We Already Grow Enough Food For 10 Billion People — and Still Can’t End Hunger

(by Eric Holt-Gimenez via Huffington Post)

A new a study from McGill University and the University of Minnesota published in the journal Nature compared organic and conventional yields from 66 studies and over 300 trials. Researchers found that on average, conventional systems out-yielded organic farms by 25 percent — mostly for grains, and depending on conditions.

Embracing the current conventional wisdom, the authors argue for a combination of conventional and organic farming to meet “the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts.”

Unfortunately, neither the study nor the conventional wisdom addresses the real cause of hunger.

Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day — most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land — can’t afford to buy this food.

In reality, the bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.

But what about the contentious “yield gap” between conventional and organic farming?

Actually, what this new study does tell us is how much smaller the yield gap is between organic and conventional farming than what critics of organic agriculture have assumed. In fact, for many crops and in many instances, it is minimal. With new advances in seed breeding for organic systems, and with the transition of commercial organic farms to diversified farming systems that have been shown to “overyield,” this yield gap will close even further.

Rodale, the longest-running side-by-side study comparing conventional chemical agriculture with organic methods (now 47 years), found organic yields match conventional in good years and outperform them under drought conditions and environmental distress — a critical property as climate change increasingly serves up extreme weather conditions. Moreover, agroecological practices (basically, farming like a diversified ecosystem) render a higher resistance to extreme climate events which translate into lower vulnerability and higher long-term farm sustainability.

The Nature article examined yields in terms of tons per acre and did not address efficiency ( i.e. yields per units of water or energy) nor environmental externalities (i.e. the environmental costs of production in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, etc) and fails to mention that conventional agricultural research enjoyed 60 years of massive private and public sector support for crop genetic improvement, dwarfing funding for organic agriculture by 99 to 1.

The higher performance of conventional over organic methods may hold between what are essentially both mono-cultural commodity farms. This misleading comparison sets organic agriculture as a straw man to be knocked down by its conventional counterpart. While it is rarely acknowledged, half the food in the world is produced by 1.5 billion farmers working small plots for which monocultures of any kind are unsustainable. Non-commercial poly-cultures are better for balancing diets and reducing risk, and can thrive without agrochemicals. Agroecological methods that emphasize rich crop diversity in time and space conserve soils and water and have proven to produce the most rapid, recognizable and sustainable results. In areas in which soils have already been degraded by conventional agriculture’s chemical “packages”, agroecological methods can increase productivity by 100-300 percent.

This is why the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released a report advocating for structural reforms and a shift to agroecology. It is why the 400 experts commissioned for the four-year International Assessment on Agriculture, Science and Knowledge for Development (IAASTD 2008) also concluded that agroecology and locally-based food economies (rather than the global market) where the best strategies for combating poverty and hunger.

Raising productivity for resource-poor farmers is one piece of ending hunger, but how this is done — and whether these farmers can gain access to more land — will make a big difference in combating poverty and ensuring sustainable livelihoods. The conventional methods already employed for decades by poor farmers have a poor track record in this regard.

Can conventional agriculture provide the yields we need to feed 10 billion people by 2050? Given climate change, the answer is an unsustainable “maybe.” The question is, at what social and environmental cost? To end hunger we must end poverty and inequality. For this challenge, agroecological approaches and structural reforms that ensure that resource-poor farmers have the land and resources they need for sustainable livelihoods are the best way forward.

Organic Can Feed The World

via The Atlantic:

[…] Kopperud wrote. “The missing bit is, quite simply, the answer to the following question: How do you feed seven billion people today and nine billion by 2040 through organic, natural, and local food production?” He then answers his own question. “You can’t.”

As a journalist who takes issues surrounding food production seriously, I too have things that drive me crazy.BEOrganic-Post

At the top of my list are agribusiness advocates such as Kopperud (and, more recently, Steve Sexton of Freakonomics) who dismiss well-thought-out concerns about today’s dysfunctional food production system with the old saw that organic farming can’t save the world. They persist in repeating this as an irrefutable fact, even as one scientific study after another concludes the exact opposite: not only that organic can indeed feed nine billion human beings but that it is the only hope we have of doing so.

