Could Organic Farming Feed the World?

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Could organic farming feed the world?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

While organic farming alone may not be able to feed the world, it has a crucial role to play in creating sustainable food systems. By addressing its challenges and integrating it with other sustainable practices, organic farming can contribute significantly to global food security and environmental sustainability. Future research and policy efforts should focus on developing and promoting such integrated approaches to ensure a sustainable and food-secure future.

The question of whether organic farming can feed the world is a topic of significant debate among researchers and policymakers. Organic agriculture is often lauded for its environmental benefits and sustainability, but concerns about its productivity and feasibility on a global scale persist. This article explores the potential of organic farming to meet global food demands by examining various aspects such as yield, environmental impact, economic viability, and social benefits.

Yield and Productivity

One of the primary concerns regarding organic farming is its lower yield compared to conventional farming. Studies indicate that organic farming systems produce lower yields, typically 20-50% less than conventional systems  . This yield gap is attributed to the absence of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which are commonly used in conventional farming to boost productivity. However, some researchers argue that with appropriate benchmarks and improved practices, organic systems can raise their yields and contribute significantly to global food production.

Environmental Impact

Organic farming is generally considered more environmentally friendly than conventional farming. It reduces the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, which are major sources of environmental pollution  . Organic farming also promotes biodiversity and improves soil health through practices such as crop rotation and the use of organic fertilizers. Additionally, organic farming has been shown to have a lower global warming potential and better energy efficiency compared to conventional farming.

Economic Viability

Despite lower yields, organic farming can be more profitable than conventional farming due to premium prices for organic products. A meta-analysis of global data found that organic farming is significantly more profitable, with higher benefit/cost ratios and net present values when organic premiums are applied. This economic advantage could drive the expansion of organic farming, making it a viable option for more farmers worldwide.

Social Benefits

Organic farming offers several social benefits, including improved food safety and nutrition. Organic foods are often free from pesticide residues and are considered healthier by many consumers. Moreover, organic farming practices can enhance social wellbeing by promoting sustainable livelihoods and reducing health risks associated with chemical exposure.

Challenges and Limitations

Despite its benefits, organic farming faces several challenges. One major issue is the need for more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farming, which could lead to habitat loss and higher food prices . Additionally, the reliance on biological nitrogen fixation and organic fertilizers may not be sufficient to meet the nutrient demands of crops on a large scale . There are also significant barriers to adopting organic practices, including higher labor costs and the need for specialized knowledge.

Integrated Approaches

Given the limitations of both organic and conventional farming, a blended approach that combines the best practices of both systems may be the most effective way to achieve sustainable food production. Integrating organic methods with innovative farming systems and reducing food waste and meat consumption could help meet global food demands without expanding cropland  .



Could organic farming feed the world?

Jules Pretty has answered Near Certain

An expert from University of Essex in Organic Food, Public Health

Organic farming could feed a world of 7.8 billion (current numbers). In developing country contexts, most organic systems have increased yields, and thus a dividend to supply could be achieved. Organic farming is a form of sustainable intensification, and there are increasing studies showing improved productivity.

A larger question, though, centres on food demand: much will also depend on

  1. i) people’s diet choices;
  2. ii) the proportion of the population eating plant-based diets (and thus no meat);

iii) the amount of food wasted (in food chains, and at the kitchen/plate).

A further question centres on the amount of potential food that is converted to “edible foodlike substances” (from Michael Pollan). At the same time, if the obesity challenge occurring in most affluent countries and among affluent population elsewhere were reversed, then large numbers of people would need (or simply consume) fewer calories.


Could organic farming feed the world?

JM Mulet has answered Unlikely

An expert from Polytechnic University of Valencia in Plant Biology, Agricultural Science

Nowadays organic farming is less than 1% of the agriculture worldwide (Crowder and Reganold, 2015). Any consumer must have realized that organic food is more expensive than conventional food. This is due to the fact that organic production methods are less efficient than conventional methods, so concomitantly, productivity drops, and this loss in production must be compensated with a higher price.

From the ecological point of view the paradox is that to produce organic we need more arable soil to get less food, so the carbon and the hydric footprint increases. So producing organic is not really good for the environment, being the main backdraft the low productivity per unit of land. Making a simple calculation if we would like to maintain the same food production, changing the agriculture system to organic, we must compensate the loss in production with more arable land, but after deforesting all the remaining wild areas, the requirement of soil but not be enough. So the answer is no.  


Could organic farming feed the world?

David Crowder has answered Likely

An expert from Washington State University in Entomology, Agricultural Science

Global syntheses have shown that, on average, organic farms produce yields that are 20% less than conventional farms, although there is considerable variation based on crop type and other factors. Despite these lower yields, if all farms in the world were organic it is likely that they could produce enough food to feed the world. However, across the globe there is considerable inequality in terms of access to food, as some populations have more food than they need and others do not have enough. Problems with food waste, and poor distribution systems, also contribute to hunger. Thus, a lack of production is not the main issue that causes some populations of the world to have inadequate access to food.


Could organic farming feed the world?

Michael Palmgren has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Copenhagen in Plant Biology, Plant Ecology, Agricultural Science

It depends on what the food we produce is used for. Organic farming is less productive per unit area than conventional farming. Without any changes in our lifestyles, the organically grown produce might not be sufficient to feed the world without bringing more land (that is: nature) under the plough. However, if we eat the produce directly instead of feeding it first to animals, and thereby reduce waste, there will certainly be enough to feed the world.


