Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

Asian smallholder watering crops on their farm

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There are a lot of myths about our ability to “feed the world.” Many people think that without high-tech inputs like genetically engineered crops (GMOs), pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, we will have widespread famine as the global population mushrooms to 8 or 9 billion people over the coming decades.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Number One Myth About Hunger

The number one myth about hunger is that we simply don’t produce enough food to feel the billions of people who will be on the planet by 2050.

This is a lie.

According to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) State of Food and Agriculture 2007 report,

“Current food production can sustain world food needs even for the 8 billion people projected to inhabit the planet by 2030. This will hold even with anticipated increases in meat consumption, and without adding genetically modified crops.

And given that Western countries waste about 40% of all their food, yet still have millions of hungry people, producing enough is not really the issue. Think about it: Hunger is not primarily because of a lack of food, but rather because hungry people are too poor to buy the food that is available.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is most famous for proving that famine is fundamentally a problem of democracy, poverty and food distribution. The globe’s farms are already producing enough food to feed 12 billion people—twice the current population and a third more than the peak of 9 billion expected to be reached in 2050.

Yet at least a billion people lack access to enough to eat. For example, nearly half of the African continent’s 750 million people subsist on less than one dollar a day—nearly twice as many as 25 years ago. They are too poor to buy the food that is available but often poorly distributed, or they lack the land and resources to grow it themselves.

Raising crop yields does not prevent hunger or famine. Over the last 30 years, the Indian sub-continent went from being a chronic food importer to a massive grain exporter, but this does not keep 200 million Indians from going hungry while the country exports $625 million worth of wheat and flour and 5 million metric tons of rice.

Starvation deaths and child malnutrition are common in India, despite the fact that India ranks near the top of agricultural exporters in the global south. India’s current 26 million-ton grain surplus could easily feed its 320 million hungry people, but it does not. Why? Because starving villagers are too poor to buy the food produced in their own countryside.

You can see this to a lesser extent in the U.S., where 13 million children (that’s 1 in 6 children!) don’t have enough to eat because their parents cannot afford to buy all the food they need. Meanwhile, a mean-spirited segment of our society wants to eliminate Food Stamps and school lunch programs, both of which barely provide adequate nutrition to growing young bodies, but are all we currently have to help ensure the general welfare of poor children.

Ending Hunger is Cheap and Easy

In stark contrast to the U.S., the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil has effectively ended hunger in their city once and for all. Belo, a city of 2.5 million people, once had 11 percent of its population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its children going hungry.

Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a right of citizenship. The new mayor said, in effect: If you are too poor to buy food in the market—you are no less a citizen. The government is still accountable to you.

During the first six years of Belo’s food-as-a-right policy, the city agency developed dozens of innovations to assure everyone the right to food, especially by weaving together the interests of farmers and consumers.

It offered local family farmers dozens of choice spots of public space on which to sell to urban consumers, essentially redistributing retailer mark-ups on produce—which often reached 100 percent—to consumers and the farmers. Farmers’ profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got access to fresh, healthy, local food.

In addition to the farmer-run stands, the city makes healthy food available by offering entrepreneurs the opportunity to bid on the right to use well-trafficked plots of city land for local supermarkets. Today there are 34 such markets where the city determines a set price—about two-thirds of the market price—of about twenty healthy items. Everything else they can sell at the market price.

Belo’s food security initiatives also include reduced-price community cafés offering fresh, local food, extensive community and school gardens, and nutrition classes. Plus, money the federal government contributes toward school lunches, once spent on processed, corporate food, now buys whole food, mostly from local growers.

In just a decade, Belo Horizonte cut its infant death rate—widely used as evidence of hunger—by more than half, and today these initiatives benefit almost 40 percent of the city’s 2.5 million population to varying degrees. One six-month period in 1999 saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced by 50 percent. And between 1993 and 2002 Belo Horizonte was the only locality in Brazil in which consumption of fruits and vegetables went up.

The cost of these efforts?

Around $10 million annually, or less than 2 percent of the city budget. That’s about a penny a day per Belo resident.

When asked if she realized how important what she was doing was, how rare in the world it is was to treat food as a right of citizenship, a Belo city manager replied tearfully,

“I knew we had so much hunger in the world, but what is so upsetting, what I didn’t know when I started this, is it’s so easy. It’s so easy to end it.”

Why Crop Yield Doesn’t Matter – A Brief History of Today’s Agriculture

Launched in the 1960s, the Green Revolution aimed to increase grain yields through the use of new agricultural technologies. The Green Revolution promoted the use of hybrid seed varieties that could be densely planted and required irrigation, mechanization and the heavy application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to get higher yields.

The underlying objective of the Green Revolution was to increase farm productivity in countries perceived to be susceptible to communism because of rural poverty and hunger. But rather than raising production by redressing highly unequal land ownership, however, the Green Revolution favored technological fixes.

