living underground in the real world

Can organic farming feed the world?

I got into a Twitter discussion that evolved out of my Guardian piece about whether or not organic farming can feed the world. I used all my points up and my fellow Tweetie Bird was not convinced, so rather than do my own research, I asked some of my smart farmer friends what they thought.

Here are their responses, which are about 50,000 times too long for Twitter.

I am now going to brunch, then to body board all day in the beach that overlooks the mountains. Oh, life!

David from Permacyclists (click that link, it’s good!): 

For the health benefits bit, these things are so hard to establish that I personally don’t worry too much about it – I agree with what you said, the health of the workers and the planet is important, and it’s undoubtedly better with organic farming. 

I don’t think he’s right though that organic is only good for resource-rich areas of the world though. I don’t understand at all why that would be the case, in fact. Industrial farming is far more resource-intensive than organic farming. Also, industrial farming only works in areas of the world with strong rich soils. It is so destructive of the soil that only areas with incredible amounts of pre-existing topsoil can continue applying those products for any sustained amount of time. In places like Africa, where soils are generally poorer relative to Europe and the US, industrial farming has been a debacle, and erosion has destroyed tremendous amounts of farm land. Harvests go down after a few years unless increasing amounts of fertilizer are applied. If anything, organic agriculture, which builds healthy soil, should be seen as essential for areas of the world with poor soils.

Not to mention that in areas without many resources, becoming dependent on agribusiness in order to produce your food hasn’t exactly been a blessing. 

But that’s just me rambling – why take my word for it? In 2008, the UN issued a report titled “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa” (for download here:http://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/2306) concluding:

“The evidence presented in this study supports the argument that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term. This is in line with the findings of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, held in May 2007. Therefore, we encourage policymakers and development cooperation partners in Africa and around the world to take a new look at this promising production system with fresh eyes. It offers not only improved food security, but also an array of other economic, environmental, health and social benefits.”

DM:

I’m an organic believer, for sure. But actually participating in organic agriculture has made me realize its challenges, acutely. Asking a farmer to switch to organic methods means asking the farmer to increase his risk in the operation immensely. The most challenging part of being in farming isn’t the labor or the sweat or anything: it’s the risk that should the weather or bugs not cooperate, she or he has no income, despite doing everything “right.” (Yes, chemicals increase cost, but they generally mean guaranteed crops.) In developed countries, CSAs and higher price points for organic produce buffer this risk. In the developing world, unless a farmer is growing for export to richer nations, the premium on organic produce is much less or nil. I certainly believe that organic methods can feed the world. I think the problem is one of capitalism and entrenched interests (in the US, for example, why does the Farm Bill create an enormous command economy for the growing of certain crops (i.e., corn and soybeans) while giving piddly token grants to cover papework costs for those converting to organic?).

Sorry–that probably doesn’t help your argument, but maybe it adds some insight to the whole discussion? Sometimes I think when people say that organic farming “can’t feed the world,” they’re not talking about the limits of soil resources or anything. They’re really saying that chemicals can fend off major crop losses, which means guaranteed food, which means everyone eats and farmers stay in farming. The alternative is a social safety net for farmers and loads of education on successful organic techniques, which is a lot more complicated than a bottle of RoundUp.

SG:
Take a look at Cuba. When they were cut off from the world’s oil and technology supplies, they were forced to feed their entire, extremely impoverished country on exclusively organic farming.
My understanding is that the biggest barrier to food access are contracts that exist between the World Bank and IMF and giant, global corporations such as Cargill and Nestlé who have paid billions for exclusive rights to those supply lines.
JS:
Cuba imports 80% of their food, according to National Geographic. So if anything, its proved just the opposite. To me this is a MASSIVE problem that doesn’t have a straight answer. I like to believe that organic food can feed the world, but I don’t know. The problems with food politics that gets in the way of keeping people fed is land grabs, desertification, commerce, weather patterns/global warming, wars, import/export etc etc. Its soooo complex in my eyes. Even just food deserts in our cities. Yeah, I want those people to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and there are small things that can be done to improve but what is the real concrete economic solution? I really like listening to economic podcasts and there have been really strong arguments saying that organic food cannot feed the world. Good luck Lagusta! I am rooting for you on this one, but I am not sure for myself the right answers. I DO think access to clean water is more of an important (probably not the right choice of word!)problem .
SG: 
Cuba’s Organic Revolution.
That link might not work, but I’m unable to find your source for the 80% figure you site. In any event, your argument isn’t saying that organic food can’t feed the world, but that current economic factors prohibit us from doing so, which is a much more surmountable problem than saying “we will never have the soil or technology to move away from pesticides.”
I also believe that clean water and use of industrial fertilizers are a conjoined issue and a move toward organic farming and away from factory animal production will go a long way toward addressing that issue as well.
JS:
I’m not arguing anything other than it’s a hard argument on either side. Here’s the article I read the 80% in: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/11/new-cuba/gorney-text.
And here’s another. When I find facts (especially on this here internet thing, I like to back it up a few times, cause ANYONE CAN POST ANYTHING ! :http://www.ats-sea.agr.gc.ca/lat/4678-eng.htm
JS2 (A different JS from the one above)
One word.. Quinoa! It can grow pretty much anywhere in any type of environment and it’s a nutritional powerhouse.
MT: 
No help on that primary question, but I assume he was talking about that Stanford study that made headlines… and a lot of people found that to pretty deeply flawed or at least spun wrong by the media.
That Flawed Stanford Study
SG:
That NatGeo article is fascinating! I can’t believe I missed it! I think we are still arguing two different points. One is whether organic farming methods are globally applicable to solve the current/future food crisis. Whether or not we can even grow the amount of food the world needs without pesticides and petroleum fertilizers.

