The most common criticism against organic farming (or, as I like to call it, farming) is that it will not feed the world. Only conventional farming, the common wisdom has it, can feed the population of nine billion expected by 2050. But is that true?
Not only can small organic farming feed the world, but I believe strongly that it is the only thing that can save and heal our world.
Defining Our Terms
Let us begin by defining our terms. This part is important.
Organic, as used here, has nothing to do with “certified organic”.
There are small-o organic farms without certification, and there are Certified Organic factory farms that would upset people with their “letter of the law” form of organic.
Don’t believe me? Check out this PDF at Cornucopia.org and see how many big, very non-organic companies own your favourite Certified Organic producers.
What can be done about it? Stick to small farms where you can meet the farmer and ideally visit the farm.
The essential definition I am going to use is that organic farms rely on biological diversity to deter pests, and replenish soil fertility without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Organic farming does not use genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It also aims to have animals live a natural life.
Similar practices can be called sustainable, regenerative, permaculture and biodynamic. (All of these have differences, but can all be considered under the umbrella of “small-o organic”.
Conventional farms, also called industrial, intensive, commercial or factory farms use methods that include synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs.
They can also use growth regulators and feed supplements, as well as buildings known as Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFO).
The definition of a CAFO is that it confines animals for at least 45 days during the growing season, is in an area that does not grow food, and meets certain size requirements. For example, a large hen CAFO holds at least 82,000 laying hens.
If you don’t like those numbers, I’ll bet the hens like them even less.
How Much Food Are We Talking?
Before we begin, we need to realize that the question is, in many ways, a straw man argument.
Well, we already grow enough food, world wide, to feed everyone. The world currently grows enough food to feed ten billion people.
Really. TEN billion – that’s more than they expect will be on the planet in 2050.
The problem is not growing the food. It’s growing it where people need it, transporting excess to where people need it, stopping food waste and most importantly, getting it into the hands and bellies of people living on $2/day.
We’re not very good at any of those, really.
However, let’s look at the differences when it comes to conventionally grown food and organically grown food, at least when it comes to feeding – and saving – the world.
Is organic food more nutritious than conventional food? Well, define ‘nutritious’. Certainly it contains vastly fewer pesticides. Read 9 Ways Conventional Farming Is Killing Us and tell me if organic food is healthier.
Studies have certainly been done that show organic food to contain significantly more nutrients than non-organic food, but other studies have shown no significant nutritional difference.
However, one undeniable fact is that organic food contains fewer pesticides.
Honestly, I think the argument that “organic food is no healthier” is intended to deflect us from the fact that non-organic food is killing our planet. And us, which is rather the same thing.
Yes, Snow White, the shiny red apple is full of nutrients!
Before you read more, check out this fabulous video. I teared up when I watched it. (It has nothing to do with the fast food restaurant by that name.)
Land that has been conventionally farmed begins to lose its structure and its ability to hold water.
That is pretty serious, especially when we consider that clean drinking water is becoming scarce in many parts of the world, and so many places are affected by serious drought. A warmer, drier world cannot afford farming that requires constant, extensive irrigation.
CAFOs, which produce millions of tons of manure – and in this case, this is a waste product, not a valuable form of on-site fertilizer – which pollute the groundwater. Again, and for the same reasons as above, this is a serious issue in our changing world.
Industrial farming uses a great deal of energy.
Right now, conventional farming uses three calories of energy to produce one calorie of food – and that doesn’t even include transportation and processing.
Organic farms have been shown to use from 25% to up to 90% less energy than conventional farms. Organic farms have the potential to develop a closed system that is also energy independent.
Imagine an energy independent, organic farm that focused on local customers …
As a note, both Certified Organic and conventional farms use a jaw-dropping 7 calories of energy in processing and transportation. Again, this points to the necessity of local, minimally processed foods.
It has been said that organic farming takes dirt and turns it into soil, while conventional farming takes soil and turns it into dirt.
The problem is, though, a huge, overwhelming amount of our food comes from … soil. The nutrients and micronutrients in the soil contribute to the nutrition in our food.
We have goats. (I love goats. Seriously.) One issue we have is with the soil in which their hay is grown. It is selenium-deficient. Ever hear of selenium? It’s okay. Neither had I until I had goats.
Selenium-deficient soil grows selenium-deficient hay.
Care to guess what that leads to?