By the 1970s, it became apparent that by not addressing underlying social, political and economic injustices, the Green Revolution technologies only favored rich farmers and accentuated social inequalities. As a result, millions of smallholder farmers were forced out of agriculture, and migrated to the city, forming the massive, infamous slums now common throughout India, Latin America and other parts of the developing world. Others began farming fragile hillsides and marginal lands, leading to persistent poverty and deforestation.

As a result, between 1970 and 1990, while the total available food in the developing world rose by 11%, the number of hungry people also rose by 11% (Lappé). In Latin America, the number of hungry people rose by 18%. (China was the exception. Unlike India and Latin America, it brought down the number of hungry people through a combination of modernization and massive land reforms.)

By the 1990s, an estimated 95 percent of all farmers in the Western world and 40 percent of all farmers in developing countries were using Green Revolution hybrid seeds, with the greatest use found in Asia, followed by Mexico and Latin America. The world lost an estimated 75 percent of its food biodiversity, and control over seeds shifted from farming communities to a handful of multinational corporations.

In the long run, the Green Revolution has proved to be anything but green. Farming methods that depend heavily on machinery and agrochemicals erode the soil’s natural fertility over time. As fertility decreases and pests build tolerance, farmers have to apply more and more fertilizer and pesticides to get the same results.

In Punjab, India, an early Green Revolution showcase, farmers now apply three times the amount of fertilizers to maintain the same yields. They are also running out of groundwater and losing increasingly larger portions of their crops to pesticide-resistant insects and weeds.

Similar trends can be seen in the U.S., too, especially in the midwest where most of the industrial grain and soy monocultures are grown. Soil infertility, superweeds and superbugs threaten American farms unlike never before, and today, farmers are resorting to ever more toxic measures to combat them, including using chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects, like Dicamba and 2-4-D, which is basically Agent Orange.

Today’s Farming Methods Cannot Be Sustained

The evidence against the Green Revolution is overwhelming: The industrial practices and synthetic chemicals introduced to the world during the 60s have ravaged the environment, caused dramatic loss of biodiversity and associat­ed traditional knowledge, favored wealthier farmers and multinational agribusiness, and left many poor farmers deep in debt, and displaced from the land.

Today, there is a new Green Revolution proposed for Africa by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports Bayer-Monsanto and GMO crops. Unfortunately, this new revolution appears destined to repeat the tragic record left by the first one, by increasing depen­dency on foreign aid, fossil fuels, foreign inputs and patent-protected GM seed varieties which poor farmers cannot afford.

But, the growing push toward industrial agriculture and globalization of the food system—with an emphasis on export crops, genetically modified crops, and rapid expansion of biofuel crops (sugar cane, corn, soybean, oil palm, euca­lyptus, etc.)—is increasingly reshaping the world’s agriculture and food supply, with potentially severe economic, social, and ecological impacts and risks. After all, none of these commodity crops actually feed people the diverse, nutritious diet that we need to be healthy.

Furthermore, the industrial farming practices currently in use today (including industrial-scale organic farming to a lesser degree) release tons of harmful carbon dioxide and nitrogen into the atmosphere; deplete precious phosphorus and potash reserves; and promote soil erosion, salinization, desertification and loss of soil fertility. In fact, from clearing a field to delivery to your table, nothing releases more carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane into the atmosphere than industrial agriculture.

The UNFAO estimates that over 25 percent of arable land in the world is already compromised by these problems, especially in more arid regions and in sloped terrain. And with recent droughts induced by climate change, the U.S. (and other countries) could be facing another catastrophic Dust Bowl in the coming decade, if we don’t change the way we farm, and fast.

Why would we want to export such destruction to developing countries, knowing it will immediately come back around to harm us all?

So, How Do We “Feed the World”?

“Feeding the world” is industrial agriculture’s claim to the moral high ground and with that claim, they justify the chemicals, fossil fuels and all the pollution, resource depletion, and soil destruction.

But did you know that U.S. farmers do not, actually, “feed the world”? At least not directly, anyway.

Margaret Mellon, a scientist with the environmental advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, recently wrote an essay in which claims it’s time to set the idea of “feeding the world” aside. It doesn’t answer the concerns about sustainability and the environment that people have about modern agriculture—and it’s not even true.

“Industrial farming in America doesn’t really grow food for hungry people,” she says in a recent NPR piece. Forty percent of the biggest crop in the U.S.—corn—goes into ethanol fuel for cars. And much of the rest of our corn crop goes into livestock feed and food additives like corn syrup that provide little nutritional value. Most of the second-biggest crop—soybeans—is fed to animals. What is left is sold on the commodity market.

Growing more grain isn’t the solution to hunger anyway, Mellon says. If you’re really trying to solve that problem, there are many other things we can do that are much more important: “We need to empower women; we need to raise incomes; we need infrastructure in the developing world; we need the ability to get food to market without spoiling.”