“There isn’t enough land to feed the nine billion people” is one tired argument that gets trotted out by the anti-organic crowd, including Kopperud. That assertion ignores a 2007 study led by Ivette Perfecto, of the University of Michigan, showing that in developing countries, where the chances of famine are greatest, organic methods could double or triple crop yields.

“My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture,” Perfecto told Science Daily at the time.

Too bad solid, scientific research hasn’t been enough to drive that nail home. A 2010 United Nations study (PDF) concluded that organic and other sustainable farming methods that come under the umbrella of what the study’s authors called “agroecology” would be necessary to feed the future world. Two years earlier, a U.N. examination (PDF) of farming in 24 African countries found that organic or near-organic farming resulted in yield increases of more than 100 percent. Another U.N.-supported report entitled “Agriculture at a Crossroads” (PDF), compiled by 400 international experts, said that the way the world grows food will have to change radically to meet future demand. It called for governments to pay more attention to small-scale farmers and sustainable practices — shooting down the bigger-is-inevitably-better notion that huge factory farms and their efficiencies of scale are necessary to feed the world.

Suspicious of the political motives of the U.N.? Well, there’s a study that came out in 2010 from the all-American National Research Council. Written by professors from seven universities, including the University of California, Iowa State University, and the University of Maryland, the report finds that organic farming, grass-fed livestock husbandry, and the production of meat and crops on the same farm will be needed to sustain food production in this country.

The Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute is an unequivocal supporter of all things organic. But that’s no reason to dismiss its 2008 report “The Organic Green Revolution” (PDF), which provides a concise argument for why a return to organic principles is necessary to stave off world hunger, and which backs the assertion with citations of more than 50 scientific studies.

Rodale concludes that farming must move away from using unsustainable, increasingly unaffordable, petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and turn to “organic, regenerative farming systems that sustain and improve the health of the world population, our soil, and our environment.” The science the report so amply cites shows that such a system would

  • give competitive yields to “conventional” methods
  • improve soil and boost its capacity to hold water, particularly important during droughts
  • save farmers money on pesticides and fertilizers
  • save energy because organic production requires 20 to 50 percent less input
  • mitigate global warming because cover crops and compost can sequester close to 40 percent of global CO2 emissions
  • increase food nutrient density

What is notably lacking in the “conventional” versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can’t feed the world’s growing population. In an exhaustive review using Google and several academic search engines of all the scientific literature published between 1999 and 2007 addressing the question of whether or not organic agriculture could feed the world, the British Soil Association, which supports and certifies organic farms, found (PDF) that there had been 98 papers published in the previous eight years addressing the question of whether organic could feed the world. Every one of the papers showed that organic farming had that potential. Not one argued otherwise.

The most troubling part of Kopperud’s post is where he says that he finds the food movement of which Pollan and Nestle are respected leaders “almost dangerous.” He’s wrong. The real danger is when an untruth is repeated so often that people accept it as fact.

Given that the current food production system, which is really a 75-year-old experiment, leaves nearly one billion of the world’s seven billion humans seriously undernourished today, the onus should be on the advocates of agribusiness to prove their model can feed a future population of nine billion — not the other way around.

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Read the full article at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/12/organic-can-feed-the-world/249348/

Organic Agriculture Proves Just as Productive as Chemical Agriculture

Biodiversity and companion planting, providing habitat for beneficial insects and reducing disease(by Tom Philpott via Mother Jones)

Back in 2000, an interviewer asked Norman Borlaug, father of the “green revolution” of industrial farming that swept through Asia in the 1970s, what he thought of the idea that organic agriculture could feed the world. The Nobel laureate became apoplectic:

That’s ridiculous. This shouldn’t even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have–the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues–and get them back on the soil, you couldn’t feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.

