Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World Sustainably, but Other Changes are Needed
Without any other changes to the food system, increased intensification in agriculture (i.e., the need to increase yields on the same amount of land) will be necessary.
By 2050 the world population is expected to exceed 9 billion people. Those people will need to be fed nutritiously and efficiently while limiting the environmental impacts of agriculture.
Can organic agriculture help achieve the scale necessary to feed that many people or is conventional, more intensive, higher yield farming the better solution?
Critiques against the capacity of organic agriculture to feed the world often highlight the difference in crop yields versus conventional agriculture. This is true. On average organic crop yields are 19.2% lower than conventional yields (ranging from 15.5% to 22.9% lower).
These yield gaps can vary by crop type, geolocation, and many other factors. Some researchers have identified yield gaps as high 34%, which would imply that organic production systems require around 50% more land to produce one unit of food.
However, these critiques do not consider the implications and impacts beyond yields. The United States National Academy of Sciences has identified 4 pillars of sustainability in agriculture: (1) production, (2) environment, (3) economics, and (4) social well-being.
While organic farming may produce lower yields it is more profitable and environmentally friendly (on a “per unit area” basis as opposed to a “per unit food” basis) than conventional farming and produces more or at least equally nutritious food that contains less (or no) pesticide residues.
In other words, while organic certainly has environmental detriments (e.g., organic agriculture often requires tilling the soil and, all else being equal, requires more land) it has a more balanced portfolio of sustainability benefits versus its conventional farming counterpart.
Figure 1: The four sustainability metrics: Production (orange), environment (blue), economics (red) and social well-being (green)
Image Source: The Guardian, “Can We Feed 10 Billion People on Organic Farming Alone?”, August 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/aug/14/organic-farming-agriculture-world-hunger
Despite this balanced portfolio of benefits the question still remains – with lower yields can organic farming alone feed 9 billion people by 2050?
Based on yields alone, the answer to that question is still “No.” However, a recent study concluded that reducing the amount of land used for animal agriculture and animal feed (through an increase in vegetarian and vegan diets) combined with reductions in food waste could create the conditions necessary for a world fed by 100% organic farming.
The Impact of Animal Agriculture
Each year, humans produce over 310 million metric tons of meat.
Animal agriculture, particularly the production of beef and dairy, requires large areas of land and is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation globally. The production of animal products (meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy) uses approximately 83% of the world’s farmland but only provides 37% of total protein consumed and 18% of total calories consumed globally.
In addition to the above protein and calorie inefficiency, animal agriculture is also more detrimental to the environment versus vegetable agriculture. A recent study evaluated the impact of 40 food products across their entire value chain assessing their impact on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use, water pollution, and air pollution.
The researchers found that the lowest impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes. They concluded that moving to a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way for consumers to reduce their impact on the planet.
Figure 2: Comparing the environmental impacts of 40 food products across their entire value chain
Image Source: Poore & Nemecek, “Reducing food's environmental impacts through producers and consumers,” Science 360(6392): 987-992. June 2018. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216
The land use problem in animal agriculture is further exacerbated by the fact that large portions of cropland are used to grow animal feed - food that is grown to feed animals only - instead of food for human consumption. The same study above found that 67% of deforestation for agriculture is for animal feed, particularly soy, maize, and pasture.
In the United States, approximately 654 million acres of land are used for pasture or range land. This is a land area that would cover most of the western United States. This compares to only 392 million acres of cropland. Of that cropland over 127 million acres are used to produce livestock feed (over 30% of all land used to grow food) and only 77 million acres are used to grow food for U.S. citizens to eat.
Figure 3: A breakdown of how land is used in the United States
Image Source: Merrill and Lauren Leather. “Here’s How America Uses Its Land.” Bloomberg. July 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use/
With the above in mind, there are clear benefits to reducing the amount of land used for animal agriculture and animal feed and increasing the amount land used for vegetable production. This would free up large areas of land for transition into organic agriculture.
The Impact of Food Waste
This food loss and waste is not just a waste of food but also a squandering of resources, including the water, land, energy, labor, and capital, that went into its production.
