Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

With the world population passing the 6 billion mark last October, the debate over our ability to sustain a fast growing population is heating up. Biotechnology advocates in particular are becoming very vocal in their claim that there is no alternative to using GM crops in agriculture if “we want to feed the world”.

Actually, that quote might be true. It depends what they mean by “we.” It’s true if the “we can feed the world” refers to the agribusiness industry, which has brought the world to the brink of food disaster and is looking for a way out. Biotech just may be their desperation move. Modern industrial agricultural — which forms the foundation for biotech — ranks as such a dismal failure that even Monsanto holds them up as the evil alternative.

“The commercial industrial technologies that are used in agriculture today to feed the world… are not inherently sustainable,” Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro told the Greenpeace Business Conference recently. “They have not worked well to promote either self-sufficiency or food security in developing countries.” Feeding the world sustainably “is out of the question with current agricultural practice,” Shapiro told the Society of Environmental Journalists in 1995. “Loss of topsoil, of salinity of soil as a result of irrigation, and ultimate reliance on petrochemicals… are, obviously, not renewable. That clearly isn’t sustainable.”

Shapiro is referring to the 30-year-old “Green Revolution” which has featured an industrial farming system that biotech would build on: the breeding of new crop varieties that could effectively use massive inputs of chemical fertilizers, and the use of toxic pesticides. As Shapiro has hinted, it has led to some severe environmental consequences, including loss of topsoil, decrease in soil fertility, surface and ground water contamination, and loss of genetic diversity.

Do we really need to embark upon another risky technological fix to solve the mistakes of a previous one? Instead, we should be looking for solutions that are based on ecological and biological principles and have significantly fewer environmental costs. There is such an alternative that has been pioneered by organic farmers. In contrast to the industrial/monoculture approach advocated by the biotech industry, organic agriculture is described by the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) as “a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.”

A survey of recent studies comparing the productivity of organic practices to conventional agriculture provides an excellent example of the wide range of benefits we can expect from a conversion to sustainable agricultural methods. The results clearly show that organic farming accomplishes many of the FAO’s sustainability aims, as well as showing promise in increasing food production ability. It is becoming imperative that we move away from organic versus conventional systems comparisons, to research into ways of improving organic farming methods.