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Can Sustainable Farming Feed the World?

by Francis Thicke

[The following is an excerpt taken from my book, 'A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture'.]

Chapter 16. Can Sustainable Farming Feed the World?

Proponents of industrial agriculture often proclaim that if sustainable or organic farming were widely adopted there would be mass starvation around the world. There are several flaws to that argument.

The first flaw is the assumption that converting to sustainable or organic farming means returning to the methods of 100 years ago. Clearly, that is not the case. While we can learn and apply many things from earlier traditional farming methods, advances in technology and increased understanding of biology and ecology have taken organic farming far beyond the farming methods of 100 years ago. Then, all farming was “conventional,” because the distinction between organic and conventional had not yet been made. Since then, conventional and organic farming methods have diverged, and both have become much more productive.

Innovations in farm equipment over the years have benefited both organic and conventional farmers.  For example, in the 1960’s when my brother and I would cut hay using a tractor hitched to a converted horse mower on the farm we grew up on, it took the two of us about an hour to cut one or two acres. Today, on my organic farm, I can easily cut, condition and windrow 10 acres of hay per hour by myself.  In the 1960s, it took our family crew of four a long hard day to bale 50 tons of hay; today I can bale 50 tons in two hours, by myself.  Also, today’s organic farmers use mechanical weeders and guidance systems on cultivators to control weeds much more efficiently and precisely than possible in the 1960s.

But the greatest advancement for today’s organic farmers has been an increased understanding of biology and ecology, and how to design and manage organic farms to efficiently utilize the energy and organizing power of nature’s ecology. For example, as discussed earlier, new scientific understandings of grassland ecology help grass-based farmers better manage grazing in order to increase biodiversity and productivity and reduce the need for fossil-fuel-based inputs.

Also, new scientific advancements in understanding the ecology of insects, weeds and plant diseases are helping organic farmers manage pests through the use of crop rotations, beneficial insects, pest mating disruptions and other cultural practices that circumvent the need for chemical pest controls.

Certainly, there is room for improvement in organic food production, just as there is in conventional production. However, it is remarkable that organic agriculture is as productive as it is today given the paucity of research funding for organic over the years. Long-term research comparing organic and conventional farming methods done by Iowa State University has found that corn and soybean yields of organic and conventional farming systems are similar.

The agriculture research budget of the United States Department of Agriculture is approximately $2 billion annually. Before the 2002 Farm Bill – when $5 million was marked for organic research – there were virtually no USDA research funds specifically dedicated to research on organic agriculture. The 2008 Farm Bill raised funding for organic agriculture research to $15 million, a good increase but still meager in comparison to research funding for conventional agriculture. One can only wonder where organic agriculture production would be today if its research budget had been on par with that of conventional agriculture over the past 50 years.

A research team from Michigan compared yields of organic versus conventional agriculture by analyzing 293 existing data sets from around the world. They found that in developed countries, the yields of organic and conventional agriculture were about equal. But in developing countries, the organic yields were higher, often substantially so. The study concluded “that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.”

A 2008 United Nations analysis of 144 projects in 24 African countries found that yields more than doubled where organic practices that maximized the use of on-farm resources were used. In addition to yield increases, the study found that environmental benefits from organic farming in those studies included improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought. The UN study concluded that “the evidence presented in this study supports the argument that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term.”

A key reason why researchers are looking to organic methods – particularly in developing nations around the world – is that organic methods optimize the use of locally available resources and biologically produced resources on site, rather than relying on expensive external inputs that are not readily available and are often too expensive for limited-resource farmers.

The Green Revolution of the latter 20th Century was a great triumph of increasing food production in food-deficit countries using the methods of industrial agriculture. However, scientists are now recognizing that some of the unintended consequences of the Green Revolution include extensive soil erosion, loss of soil fertility, loss of agricultural land through salinization, depletion of water tables, increased pest resistance and social disruption.