Indirectly, bigger harvests in the U.S. do tend to make food more affordable around the world simply by driving the cost down. And since hunger is a poverty issue, not a productivity issue, lower food prices are a good thing for poor people. For instance, Chinese pigs are growing fat on cheap soybean meal grown by farmers in the U.S. and Brazil, and that’s one reason why hundreds of millions of people in China are eating much better than a generation ago—they can afford to buy pork.

This is a good thing in the short term, however it comes at a grave environmental and social cost in the long run. Driving prices down means that everyone gets paid less, including the small family corn farmer in Africa who just can’t compete with cheap U.S. exports.

And if that weren’t trouble enough, the big crops that American farmers send abroad simply don’t provide the vitamins and minerals that billions of people need most. So if the U.S. exports lots of corn, driving down the cost of cornmeal, it drives poor families to buy lots of cornmeal, and to buy less in the way of leafy green vegetables, or milk or eggs, that have the key nutrients that provide good health.

In this case, the U.S. is kind of feeding people, but definitely not solving their nutrition problems.

But there is a fundamental flaw in the whole “feeding the world” concept in the first place:

North Dakota organic farmer and distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Fred Kirschenmann refutes the notion that industrial, high-input production for the global marketplace is the only way to feed the world. Kirschenmann even wonders if “feeding the world” should be our goal.

“‘Feeding the world’ suggests that someone will take responsibility for feeding someone else, and therefore make them dependent. Under those terms, there can be no food security... ‘Keeping the world fed’ suggests that people will be empowered to feed themselves. That is essential to long-term food security.”

Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Critics of sustainable, organic farming often argue that such methods can’t keep up the pace of producing enough food to feed an ever-expanding human population. But Kirschenmann maintains that we need alternatives to the industrial model because it is quickly destroying the fragile ecological balances and using up the natural resources upon which farming depends.

And people still aren’t getting fed.

” …the real problem with the unprecedented increase in human population is that it has led to the disruption and deterioration of the natural functioning of earth’s biotic community, and that is what threatens our future—not lack of production,” he points out.

Reducing waste, slowing population growth, and changing our paradigm about the right to food are part of the solution. But the other major piece of the puzzle is to find ways of farming that mirror the evolutionary stability of the ecosystems in which we live, and that enhance and augment, rather than deplete, our natural resources.

After examining ag-related controversies ranging from global climate change to the role of livestock, Kirschenmann argues that organic farms “…integrated into local ecologies and rooted in local communities, can do a better job of keeping the world fed than large, corporate farms owned by distant investors.”

He concludes:

“The best way to achieve food security is through food locally produced by local people with local control.”

The Case for Agroecological and Organic Farming

Can organic, smallholder farming feed an increasingly hungry world? Almost everyone assumes that it can’t. Organic farming is seen as something purely for the health-conscious Western middle classes. But the truth is counter-intuitive.

Study after study after study shows that organic and agroecological techniques can provide much more food per acre in developing countries than conventional chemical-based agriculture. One report—published 2008 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)—found that 114 projects, covering nearly two million African farmers, more than doubled their yields by introducing organic or near-organic practices. And today, some smallholders are breaking all records for productivity!

Numerous field trials in the U.S. and the U.K for the past 40 years have shown that organic farming practices produce yields equal to or greater than conventional for soy, corn, and many fruit and vegetables, but somewhat reduced yields for commodities like wheat, except during drought, when organic outperforms there too.

But even if organic commodity yields are 10-20% reduced compared to commodity crops farmed with toxic chemicals, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and severe impacts on ecosystem services have not only accompanied conventional farming systems but have often extended well beyond their field boundaries.

With organic agriculture, environmental costs tend to be lower and the benefits greater.

Overall, organic farms tend to store more soil carbon, have better soil quality, and reduce soil erosion compared to their conventional counterparts. Organic agriculture also creates far less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s more energy-efficient and less toxic because it doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Organic agriculture is also associated with greater biodiversity of plants, animals, insects and microbes as well as genetic diversity, which creates a more resilient food system. In severe drought conditions (which are expected to increase with climate change) organic farms often produce higher yields than conventional agriculture because of the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils.

Crop yield simply cannot be the only criteria for a healthy, sustainable agriculture anymore.

In fact, a recent report from the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development stated that the only way we are going to maintain global security and stop escalating conflicts is through meeting the “urgent need to transform agriculture toward a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

Agroecological, organic techniques like polycultural plantings, guild stacking, no-till, rotation crops, cover crops and animal manures are particularly advantageous in regions that lack money, technology and fossil fuels for industrial approaches. Going organic will also pay long-term dividends, for it builds up soil, whereas mechanized, chemical farming depletes it.

