False Debate: Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?

The basic argument here is that the debate whether organics can feed the world or not should stop, as it is false. There is enough food for everyone; the problem is that the poor cannot afford it. On the developed side of the world we waste almost half our food. We also keep on excessively consuming animal-based foods which need huge amounts of resources to be produced; we feed pigs and cows and not the world’s poor. I conclude that this debate is misleading us from these crucial issues and hampers a much-needed change. Ultimately, this debate has been tirelessly used to feed the food industry with more capital, control and power. Thus, I propose to reverse the logic by pushing the onus to the global food system: Can conventional agriculture feed the world? I further propose that the people who are propagating confusion should be held accountable for the continuous ruining of the planet and the deaths of the hungry millions.

This is maybe the tritest headline a debate can have.

“Can organic feed the world?” As a student I was confronted with this ‘dilemma’ in countless debates/lectures/workshops. It is a favourite among agronomic Universities. It is a debate that sparkles fiery arguments pro and against organic agriculture (depending on which department you belong to).

In my university we had a MSc programme for organic agriculture and many about biotechnology/food technology and all the agri-business type of science. In the group of organic agriculture  (and among social sciences) it is being taught that organic farming systems can feed the world more sustainably, despite the fact in some case organic crop yields are lower.

In most of the agri-business academic groups it is still being taught that organic farming is not a solution in the right direction; professors claim that pollution/degradation and all the other devastating side effects of industrial agriculture are going to be addressed by increasing efficiency, research and technological advances. It is population growth that underlines the ‘imperative of technological advancement to increase productivity’ argument, as if the food industry was ever caring to feed the world’s poor.

We produce enough food!

According to FAO (2010, Statistics division) we produce enough food to provide every single person on the planet with 2780 kilocalories on a daily basis [1]. This is already too much, since men and young adults need only 2500 kcal/day and women 2000 kcal/day [2].

The problem is that food is excessive in the Global North (3420 kcal/person/day), while it is scarce in the Global South (2630 kcal/person/day). As always, Sub-Saharan Africa is in food deficit (2240 kcal/person/day), while the worst case is Central Africa with just 1820 kcal available for every person [1]. Thus we can see that the issue is distribution of wealth, not productivity.

Kofi Annan, during his service as secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), explicitly stressed: “There is no shortage of food on the planet. World production of grain alone is more than enough to meet the minimum nutritional needs of every child, woman and man.” That was part of his inaugural speech at the ‘World Food Summit: five years later’ in 2002 [3]. In the same vein, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food – Jean Ziegler, declared that “The world already produces enough food to feed every child, woman and man and could feed 12 billion people, or double the current world population.”[4]

Amartya Sen, the Nobel award winning economist, has explained in his landmark book ‘Development as Freedom’ that hunger results not from lack of food rather poverty and skewed food distribution. He argued that it is a question of policy, not agricultural productivity [5].  As a conclusion, the challenge lies at how poor people will gain access to food, rather what farming systems we use to produce food. Only this is sufficient to drop the organic vs. conventional debate as invalid.

Although we produce more than enough food for everyone, the number of hungry people in 2010 was 925 millions, which is the second highest number since Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ statistical records began. Hunger spiked in 2009 at 1.023 billion people [11]. Apart from hunger, malnutrition is even more widespread as 1 out of 3 people in developing countries are affected by vitamin and mineral deficiencies [16].


More than 30% of food for human nutrition is thrown away globally every year

Apart from the fact that food is enough for everyone in the world, a large part of the food is thrown away before it is consumed. That accounts for 1.3 billion tons per year or 1/3 of the global food production [6]. There are significant regional differences: while in sub-Saharan Africa food is wasted due to lack of means in processing or storage facilities, in the developed world food is wasted mostly at the retail or consumer level.

For instance, 95-115 kg/year are wasted per consumer in North America and Europe. Contrastingly, a person in sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia wastes only 6-11 kg/year on average. In industrialized countries 222 million tons of food are thrown away only at the consumer level, an amount which equals the total food production of sub-Saharan Africa [6]. One third of the food is chucked out by British households [12].  Similarly 50% of the food at harvest is wasted in US [15].

Most of the food wasted is still edible [6]. The vast amounts of resources used to produce this food are also wasted as well as CO2 emissions are emitted in vain. Food waste is not even used for biogas production, it is just going to the landfills [6, 13]. This wasteful demand on food (bought food and then trashed) keeps global food prices high at the global market and hence unaffordable for the world’s poor [14].

1kg of beef = 7-16 kg of grains or soy beans + 15500 liters of water + 323 m2 of grazing land [7]

There is a point until which domesticated animal can be fed on crop residues and foods that are not edible by humans (e.g. grass), therefore bring nutrients in human food chain. Until that point animal-foods are not so resource-devouring [8]. But we currently consume enormous amounts of animal-based foods while animals are not fed with residues; they are mostly raised in factories and fed with crops like corn and soy that could be used for direct human consumption [8,9].

Animal husbandry has become to a large extend a specialized industry; that means that animals are not anymore part of integrated traditional farms with multifunctional roles (manure, exploiting local resources etc.) [9].Livestock is increasingly kept in massive numbers in large factories; animals spend their whole life caged, indoors.