In 2008, the United Nations, World Bank and Global Environment Facility sponsored an International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) by a team of more than 400 scientists and development experts from more than 80 countries. The IAASTD team looked at policy options for how agricultural knowledge, science and technology could reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods and human health, and facilitate equitable and environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development around the world. The team produced a comprehensive report in which they addressed the successes and shortcomings of past development efforts and made recommendations for future efforts. The report pointed out that past development efforts of the Green Revolution have produced large increases in food production, but those increases have come with significant environmental and social costs, and the challenge today “is to increase the productivity of agriculture in a sustainable manner.”

The IAASTD team pointed out that “for many years, agricultural science focused on delivering component technologies to increase farm-level productivity,” and argued that to increase food production in a sustainable manner requires recognition that agriculture is multifunctional. As the report framed it: “The concept of multifunctionality recognizes agriculture as a multi-output activity producing not only commodities (food, feed, fibers, agrofuels, medicinal products and ornamentals), but also non-commodity outputs such as environmental services, landscape amenities and cultural heritages.”

The IAASTD report made recommendations for how agricultural knowledge, science and technology could be applied in international development in ways that would “recognize and give increased importance to the multifunctionality of agriculture, accounting for the complexity of agricultural systems within diverse social and ecological contexts.” The recommendations focused on eight areas in which the multifunctionality of agriculture should be considered:

  • Bioenergy
  • Biotechnology
  • Climate change
  • Human health
  • Natural resource management
  • Trade and markets
  • Traditional and local knowledge and community-based innovation
  • Women in agriculture

Applying the concept of the multifunctionality of agriculture would no doubt serve us well in the United States also. Often policies for agricultural production in this country run counter to environmental and social concerns. For example, U.S. crop subsidy programs in general provide the highest incentives for farmers to grow annual crops that can have the greatest potential harmful environmental effects, such as soil erosion and nitrate leaching to water resources. Another example is the existence of state-level laws that give higher priority to the economic returns of CAFO owners than to the health, quality of life and property values of their neighbors.

Some of the multifunctional aspects of agriculture that we in the United States should consider in our deliberations on agricultural policy include the viability of rural communities, the competitiveness of family farms, the health of farmers and rural residents, the resilience of farming systems to extreme weather events, the aesthetic and recreational value of the landscape, the nutritional value of the food we produce, the welfare of farm animals, the effects of farming practices on air and water quality, the compatibility of agriculture with wildlife habitat, and the long-term sustainability of our farming systems.

Designing agricultural policies that take into account the inescapable interconnectedness of agriculture’s many roles will take more comprehensive thinking, but will provide ample payback in enhanced benefits for society and reduced externalized costs from agriculture. Such policies will move us beyond industrial agriculture to a multifunctional agriculture designed around nature’s ecology, with long-term benefits for farmers and all of society.

[Stay tuned to this blog: I will be posting all the chapters from my book, 'A New Vision For Iowa Food And Agriculture' to this blog during the final weeks before the election on November 2nd. I look forward to any comments or questions you have.]

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5 Comments

  1. Indigenous cattle its role in promoting Organic farming practices in India=
    this comment is related to article but I want stress for Organic farming growing concern for environment and increaseing interest in chemical- free food has diverted attension towards organing farming, which signifies farmingwithout useing any form of chemical fertilizer or the agrochemicals, but depending entirely on locally available organic sources to facilatate crop nutrition and eco-friendly crop husbandry.The trends indicate that organic agriculture has immennce potential, which r currently more focuused on cereals and fruits.This is most relevant for a country like India, which is enriched with a vast reservoir of genetic diversity in livestock wealth.

  2. the best thing about organic foods is that they are free from hazardous chemicals that are present in non-organic foods.~`

  3. organic foods are the best for our health since they are free from dangerous chemicals and toxins –:

  4. Fantastic info.. I am going to require a bit of time to think over the content=)

  5. OrganicDude says:

    Organic agriculture is the key to our survival. Chemical laden conventional agriculture is harmful to the land and to us.