Feeding the future: How organic farming can help feed the world
Dr Isobel Tomlinson
30 May 2012
This Soil Association report explores whether just increasing production is the answer to the problem of 'feeding the world'; as we already produce more than enough food to feed the world comfortably, yet one billion people go hungry. Or do we need to look not just at how much we produce, but also what we produce, who produces it, and what we consume in order to develop a truly just and sustainable approach to global food equality.
The benefits that organic farming can bring for wildlife protection and animal welfare are now widely recognised, but at a time of rising food prices and a predicted global population of 9 billion by 2050, we are often asked about the contribution that organic farming can play to achieving food security. In answering the question of ‘how can organic farming feed the world?’, this report seeks to shed some light on the myths about hunger and sets out the contribution that organic farming and other forms of agro-ecological agriculture can make in providing healthy food for all.
How to ‘feed the world’ is of course a massive issue concerning questions not only about how food is produced, but what is produced, where and by whom, as well as who has access to the land, technology and knowledge to produce it, how it is traded, as well as who can afford to buy it.1 We are certainly not attempting to address all these issues here, but we want to be clear that feeding the world using organic and other agro-ecological farming methods is not just about farming differently and moving from a ‘business-as-usual’ food system to ‘organic business-as-usual’.2 It is about big changes to how we produce and consume food. It is about investing in the development of smallholder agriculture and local markets in the Global South, but it also means action to end food waste, estimated at one-third of all food produced globally. Critically, it is also about changing diets in the Global North to make them healthier and more sustainable for the planet.
These are no small tasks, but it is worth remembering that in a future of resource-constraints and scarcities, climate change and diet-related public health challenges, this will be the only viable option.
If people are going hungry, don’t we just need to produce more food?
Food has never before existed in such abundance. There is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment they need, and yet there are nearly 1 billion people in the world today who are hungry and another billion who are malnourished, lacking the essential micronutrients they need to lead healthy lives.3 At the same time, more than 1 billion are overweight, of which 300 million are obese, posing a major risk for diet-related illnesses such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.4 There are clearly huge global inequalities in the distribution of food. People continue to go hungry because they cannot afford to buy food, or access it in other ways such as growing it themselves. This arises directly because of poverty, but natural disasters, conflict, poor agricultural practices and infrastructure and over-exploitation of the environment can all be contributory factors.5
The recent increase in food prices has pushed yet more people in the Global South, who are reliant on food imports and spend a large proportion of their income on food, into hunger. Small countries that are dependent on imports especially in Africa were deeply affected by the food and economic crises.6 The causes of this price hike include biofuel policies that have diverted grain away from the food supply, harvest failures and commodity speculation. The majority of the people who are hungry live in the Global South, in poor rural areas, and are often directly involved in producing food. Many do not have land of their own and work for others, often in seasonal jobs, to earn money to survive. Poor people living in urban areas are another group that are at risk of hunger, and this is a growing issue as cities continue to expand.7 Urban agriculture is already a reality for many people in the Global South, but there is an increasing focus on the important role it can play in reducing hunger for the urban poor.8
Of course, in poor countries with a food-deficit production levels should be increased where appropriate, but agriculture also needs to play a role in reducing hunger through growing farmer and household incomes, building infrastructure and markets, and protecting and enhancing the natural environment.9
So how can organic and other agroecological farming systems reduce hunger?
Investment by governments and donors in agriculture in the Global South had dropped over the last three decades, although this is now changing with new investment from agri-food companies and new global policy initiatives.10 New support for smallholder agriculture, especially in Africa, is urgently needed to increase productivity and provide economic opportunities for small scale farmers. This investment needs to be focused on agro-ecological systems, such as organic, rather than on intensive farming methods that will further degrade the environment and require expensive inputs made from fossil fuels, that will become increasingly scarce in the future.