This industry relies heavily on imported animal feed (e.g. soy) that often comes from plantations installed on cut rainforest. Animals have thus become competitors of man’s food from converters of what man cannot eat [8]. For instance, 38% of the world’s grain harvest are used for the production of animal-based foods [17]

Meat consumption per person is almost three times higher in developed countries as compared to developing countries.  Meat production has more than doubled since 1970 [18] and it is expected to double again within the period 1999-2050 as a result of population growth and higher incomes [10]. There are enormous implications following this trend. The ethical issues of animal farming and especially animal factories are also immense.

Why the debate is not over yet?

We produce more than enough food to feed everyone. We throw away 1/3 of the food. A lot of food is wasted in the form of excessive consumption of animal-based foods. Why agricultural productivity is still deemed as so important to dictate huge investments in food technology? Why alternatives like organic agriculture, local food supply systems are constantly put in doubt if they can provide humanity with sufficient food supplies?

There are cases, where organic yields are slightly lower compared to conventional. That occurs mostly in developed countries when comparing to highly industrialized large-scale agriculture. What often is overlooked is the fact that agriculture can be multi-functional; it does not have to be highly specialized to produce on thing. Usually, these arguments come from an oversimplified, mechanical view of farming (i.e. excluding other socio-ecological parameters) which relies measuring mostly yields per hectares under different systems.

Firstly, although conventional agriculture is responsible for historical yield increases, the nutrient density of 43 garden crops was found reportedly lower [22]. Higher yields did not provide necessarily higher returns for the farmers. Many small-scale farmers were outpaced and had to abandon their farms, thus rural areas deteriorated culturally and socially [22].

Apart from that, there are a lot of researches which show that organic farming can supply sufficient quantities of food even when only looking at yields [19, 21]. Compared to monocropping systems, diverse agroecology in farming can increase biomass outputs 10-15 times [20]. Conversion from conventional to organic farming systems in Africa led actually to yield increases that supported the local food security both by food availability and higher incomes [21]. People preferring local food in the West, shunning from animal-based foods that are produced in specialized feedlots, are supporting a potential relief of global hunger [27]. We can endlessly continue the list of benefits that are created from alternatives to the industrial food system.

But let us not lose focus: the problem is not yields. Is it not clear yet that the problem of hunger has nothing to do with farming systems? Why do we keep on discussing if organic agriculture can feed the world? For me this is worrisome. These debates keep us mute, passive, numb and inactive. Confusion is generating indecision and subsequently inertia. The ones that keep on diffusing doubts about our food system should be accountable to the society; they should finally provide a answer why they keep on posing the same questions over and over again.

It is beyond any doubt that the present food system is causing unprecedented damage while it keeps one out of every seven people undernourished. This food system is inadequate for the present and for the future and has to be fundamentally reconfigured. A proper food system should provide sufficient, nutritious food to all of us. This ‘false dilemma’ rhetoric is dangerous; instead a proper debate should hold the present food system accountable: Can industrial agriculture feed the world? The answer is a big NO! It did not make it during the past 70 years – there is no reason to insist in it. Conventional agriculture has been the dominant model of farming after World War II and has been proven environmentally destructive while it has driven many of us to starvation and death.

Capital concentration in food industry: controlling the global food supply.

The ‘productivity imperative’ argument lies behind the development of new ‘space-age crop varieties, which are mostly genetically modified.  We keep on sinking into the same model of development even though it is the major cause of the social and environmental problems we face today. We are trying to solve a crisis with the same tools that created it despite of the fact that major studies call for an urgent support of alternatives rather than a mere effort to ‘improve’ the present food system [22, 23]

The imperative of ‘increasing productivity’ is an argument keeps the money flowing to research in the fields of biotechnology, food technology, conventional agriculture etc.  (while much needed research in organic agriculture is underfunded).  All the technology that is produced by this research and development is patented. That means that the fruits of R & D are reaped only by the corporation that ‘invested’ in it. The patents are then enforced by TRIPs (Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property rights) to all the countries in the world.

Many have documented the increasing accumulation of capital and control within the food system to Transnational Corprorations [24, 26]. For instance, the 10 largest TNC’s controlled 49% of the global seed market in 2005 with the 2 leading companies Monsanto and Dupont/Pioneer had sales 2803 and 2600 US million $ respectively the same year [25]. Monsanto’s GM maize and soybean accounted for 97% and 91% of world’s GM maize and soy cultivated area in 2004 [25].

Is it so difficult to understand that this dominant system benefits the few i.e. provides more power to the already powerful? What does it have to do with solving the problem of global hunger? It was never the aim – or it comes at the end of the list of objectives, far behind the highest value of profit maximization’, in order to keep a credible social profile that the new era of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) demands.

Reverse the logic!

It is not an issue of agronomy; it is not an issue of farming systems. This debate is misleading; it is shifting our attention from the most significant problems humanity faces (like the root causes of poverty, food waste etc.) to a false debate. This debate is being reproduced over and over again, spreading confusion in order that conventional, industrial agriculture keeps ruling the planet. It provides an alibi to all involved scientists, corporations, institutions etc. that they improve food technologies for the benefit of humanity e.g. to feed the poor; it is an artificial feel-good factor.