The great man’s derision has clung to chemical-free farming ever since in elite policy circles.  USDA chief Tom Vilsack occasionally pays lip service to organic farmers, but when he addresses the hard question of how to “feed the world,” he reliably toes the Borlaug line.

And yet, Borlaug was evidently wrong. It turns out, when you actually compare chemical-intensive and organic farming in the field, organic proves just as productive in terms of gross yield—and brings many other advantages to the table as well. The Rodale Institute’s test plots in Pennsylvania have been demonstrating this point for years.

And now comes evidence from the very heart of Big Ag: rural Iowa, where Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture runs the Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment (LTAR), which began in 1998, which has just released its latest results.

At the LTAR fields in Adair County, the (LTAR) runs four fields: one managed with the Midwest-standard two-year corn-soy rotation featuring the full range of agrochemicals; and the other ones organically managed with three different crop-rotation systems. The chart below records the yield averages of all the systems, comparing them to the average yields achieved by actual conventional growers in Adair County:

Chart of organic crop yields compared to convential (Leopold center) Key to crop yields chart 1Charts: Leopold Center

So, in yield terms, both of the organic rotations featuring corn beat the Adair County average and came close to the conventional patch. Two of the three organic rotations featuring soybeans beat both the county average and the conventional patch; and both of the organic rotations featuring oats trounced the county average. In short, Borlaug’s claim of huge yield advantages for the chemical-intensive agriculture he championed just don’t pan out in the field.

And in terms of economic returns to farmers—market price for crops minus costs—the contest isn’t even close. Organic crops draw a higher price in the market and don’t require expenditures for pricy inputs like synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.

Average economic returns for organic vs. conventional crops for small farmersMoreover, organic management improved soil’s ability to retain nutrients. “Total nitrogen increased by 33 percent in the organic system,” Leopold reports, and “researchers measured higher concentrations of carbon, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and calcium in the organic soils.

So if organic farming offers equivalent yields, a dramatically higher economic return, and better long-term soil health, why aren’t more farmers switching over?

The last line of the Leopold Center’s report offers a clue: “Skilled management is an adequate replacement for synthetic chemicals.” Look at it like this: In the Corn Belt, technology and monocropping have reduced farming to a relatively simple endeavor. You douse your fields in synthetic and mined fertilizers and plant them in in corn one year, soy the next. When the inevitable plague of pests arrives—weeds and bugs love monocrops—you attack them with an arsenal of poisons. Then, you harvest and sell to vast multinational companies—Cargill and ADM—with the built infrastructure on the ground to make the transaction easy.

Farmers are understandably reluctant to switch away from that paint-by-the-numbers style. To make organic farming work, you have to stay ahead of the weeds and bugs by rotating in more crops than just corn and soy. And weed management requires other strategies just driving a chemical tank through the field or hiring a crop-duster: planting cover crops, tilling at just the right time, mulching.  And selling, say, oats or alfalfa is trickier, because the infrastructure for marketing them has largely been dismantled over the past 50 years.

But that doesn’t mean that organic farming is impractical, as Borlaug insisted. It just means that we need to move public policy away from blind support for industrial agriculture (no easy trick), and learn to support the hordes of young people seeking careers in high-skilled, eco-minded farming.

What are the environmental benefits of organic agriculture?

via the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

organic agriculture bannerSustainability over the long term. Many changes observed in the environment are long term, occurring slowly over time. Organic agriculture considers the medium- and long-term effect of agricultural interventions on the agro-ecosystem. It aims to produce food while establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility or pest problems. Organic agriculture takes a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge.

Soil. Soil building practices such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops, organic fertilizers and minimum tillage are central to organic practices. These encourage soil fauna and flora, improving soil formation and structure and creating more stable systems. In turn, nutrient and energy cycling is increased and the retentive abilities of the soil for nutrients and water are enhanced, compensating for the non-use of mineral fertilizers. Such management techniques also play an important role in soil erosion control. The length of time that the soil is exposed to erosive forces is decreased, soil biodiversity is increased, and nutrient losses are reduced, helping to maintain and enhance soil productivity. Crop export of nutrients is usually compensated by farm-derived renewable resources but it is sometimes necessary to supplement organic soils with potassium, phosphate, calcium, magnesium and trace elements from external sources.