The other is whether current economic policies and practices are set up in such a way as to allow food to reach the people who need it. I think the answer to the first question is becoming clearer, and I believe that given massive alterations to the current supply chain, as addressed by the second question, we can make meaningful strides.
But I also thought we were all supposed to be eating algae by 2050, so…
EE:
You know, as we drove past the Monsanto trial fields yesterday, I thought, “All those people out there probably think they are saving the world.” But really, it’s all about the money. We could be developing technology and breeding veggies that thrive in poor conditions (or bringing back the foods that were destroyed by commercial agriculture) but we are not. The argument that organic ag is just for rich areas is short sided. Follow the money. It leads right chemical heavy agriculture.
Yeah. J and I always have a depressing meta-discussion about GMOs every time we drive out there. I saw a sign the other day advertising work in the Syngenta fields- $10 an hour with some benefits and holidays. Not amazing, but in this economy, I bet people are fighting for those jobs.
Anyway, I’m learning so much from this thread, thank you all! Keep it rollin!
MT: 
This is all such a complicated issue for me, since the line between positive and negative innovation can be pretty fuzzy and often only gets clear in hindsight. Like the line between crops bred for hundreds of years to have the qualities we want vs. GMOs. A lot of ancient farming techniques SUCKED for the environment, and tech plays a role especially if we want some regions to have locally produced food. But it does seem like when it comes to spraying substances designed to kill life (pesticides) that the burden of proof is on showing them to be safe and necessary.
SZ: 
Another issue to think about is, What kind of food we want to feed the world. Its not too hard to grow enough beans to supply a family with all if its protein needs for a year, but it’s a lot harder to grow all the corn to feed the cows they eat and to sweeten the soda they drink. Often when people talk about feeding the world, they are not talking about feeding the world on a subsistence diet, they are talking about feeding the world on a corn and meat rich american diet.
Lagusta:
Yeah–that’s what I don’t get about meat eaters who say “There isn’t enough land to feed a vegetarian planet.” BUT COWS ARE VEGETARIANS???!!!! It’s so weird to me.
SZ:
And cows are way less efficient at converting crop land to calories than people are. Cows are good at turning non-cropable land into calories though because they can graze in places where we could never grow beans.
Lagusta:
Ah yeah, that’s what the meaties have said to me, I remember it now.
SZ:
Also, back to the microcosm of Kauai (SZ and EE and I are all on Kauai right now, home to both the most beautiful sights you’ve ever seen…and GMO test fields ringing one entire side of the island.), all of the agricultural lands are owned by large ranchers who will only issue leases to well capitalized “farmers.” The only farmers who meet this definition are the Monsanto’s and Syngenta’s of the world. If our land ownership and banking systems continue to make it difficult for small scale organic farmers to buy, or even lease land, then OG will never be able to feed the world simply due to lack of land – as evidenced by the fact that Kauai, the Garden Isle, must import 90% of its food. Also, as DW mentioned above, conventional farming is heavily heavily heavily subsidized. It escaped much notice or discussion that had Congress failed to renew any sort of Farm bill we would of gone off of a so called Dairy Cliff. This would have resulted in a doubling of milk and dairy prices overnight – not because conventional ag got more expensive but because the subsidies would have disappeared. This brings the absurdity of our subsidy program into sharp relief. OG milk costs about $5 a half gallon – this is grass fed – while conventional milk would have cost just as much if subsidies fell away.
Lagusta:
HOW FUCKING SMART ARE MY FRIENDS, DUDES??
Jesus! I’m dying they’re so smart!
Anyway, I’ll update this as more discussion happens. Now: discuss in the comments!

