Our Food, Our Future

Can organic farming feed the world? A noted scientist argues that it can—and must.

December 13, 2010

If we want to feed the world, we have to spray the countryside with poisonous chemicals. We have to splice fish genes into tomatoes, and bacteria into corn. We have to pour on chemical fertilizers. It's the only way. Organic methods are for backyard gardens, not for feeding billions. That's what you hear over and over, in the media, from politicians, from so-called experts. One of the loudest of those self-proclaimed experts is Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, a probusiness think tank funded by some of the world's largest agrichemical conglomerates. Avery says, over and over, things like this: "Widespread organic farming is simply not a viable option at this time. The first consequence of a global shift to organic farming would be the plowdown of at least 6 million square miles of wildlife habitat to make up for the lower yields of organic production."

Alarmist statements like this drive me crazy. They leap with suspicious speed to a conclusion no thinking person can readily embrace. They close off options that have not even been explored. They add up to a dictum so common it is developing a nickname: TINA, There Is No Alternative.


TINA statements seem designed to make us swallow just one course (to which, after all, There Is No Alternative). Often it is a course that thinking people question because, however profitable it might be to some, it imposes costs on others—to society, to the environment, to our future. Whenever I hear TINA, I start listening hard, seeking out evidence, and above all looking for alternatives.

When I listen to those who say we must intensify and bioengineer agriculture to feed the world, I notice that they are basing their arguments on three big assumptions: 1. It will take a lot more food to feed the world. 2. More-intensive industrial agriculture can produce a lot more food. 3. Organic farming cannot.

But when I look at the evidence, I find little support for any of those claims. In fact we already grow enough food to feed everyone; the excess simply is not distributed where it is needed. Industrial agriculture, far from being the salvation it promises, is actually undermining the resource base—healthy soil, clean water, and diversity of plants and animals—needed to sustain the world's growing human population in the long term. If anything can restore that resource base and at the same time eliminate hunger it is organic methods.

But can organic farming produce enough?
The TINA folks seem to have fixed in their heads the notion that organic means low yield. I don't know where they get that idea. Maybe they are looking backward at preindustrial farming instead of at the performance of modern organic farms. There is a strong body of evidence that organic methods can indeed produce enough food for all—and can do it from one generation to the next without depleting natural resources or harming the environment.

For example, at the Farming Systems Trial at The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research facility (which receives financial support from Organic Gardening) near Kutztown, Pennsylvania, three kinds of experimental plots have been tested side by side for nearly 2 decades. One is a standard high-intensity rotation of corn and soybeans in which commercial fertilizers and pesticides have been used. Another is an organic system in which a rotation of grass/legume forage has been added and fed to cows, whose manure has been returned to the land. The third is an organic rotation in which soil fertility has been maintained solely with legume cover crops that have been plowed under. All three kinds of plots have been equally profitable in market terms. Corn yields have differed by less than 1 percent. The rotation with manure has far surpassed the other two in building soil organic matter and nitrogen, and it has leached fewer nutrients into groundwater. And during 1999's record drought, the chemically dependent plots yielded just 16 bushels of soybeans per acre; the legume-fed organic fields delivered 30 bushels per acre, and the manure-fed organic fields delivered 24 bushels per acre.

"With this unique living laboratory, we have proved scientifically that organic agriculture works," says John Haberern, president of The Rodale Institute. "It is a viable alternative to conventional farming because it's an economical resource that can empower people to build healthy soil, produce healthy food, and sustain human and environmental health."

Adds Jeff Moyer, the institute's farm manager: "Our trials show that improving the quality of the soil through organic practices can mean the difference between a harvest or hardship in times of drought."

Adherents of the chemical-farming model point out that the organic rotations include a forage crop in addition to corn and beans. What that means is that at any given time, a third of the acreage is not planted with a direct cash crop. TINA proponents argue that that means a lower annual yield of corn. What they don't point out is that the forage in the organic rotation provides nourishment for cows, which in turn provide milk for humans and manure for the soil.

Keeping cows and forage on the farm may mean less room for corn, but it solves two big problems that plague conventional agriculture: the soil degradation caused by growing all the grain in one place and the manure pollution caused by feeding all the cows in another. As Darryl Amey, an organic farmer in Saskatchewan, puts it: "When you put 2,000 pigs in one place, you have a pollution problem. Put 2,000 pigs out on 10 mixed farms, and you have fertilizer."

