Can organic agriculture feed the world?

This post is an assignment for BIOL 490 – Biology of Urban Agriculture. The author is UST junior Parker Hewes.

Percent of malnourishment by country. Maroon = >35%; Yellow = 25-35%, Light green = 5-14%, Dark green = <5%, Grey = no data. Information provided from United Nations statistics.

Percent of malnourishment by country. Maroon = >35%; Yellow = 25-35%, Light green = 5-14%, Dark green = <5%, Grey = no data. Information provided from United Nations statistics.

As humanity’s population expands exponentially, food is one common good that will always be required. Despite the availability of a McDonald’s on every New York street corner, food is not so common in many countries of the world. Currently, a billion people are chronically malnourished; bluntly, starving (Foley et al. 2011). With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, food production must double in order to sustain our rapid expansion (Foley et al. 2011). While increasing production by maximizing crop yields (intensification) and increasing cropland area (extensification) are inevitably required, reducing food waste, changing diet, refining sustainable technologies, and improving the quality of food are also vitally important for the sustainability and nourishment of our world and species. One proposed solution points to organic agriculture.

Parker 1 2Organic agriculture contends with conventional agriculture in regards to waste management, biodiversity retention, soil nutrition, and overall environmental impacts. Although the organic market has been gaining popularity among wealthy consumers, the concerns with organic farming seem to have been lost with all the hype. Namely, in regards to the global food crisis, the feasibility of organic agriculture is questioned. Even though the organic method may seem viable on a local scale, agricultural solutions should be targeting global impacts (Markowski et al. 2014). It is easy to support organic practices that seem practical at a small scale since starvation is often far removed from the areas where organic agriculture is thriving. However, when applying these methods on a global scale, a more in-depth investigation is required. Consequently, while organic farming presents a more sustainable approach to agriculture, some say that it may be most effective as a fringe activity for the wealthy, occupying only a fraction of worldwide production (dePonti et al. 2012).

Granted, if organic methods make a significant impact on even the smallest of scales, there must be some transferability toward a worldwide solution. Organic techniques such as composting, drip irrigation, crop rotation, increasing cropland biodiversity, and restricting pesticide and herbicide use significantly benefit environmental aspects that conventional agriculture has exploited (Cavigelli et al. 2013). Through organic agriculture, we have seen a significant decrease in soil runoff, soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, water and nutrient waste, biodiversity loss, and overall environmental impact (Pimentel et al. 2005). Consequently, the general public sees that a healthier, locally grown crop has been produced and is willing to pay higher prices for the “freshness and quality” of organic products. Since organic agriculture is still developing, the demand for these products enables inflated prices compared to the products of supersized agribusinesses. But what would happen if organic agriculture began replacing conventional farmland?

Considering yield statistics alone, if global agriculture shifted to primarily organic methods, the demands of an exponentially increasing population would require even greater efforts to intensify and expand production. The average yield of organic crops is 80% of the average conventional yield (dePonti et al. 2012). Furthermore, pesticides and herbicides success increases, the yield gap between conventional and organic agriculture increases, since organic methods have fewer successful methods for pest and disease control. Consequently, organic agriculture must occupy more land in order to account for the gap. Also, since we must see a 100% increase in food production by 2050 and projected conventional agriculture yields do not meet this criteria (Ray et al. 2013), the land requirement to increase organic yields is even greater. Finally, if the land used for human crops increases, the land used for livestock and for growing their feed must decrease. If a dietary shift does not happen voluntarily, it will be a necessity under organic agriculture’s rule (dePonti et al. 2012). And since organic agriculture relies on manure for natural fertilization, as livestock production decreases, that manure will soon become a limiting variable (Connor et al. 2013).

In order to sustain ecosystem services and our expanding population, decreasing environmental impacts must be emphasized as much as improving yields. By creating a hybridized method that includes the successes of each method, a temporary solution may be applicable. With organic agriculture’s environmental prowess and conventional agriculture’s elimination of pests and diseases, the methods that are already present in agriculture may provide the knowledge for future advancement. Albeit, extensive research is required to motivate the necessary technological and educational advances, but each small improvement in food production is a step towards global food security. With a unified, global effort, these efforts will maximize our impact for the world and minimize our impact on it.


About Adam Kay

I study urban ecology and urban agriculture
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