9 Responses to “Can organic farming feed the world?”

  1. darwinart

    Hi, everyone. I’m that tweeter with the silly questions. First, I have to say that I’m surprised, flattered, impressed and quite scared by the depth, thoroughness and clarity of the above discussion. There really is so much we agree on. I think some of the posts go a little off topic, but I’m thrilled to see such an honest dialog. The biggest problem here, for me, is that there are projections, such as there’s no way organic has the yield to feed the world (http://nutritionwonderland.com/2009/12/the-truth-about-organic-farming/), and the above posts projecting the opposite, but surely these are very difficult projections to make either way. After half a lifetime of organic living, I’m up on the fence, looking over to the other side, and you haven’t yet persuaded me to climb back down to your side (I’ll go over your points again).
    Lagusta, what do you make of all this?
    All super interesting, and many thanks for being all so rational and smart.
    Oh there are so many good points to address, I’ll have to post again later!

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Well this discussion has taught me a lot.

      I haven’t changed any of my core beliefs or anything, but it’s good to question them, for sure. I haven’t read anything in all these links or arguments that says that organic farming is actively evil (I actually think sometimes it *can be,* like all systems it can be implemented badly, of course, but that’s different.) or shouldn’t be done when one has a choice and feels it’s right for their area. I don’t see anyone saying that it’s stealing food from hungry people (I’m sure someone’s said it, I just haven’t read it), just that other systems might be more efficient when the entire picture is taken into account.

      “Might” is the key word there, however. As you said, everyone here is, obviously, projecting. It seems to me (not to you, Adam, I know this) that the jury is really out on whether or not one system is applicable to feeding the entire world. How could it be, really?

      What I know for certain is that I’m an old-tiney environmentalist kid who believes in “thinking globally, acting locally.” And what I know is that in my town, in my state, in most of my country, organic food means a baseline of SAFETY. And by that I most certainly do NOT mean more nutritious veggies. (And by “organic,” I mean: preferably, a more decentralized system that works even better and has higher standards.) By safety I mean Hippocratic Oath-type of safety: “First, do no harm.” Yes, pesticides have gotten better since the 1950s. Does that mean if we can avoid ’em we should? Of course. It’s the “if we can avoid it” part that you’ll quibble with, I know. And that’s open to discussion.

      Whether or not that works for the many and varied problems/terrains/soils etc of the known Earth, I have no clue.

      But I learned a lot!

      Reply
      • darwinart

        Frankly I started off assuming that you were a true believer with a simplistic faith in the good of organic over the evil of non-organic, and my intention was to gently nudge you in the direction of doubting that faith. I’m not really one to take what I would call my ethical responsibilities lightly, and the last thing I would like to do is to discourage passionate and idealistic people, but if the very people who argue for organic can also acknowledge that the present system is far from ideal, then that would be progress.
        (I’m motivated by environmental activism and scientific awareness, two things that I don’t think can be separated. In my opinion, those active in trying to improve the world are in no position to bury their heads in the sand. They must allow their most cherished views to be challenged as part of an open debate.)
        In reality I’ve discovered that you and your smartie friends are already asking probing questions of one another, and most react to genuine and open enquiry without defensiveness. I feel hugely encouraged. Our differences here are really quite small. For me, the research suggests that the ideal route would be a combination of some organic principles with the best of technological agriculture. I’d love to see a grassroots movement of small farmers embrace the best of technology and reject the less scientific restrictions of organic, but I still think that would take quite a shift in mindset. You guys have a little more faith in organics than I, but it only appears to be a matter of degrees.
        Best thing of all: I didn’t get shouted down and labeled a Big Agri shill, although twitter did seem to suggest I didn’t care about workers or the world. A little unfair, but I’ve heard worse :)
        Many thanks Lagusta et al. I’ll be looking in on your (super-charming) blog.

      • lagusta

        Wow! What an engaging and intelligent discussion we’ve had! Kinda almost gives me hope for humanity!

    • lagusta

      OK, let’s just go through this one.

      “Organic farming is generally good for wildlife but does not necessarily have lower overall environmental impacts than conventional farming, a new analysis led by Oxford University scientists has shown.”

      So there’s the headline. We’ve got:

      “generally good for wildlife”

      and

      “not necessarily”

      These are the parts I care about. I’m all about erring on the safe side, and “not necessarily” does me just fine. Also, I truly do care about animals more than people. (

      Reply
      • darwinart

        animals over people every time. Especially toque macaques. I don’t know why, I think it’s the hair.

  2. Saracious Chbl

    One issue is that if organics (or conventional agriculture) is executed with the specific agroecological system in mind, it is lower-imput and thus less destructive. A lot of organic farms are as high-input as conventional farms, substituting organic pesticides for regular pesticides, substituting organic fertilizer for regular fertilizer, etc, with little consideration for maximizing biodiversity, considering the agro-ecosystem, etc. We all benefit if everyone can take some steps to improve things, organic or not, so thanks for this discussion.

    Reply

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