Could we feed the current world population using purely organic farming methods?
August 8, 2008 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Could we feed the current world population using purely organic farming methods?

I realize this question is probably impossible to decisively answer, but in conversations with a friend, he maintains that it would be impossible to convert over to an entirely organic farming standard and still feed everyone - this is why we had the Green Revolution in the first place. His position is that over-investment in organic farming is essentially suicide.

I don't have enough information to gauge this claim. I do know that current organic food is pricy (Whole Paycheck) enough that in these lean economic times, organic industry is taking a big hit, and a lot of people still can't consider switching to organics because they wouldn't be able to feed their family. Unless that changes, organic food remains a luxury for those well enough off to be able to pay for these sustainable practices.

Any recommendations for books that critically examine the benefits or problems with organic farming as a large scale method for feeding people are welcomed - I'm looking for dispassionate analysis, not mindless boosterism.
posted by canine epigram to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This article (from 2004) is the most recent thing that Nature has on organic farming.
posted by phunniemee at 8:05 AM on August 8, 2008

I don't have an answer to your question, but I will say that if everyone in the US went vegetarian (or even greatly reduced meat intake) and organic, there would probably be no problem. It takes way, way more land to feed you a steak or a chicken than it does to feed you the same amount of calories in grain, veggie, or fruit based food.

Since most of the people in the world eat much less meat (since they're too poor to eat a lot of it), I don't know if everyone going vegetarian would make a huge difference. Someone probably has an answer.

I found a couple articles arguing that it can and can't feed the world. To me, it seems that the one arguing that organic farming can't feed the world does raise some very important issues. There would, at the very least, be some huge hurdles to overcome. But at the same time, a lot of the arguments aren't really saying organic farming can't feed the world per se. It's saying that with population distribution (he chose one of the most densely populated countries in the world), and land, resource, and wealth distribution, it can't be done. But those aren't problems with organic farming per se. They're no minor issues, but with properly allocated resources, and some time, his argument becomes much much weaker.

Organic Farming can feed the world.

Why Organic Farming Can't Feed the World.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 8:15 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Define "organic."
posted by decathecting at 8:23 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Okay, I want to add that, yeah, the economic problems with worldwide organic farming would be very major indeed. Is it going to happen? No. It will be 100 years at least before it's feasible. The guy who wrote the article saying it's not feasible is just being pragmatic. He's absolutely right. But I happen to think that a big, big part of the reason that it's not feasible is because nobody thinks it is. Everyone thinks "well, I'd make the necessary sacrifices, but big businesses won't" or big businesses say "well we'd do what's necessary, but then our customers wouldn't buy our more expensive product". So you have a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody thinks big changes, like going organic on a wide scale, are feasible, and that along makes it infeasible, because nobody is willing to try.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 8:26 AM on August 8, 2008

I have no real background in this, but having grown up on a grain farm, I can testify that areas that were not treated to pesticides and fertilizers were dramatically less productive. I know the organic movement has some replacements for both of those things (pesticides and fertilizers), but I think the drop in quantity of raw materials like grains would be a substantial problem.
posted by midwestguy at 8:41 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Based on the numbers in "Why Organic's Can't Feed The World," I think the author was missing the point a bit. Sure, if people have a choice, going organic would hurt their productivity and livelihood, certainly. But if they have no petro-chemicals, then carrying manure 50 kilos at a time sure beats the hell out of starving. And based on the population of India, and its 2003 rice consumption [wiki, sorry] it looks like 6 metric tons of rice should feed about 100 people for a year, which should be enough people to work that land, I imagine. And with two harvests a year, even if productivity fell dramatically, the land ought to be able to support the people needed to work it.

All of which really re-affirms what i first thought when i read the OP, which was that trying to feed the world organically would pretty much result in a largely substance-farming or near-substance-farming world.

I don't want to say that the current world population can't be fed with sustainable agriculture, because time has a habit of making those kinds of blanket statements sound foolish, but with traditional dirt-and-sweat farming, I think you are looking at a serious drop in quality of life, and number of lives.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:00 AM on August 8, 2008

This is just my opinion from my own conversations and readings, naturally...

"Organic" food production methods aren't terribly mass-production friendly. The whole reason why crop foods became cheap and mass-available was because of the new technologies surrounding production (pesticides, fertilizers, large fuel-hungry machines), as midwestguy implies.

But it's a bigger picture. Let's add fuels.

So let's say production scales are massively decreased and smaller chunks of people are given plots of land to work organically. There are many places in the world that aren't efficient places to grow food, and more shipping would probably add to costs. The vast majority of our foods (speaking of the U.S.) are already shipped--and many, many urban areas would have to be on transport routes that take substantial fuel costs, which only adds to the already higher organic costs. Organic crops tend to be local, from what I understand. Many people can't afford that kind of price jack with the way current world economics are going.

The only logical way around this is to move people out of urban centers into their little shared plots, which is what paisley henosis implies: World cultures would need to spend a lot more time in producing basic needs this way. Our idea of "productivity" would need to shift to subsistence farming.

Let's add biofuels. This is a problem right now. The current biofuel boom is adding to world food crop shortage problems even if it's not the direct cause (this is controversial--I would lean towards the causation since farmers in most countries would certainly choose to make a bigger profit on biofuel industry than produce cheaper food crop). More rain forest is being cut down for more fuel crops. Do we need to cut down even more wilderness to eke out organic plots? I don't know. That wouldn't be a terribly good idea, though certainly organic production is more environmentally friendly than the mass crops--a good chunk of which is going into biofuels (again, irony much?).