In the United States, over 40% of food for human consumption is wasted every year. This is the equivalent of wasting 19% of all U.S. croplands (an area bigger than New Mexico) and 21% of all U.S. agricultural water usage.
Figure 4: The amount of resources wasted when 40% of food is lost or wasted in the United States
Image Source: NRDC, “Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40 Percent of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” August 2017. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-report.pdf
These waste levels are approximately 50% greater than they were in the 1970s. A more efficient system is needed where food is better directed toward feeding the population as opposed to heading to the landfill.
With increased coordination between actors in the supply chain and increased consumer awareness of food waste it is possible to start moving back towards those historical waste levels.
By limiting food loss and food waste, even with lower yields, a system built entirely on organic agriculture would provide plenty of food to feed the growing population as more food is retained and ultimately consumed as it moves through the value chain.
While animal agriculture and food waste are two key considerations in the potential expansion of organic agriculture, it is certainly not the whole picture.
The above arguments are meant to identify a potential pathway to widespread organic agriculture, but several other considerations need to be evaluated in the overall discussion around organic agriculture. As mentioned in the introduction organic agriculture often requires tilling the soil which can have negative impacts.
The following are some additional considerations to consider in terms of what is being grown on the farm, how it is being grown, and how farming methods are changing. While this is certainly not exhaustive and will not explore those considerations in detail, it is important to highlight them and their potential role in the analysis:
(1) GMOS: GMOs could play an important role in the future of agriculture and sustainability. The EU funded a decade of research on GM crops and found they could a beneficial piece of a sustainable food future. Even some former GMO activists have come around to the science supporting GMOs. Unfortunately, organic Agriculture requires a rejection of GMO crops. This may need to be revisited as GMO crops could be an important facet of humanitarian effort and environmental efforts alike.
(2) Alternative Farm Methods: research has shown that there some alternative methods of farming (crop diversification, crop rotation, etc.) could potentially decrease the gap between conventional and organic agriculture. However, conventional farms could also adopt these practices. Nonetheless, it is important to note there are options in addition to reducing animal agriculture and food waste that could benefit the efficacy and efficiency of organic agriculture.
(3) Precision Agriculture: an additional technique for increasing yields and improving the efficiency of land use while limiting the amount of inputs and land degradation is precision agriculture. As opposed to the blunt instruments of flood irrigation or broad applications of crop fertilizer, precision agriculture is about being as specific as possible in monitoring fields and using inputs, often through the use of advanced technology. An essay by the Breakthrough Institute indicated that precision agriculture "presents some of the best opportunities to meeting growing global food demand while minimizing environmental impacts." This could be invaluable to improving the efficiency of organic agriculture while also improving the impact of currently conventional agriculture.
As mentioned, the above list of considerations is not exhaustive. Additional attention should be paid to the dynamics of and impact on biodiversity, equity, food access and food justice, health and nutrition, and several other consequences of a changing our agricultural approaches and food system more broadly.
Feeding the world by 2050 without environmental degradation will require new agricultural approaches, including reforming conventional agriculture and adopting lessons from organic systems.
It is true that organic farming often results in lower yields when compared to conventional farming and has some negative environmental consequences (e.g., soil tillage). However, organic farming is generally a more balanced, sustainable approach than conventional farming.
Reductions in the amount of land used for animal agriculture and animal feed combined with reductions in food loss and food waste could free up enough land to allow for all food to be produced under organic methods and still feed the world.
With all of this in mind, the question then becomes SHOULD all agriculture be managed under the organic method? That answer can be debated, but the answer is likely “No.”
Geographic, cultural, and socio-economic considerations are incredibly important in the consideration of agricultural methods. Conventional agriculture can and will certainly play an important role in feed the global population.
However, it is important to move past the narrative that organic farming cannot be a valuable and viable part of feeding the future population because it is not as efficient or as intensive as conventional farming.
To feed the world sustainably it is time to start thinking of comprehensive approaches and solutions that incorporate all of the best tools available, including greater levels of organic agriculture.