In what must be the longest-running organic trial in the world—150 years—the Rothamsted Experimental Station (also known as the Institute of Arable Crops Research) in England reports that its organic manured plots have delivered wheat yields of 1.58 tons per acre, compared to synthetically fertilized plots that have yielded 1.55 tons per acre. That may not seem like much, but those manured plots contain six times the organic matter found in the chemically treated plots. Again, the organic system is based on the assumption that at any given time, some of the acreage is planted with a fodder crop that will go to feed cows. The synthetically fed plots are based on a profoundly different assumption: that their survival depends on a fertilizer factory somewhere that is consuming vast amounts of fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases.

In 1989 the National Research Council wrote up case studies of eight organic farms that ranged from a 400-acre grain/livestock farm in Ohio to 1,400 acres of grapes in California and Arizona. The organic farms' average yields were generally equal to or better than the average yields of the conventional high-intensity farms surrounding them—and, once again, they could be sustained year after year without costly synthetic inputs.

And a 1987 study that compared adjoining organic and chemically treated wheat fields in Washington State found that the organic fields had 8 more inches of topsoil than their chemical neighbors and only one-third the erosion loss.

The anecdotal evidence perhaps speaks most loudly of all. Talk to organic farmers and most will relate a similar experience: When they first gave up chemical inputs, they experienced disappointing yields. But after several years of building the soil's natural fertility, the farmers found that their harvests came close to, or exceeded, chemical yields.

One of those organic farmers is Fred Kirschenmann of North Dakota. He saw his yields plummet when in 1977 he abruptly eliminated all fertilizers and pesticides from his 3,100-acre farm. But today his yields match the highest of his conventional neighbors except during droughts, when his humus-rich soil provides even higher yields than neighboring farms.

"If we have an ideal growing season, conventional farmers tend to outyield us," Kirschenmann says. "But if there is any stress on the crop, drought or too much rain, we tend to outyield them."

New research is showing that organic farming does not have to suffer lower yields, even in the early years. Consultants to German farms converting to organic practices have learned that by starting off with a nitrogen-rich leguminous cover crop instead of a grain crop, an initial drop in yield can be avoided.

A 1993 scientific comparison of farms in New Zealand found that biodynamic organic farms had better soil structure than that of neighboring farms that used conventional techniques. Their soil also had better aeration and drainage, was more easily tilled, and had higher organic matter and nitrogen content. And both types of farms were equally profitable.

Not all the evidence is so clear-cut. Some studies show that chemical yields outperform organic. What is amazing is that organic systems have performed as well as they have despite receiving almost no support from traditional agricultural research institutions, which overwhelmingly work within the chemical-farming paradigm.

What we can conclude after reviewing the evidence about organic yields is this: The expectation that they will always trail chemical yields is without merit. After a few years of practicing organic methods, and with very little scientific research to guide them, many farmers have come close to duplicating the high yields achieved by the world's most intensive chemical farmers, who have been supported by decades of government and academic research. At the same time, the organic methods have repaired much of the environmental damage caused by the chemicals.

But by merely comparing organic yields with conventional yields, we ignore much more central questions: What is the cost of not going organic? Can the intensive, polluting, soil-depleting methods of chemically dependent agriculture be counted on to feed the world's future generations? Or are they, like athletes pumped up on steroids, simply overperforming today only to be left exhausted and broken tomorrow? Are they sustainable? For how long and at what cost?

Is industrial agriculture the answer?
Over the past 50 years, food production has tripled. Can't we simply triple it again through new technology and more chemicals? That argument assumes that the ways we've increased food production in the past—through huge inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—can be expanded and improved and sustained. The evidence raises serious doubt about that.

One thing is certain: We are not likely to raise more food by plowing more land. As the World Resources Institute puts it: "Most high-quality agricultural land is already in production, and the environmental costs of converting remaining forest, grassland, and wetland habitats to cropland are well recognized…Much of the remaining soil is less productive and more fragile." In fact, over the past 30 years, global cultivated land area has gone down slightly. Farmland has been lost to development and degradation faster than new land has been brought into production.

But surely we can grow more food on each acre, can't we?
Forty years ago, the world's average wheat yield was half a ton per acre. Now it is 1.2 tons per acre. French farmers average 3.2. The highest recorded yield on a single farm is 6.4. Those staggering increases sound promising until you study the numbers behind the numbers.

Globally, the tripling of grain production over the past 50 years was accompanied by a 20-fold increase in nitrogen fertilizer use. The last doubling of U.S. food output was accomplished with a sixfold increase in fertilizer use and an even greater rise in pesticide applications. The price of high yields, it turns out, is the use of synthetic chemicals that bring with them devastating environmental effects.