The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, has argued for the scaling up of such models of agriculture and ensuring that they work for the benefit of the poorest farmers.11 Developing agroecology requires supportive policy.12 However, in most African countries organic agriculture is not specifically supported by agricultural policy, and is sometimes actively hindered by policies advocating the use of high-input farming.13 Agroecology is a science and a set of farming practices that seek to improve agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes, creating beneficial biological interactions among the different components of the agro-ecosystem.14 Organic systems put into practice the core principles of agroecology such as recycling nutrients on the farm, integrating livestock and crops, diversifying species and genetic resources, and considering the productivity of an entire agricultural system rather than a single crop. Agro-ecological farming is based on highly knowledge-intensive techniques that are developed through farmers’ knowledge and experimentation.15
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (‘the IAA STD report’) is supported by 400 scientists and 60 countries and recommends support for agro-ecological sciences that would contribute to addressing environmental issues whilst maintaining and increasing productivity.16 It also recommended that community-based innovation and local knowledge combined with science-based approaches as the best way to addressing the problems, needs and opportunities of the rural poor.17
There are many existing examples of innovation in agroecology. In Cameroon, training for local people in tree propagation and the setting up of nurseries has led to the widespread planting of trees that can fix their own nitrogen and can rehabilitate degraded land. Yields of wheat, maize, beans and potatoes have doubled. It has also led to the cultivation of indigenous fruit and nut trees for planting and for sale to neighbouring communities.18
In East Africa, fodder shrub species have been researched and introduced as a reliable source of less expensive and easily available protein feeds for dairy cattle that can improve milk production and reduce soil erosion and increase soil fertility. It is estimated that 25,000 smallholder farmers have planted fodder shrubs, contributing about 3.8 million US dollars to farmer incomes across East Africa.19 The largest ever study of agroecology approaches in the Global South analysed 286 projects covering 37 million hectares in 57 countries. The study found that on average crop yields increased by 79%.20
A report by the United Nations on organic agriculture in Africa found that organic and near-organic methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalised smallholder farmers in Africa because they require minimal external inputs and make use of locally and naturally available materials. They studied 114 projects in Africa and they found that organic farming increased the availability of food over time. Access to food improved through increased quantity of food production ensuring household food security, but also selling food surpluses at local markets led to farmers benefiting from higher incomes. Fresh organic produce was found to become more available to more people in the wider community, whilst organic farming enabled new and different groups in a community to get involved in agricultural production and trade.21
But what about feeding all those extra people in 2050?
It is predicted that there will be 9 billion people in the world by 2050, and it has been frequently argued that a massive increase in food production, of 70–100%, will be needed to feed them all. This is not just due to more people, but reflects the assumptions made by the authors of the modeling study about the diet we will all be eating. In making and using these predictions, policy-makers are assuming that many more people in countries in the Global South will be eating a ‘Western’ diet with more intensively-produced meat, dairy products, sugar and vegetable oils, following the shift in eating habits that has already occurred in countries in the Global North as incomes rise.
The model also assumes that there will be no reduction in the amounts eaten in the Global North, and in fact that there will be further 14% increase in the consumption of such foods,22 despite growing recognition of the negative health impacts of such diets in both low and high income countries.
This continuing shift towards higher consumption of livestock products from intensively reared animals has implications for mitigating climate change. A large rise in the production of cereals would be needed for animal feed. The greenhouse gas emissions from such intensively-reared livestock are significant; from converting natural habitat to land to grow feed crops, the methane from cattle and sheep, and nitrous oxide from the production and application of manufactured fertilizers to grow animal feed.
A 70% increase or doubling in the production of food would not solve the hunger problem with 290 million people predicted to still be malnourished in 2050 if such a strategy was implemented.24 Moreover, such massive increases in food produced like this would have huge negative impacts on both the environment and human health, and are not necessary with action to change diets and reductions in food losses and waste.
Why is changing diet so important?