Selenium-deficient goats. That’s a serious matter because selenium-deficient goats drop stillborn kids and have other health concerns.
Most of the soil in most of the world is now deficient in something, some micronutrient like selenium that most of us have never heard of, and conventional farming relies on NPK (Nitrogen Phosphorous Potassium) fertilizer. It’s called that because that’s exactly what it is – nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
Picture the nutrients in our soil as an old-fashioned wooden barrel, with each wooden slat representing one nutrient or micronutrient. Each slat is longer or shorter depending on what percentage of that nutrient remains, so that selenium, for example, might have a very short slat.
Now pour in water to represent the nutrition of that soil – can you see that it will only hold as much as the shortest slat?
While organic farms can use organic fertilizers and soil amendments, one of the most popular and common is compost. Personally, I think composted manure is a glorious, wonderful, life-giving substance. This summer, I tucked one little half-dead squash plant into my compost pile. By the time the frost hit, I had harvested three dozen fat butternut from it! We’ll be eating organic squash all winter.
In the early years of organic farming, yields are often lower as the soil is being regenerated and rebuilt. As time passes, though, yields steadily increase until they meet or exceed the yields from conventional farms.
A friend of mine, an Old Order Mennonite in southern Ontario, Canada, advised me to start organic from the beginning. She said that her community switched to chemical fertilizers several decades ago with promises of huge yield increases. Those increases did happen, but after a few years the Mennonites found that more and more fertilizer was needed to get the same result.
Because of that, and other problems with conventional farming, many of them are beginning to switch back to “old-style” farming with crop rotation, cover crops and manure.
When studies are done showing yield comparison, they focus on the large Certified Organic farms, the ones that are commercial in size and scope and practice monoculture (large fields of one crop). In these cases, yield is often higher on conventional farms, but even then, the difference is surprisingly small.
Less industrialized countries see the most yield increase when they turn to organic methods. And, honestly, these are the people who need it the most. When people talk about “feeding the world”, what they really mean is “feeding the billions in Africa and Asia”. And what kind of yield increase?
These struggling farmers, who cannot afford to buy hybrid seeds every year and use vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, can see up to a 180% increase when they use organic methods with heirloom seeds that they save and replant.
That’s rather a game changer, I think.
Rodale’s Farm System Trial
In 1981, the huge Rodale Institute began a project in which they attempted to take a conventional farm and switch it to organic methods.
Over the years, they have found that
- organic and conventional crops have similar yields in good years
- organic crops have a much higher yield during drought and flood years
- organic crops use about 30% less energy
- organic farmers do not create pesticide-resistant super weeds
- organic crops store an incredible amount of carbon in the soil
And this leads me to the most important part of the answer.
Organic farming, unlike conventional farming, pulls carbon dioxide from the air and stores it – several thousand pounds of it per acre – safely in the soil.
The Rodale Institute found that, if all of the world’s farms became truly organic (as opposed to We’re Organic But We’re Owned By ConAgra), climate change could be reversed.
Organic farming (and by that we mean small o-organic on small, biologically diverse farms)
- produces food that is just as nutritious but with fewer pesticides
- uses far less water and contributes less to the pollution of groundwater
- utilizes manure as an on-site fertilizer instead of a polluting waste
- replenishes soil instead of depleting it
- uses less energy than conventional farming
- can produce yields that match, and often exceed conventional farms, when properly compared
- is an incredible carbon sink
- works in resource-poor areas, growing food where it is most needed
- grows resilient, pest and weed resistant plants instead of creating superweeds and superpests
We live in a world:
- in which pesticides are poisoning our people, our land and our water,
- where soil is being depleted of the ability to hold water and transfer nutrients to us,
- where resource depletion has finally been recognized as a serious issue,
- where superweeds and superpests are increasingly resistant to the chemicals used to kill them,
- where commercial farming uses three calories of energy to make one calorie of food and
- where food is most needed in places where it is not grown so that more energy is needed to transport it.
We know that this cannot continue.
Can organic farming feed the world?
The question is asked with the unspoken implication that conventional farming is feeding the world and will continue to do so.
The reality is that there are a billion starving people in the world today, even though we currently grow enough to feed ten billion.
Conventional farming has failed to fulfill its promise.
Conventional farming does not feed the world today.
Instead, it poisons our soil and water, leaving us with Snow White’s apple.