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Organic Farming – Can It Feed The World?

by Karthik Kumar

Organic farming is coming under attack from many quarters, even as awareness spreads that it is a more sustainable and healthier way to live. Criticism range from doubts about its lack of capacity to feed the world to bogies being raised about people having to return to the  ’dark ages’ of food shortage and starvation unless recourse to intensive chemical farming is taken forthwith.

It is time that the grains of facts shift the chaff or propaganda and fear mongering to prove that  in fact, organic farming is the real alternative for sustainably producing enough food for the growing world.

Organic farming can feed the world and still have enough food left over

An extensive study entitled, “Organic Farming and the Global Food Supply“  carried out in nearly 50 countries, both developed and developing, by a group of eight eminent (disciplines included – Palaeontology, Natural Resources, Environment, Horticulture, Evolutionary Biology, Ecology, Art and Design) scientists (from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University) concluded that the available food production was more than sufficient for humankind.

They estimated the calorific value of all the food supply to be 2,786 kCals per capita per day, for the total volume of food supply available in 2001. Astoundingly, they also went on to prove that, if the same land had been farmed organically, then the calorific value available in 2001 would have in fact been much higher i.e. 4,380 kCals per capita per day! Their data is summarised in Table 1.

It could be argued that data from 2001 is not valid in 2008. Even more so because, the recent inflation in prices of agricultural commodities could arguably be laid at the door of insufficient food production in 2008. However, this would be a specious reading of the facts since recent growth in commodity prices has been influenced by many other factors particularly the production of biofuels as has been documented extensively elsewhere.

Organic farming gives more yield and uses less land for the same amount

The scientists referred to above show that organic farms in general tend to produce more crop per unit of farm than non-organic farms. For example, their study showed that organic farms yield 1.312 times more grain products (Table 2) than non-organic farms.

It is also significant that organic farms in developing countries, have yields that are higher by between 57% and 400% compared to non-organic farms as a glance down Table 2 shows.

In developing countries, many of which are land starved, the fact that organic farms have higher yields is a signal call, if at all one is required, that they should switch to organic farming.

A project started in 1996 under the supervision of the Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BoANR) of Tigray in partnership with the Mekele University, the local communities and their local administration is in fact doing just that in Ethiopia. Project Tigray as it is known, demonstrated that the introduction of ecologically sound organic principles had very quick positive impacts on the productivity and well-being of farmers with small land holdings. The project also demonstrated that for farmers, particularly those in marginal areas, who were not able to afford external inputs, “an organic production management system offered a real and affordable means to break out of poverty and obtain food security.”

The oft-cited argument that organic farming requires more land holds good only for cash crops. This is a conclusion reached by the FAO at a conference in 2007 where it observed higher yields through non-organic farming were seen mainly in cash crops grown in ideal conditions .

Organic farming uses less energy and mitigates global warming

Organic farming is often criticised as being energy intensive with consequent impact on global warming as a reason to switch away from organic farming. Reality belies this.

Organic farming uses natural or naturally available means for farming. The farm is tilled by oxen; growing legumes, practising inter cropping, rotating crops, composting, vermiculture  etc., help retain moisture, fertilise the soil and protect the crop against pests. Energy use is at its minimal with organic farming. Further it has been demonstrated that effective watershed management techniques practiced in organic farms use less water to raise crops and increase the water table. And, one may add, without, poisoning the soil with chemical residues.

Contrast this with the energy used in ‘modern’ intensive farming – assorted farm implements such as tractors, threshers, harvesters which use internal combustion engines, pump sets that dredge up massive quanitities of water in irrigating the lands, the massive factories which make the fertilizers and pesticides that poison the earth, the clean up that needs to be carried out to replenish the soil, the effort, money and energy spent in building canals, dams, etc. The list is endless!

In the light of all this, the proposition that organic farming is more energy intensive than non-organic farming is laughable. It can be argued that even organic farming uses mechanisation, e.g., for tilling or transporting produce to the market, for example. Notwithstanding such usage of energy, the total volume of energy consumed by organic farming is per se, lower than non-organic farming, when all factors are considered.

The FAO Conference cited earlier went even further to say:

Agricultural production methods specifically adapted to microclimates, production of diverse products, and cropping methods emphasizing soil carbon retention are most likely to withstand climatic challenges and contribute to food stability, particularly in those countries most vulnerable to increased climate change.”

Are we asking the right questions about land use?

We have already seen that food supply today in terms of energy requirement is far more than is required. And if organic farming were to be practiced exclusively, some of the land being used for agriculture can actually be stopped being used without any material impact on food supply.

