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Organic and Sustainable Farmers Can Feed the World
01-14-2009, 06:32 AM,
Organic and Sustainable Farmers Can Feed the World

A key question that is often asked about ecological agriculture, including organic agriculture, is whether it can be productive enough to meet the world's food needs. While many agree that ecological agriculture is desirable from an environmental and social point of view, there remain fears that ecological and organic agriculture produce low yields.

Below is a summary by Lim Li Ching, a researcher with Third World Network, of the available evidence to demystify the productivity debate and demonstrate that ecological agriculture is indeed productive, especially so in developing countries.

A recent study examined a global dataset of 293 examples and estimated the average yield ratio (organic : non-organic) of different food categories for the developed and developing world (Badgley et al., 2007). For most of the food categories examined, they found that the average yield ratio was slightly less than 1.0 for studies in the developed world, but more than 1.0 for studies in developing countries.

On average, in developed countries, organic systems produce 92% of the yield produced by conventional agriculture. In developing countries, however, organic systems produce 80% more than conventional farms.

With the average yield ratios, the researchers then modeled the global food supply that could be grown organically on the current agricultural land base. They found that organic methods could hypothetically produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without putting more farmland into production.

Moreover, contrary to fears that there are insufficient quantities of organically acceptable fertilizers, the data suggest that leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use.

This model suggests that organic agriculture could potentially provide enough food globally, but without the negative environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.

I’m continually amazed that so many policymakers find it hard to believe that organic and sustainable farming can actually produce enough food to feed the world.

If you’re still unconvinced, I highly suggest you read the whole article linked above. As you’ll read, one recent study that examined a global dataset of 293 farming examples found that in developing countries, organic systems produce 80% more than conventional farms. And a review of 286 projects in 57 countries found that farmers who used "resource-conserving" or ecological agriculture had increased agricultural productivity by an average of 79%!

“It is clear that ecological agriculture is productive and has the potential to meet food security needs … Moreover, ecological agricultural approaches allow farmers to improve local food production with low-cost, readily available technologies and inputs, without causing environmental damage,” Lim Li Ching writes.

Really, the question we should be asking ourselves shouldn’t be ‘Can organic or sustainable farming feed the world?’, but ‘How can food production possibly continue as it is?’

The Modern Food System is Crumbling

There are so many problems facing the food system that it’s hard to even pinpoint a place to begin, but I’ll start with factory farms -- the modern world’s “solution” to raising animals for food.

It may surprise you to learn that such farming creates some of the worst pollution in the United States. The Farm Sanctuary points out that farm animals produce 130 times more waste than humans. And agricultural runoff is the primary reason why 60 percent of U.S. rivers and streams are polluted.

Meanwhile, in areas where animal agriculture is most concentrated (Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois and Indiana round out the top five states with the most factory-farm pollution) bacteria known as pfiesteria is common in waterways. Not only does pfiesteria kill fish, it also causes nausea, memory loss, fatigue and disorientation in people!

Aside from the pollution, factory farms use vast quantities of resources. According to, industrial milking centers that use manure flush cleaning and automatic cow washing systems, go through as much as 150 gallons of water per cow per day.

Energy costs are even steeper.

A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that industrial farms use an average of three calories of energy to create one calorie of food. Grain-fed beef is at the top of the list of offenders, using 35 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food! And this does not even take into account the energy used to process and transport the foods, so the real toll is even larger.

So when I hear someone extolling the virtues of “modern” agriculture and wondering how “organic” or “sustainable” farming could possibly be the solution, I maintain the fact that we have come to accept inefficient, industrial practices, including dousing our food with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as a viable way to grow food is the real wonder.

And what about genetically modified foods, which were “supposed” to end the global food crisis years ago? Well, lest I open up another can of worms entirely (GM foods are easily one of the biggest threats to both mankind and the earth today) I will suffice to say that GM crops have NOT increased yields as promised.

In fact, research by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) found that GM soy decreased yields by up to 20 percent compared with non-GM soy, and up to 100 percent failures of GM cotton have been recorded in India.

It is quite apparent that the food system began its dramatic decline the second the world turned away from the farming practices of our ancestors, and began to attempt to outdo nature with technology. What is needed is clearly a return to nature, and that is what organic and sustainable farming practices are striving to accomplish.

How to Support Organic and Sustainable Farming Movements

If you have the time and the space, I encourage each of you to consider starting your own small-scale “farm” in your backyard. It takes just a small patch of land, or even several large containers, to grow ample amounts of produce for your family.

I also suggest you steer clear of foods that come from factory farms or any large industrial farms, and instead support sustainable agriculture movements in your area. After declining for more than a century, the number of U.S. small farms has increased 20 percent in the past six years. This is in large part a result of the growing demand for locally grown foods, which is slowly but surely shaping the business of food in the United States.

So please realize that each and every one of you can make a HUGE difference.

To find sustainable agriculture movements in your area, from farmer’s markets to food coops and more, please see this comprehensive list.

It is important to understand the impact you have when you spend your money on factory food. Changing your shopping patterns by supporting local agriculture will not only help improve your health, it will also help improve the environment and bring back our rural


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