There are already widespread concerns about the health impacts of ‘Western’ diets which include rising levels of obesity and diseases such as Type-2 diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular disease. In the UK, the Cabinet Office has acknowledged that ‘existing patterns of food consumption will result in our society being loaded with a heavy burden of obesity and diet-related ill health’.25
Policy advice now also advocates changing diets. Commissioned by the UK Government, the Foresight report on the future of food and farming said it should be a priority for policy-makers to ‘work to change consumption patterns’26 and ‘contain demand for the most resource-intensive types of food’.27 The UK Committee on Climate Change now acknowledge that ‘re-balancing’ diets is one of the more ‘radical’ solutions needed if the agriculture sector is going to continue to reduce its GHG emissions after 2030.28
At least 35-40% of all cereals produced worldwide are fed to livestock, and this could rise to 50% by 2050 if meat consumption increases as has been predicted.29 Using cereal crops to feed animals is a highly inefficient use of calories and is very resourceintensive. The loss of calories by feeding the cereals to animals instead of using the cereals directly as human food represents the annual calorie need for more than 3.5 billion people.30
Scientists have started to measure how many extra people we would be able to feed if we reduced our meat consumption to different levels. One study estimated that if we reduced meat consumption in the Global North and restrained it worldwide to the 2000 levels of 37.4kg per person per year, an estimated 400 million tons of cereals per year would be freed up for human consumption, which is enough to cover the annual calorie needs for an additional 1.2 billion people in 2050.31 This represents nearly half of the predicted population growth from 7 billion in 2011 to 9.3 billion in 2050.32
As well as eating less meat overall, changing how we feed animals through shifting to grass-reared systems rather than predominantly grain-fed, is also important in tackling this problem. Beef, lamb, and mutton from grazed livestock have the added advantage of helping to mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil. Grass-reared meat can also be the best option if grazed on land that would not be suitable for any other type of agriculture, thus converting something we cannot eat, grass, into something we can.
Our current food system produces a lot of waste. In the UK, households waste an estimated 6.7 million tons of food every year. Approximately 32% of all food bought is not eaten.33 On a global scale it is estimated that about onethird of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, about 1.3 billion tons per year.34
Much more food, about 280-300kg per person per year is wasted in Europe and North America, compared to the 125–165kg in low income countries such in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia. In the Global North, most of the waste occurs at the consumption stage due to a lack of co-ordination between different actors in the food chain, sales agreements between farmers and buyers leading to farm crops being wasted, quality standards which reject food items not uniform in shape or appearance, as well as lack of purchase planning by consumers, expiring ‘best-before-date’ labels and the attitudes of those who can afford to waste food.
In the Global South, the cause of food losses and waste are mainly due to limitations (financial, managerial and technical) in harvesting techniques, storage and cooling facilities, infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems. These high levels of food waste represent resources that are used and green-house gas emissions that are produced in vain. For smallholder farmers in the Global South, many of whom suffer food shortages, a reduction in food losses could have an immediate and significant impact.35 Eliminating food losses opens up a new supply of food to feed the population of 2050.
What evidence is there that organic and agro-ecological farming could feed 9 billion people?
Scientists have modeled alternative scenarios of how we could successfully feed 9 billion people in 2050 a healthy diet in an environmentally-sustainable way. French researchers showed how the world could be fed in 2050, assuming that global food availability was 3000 kcal per person per day in 2050 of which 500 kcal is of animal origin, representing a decrease for higher-income countries and a rise in Asia and subSaharan Africa compared to the present. They assumed in richer countries that successful waste reduction strategies and more effective nutrition policies meant food demand declined by 25%. In sub-Saharan Africa, food availability increases, mainly as a result of agricultural development. Diets are more diverse worldwide. All in all, in 2050, global needs in food calories are 30% less than in a business-as-usual scenario.
Agricultural land is cultivated in a different way with ‘ecological intensification’ practices encouraged to increase yields, optimizing local know-how, lowering consumption of fossil fuels, making better use of the soil’s ability to mobilise organic matter, and managing pests and improving resistance to disease through mixing species and varieties and using crop rotations.36
In Germany and Austria, a group of scientists have modeled 72 different scenarios for 2050 that included four different diets, three different livestock systems, three crop yields (intensive, intermediate and organic) and two levels of land use. They measured the technical level of feasibility of each. They found that for a ‘western high meat diet’ to be ‘probably feasible’ ‘would require a combination of massive land use change, intensive livestock production systems and intensive use of the arable land.’ This would have negative impacts for animal welfare and lead to further destruction of natural habitats. The report provides evidence ‘that organic agriculture can probably feed the world population of 9.2 billion in 2050, if relatively modest diets are adopted, where a low level of inequality in food distribution is required to avoid malnutrition’.37 Whilst such modeling does offer technical possibilities for the future of the food system, and provides useful ‘visions’ of what might be achieved, we need to focus on the political, social and economic changes necessary to realise these alternatives for 2050.