Today approximately 40% of the world’s land mass is being used for agriculture . This indeed is an awful lot of land! However, 70% of this agricultural land is used for cultivating crops to feed animals, i.e., 28% of the world’s land mass is used for feed crops! All this meat provides just one-fifth of the energy required by human beings and only one-third of the proteins required by human beings. And, now with the increasing clamour for bio-fuels, land for non-food crop farming is only going to increase, creating more pressure on finite land resources!

Is this required? An article in the New York Times argues that with a plant-based diet, with a lower level of meat, will result in the consumption of far fewer calories, and better health. Doing so would mean less land area required for growing fodder, and then perhaps there will be enough land to feed all, humans, animals and plants too, without necessarily having to poison our environment.

Land can be fertilised without fertilisers

The main limiting macronutrient for agricultural production is biologically available nitrogen (N) in most areas. In 2001, the global use of synthetic N fertilizers was 82 million metric tonnes. The paper referred to earlier shows that 140 million metric tonnes of additional nitrogen could have been fixed by the additional use of leguminous crops – i.e., 58 million metric tonnes more than the amount of synthetic N in use.

Organic food need not be more expensive

Food production and distribution today are very heavily subsidised as is well known. Organic food does not receive any of these subsidies, so in comparison comes across as being expensive.

It is reasonable therefore, to assume that organically grown produce can be cost competitive if it receives the same subsidies given to non-organically grown foods, and is perhaps likely to be cheaper in view of its inherently superior yield!

So how does all this affect us living in India?

Per-capita availability of food in India is a little over a fifth of the American average and little under a third of the European average. However, according to a Gallup poll, 6 in 10  Americans are overweight with about 3 in 10 being classified as obese. Obesity trends in Europe are similar too. These statistics show that the additional availability of food rather than being a boon in America and Europe, is in actual fact a bane creating serious public health issues in its wake. Issues that a fit minority of tax payers, may end up have to pay for an indulgent majority.

The moot question is, do we need to go through the tortuous process of obesity and its consequent public-health issues, or be smarter by learning from American and European mistakes and continue to be a healthy India?

Anecdotal evidence of the Indian experience suggests that Indian farmers too reap the many benefits of organic farming and many have in fact begun calling it ‘Indian Farming’! Thus, widespread adoption of organic farming in India is unlikely to materially impact the availability of food. Given our relative scarcity of land, large farmer population, fragmented land holdings, the benefits of organic farming appear uniquely suited to the Indian condition. So perhaps, the time is right to make a push into adopting organic farming in right earnest given the very many benefits it has to both the producer and the consumer. The FAO too supports this point of view.

It is time that policy be decided by genuine public interest rather than, disguised ‘scientific facts’, dictated by vested interests.

About our Guest Writer:

KARTHIK KUMAR plays an advisory role in reStore, a not-for-profit venture based in Chennai, India. The products sold by reStore are sourced largely from local, disfranchised producer groups, such as the small organic farmer, rural artisans, underprivileged groups, self help groups etc, so as to help support their livelihoods.  Find reStore on Facebook.

This article was originally published in reStore’s Blog and in Business Line in edited form.

Links and references:

  1. Organic Agriculture and the Global Food supply, published by Badgley et al, Renewable Agriculture and Food systems
  2. Center for Nutrition and Policy Promotion 2000. Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 5th ed.Home and Garden Bulletin No. 232. United States Department of Agriculture and United States Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC
  3. Institute of Science in Society: Organic Production for Ethiopia
  4. Op cit
  5. Page 12, Proceedings of the The International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, 3 – 5 May 2007, FAO, Italy
  6. Farmers Weekly Interactive: Food Production to peak as fertile land runs out
  7. The Economist: Let them eat bugs
  8. ibid
  9. New York Times: Unhappy Meals
  10. Organic Agriculture and the Global Food supply, published by Badgley et al, Renewable Agriculture and Food systems
  11. Hindu Business Line: Organic Farming and Food Security http://www.blonnet.com/2008/07/11/stories/2008071150200900.htm
  12. Obesity in America: Trends
  13. Obesity in Europe – The case for action – published bv International Obesity TaskForce
  14. Rediff: The perfect farmer and global warming
  15. Page 12, Proceedings of the The International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, 3 – 5 May 2007, FAO, Italy

Other links and references:

NYTimes : Sustainable Farming Can Feed The World?

EWTT: Dr Vandana Shiva’s Sydney Peace Prize Lecture: Time to End War On Earth

EWTT: State of the World 2011: Innovations That Nourish The Planet

EWTT: Prakash Singh Raghuvanshi: One Farmer’s Crusade to Save Indigenous Seeds

Photo Courtesy: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps in Global Envision.org  A New Green Revolution in India?

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Posted by on Mar 11 2011. Filed under Food/Diet/Meat Reduction. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Organic Farming – Can It Feed The World?”

  1. why aren’t more farmers using organic farming? does it cost more?

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