Organic also prevents exposure to toxic pesticides, increases local biodiversity, sequesters tons of carbon which offsets global warming, and stores more water in the ground in what will be an increasingly hot, thirsty world.

Professor Jules Pretty of Essex University, who has studied the issue for more than 20 years, says: “Methods used by organic farmers can dramatically increase yields over those achieved by low-intensity conventional agriculture.” Even more important, as the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development points out, going organic almost always boosts the incomes of small farmers in developing countries, because they no longer have to buy costly inputs.

Poor farmers around the world are lifting themselves out of poverty by going organic. Small-scale farmers all over the world have stopped paying for expensive, toxic chemicals and patented, genetically modified seeds in favor of traditional methods of growing which they haven’t used for decades.

The result? Small communities are re-learning how to manage their natural resources, meaning they produce more reliable, bigger crops and a better living wage with less toxic pollution. For many of the world’s 1.4 billion small-scale farmers, the benefit of using agroecological and regenerative farming methods is clear: better food, more security and a better life.

A New Way for the Post-Fossil Fuel World

“The commercial industrial technologies that are used in agriculture today to feed the world… are not inherently sustainable… 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… 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.”

—former Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro speech to the Society of Environmental Journalists, 1995

Wow! Can you believe these words came out of the mouth of a Bayer-Monsanto CEO? Well, while he may be right about the problem, do we really need to embark upon another risky technological, industrial fix (like GMOs) 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 few, if any, environmental and social costs. Fortunately, there is such an alternative that has been pioneered by organic farmers and permaculture smallholders worldwide.

In contrast to the industrial monoculture approach advocated by Bayer-Monsanto and the GM seed 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.”

According to Miguel A. Altieri, professor of agroecology at the University of California at Berkeley, “Food systems must become less dependent on fossil fuels, more resilient in the face of climate change, and able to contribute to the Government’s pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Farming based on organic principles can deliver against all three challenges.

In 2008, the world’s biggest and most authoritative study (PDF)—the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)—advocated organic agriculture as part of a “radical change” in the way the world grows its food. Certainly, the present over-concentration on intensive agriculture has not succeeded even in reducing the number of people going hungry—in 2019, 820 million people went hungry globally.

Technology will of course be important to the looming food crisis, but the search for a “silver bullet” like genetic modification to solve all these problems is a dangerous distraction. The solutions are already largely available all around us; it’s now about the political will to implement them.

The question then, is not “how to feed the world,” but rather, how can we develop sustainable, regenerative farming methods that have the potential to help the world feed and sustain itself.

7 Steps to “Keeping the World Fed”

According to Yes! Magazine, “The official prescriptions for solving the world food crisis call for more subsidies for industrialized nations, more food aid, and more so-called Green (or Gene) Revolutions. Expecting the institutions that built the current flawed food system to solve the food crisis is like asking an arsonist to put out a forest fire.

When the world food crisis exploded in early 2008, ADM’s profits increased by 38 percent, Cargill’s by 128 percent, and Mosaic Fertilizer (a Cargill subsidiary) by a whopping 1,615 percent! Meanwhile, millions starved all over the world.

For decades, family farmers the world over have resisted this corporate control. They have worked to diversify crops, protect soil and native seeds, and conserve nature. They have established local gardens, businesses, and community-based food systems. These strategies are effective. They need to be given a chance to work.

The solutions to the food crisis are those that make the lives of family farmers easier: re-regulate the market, reduce the power of the agri-foods industrial complex, and build ecologically resilient family and community agriculture.

Here are some of the recommended steps:

  1. Support domestic food production.
  2. Stabilize and guarantee fair prices to farmers and consumers by re-establishing floor prices and publicly owned national grain reserves. Establish living wages for workers on farms, in processing facilities, and in supermarkets.
  3. Halt agrofuels expansion.
  4. Curb speculation in food.
  5. Promote a return to smallholder farming. On a pound-per-acre basis, family farms are substantially more productive than large-scale industrial farms. And they use less oil, less water and fewer chemicals. Because 75 percent of the world’s poor are farmers, this will address poverty, too.
  6. Support agro-ecological, regenerative and organic food production.
  7. Food sovereignty: Recognize the right of all people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound methods and their own food systems.”

The Future of Food

An estimated 80% of all food on grocery store shelves in the U.S. contains genetically engineered soy, corn, sugar beet or Canola—even foods you wouldn’t expect to contain them, like spaghetti sauce. If you haven’t yet seen “The Future of Food,” please take the time to rent this documentary investigating the disturbing truth behind the genetically engineered foods that have quietly filled U.S. grocery store shelves for the past decade, taking us further down the industrial rabbit hole.

Here’s the extended trailer.

Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

So, can organic farming feed the world? …Or, rather, keep the world fed?

I would argue it is the only thing that can. 

Sources & Resources

Updated August 2021

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