Wherever soluble synthetic fertilizers are used heavily, there is water pollution. Fertilizers don't stay on fields or go only into crops. They run off into streams and leach into groundwater. Nitrate from fertilizer is one of the most common contaminants in drinking water. In U.S. agricultural areas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 22 percent of wells contain nitrate levels that exceed federal safety standards. Where large rivers drain farming regions, they carry fertilizer runoff into the sea, spreading "dead zones" that are barren of marine life. Where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, for example, a dead zone the size of New Jersey continues to grow.

To protect water supplies and fisheries, some European countries are mandating fertilizer cutbacks. In Germany, the city of Munich pays farmers in the watershed that supplies its municipal water to farm organically. It is cheaper for the city to pay farmers to use sustainable organic practices than it is to build a treatment plant to take agricultural chemicals out of its drinking water.

Pesticides not only harm the health of farm workers and poison wildlife and wells; they also undercut their own effectiveness. They often kill off not only the target pest but also its natural enemies, creating pest resurgences. Furthermore, regular applications of any pesticide tend to hit individual pests most sensitive to the poison while letting the least sensitive survive and breed. So pest populations become resistant, forcing chemical farmers to turn to even more lethal poisons. In the past 50 years, more than 500 insect pests, 230 crop diseases, and 220 weeds have become resistant to pesticides and herbicides.

These and other environmental costs are seldom charged directly or immediately to the intensive farming that seems to produce so much food so cheaply. But they are real costs, paid by someone sooner or later. Some will eventually be paid by farmers—as soil degrades, as water becomes unusable, as pest-control mechanisms fail. Some will be paid by you and me. Most will be paid by our children and grandchildren.

When the TINA proponents argue that organic farming cannot compete with chemical farming, they make a dangerous assumption: that chemical farming can be sustained indefinitely. But if farmland and water supplies are further degraded, or if chemical inputs become ineffective, it is not clear that food production can even be maintained, much less forced higher.

The latest rung on the chemical-farming ladder is genetic engineering, which the biotechnology industry, in a multimillion-dollar publicity campaign, promises will feed the world by splicing together alien genes to produce superfoods that contain their own pesticides and herbicide resistance. But that technology is fraught with unknown risks and unanswered questions, and it violates the laws of nature.

Listen to the TINA argument long enough and you'll notice yet another assumption. The argument for genetic engineering and other means of intensifying food production implies that yields must be higher where they are already high. We need to get still more from those enormously productive Midwest acres. America must feed the world.

When you think about it, that's a curious and somewhat arrogant notion. Wouldn't it be far simpler and cheaper to raise the corn yield in Tanzania from ½ to 1 ton per acre than to raise it in Iowa from 4 to 5 tons? And Tanzania, not Iowa, is where more corn is needed.

The law of diminishing returns says there must be limits to how much grain or anything else can be coaxed from a given area. Where yields are low, some nutrients, a little timely weeding, and basic pest control can make a huge difference. But where yields are high already, pushing them still higher becomes increasingly difficult and eventually impossible.

It appears that intensive chemical-based agriculture is reaching that point. Average yields are still going up, but the highest yields are not. Kenneth S. Cassman, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska, notes that the corn yields on some of the Midwest's most productive acreage have not significantly improved in 25 years even though the investment in maize-breeding research has gone up fourfold.

There is an alternative to the TINA mandate of pushing nature harder, especially where it has already been pushed too hard. Back off a bit. Heal the soils, allow the waters to cleanse themselves, cut back the chronic surpluses that depress farm prices in the most productive places. If more food is needed, let the world feed the world. Increase yields where there is room for improvement. Empower local farmers to provide the food needed in their communities. Since the farmers in those places are often poor, help them use inputs that don't need to be bought and that don't harm soil and water and human health.

Which is precisely where organic farming comes in.

In what direction does our future lie?
Industrial agriculture relies on technology and expensive artificial inputs. It extracts high yields by depleting and degrading precious natural resources. It sells to people at ever-greater distances, requiring a costly and fuel-consuming distribution network, but it sells only to people who have money. It has not managed, for the roughly 100 years of its development, to feed the world. It is not cost-effective if all its costs, including those borne by farmers, neighbors, communities, and nature, are counted. Its highest yields are not likely to get higher, no matter how many more inputs are pumped onto them. In fact, they are unlikely to be sustained.

Organic agriculture follows an entirely different model. It builds nutrients and controls pests through natural methods that are largely free. Organic farmers purchase few expensive inputs; they recycle many biological wastes. They can produce high, though perhaps not the highest, yields, and those yields appear to be less affected by variable weather than those of industrial agriculture. Where organic farming is practiced, it is profitable. It regenerates soil and water resources. It can be adopted without requiring people to import fertilizers or pesticides or patented seed. It doesn't require farmers to don rubber suits and respirators to spray dangerous chemicals, or to employ labs to split genes.

