4-year rotation conventional system, an organic and a low-input system.
Results from the first 8 years of the project show that the organic and low-input systems had yields comparable to the conventional systems in all crops which were tested - tomato, safflower, corn and bean, and in some instances yielding higher than conventional systems (Clark, 1999a). Tomato yields in the organic system were lower in the first three years, but reached the levels of the conventional tomatoes in the subsequent years and had a higher yield during the last year of the experiment (80 t/ha in the organic compared to 68 t/ha in the conventional in 1996). Corn production in the organic system had a higher variability than conventional systems, with lower yields in some years and higher in others.
Both organic and low-input systems resulted in increases in the organic carbon content of the soil and larger pools of stored nutrients, each of which are critical for long-term fertility maintenance (Clark, 1998). The most important limiting factor in the organic system appeared to be nitrogen availability (Clark 1999b). The organic system relied mainly on cover crops and composted poultry manure for fertilization. One possible explanation for a lower availability in the organic system, is that high carbon inputs associated with nitrogen to build soil organic matter, thus reducing nitrogen availability for the organic crops. During the latter 2 years of the experiment, soil organic matter levels appeared to be stabilized resulting in more nitrogen availability. This was in agreement with the higher yields of organic crops that were observed during those last two years. The organic systems were found to be more profitable in both corn and tomato among the 4-year rotations mainly due to the higher price premiums (Clark, 1999b).
- Farming Systems Trial at the Rodale Institute — Soybean study.
Initiated in 1981, the Farming Systems Trial compares intensive soybean and maize production under a conventional and two organic management farming systems.
The first organic cropping system simulates a traditional integrated farming system. Leguminous cover crops are fed to cattle and the resulting manure is applied to the fields as the main source of nitrogen. In the second organic system, the leguminous cover crops were incorporated in to the soil as the source for nitrogen before corn or soybean planting.
Corn yields were comparable in all three cropping systems (less than 1% difference) (Drinkwater, 1998). However, a comparison of soil characteristics during a 15-year period found that soil fertility was enhanced in the organic systems, while it decreased considerably in the conventional system. Nitrogen content and organic matter levels in the soil increased markedly in the manure—fertilized organic system and declined in the conventional system. Moreover, the conventional system had the highest environmental impact, where 60% more nitrate was leached into the groundwater over a 5 year period than in the organic systems (Drinkwater, 1998).