Misconception Number 29: Organic farming yields are too low to feed the world’s growing population.
Summary of Counter-Arguments:
Details of Counter-Arguments:
Organic Agriculture is based on a sophisticated combination of traditional knowledge, modern science, and innovation. Therefore, adopting Organic Agriculture today doesn’t mean going back to the pre-industrial yields of our great-grand parents.
The old adage that yields in Organic Agriculture can only be one third or half of those of conventional yields is often based on incomplete data. For example, the widely quoted statistical reference according to which a transition to organic farming in the whole of the United States could only produce one fourth of the food currently produced is based on a study by the USDA showing that all the manure produced in the US could only cover one fourth of the national fertilizer needs. The above conclusion derived from this study would be acceptable if Organic Agriculture only relied on manure as a source of fertilizer, but this is far from the reality. In fact, worldwide, much more nitrogen is provided in organic agriculture as green manure than animal manure.
Many studies carried out in several parts of the world actually show that organic farms can be almost as productive as conventional farms (in developed countries) and sometimes even more productive (especially in developing countries). A 21-year long study carried out in Switzerland by the FiBL (Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau) Institute showed that the yields in organic farming are only 20 percent less than in conventional farming. Reviewing more than 200 studies carried out in the US and Europe, Per Pinstrup Andersen (professor at Cornell University and winner of the World Food Prize) and his colleagues reached the conclusion that yields in Organic Agriculture are around 80 percent of conventional yields. Another study reviewing a global dataset of 293 examples found that in developed countries organic systems, on average, produce 92 percent of the yields produced by conventional agriculture . Other studies show organic yields even closer to conventional yields (94 percent for maize, 97 percent for wheat, 94 percent for soy, and approximately that same yield for tomatoes according to a study carried out by Bill Liebhardt from the University of California-Davis ). A more recent US study even showed an increase in yields through organic farming in a grain-based cropping system . Growers who go through the three-year transition period from conventional to organic management usually experience an initial decrease in yields, until soil microbes are re-established and nutrient cycling is in place, at which point yields can return to previous levels.
More importantly, in developing countries, where most food shortage problems occur, Organic Agriculture is found to be more productive than conventional agriculture, with yields that are often double or triple those of conventional agriculture according to a study by Jules Pretty and Rachael Hine from the University of Essex that reviewed more than 200 projects in 52 countries, covering approximately nine million farms of over 30 millions hectares total. This confirms the results of the University of Michigan study cited above. The increase in yields resulting from Organic Agriculture in tropical countries can be attributed to the increased organic matter in the soil that helps increase the soil’s water retention capacity.
The team from the University of Michigan, co-directed by Catherine Badgley, developed a model to calculate the overall effect of a world-wide transition to Organic Agriculture, using their aforementioned observation that Organic Agriculture yields slightly less in developed countries, but more in developing countries, compared to conventional agriculture. The results given by the model show that a global shift to organic farming could produce enough calories to feed the entire human population and potentially 75 percent more calories than are produced now, on the same area of land (which means that Organic Agriculture could in this case sustain a much bigger population than the one currently sustained by cultivated land). Another study, directed by Niels Halberg from the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, using a model developed by IFPRI, reached conclusions that were similar to those of the Michigan team. An FAO 2002 report also notes that organic agricultural systems can allow farmers to double or triple productivity compared to traditional systems, but recognizes that yield comparisons are often misleading because of the fact that many farmers adopt organic techniques in order to save water and money and to reduce the yields variability in extreme conditions rather than to increase production. Studies have found that in periods of exceptional drought, both in northern and southern countries, organic yields are far higher than conventional yields .
The production performance of Organic Agriculture is particularly promising in light of the limited support it has received in terms of research funds directed towards optimizing organic farming practices. The current yields of Organic Agriculture have been achieved through organic farming methods that have been developed and refined by years of grower experience, mostly independent of the billions of dollars of support provided to the agrichemical industries in terms of research and development. If governments would increase the small proportion of its research funds currently directed toward optimizing organic farming practices, Organic Agriculture has the potential for yields that equal or surpass those of conventional agriculture, even in northern countries.
Nevertheless, given the current situation (food production surplus with simultaneous famine on the worldwide scale), the right question is “can we feed the world,” rather than “can Organic Agriculture feed the world.” The major constraints to achieving universal food security are found in social, economic, and political conditions--more than in constraints regarding agricultural productivity capacity. One of the most important factors for poverty alleviation is rural development. Organic Agriculture, based on the Principles of Health, Ecology, Fairness, and Care, is the most advanced tool for rural development. The answer to wide-spread hunger lies more in political and institutional changes than technical innovation. Global food production is more than enough to feed the global population; the problem is getting food to the people who need it. As the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen (1982) notes "Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat." Therefore, famine is fundamentally a problem of democracy, poverty, and food distribution. In fact, as pointed out by many farmers’ associations (including Via Campesina), the current practice of northern, developed countries dumping agricultural products on markets in the southern, developing countries at artificially low rates enabled by agricultural subsidies is a major cause of starvation among rural populations in these southern countries. This dumping should stop. This would enable many people in the developing world to depend on fair, stable prices when they sell their own produce and would ultimately improve food security in these regions.
Organic Agriculture not only has the potential to increase the global average food productivity per ha, but also has huge potential when it comes to reversing the current degradation of agricultural soils. Indeed, about six million ha of productive land are lost each year around the world, mainly in poor countries. This desertification process due to unsustainable agricultural practices can be stopped and reversed through Organic Agriculture, which helps build soil fertility, reduces erosion, and increases soil water retention and biodiversity. Maintaining the fertility potential of vulnerable lands across the globe is another important way in which Organic Agriculture helps sustain food production to feed the world.
While most food production models are based on single-crop yields, organic farms have proved to be more effective in combining different crops on the farm and even within one field, therefore, enhancing the total productivity per unit of land. Finally, the implicit assumption is often made that we need to maintain the current patterns of crops. However, organic farming, with its emphasis on farm-produced feed for livestock, is likely to result in significant reductions in the total quantities of cereals and other crops used to feed livestock, emphasizing instead forages produced as part of maintaining soil fertility or produced in areas not suited to crop production. Consumer demand patterns may also change to favor diets with less meat as awareness of the environmental, animal welfare, and health costs of intensive livestock production systems increases. Hence, along with a massive shift towards organic, future cultivation patterns may well change in favor of more sustainable, efficient, and productive production systems that will make it even easier to produce enough quality food for all.
In conclusion, a worldwide adoption of organic agriculture will not undermine the capacity of the world to produce enough food for all because often organic systems are more sustainable and can be as productive as conventional systems. This is not uniform at the moment because many organic growers are not yet producing their highest potential productivity level, which is not surprising given the small amount of resources dedicated to organic research and extension. Education on the best practices in Organic Agriculture is a cost-effective approach and will have to be scaled up substantially as soon as possible because Organic Agriculture is the most efficient, most cost-effective, more sustainable, and fairest way to feed the world. Nevertheless, whether all people have access to enough food is beyond the sole influence of Organic Agriculture as this depends highly on social, economic, and political issues.
 See Liebhardt, B. Get the facts straight: organic agriculture yields are good. OFRF Information Bulletin #10, Summer
 Organic Agriculture, environment and food security, FAO, 2002.
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