Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

Can Organic Farming Feed The World?

Excerpts from Our Food, Our Future: Can Organic Farming Feed The World?

A noted scientist argues that it can – and must.
Donella H. Meadows, Ph.D.
Organic Gardening Magazine, September/October 2000.

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 fertilisers. It’s the only way. Organic methods are for backyard gardens, not for feeding billions.

Alarmist statements like this drive me crazy. They leap with suspicious speed to a conclusion no thinking person can readily embrace…They add up to a dictum so common it is developing a nickname: TINA, There Is No Alternative…

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…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 non-profit research facility in 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 fertilisers and pesticides have been used. Another is an organic system in which a rotation of grass-legume forage has been added and fed to cow, 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 16 bushels per acre; the legume-fed organic fields delivered 30 bushels per acre, and the manure-fed organic fields delivered 24 bushels per acre…

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…

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.

Hitting Hunger Head-On 
The Association for Better Land Husbandry in Kenya, Africa, worked in 26 communities in the 1990s to teach organic methods with “near nil investment” because poor farmers could not afford expensive inputs. The focus was on double-dug beds, composting, and use of green and animal manures. In 1 year, 1996, the percentage of households that were free from hunger through the entire year rose from 43 to 75 percent. The proportion that bought vegetables fell from 85 to 11 percent; the proportion that sold vegetables grew from 20 to 77 percent. The number of households self-sufficient in maize (the staple grain) doubled.