Organic Farming Can Feed the World?

ripeningA “new report” cited by the Huffington Post suggests we are going about things all wrong and that organic farming can “feed the world.”

The article cites a report by the Friends of the Earth (FOTE)  called Farming for the Future: Organic and Agroecological Solutions. You can read the full report or the Executive Summary. Don’t worry, they both say the same thing, using much the same words.

The short form report has 16 references,  but only  three  from legitimate peer-reviewed journals. The longer report seems to have 171 references, but less than 20 of those references are to legitimate peer-reviewed journals, and many of the references repeat multiple times. For example, there are 5 separate reference entries to Lappe and Collins recycled opinion book  World Hunger: Ten Myths, which echoes the precepts of the FOTE report. You will also find a book on Poverty and Famines by Sen referenced 3 times, a paper by Reganold referenced 3 times, and one by Ponisio cited 4 times.  So the total number of unique references is far fewer. Apparently they never heard of reusing a reference number or using op. cit.

The central thrust of the FOTE report is that the “food industry” has produced “pervasive myths” about the food system that they seek to debunk . The idea that there actually is a monolithic “food system” is taken as a given without proof.

These three myths are all the same thing, really, that farmers already produce enough food, but that poverty is the main culprit in world hunger. They assert that “agroecological farming, including organic farming” can yield more than enough food and that “industrialized agriculture” is only efficient if you ignore the “massive environmental, social and health degradation.”

The problem is that organic farming is less than 1% of US acreage and its yield is substantially lower:  50% to 80% in many cases.  A recent paper by Seufert estimated organic crop yields at only about 65% of those of conventional farms.And one reason is that you only get as much out of a farm as you put in: the nutrients have to come from somewhere.  That is why conventional farms using fertilizers yield much better and are more profitable. Further, the pesticides that organic farmers use are not very effective, because they are restricted to those of natural origin, and they have to be applied more often and at greater expense.

Further, “ecological health” is a somewhat slippery concept, because organic farms may have more run-off both of manure used for fertilizer and of the soil itself which can be better preserved using no-till farming. In that case not only is run-off reduced, but the layers of soil microorganisms are not inverted by plowing. Finally, Savage has calculated that the carbon footprint of composting manure is far worse than that from manufacturing fertilizer.  And remember, plants take up the same nutrients either way.

Now this whole idea that we produce enough food already is a pretty squirrely concept. Right now I have a lot of food growing in my garden. Some (especially the zucchini which are prolific) will probably end up being recycled, but I could hardly sent it abroad effectively.  In fact, this applies just as well to actual farmers. Sending food abroad is expensive and it may end up spoiling.

It is far better to help third world farmers become self-sufficient in the crops their population prefers. For example, Bt brinjal (eggplant) has been wildly successful in Bangledesh and India, reducing insecticide spraying from nearly daily to almost zero. This transgenic eggplant has the soil bacterium Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) inserted into the plant, which kills most insect pests, but poses no harm to humans or animals.

The trouble with developing crops for local farmers is the pervasive opposition to biotechnology promulagated by western (read white) groups like Greenpeace. They campaign relentlessly spreading fear and misinformation, which in fact is seriously detrimental to the health of the third world population. Similarly, the European Parliament adopted a resolution criticizing “intensive agriculture” in Africa, and opposing using GMOs in Africa. White man’s burden anyone?


In this article and those we refer to, you probably have noticed the term agroecology. This confusingly vague term has cropped up in the FOTE report and in similar literature. While it does not seem to be a full fledged academic discipline, you can major in Plant Science at Penn State and take courses in agroecology. You will find similar courses at Iowa State. And, you will find a long, wandering editorial in the journal Sustainable Agriculture asking whether we can feed 10 billion people using classical agriculture and recommending we consider agroecology, without defining it. But African agriculture specialist Isaac Ongu, writing for the Genetic Literacy Project, called agroecology “anti-modern farming.

Agroecology seems to be vaguely a return to the naturalistic fallacy that conventional farming is bad and a return to simple lower-yield methods is better. Professor Stephen Gliessman, who seems to have written the only book on this topic, says that sustainable agrosystems

  • Maintain their natural resource base.
  • Rely on minimum artificial inputs from outside the farm system.
  • Manage pests and diseases through internal regulating mechanisms.
  • Recover from the disturbances caused by cultivation and harvest.

and, that sustainable agriculture is

A whole-systems approach to food, feed, and fiber production that balances environmental soundness, social equity, and economic viability among all sectors of the public, including international and intergenerational peoples.

If you notice some disturbing  vagueness here, you are not alone. To a large degree, “agroecology” seems to be a way of saying

We don’t like GMO crops and think we should be able to do better without them, even though no such evidence actually exists.

In fact, the New Zealand based Food Matters Aotearoa Conference featured such discredited crackpot anti-GMO speakers as Don Huber, Giles-Eric Seralini and Vandana Shiva, all under the banner of “agroecology.”

Getting back to Friends of the Earth

The FOTE article suggests that there is something evil about “chemically dependent industrial production” of crops, but shows no real proof for their hyperbole. Conventional farming allows for no-till, which is far better for the soil, and built-in insecticides like Bt which reduce chemical spraying.  And  farmers are not stupid: conventional farms use every “agroecology” trick that has been developed for soil care, including crop rotation, cover cropping, intercropping, conservation tillage, composting, managed livestock grazing and combined animal and plant production.

Further, the idea that there are “factory farms” is not really true. Nearly 97% of all farms in the US are family-run farms. And you can be sure that if there is an agricultural technique that will improve their yield or their animal’s welfare, they are using it already.

The argument that you should use organic (or pre-scientific) methods because they are “sustainable” is simply untrue. There isn’t enough cropland in the US (or the world) to grow crops organically. It’s inefficient, and more likely to damage the soil because of runoff after tilling. Further, the inefficient insecticides organic farmers are restricted to have to be applied much more often and are thus more likely to pollute.

Nor are organic crops necessarily pesticide free as the industry likes to claim. In fact, the provenance of organic-labeled imported foods is very difficult to police, as Porterfield has pointed out.

“Organic” is essentially a marketing term devised to raise the price of produce (and demonize biotechnology). As Roger Cohen wrote in the Times, Organic is “a fable for the pampered parts of the planet — romantic and comforting,” and as Henry Miller wrote in Forbes, organic isn’t sustainable.




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