Water. In many agriculture areas, pollution of groundwater courses with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is a major problem. As the use of these is prohibited in organic agriculture, they are replaced by organic fertilizers (e.g. compost, animal manure, green manure) and through the use of greater biodiversity (in terms of species cultivated and permanent vegetation), enhancing soil structure and water infiltration. Well managed organic systems with better nutrient retentive abilities, greatly reduce the risk of groundwater pollution. In some areas where pollution is a real problem, conversion to organic agriculture is highly encouraged as a restorative measure (e.g. by the Governments of France and Germany).

Air and climate change. Organic agriculture reduces non-renewable energy use by decreasing agrochemical needs (these require high quantities of fossil fuel to be produced). Organic agriculture contributes to mitigating the greenhouse effect and global warming through its ability to sequester carbon in the soil. Many management practices used by organic agriculture (e.g. minimum tillage, returning crop residues to the soil, the use of cover crops and rotations, and the greater integration of nitrogen-fixing legumes), increase the return of carbon to the soil, raising productivity and favouring carbon storage. A number of studies revealed that soil organic carbon contents under organic farming are considerably higher. The more organic carbon is retained in the soil, the more the mitigation potential of agriculture against climate change is higher.  However, there is much research needed in this field, yet. There is a lack of data on soil organic carbon for developing countries, with no farm system comparison data from Africa and Latin America, and only limited data on soil organic carbon stocks, which is crucial for determining carbon sequestration rates for farming practices.

Biodiversity. Organic farmers are both custodians and users of biodiversity at all levels. At the gene level, traditional and adapted seeds and breeds are preferred for their greater resistance to diseases and their resilience to climatic stress. At the species level, diverse combinations of plants and animals optimize nutrient and energy cycling for agricultural production. At the ecosystem level, the maintenance of natural areas within and around organic fields and absence of chemical inputs create suitable habitats for wildlife. The frequent use of under-utilized species (often as rotation crops to build soil fertility) reduces erosion of agro-biodiversity, creating a healthier gene pool – the basis for future adaptation. The provision of structures providing food and shelter, and the lack of pesticide use, attract new or re-colonizing species to the organic area (both permanent and migratory), including wild flora and fauna (e.g. birds) and organisms beneficial to the organic system such as pollinators and pest predators. The number of studies on organic farming and biodiversity increased significantly within the last years. A recent study reporting on a meta-analysis of 766 scientific papers concluded that organic farming produces more biodiversity than other farming systems.

Genetically modified organisms. The use of GMOs within organic systems is not permitted during any stage of organic food production, processing or handling. As the potential impact of GMOs to both the environment and health is not entirely understood, organic agriculture is taking the precautionary approach and choosing to encourage natural biodiversity. The organic label therefore provides an assurance that GMOs have not been used intentionally in the production and processing of the organic products. This is something which cannot be guaranteed in conventional products as labelling the presence of GMOs in food products has not yet come into force in most countries. However, with increasing GMO use in conventional agriculture and due to the method of transmission of GMOs in the environment (e.g. through pollen), organic agriculture will not be able to ensure that organic products are completely GMO free in the future. A detailed discussion on GMOs can be found in the FAO publication “Genetically Modified Organisms, Consumers, Food Safety and the Environment“.

Ecological services. The impact of organic agriculture on natural resources favours interactions within the agro-ecosystem that are vital for both agricultural production and nature conservation. Ecological services derived include soil forming and conditioning, soil stabilization, waste recycling, carbon sequestration, nutrients cycling, predation, pollination and habitats. By opting for organic products, the consumer through his/her purchasing power promotes a less polluting agricultural system. The hidden costs of agriculture to the environment in terms of natural resource degradation are reduced.