That is the way the students are indoctrinated as well in their pre-employee status (i.e. student period), something that reflects the increasing influence of corporations on academic institutions and research through private funding with the parallel decline of public funding [23]. Most research is no longer conducted for the benefit of society; it is carried out for specific corporations in ‘closed-circles’ where generated knowledge is prohibited to reach the public. Actually this knowledge is irrelevant for a sustainable society; it is again a waste of resources towards the destructive mainstream.

We need to inspire a new logic that reverses the roles. The people should question the food system because it has deprived them from the basic human right to food. We should reverse this stagnated sterile logic that hampers consciousness and change just to safeguard the interests of the centres of power. From an ecological point of view, although industrial agriculture is a reality, it is unrealistic in the near future. It has managed to feed only some people for a short period of 2-3 generations while it has irreversibly degraded our planet and exhausted irreplaceable resources. In few words, it is not possible for us to keep producing food in this way; it is an illusion that we can keep farming in the conventional way.

Animal factories, large-scale monocropping plantations, export-oriented farming, centralized food retailers are all obsolete. That accounts for most of the products we buy in the supermarket. We just need to turn the page and leave these preconditioned debates behind.

What we can all do is very simple and down to Earth.  We can voluntarily retreat from the current food system. There are plenty of alternatives like farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, sustainable agriculture etc. We do need to rely on institutions and their established interests, we can just rely on each other.

[1] FAO Statistics Division (2010). Food Balance Sheets, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. Retrieved on 15 December 2011 from http://faostat.fao.org/

[2] Wikipedia (2010). Food energy. Retrieved on 15 December 2011 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_energy.

[3] World Food Summit: five years later report (2002). Annex I: Statements: Inaugural Ceremony – H.E. Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations – 10 June 2002. FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

[4] Ziegler J (2008). Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler. Human Rights Council , Seventh session, Agenda item 3 10 January 2008.

[5] Amartya S (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[6] Gustavsson J, Cederberg C, Sonesson U, van Otterdijk R and Meybeck A (2011). Global food losses and food waste: Extend causes and prevention. FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

[7] Petition ‘FOOD vs. FEED’ to the UN. Delivered to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. on World Vegetarian Day (1 October 2009).

[8] Fairle S (2010). Meat: a benign extravagance. Permanent publications, the Sutainability Centre, East Meon, Hampshire, UK.

[9] FAO (2009). The state of food and agriculture 2009: Livestock in the balance. FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

[10] FAO (2006). Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome, Italy.

[11] FAO (2011). The state of food and agriculture 2010-2011; Women in agriculture: closing the gender gap for development.

[12] Rebecca Smithers (2007). Campaign launched to reduce UK’s £8bn food waste mountain. Retrieved on 15 December 2011 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/nov/02/waste.greenpolitics

[13] William Skidelsky  (2009). My crash course in food waste with Tristram Stuart. Retrieved on 15 December 2011 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/ethicallivingblog/2009/jul/17/food-waste-tristram-stuart

[14] Stuart T (2009). Waste: Uncovering the global food scandal. W. W. Norton & Company

[15] Food Navigator (2004). US wastes half its food. Retrieved on 15 December 2011 from http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Business/US-wastes-half-its-food

[16] World Hunger Education Service (2011). 2011 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics. Retrieved on 15 December 2011 from http://www.worldhunger.org/index.html

[17] The Worldwatch Institute (1996). State of the World 1996. Cited in Earthsave.org. Retrieved on 15 December 2011 from http://www.earthsave.org/environment.htm

[18] Worldwatch Paper 171 (2005). Happier Meals – Rethinking the global meat industry. Cited in vegetarismus.ch. Retrieved on 15 December 2011 from http://vegetarismus.ch/info/eoeko.htm

[19] Hewlett E and Melchett P (2008). Can organic agriculture feed the world? A review of the research.

[20] De Schutter O (2010). Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development. Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Human Rights Council Sixteenth session, Agenda item 3.

[21]. UNEP – UNCTAD (2008). UNEP – UNCTAD Organic agriculture and food security in Africa. Capacity building task force on trade, environment and development (CBTF). United Nations New York and Geneva, 2008.

[22] US National Research Council, Committee on Twenty-First Century Systems Agriculture (2010). Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources (BANR), Earth and Life Studies (DELS). Available online at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12832

[23] IAASTD – International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (2009). Global Report. Island Press, Washington, DC, USA.

[24] Vellve R (1992). Saving the Seed – Genetic Diversity and European Agriculture. Earthscan Publication Limited. GRAIN 1992.

[25] ETC Group (2005). Global seed industry concentration – 2005. Communique September/October 2005 pp. 1–12.

[26] Mascarenhas M and Busch L (2006). Seeds of Change: Intellectual Property Rights, Genetically Modified Soybeans and Seed Saving in theUnited States. Sociologia Ruralis, Vol 46, Number 2, April 2006.

[27] The Worldwatch Institute (2011). State of the World 2011L: Innovations that nourish the planet.


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