Will there be a price break when current "mass" crops cost the same as organic production? Who knows.

Yale: The Threat of Global Food Shortages is an interesting two-parter article.
posted by Ky at 9:05 AM on August 8, 2008

And just to reiterate/clarify my perspective:

Ethical consumerism is a luxury of the privileged.

Survival comes down to whole-economic cost for everyone not in a purely self-sufficient situation, which is why things like Wal-Mart still exist and thrive. There is no getting around this basic nature of international trade. I like organics and all that jazz, but right now I simply can't afford it.
posted by Ky at 9:08 AM on August 8, 2008

How much geography/human resource are you willing to dedicate to lower yield organic farming?
posted by 26.2 at 9:12 AM on August 8, 2008

We'd need to know your definition of "organic".

Unfortunately, the word becoming a buzzword has kind of fuzzified the definition. Do you mean no pesticides/etc (the "legal" definition or organic?) or do you mean not genetically modified?

If the latter, I'm quite sure the answer is no. The strain of rice IR-76 nearly doubled (or actually did double) the yield from the last (also genetically modified) strain IR-36.

As long as IR-76 exists, and there is still starvation in countries where the rice is available, I would say the genetically modified variants are needed.
posted by aleahey at 9:18 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't have an answer to your question, but I will say that if everyone in the US went vegetarian (or even greatly reduced meat intake) and organic, there would probably be no problem.

I think gauchodaspampas puts his finger on it: The answer to your question depends on how much change in quality of life you're assuming.

Also, of course, the world's population is rising and more people are becoming more affluent (i.e. in China, India). How much do you want to account for this?
posted by Mike1024 at 9:50 AM on August 8, 2008

Response by poster: Good questions and information, all.

I hadn't considered whether GMOs would be included in organic or not, but I'd settle for the legal definition for the time being.
posted by canine epigram at 9:59 AM on August 8, 2008

I think the assumption that industrial farming and organic farming are incompatible is incorrect. There may not be the possibility of the "closed loop" farming where a farm uses manure from animals to fertilize their fields, but that's not to say a large scale agriculture business couldn't truck in treated municipal sludge or something similar.
posted by electroboy at 11:41 AM on August 8, 2008

Or you could even set up pipelines so that instead of pumping all the sewage into the city center to be precessed and cleaned, you pump it out into the farm areas to compost for 6 weeks and become fertilizer. That would seem "organic" to me. Some sort of disgusting-yet-practical sewage-hydroponic system might be creatable, too, either killing two birds with one stone, or getting some use out of the waste before it is cleaned out.

I guess my first reply was implying a scenario with little to no oil, which was never specified in the article or in the OP's question.

If i can get away with quoting wiki twice in one thread (I swear, I only use it to get a rough idea!) on the world population page, in 1800, farming was still fairly small scale, and the global population was a shade under a billion people. About 40 years from now, the UN expects us to hit 10 times that population number.

How many people can be supported on sustainable farming methods, globally? I don't know. It seems like at least a billion, since our ancestors pulled that off, but supporting 10 times as may people with the same amount planet to grow food on seems unlikely. Maybe sustainable agriculture can support 3 billion, or 6, maybe 8, who knows. But I think it is safe to say that if we are doing this because we NEED to support the population of the world without modern industrial fertilizers and pesticides, then our lives will be dramatically altered in the process.
posted by paisley henosis at 1:45 PM on August 8, 2008

Oh, and also, please define "feed." There's a big difference between keeping the population of the world in the lifestyle to which many of them have become accustomed and most of the rest of them would like to become accustomed within the next century or so, and allowing everyone enough food to live. There are many systems that could be imposed that would permit the latter but not the former. Do you want to allow people the luxury of college educations and white collar jobs and laptop computers and chemotherapy and central heat in their homes and no child labor and Or is it simply enough that they don't die of vitamin deficiencies and live into their 60s (which was considered a pretty long life in the US a hundred or so years ago)? Because what level of current and future lifestyle development you want to sustain will make a huge difference.
posted by decathecting at 2:25 PM on August 8, 2008

How many people can be supported on sustainable farming methods, globally?

Organic is not necessarily sustainable and sustainable is not necessarily organic.
posted by electroboy at 2:37 PM on August 8, 2008

I can testify that areas that were not treated to pesticides and fertilizers were dramatically less productive.

In terms of raw volume output, maybe, but it's been demonstrated that organic methods, at least in some cases, yield produce that's more nutritious - the compounds the plants produce to protect themselves are good for us too. And simply "not using pesticides and fertilizers" is not the same as organic (or sustainable) farming.

By the same token, simply putting food in people's mouths is not the same thing as feeding them, if that food has, say, 50% fewer nutrients in it. There's a not-so-simple equation that governs what you get out of the ground based on what you put into it. Common NPK fertilizers don't replenish the full range of nutrients in the soil - that's why it's not sustainable farming in the first place.

So you have to ask yourself - what do you mean by "feed"?
posted by Caviar at 4:01 PM on August 8, 2008

Organic is not necessarily sustainable and sustainable is not necessarily organic.

Yes, I'm fully aware. "Organic" is such an ill-defined term, that I tried to clarify that what i was referring to was crops grown (a) without modern petro-fertilizer, (b) crops grown without modern industrial pesticides, and (c) crops grown sustainably, so that they can support as many people as possible into the future. The OP asked about investing in organics, and used a sustainability tag, so it didn't seem too unreasonable to me.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:28 PM on August 8, 2008

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