Whether we ever feed the world depends more on our willingness to share, to care, and to commit to the health of ourselves, our neighbors, and our planet than it does on our ability to make breakthroughs in genetic engineering or pesticide chemistry. There Is No Alternative? Quite to the contrary, There Are Many Alternatives. And central to them all is a model of farming that replicates and respects nature, not one that tries to dominate it. Ending hunger is a totally possible, wildly desirable, and morally essential goal. Ending hunger forever means doing it in a way that restores and regenerates the health of soils, waters, natural ecosystems, farmers, and farming communities.

In the long term, industrial agriculture clearly cannot do the job. Organic farming can. And given the alternative, it must.

What You Can Do
4 Ways You Can Help Organics Feed the World

  • Buy a yearly subscription to a Community Supported Agriculture organic farm. For a fee, usually ranging from $350 to $500, the farmer will supply you weekly deliveries of a whole season of fresh, organically grown produce, herbs, eggs, and flowers.
  • Vote with your pocketbook at the supermarket by buying certified-organic foods and beverages. The costs are often comparable to nonorganic brands. n Make a tax-deductible donation to a nonprofit organization that helps organic farmers. Two possibilities are the Organic Farming Research Foundation, Box 440, Santa Cruz, CA 95061 (www.ofrf.org); and The Rodale Institute, 611 Siegfriedale Rd., Kutztown, PA 19530 (www.rodaleinstitute.org).
  • Teach a child the connection between healthy soil and healthy food.


Not Enough Food?
Maybe It's Time to Think Again
Imagine 100 fully loaded 747 jumbo jets crashing each day, killing all aboard. That's the number of people—24,000 of us, mostly children—who die around the world daily of causes related to hunger. And that's just the beginning. The United Nations predicts that today's world population of 6 billion people will jump to 9 billion by 2030.

It seems utterly logical, then, that more food is needed. But when you look beyond these daunting numbers, you find that the world's farmers already grow enough to feed us all.

The amount of grain produced in the world last year could sustain 8 billion people if it would be evenly distributed, not fed to animals, and not lost to pests or rot between harvest and consumption.

In the United States, 7 of every 10 pounds of the grain produced is fed to animals rather than being eaten directly by humans. Worldwide, channeling just one-third of the grain fed to livestock to the hungriest people could end death by starvation, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

If we could simply eliminate postharvest loss, which ranges from 10 to 40 percent depending on the crop and locale, the population could expand by 25 percent with plenty of food.

Perhaps our assumptions need to change:

  • Our population need not grow so rapidly. Birth rates are a matter of choice, not fate.
  • Growing affluence need not mean unhealthful, wasteful diets. What might happen if the same glut of advertising dollars now used to sell grease, sugar, and excess were instead directed at promoting a moderate, nutritious diet?
  • The food supply could increase as surely by reducing spoilage and waste as by growing more. In the United States alone, 27 percent of the food that reaches stores, restaurants, or homes is thrown out simply because it is cosmetically imperfect or spoils before it is eaten.

Whether we advocate feeding the world by producing more or by wasting less, the additional food must reach those who need it.

Throughout the Irish Potato Famine (1845—1849), Ireland exported grain to England. Although it has 200 million hungry people, India exports food and animal feed. Where there is hunger, what seems to be lacking is not food but entitlement to food. Blame it on discrimination or just plain poverty. People who have no land can grow no food. People who have no money can buy no food—no matter how much food there is.

1. Natural Resources Defense Council, 1998.
2. Pesticide Action Network North America and Californians for Pesticide Reform, 1997.
3. Pesticide Action Network North America and Californians for Pesticide Reform, 1999.
4. Environmental Working Group, 1999.
5. Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, 1999.
6. Environmental Working Group, 1999.
7. Food and Drug Administration, 1999.
8. Beyond the Chemical Century, a report of the Environmental Health Fund, 1999.
9. Journal of Pesticide Reform, Fall 1998.
10. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1996?97.
11. U.S. Census Bureau.
12. Elaine R. Ingham, Ph.D., soil scientist, Oregon State University.
13. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1994.
14. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, reported in USA Today, May 22, 2000.
15. Californians for Pesticide Reform.
16. Peter Rosset, executive director, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy.
17. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1999.
18. Under the Blade: the Conversion of Agricultural Landscapes, Westview Press, 1999.