Could organic farming feed the world?

Adrian Muller has answered Likely

An expert from Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL in Agricultural Science, Organic Food, Environmental Science

First, we have to amend this question by qualifying “feeding the world” to be done “in a sustainable way”. Then there are two answers: “Yes, but…” and “No, if…”.

The first answer reads as follows: Organic agriculture can feed the world sustainably, but we need to change our consumption patterns. Organic agriculture needs more land than conventional agriculture, but it performs better on many other environmental indicators related to area use. Thus, the performance of organic agriculture regarding nitrogen pollution per hectare, for example, is better than for conventional agriculture. And it is the amount of nitrogen per hectare that enters ecosystems causing harm that counts, and not the amount per kg product, which has no relation to the ecosystem context.

Thus, the way forward to sustainable food systems that ensure global food security is via making food systems smaller to provide the room needed for more extensive production systems like organic agriculture, which perform reasonably well on many sustainability indicators but not maximal on any single one. Providing this room is achieved by changing consumption patterns, foremost by reducing food loss and waste drastically (today amounting to about 30% of total production), and by reducing feed for livestock that directly competes with food production, such as soy, cereals and forage maize.

Reduction of such food-competing feed would result in correspondingly reduced animal numbers and animal products in our diets. There are regional differences: in some low-consuming regions, animal source food in diets may even increase, with better utilization of available resources that cannot be used for direct food production. But on a global average, and in particular for high consuming countries, a drastic reduction in animal source food is needed.   

This then leads to the second answer, “No, if” – Organic agriculture cannot feed the world sustainably, if we do not change our consumption patterns. The question then arises, whether current conventional agriculture could. Here, the answer is clearly no. This type of production contributed to food security over the past decades by high productivity – but at tremendous environmental costs. Thus, to feed the world sustainably, we have to change our production patterns – and organic agriculture combined with the named changes in consumption is one option to achieve this.

For further reading consult e.g. Muller et al. 2017, Eyhorn et al. 2019, Seufert and Ramankutty 2017, Van Zanten et al. 2019.

Muller, A., Schader, C., El-Hage Scialabba, N., Brüggemann, J., Isensee, A., Erb, K.-H., Smith, P., Klocke, K., Leiber, F., Stolze, M., Niggli, U., 2017, Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture, Nature Communications 8:1290 | DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-01410-w

Eyhorn, F., Muller, A., Reganold, J., Frison, E., Herren, H., Luttikholt, L., Müller, A., Scialabba, N., Seufert, V., Smith, P., 2019, Organic farming drives sustainability in global agriculture, Comment in Nature Sustainability 2:253-255.

Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N., 2017, Many shades of gray—The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture, Science advances 3(3): e1602638

van Zanten, H., Herrero, M., van Hal, O., Roos, E., Muller, A., Garnett, T., Gerber, P., Schader, C., van ’t Veer, P., de Boer, I., 2018, Defining the land use boundary for sustainable livestock consumption, Global Change Biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.14321


Could organic farming feed the world?

Juliette Anglade has answered Near Certain

An expert from Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Environmental Science, Agricultural Science, Organic Food, Education, Ecohydrology

First of all, it should also be stated that nowadays the first factor of hunger is poverty and not the amount of food produced that is at least two times enough …

Organic farming could feed the world now, and in 2050 (9.5 billion people), by combining :

– a change in diet (a two-to-one reduction of animal protein for western countries);

– a relocation of food production and consumption places;

– a reduction of waste;

– a reconnection of crops and cattle, and the use of biological nitrogen fixation instead of synthetic fertilizers.

Regarding in details the agronomic performances of organic farming, it has been shown in northern France (one of the productive area of the planet), that the total biomass and total of proteins produced at the scale of an entire crop rotation is similar to that produced in conventional farming but with a lesser environmental impact. Those high performances are due to the presence of forage legumes like alfalfa or clover during three years at the beginning of crop rotations. But if we only consider cereals yields, OF shows a decrease of 40% on average. Forage legumes have high yields and are rich in proteins without fertilizers because they are able in symbiosis with bacteria to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere (biological nitrogen fixation). Recovery of those proteins require the presence of livestock activity. In cash crops specialised organic systems, the absence of animal husbandry represents an agronomic aberration, an economic loss, and potential nitrate losses if those legume crops are only used as green manure.


Could organic farming feed the world?

David Connor has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Melbourne in Agricultural Science

Not our populous world!  The estimates of the carrying capacity of Organic Agriculture (OA) are 3–4 billion. Clearly well below the current world population (7.8 billion) or that anticipated in 2050 (9.8 billion).  OA currently occupies a small area of agricultural land (1.2%).  Significant increase of OA area would place corresponding pressure for higher productivity on remaining crops to compensate for the lower productivity of OA.


Could organic farming feed the world?

Kenneth G. Cassman has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Nebraska in Agricultural Science

No, with one proviso: Due to considerably lower average crop yields from organic vs conventional production systems, if there was a massive expansion of crop production area, it might be possible. But expansion of production area would have massive negative environmental impacts.


Could organic farming feed the world?

Guy Kirk has answered Unlikely

An expert from Cranfield University in Soil Science, Organic Food, Agricultural Science

Not realistically. Organic farming necessarily requires more land to produce a given quantity of food, because of the need for fertility building leys in place of inorganic nitrogen fertilizer. But, there is no new land for agriculture. If anything, less land is available because of demands for other uses such as carbon sequestration. And there will be 2 billion more people to feed over the next few decades.

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