How Organic Farming can Feed the World

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Photograph by Ridhi Dcruz

Organic farming is coming under attack from many quarters, even as awareness spreads that it is integral to a more sustainable and healthier way of life. Criticism ranges 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 grains of facts shift the chaff or propaganda and fear-mongering to prove that, in fact, organic farming is the real alternative to sustainably producing enough food for the growing world.

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

An extensive study carried out in nearly 50 countries, both developed and developing, by a group of eight eminent 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 kcal per capita per day, for the total volume of food supply available in 2001. The average calorific requirement for a healthy adult is between 2,200 and 2,500 kcal per day. 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 kcal per capita per day! Their data is summarised in Table 1.

More Yield, Less Land

The scientists referred to above show that organic farms in general tend to produce more crops 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 57% to 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 forthwith switch to organic farming.

In Ethiopia, local communities and their local administration are in fact doing just that, under 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. 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.”

In addition, 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. Moreover, one may add, they do not poison 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 quantities 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 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, for tilling or transporting produce to the market, for example. Notwithstanding such usage
of energy, the total volume of energy consumed by organic farming per se, is lower than for 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.”

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

Are we asking the right questions about land use?

We have already seen that food supply through organic farming requires far less energy. And, if organic farming were to be practiced exclusively, we can use less land for agriculture without any major impact on food supply.

Today approximately 40% of the world’s land area 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!

Today, several studies and books show that 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 Nitrogen fertilizers was 82 million metric tonnes. However, 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, since it does not receive any of these subsidies, 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 this affect us living in India?

A recent newspaper article opined that the 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. What the author did not touch upon was that 63% of Americans are overweight with 31% being classified as obese. Obesity trends in Europe are similar too. These data show that the additional availability of food rather than being a boon in America and Europe is in fact, a bane creating serious public health issues in its wake.

The moot point is, do we need to go through the tortuous process of obesityand its consequent public-health issues, or be smarter, and learn from the American and European mistakes, to continue to be a healthy India. The other major concern for India could be the ineffective public distribution systems that exist and the increasing lifestyle diseases that seem to be on rise in the urban areas.

Anecdotal evidence of the Indian experience suggests that Indian farmers too reap the many benefits of organic farming and many have 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 and 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.

Karthik is a concerned citizen of India.  He is an independent strategy consultant with over 30 years of business experience in India.

Sources:

  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. Proceedings of The International Conference on Agriculture and Food Security, 3-5 May 2007, FAO, Italy

 

Table 1

2001 (Actual organic +

inorganic supply)

2001 (Model forecast if only

organic food was produced)

Category

Food supply

(MT)

Actual per capita

supply Kcal/day

Food supply

(MT)

Actual per capita

supply

Kcal/day

Grain Products

944,611

1335.3

1,370,435

1937.2

Starchy roots

391,656

146.8

881,559

330.4

Sugars and

sweeteners

187,040

247.7

283,565

375.6

Legumes (pulses)

32,400

53.8

124,099

205.9

Tree nuts

7,736

8.9

10,587

12.3

Oil crops and

vegetable oils

110,983

326.4

166,010

488.2

Vegetables

680,802

72.7

1,213,027

129.6

Fruits (excl wines)

372,291

77.8

771,443

161.2

Alcoholic Beverages

199,843

64

 

64

Meat and offals

247,446

211.1

358,909

306.2

Animal fats

19,776

61.2

26,561

82.2

Milk excluding butter

479,345

119.7

836,434

208.9

Eggs

50,340

32.3

78,323

50.2

Seafood

95,699

27.4

 

27.4

Other aquatic food

8,514

1.4

 

1.4

Total

 

2,786.4

 

4,380.6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 2

Average yield ratio (Organic: Inorganic)

Category

World

Developed countries

Developing countries

 

 

 

 

Grain Products

1.312

0.928

1.573

Starchy roots

1.686

0.891

2.697

Sugars and sweeteners

1.005

1.005

 

Legumes (pulses)

1.522

0.816

3.995

Oil crops and vegetable oils

1.078

0.991

1.645

Vegetables

1.064

0.876

2.038

Fruits (excl wines)

2.080

0.955

2.530

All Plant Foods

1.325

0.914

1.736

Meat and offal

0.988

0.988

 

Milk (excl butter)

1.434

0.949

2.694

Eggs

1.069

1.069

 

All animal foods

1.288

0.968

2.694

All plant and animal foods

1.321

0.922

1.802