Organic vs Industrial Agriculture rematch

Nature just published the latest in the war over whether organic agriculture can feed the world. The headline: organic agriculture produces 25% less than industrial agriculture.

Tom Philpott, skillfully as ever, has sliced through the study, its silences and its implications. Headline: sure, if you look at the narrowest possible metrics, conventional’s better, but the whole point of organic is that you don’t just look at the narrowest possible metric.

As I’ll be arguing in a forthcoming, loooong, article in the Journal of Peasant Studies, the problem here is one we’ve seen in other comparisons between organic and conventional. Organic-industrial isn’t terribly far from industrial conventional. What this study, and others like it ignore are cases that don’t just try to compete on industrial agriculture’s terms, but on completely different ones. Agroecological farming, for instance, is more resilient to climate change, and can outperform conventional agriculture in real-world smallholder settings. In any case, the model of massive fossil-fuel dependent farms based on inefficient, insecure and unsanitary processing and distribution sysetms is flawed from the ground up. Reducing pesticide use at one end of the grinder, while keeping everything else the same, is hardly progress. Headline: A more organic cesspool is still a cesspool.

So what would progress look like? Eric Holt-Gimenez, together with Miguel Altieri, Hans Herren and Stephen Gliessman have ideas, and I’m reposting here the fine words you’ll find at Food First.

We already grow enough food for 10 billion people… and still can’t end hunger

A new a study* from McGill University and the University of Minnesota published in the journal Nature compared organic and conventional yields from 66 studies and over 300 trials. Researchers found that on average, conventional systems out-yielded organic farms by 25%—mostly for grains, and depending on conditions.

Embracing the current conventional wisdom, the authors argue for a combination of conventional and organic farming to meet “the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts.”

Unfortunately, neither the study nor the conventional wisdom addresses the real cause of hunger.

Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day—most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land—can’t afford to buy this food.

In reality, the bulk of industrially produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.

But what about the contentious “yield gap” between conventional and organic farming?

Actually, what this new study does tell us is how much smaller the yield gap is between organic and conventional farming than what critics of organic agriculture have assumed. In fact, for many crops and in many instances, it is minimal. With new advances in seed breeding for organic systems, and with the transition of commercial organic farms to diversified farming systems that have been shown to “overyield”, this yield gap will close even further.

Rodale, the longest-running side-by-side study comparing conventional chemical agriculture with organic methods (now 47 years) found organic yields match conventional in good years and outperform them under drought conditions and environmental distress—a critical property as climate change increasingly serves up extreme weather conditions. Moreover, agroecological practices (basically, farming like a diversified ecosystem) render a higher resistance to extreme climate events which translate into lower vulnerability and higher long-term farm sustainability.

The Nature article examined yields in terms of tons per acre and did not address efficiency ( i.e. yields per units of water or energy) nor environmental externalities (i.e. the environmental costs of production in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, etc) and fails to mention that conventional agricultural research enjoyed 60 years of massive private and public sector support for crop genetic improvement, dwarfing funding for organic agriculture by 99 to 1.

The higher performance of conventional over organic methods may hold between what are essentially both mono-cultural commodity farms. This misleading comparison sets organic agriculture as a straw man to be knocked down by its conventional counterpart. While it is rarely acknowledged, half the food in the world is produced by 1.5 billion farmers working small plots for which monocultures of any kind are unsustainable. Non-commercial poly-cultures are better for balancing diets and reducing risk, and can thrive without agrochemicals. Agroecological methods that emphasize rich crop diversity in time and space conserve soils and water and have proven to produce the most rapid, recognizable and sustainable results. In areas in which soils have already been degraded by conventional agriculture’s chemical “packages”, agroecological methods can increase productivity by 100-300%.

This is why the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released a report advocating for structural reforms and a shift to agroecology (De Schutter 2010). It is why the 400 experts commissioned for the 4-year International Assessment on Agriculture, Science and Knowledge for Development (IAASTD 2008) also concluded that agroecology and locally-based food economies (rather than the global market) where the best strategies for combating poverty and hunger.

Raising productivity for resource-poor farmers is one piece of ending hunger, but how this is done—and whether these farmers can gain access to more land—will make a big difference in combating poverty and ensuring sustainable livelihoods. The conventional methods already employed for decades by poor farmers have a poor track record in this regard.

Can conventional agriculture provide the yields we need to feed 10 billion people by 2050? Given climate change, the answer is an unsustainable “maybe.” The question is, at what social and environmental cost? To end hunger we must end poverty and inequality. For this challenge, agroecological approaches and structural reforms that ensure that resource-poor farmers have the land and resources they need for sustainable livelihoods are the best way forward.

About the authors

Eric Holt-Giménez, PhD, Executive Director, Institute for Food and Development Policy, aka Food First. Eric is the editor of the 2011 book, Food Movements Unite! Strategies to transform our food systems, the author of the 2009 book, Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice.

Miguel Altieri, PhD, University of California, Berkeley, Professor in MCINS – ESPM Organisms and the Environment. He is an internationally-recognized entomologist studying biological control agro-ecology.

Hans Herren, PhD, President of the Millenium Insititute. Hans is an internationally recognized scientist, was appointed MI’s president in May 2005. Prior to joining MI, he was director-general of the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya. He also served as director of the Africa Biological Control Center of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), in Benin.

Stephen Gliessman, PhD, University of California, Santa Cruz, Professor in Environmental Studies, founder and director of Program in Community and Agroecology (PICA). He is an internationally-recognized Agro-ecologist.