Organic Can Feed the World

More and more food is being produced organically these days, while more and more shoppers are filling their carts with organic items. It seems that the organic movement is here to stay and may even one day no longer be called a movement, but rather organic agriculture may be accepted as the norm. But, as it currently stands, based on current yield levels, can organic agriculture feed the world today? To answer this question, I had to delve into the facts.

To start, feeding the world means that there is enough food for every single human being on the planet. Right now that number is roughly 7.013 billion people and, on average, we need about 2, 000 calories daily. However, as David Biello from the Scientific American points out, 22 trillion calories are produced each year via agriculture which amounts to more than 3, 000 calories per person per day. And, he states, in the U.S. alone, 215 meals per person go to waste each year.

Biello isn‟t the first person to argue that the world‟s problem of food insecurity and hunger are the result of food distribution. So much food is wasted in richer countries, where more is produced and available. A report commissioned by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that 30% of grains and 40-50% of root crops and fruits and vegetables are either lost or thrown out globally each year. It seems that we are producing a lot more food than we actually need and letting it go to waste, while not tackling the distribution issue and the millions of hungry world-wide who do not have access to affordable food. Currently, the FAO reports that almost 1 billion people world-wide do not have enough to eat. As Raj Patel, a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy reports, “the cause of hunger today isn‟t a shortage of food — it‟s poverty.” As some research has shown, organic yields might not be as high as conventional yields. This is not surprising, and investigating such a question really takes time. Long term experiments are needed to assess organic-conventional yield differences. The answer to this question is debatable and has already attracted many researchers from the scientific community. For example, a recent study published in Nature concluded that when best management practices are used, organic yields can almost match conventional yields.

Even seed and plant protection giants argue that their existence and business activities help to reduce hunger and feed the world. For example, Monsanto‟s CEO Hugh Grant reports that he is “excited by recent advances by the private and public sectors in creating solutions for farmers that increase yields per acre while at the same time requiring fewer environmental resources…” Meanwhile, a recent article in the Ontario Farmer entitled “Feeding the world top priority at Syngenta” reports that the company spends $3 million dollars a day on plant breeding and crop development. What

is missing though is a report about the profits turned in each day by the company, and the concrete efforts the company is making in terms of reducing global hunger. As Bob Ried, the author of the article, points out, “the fact that the research is also key to feeding a hungry world could be regarded by some as coincidental.”

In closing, to answer the question of whether or not organics can feed the world I also have to remember a „Global Thinking-Local Responsibility‟ conference I attended where two presenters where also asked to answer this question. The first presenter, an economist, showed his graphs and tables before saying, no, it isn‟t possible based on what we know now of current organic yield levels. The second presenter quoted the philosopher Heinz von Foerster, who stated that we should always take responsibility for what we believe in, and any scientific question usually results in a yes or no answer. So if organic is truly the route agriculture should take, we have to be responsible for this and still ensure that people everywhere have enough to eat.

Based on the fact that we waste so much food in our society at present and that organic-conventional yields may not be all that different when best practices are applied, I would have to say a system which places ecological and human health at the forefront can in fact feed the world. Feeding the world with organic agriculture can be possible if one does not view this question from how food is produced, but rather how the food we produce and could produce organically is distributed.

By Mary Ellen Wales, M.Sc., International Agricultural & Rural Development Economics

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