I’m a big fan of eating organic. I think it’s better for my health and better-tasting.
Plus, I feel better knowing I’m ingesting food that’s got less of what I don’t want (pesticides, Genetically Modified Organisms and radiation), and more of what I do want (clean, nutrient-dense fuel).
Of course, I’m fortunate to live here in America, where eating organic is easy.
I’m lucky to have several year-round farmer’s markets just a short drive away.
Beyond that, thanks to stores like Whole Foods Market and The Fresh Market eating organic and making healthy food choices is as easy a trip to the store.
That is, provided you’re willing to pay just a little bit extra for the privilege.
Many Americans, Europeans and others around the world are also fortunate enough to go organic. Yet, I realize that the vast majority of the global population does not share this privilege.
In fact, in so much of the world, food of any sort is in short supply.
It’s in part the omnipresent reality of scarcity that has many food and agricultural experts debating whether organic farming methods could actually feed the world …
Or whether the yields from farming in this fashion are just too low to make a dent in food demand.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Can Organic Food Feed the World,” two experts presented their respective arguments on this critical issue.
Arguing for the “Yes” camp is Catherine Badgley, an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan.
According to Badgley:
Organic farming can … grow enough food for the world and provide robust economic returns. There are already millions of small and midsize organic farms world-wide. Sales of organic food and beverages grew fivefold between 1999 and 2013, according to the Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL.
Badgley admits that when it comes to the all-import aspect of crop yields, organic farming does fall short of conventional farming methods:
Yields are the most contentious issue. When the same products are grown, organic yields are 8% to 19% lower on average than conventional-farming yields, depending on the cropping system, according to scientists at the University of California, Berkeley.
But the gap in yields is not an obstacle to feeding the world. We currently grow far more food than is necessary. Only 43% of the cereal grains grown world-wide becomes food for people; 35% becomes livestock feed, and 10% goes to biofuels, high-fructose corn syrup and other processed products. One-third of food produced for human consumption, meanwhile, is wasted.
By reducing waste and prioritizing crops as food, organic could feed the world even with lower yields.
While I’ve already admitted that I am a big organic food fan, I suspect Badgley’s view is a tad optimistic here. I also think her argument reveals an underlying bias against those who choose to eat livestock and/or high-fructose corn syrup.
Badgley then argues that organic farming is actually more-profitable than conventional farming, which implies farmers should consider this when they select their growing methods:
Organic foods may cost more than conventionally grown, but they’re more profitable for farmers when price premiums are charged. With premiums, the benefit/cost ratios are 20% to 24% higher than for the same foods produced by conventional methods, according to scientists from Washington State University.
Arguing the “No” side of the issue is Steve Savage, a consultant for the agricultural industry who also writes about food and farming.
Savage says there are many reasons why strictly organic farming could never feed the world, and perhaps the biggest reason is the aforementioned lower yields:
Studies have shown that organic yields are lower than yields of conventional farming. Detailed survey data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service for 2011 shows that for organic farming to equal conventional farming’s production of 14 staple, human-focused food crops in the U.S., 14.5 million more acres would be required — an area roughly equal to all of the farmland in Indiana. Extrapolate that to the world, and it’s easy to see there is no possibility of an organic-only food supply.
Savage then takes on the argument that organic farming is more profitable than conventional farming:
An academic study by Washington State University that showed organic farming to be more profitable than conventional farming did not reflect many of the real conditions under which organic farms operate.
The study was based on small plots and failed to take into account many of the economic drivers that limit profitability of farms — such as the availability of labor, land leasing arrangements, as well as biological and market risks.
Finally, Savage concludes that strict organic farming stifles innovation, and that is the real key to growing more food for the world:
… rules that circumscribe organic farming make it difficult or impossible for farmers to employ many cutting-edge, sustainable farming practices. These include minimum-tillage row-crop farming and delivery of just the right amount of fertilizers through drip irrigation.
If we want a sufficient and sustainable food-production system, we should encourage all of the best innovations.
Using genetic engineering, a key pest-resistance gene could be moved from a wild version of a crop to a commercially useful version in as little as five years, depending on the species.
To accomplish that through organically approved plant breeding might take decades.
While I again reiterate my personal preference for organic food, I completely see Savage’s point here on how the rules designating a food “Certified Organic” could have a stifling effect on growing that food on a larger scale.
To me, this debate is by no means settled. However, what I think is really important is that the issue of organic foods and the possibility of using these methods to help feed the world is an idea whose time has come.