Wouldn’t switching to organic farming in the UK and Europe mean much less food is produced?
There is now evidence that a switch to organic and other agro-ecological farming in the Global South can maintain and even increase yields, but it is often assumed that in the Global North widespread organic farming would mean we just produce a lot less. It is perhaps more useful to think that we would produce differently, and therefore also eat differently as it is clear that diets must change. Calculations about how much food of different types would be produced in the UK if all farming was organic, depend on a wide range of assumptions that could be made about the type and distribution of different organic farms, future improvements in technology in organic systems, patterns of global trade, import substitution and demand drivers.
However, a report by the University of Reading highlighted some of the main changes that would occur if all agriculture in the UK went organic. Under organic systems, mixed farms are more common as grass-clover leys that are essential for building and maintaining fertility are commonly used for grazing livestock.
A wholly organic agriculture would supply 68% more beef and 55% more sheep meat than current non-organic agriculture. On this basis, beef production would exceed current domestic demand and self-sufficiency would be achieved for lamb. Organic vegetables yields are fairly comparable to non-organic. Intensive livestock production is banned under organic standards, so there would be no factory-farmed chickens, eggs or pork. This has clear benefits for animal welfare. Pig and poultry production would fall to about a third of current levels although there would be some potential for expansion of production onto areas of grassland on organic farms. For eggs, organic systems would produce three-quarters of current egg numbers.
The high use of manufactured nitrogen fertilisers in Northern Europe, with all the associated environmental costs, does produce very high cereal yields with the result that a conversion to organic systems would see an approximate drop in yields by 30–40%.38 However, with the end of intensive systems under organic practices, much of the grain that we feed to livestock would be free to feed people directly, or the land used to grow or rear something else. Currently, 40% of wheat produced in the UK is used in animal feed rations going to chickens, cows and pigs.39 We can also factor in the gains that could be made by reducing food waste in the UK. Given that it is estimated that 36% of bakery purchases in the UK are wasted,40 the availability of grain for human consumption under organic systems could match that currently available under non-organic systems.
But don’t we need to increase production in the UK?
The UK Government seems to be keen to promote the need to increase food production in the UK, albeit whilst improving environmental performance.41 The idea of ‘sustainable intensification’ has got a firm hold on the direction of agriculture policy. However, there seems to be little hard evidence of why this is needed, particularly given the understanding of the ‘food security’ problem outlined here that means it will not be solved by just increasing food production. The implication of a goal of increasing production in the UK implies that UK farms should be contributing to ‘feeding the world’. This goes right to the heart of huge questions of how ‘food security’ is best achieved; through increasing trade in global markets or by supporting local production in the Global South for local markets. The position of the UK Government is clear; Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sees our food security as ‘dependent upon global supply and international patterns of production and consumption’.42
Over the last 50 years, countries in the Global South have increasingly become importers of basic food products and the drop in self-sufficiency in Africa has been particularly marked.43 This has resulted from international economic polices promoting the liberalization of the agricultural sector in countries in the Global South44 and agricultural advice focused on promoting opportunities for increased exports to international markets.45 This is one reason why recent increases in food prices have had such an impact on people in the Global South.
With the opening up of markets, cash crops for exports have been promoted, and the most productive land is then used to grow these crops, squeezing out domestic food producers. Small-scale and subsistence farming is being replaced by larger and more globally focused farms. This process impacts on the type of farming system, from traditional crops suited to ecological conditions and the knowledge and resources of farmers, to cash crops that rely on purchased inputs.46 Today, however, the Food and Agricultural Organisation,47 the IAA STD scientists48 and development charities,49 are arguing for the critical importance of local food production and markets for achieving food security in low-income countries. As we have already said, support for smallholder agriculture, especially in Africa, is urgently needed to increase productivity and provide economic opportunities for small scale farmers and this investment needs to be focused on agro-ecological systems, such as organic.
The IAA STD report recognises that trade policies that are designed to ensure sufficient levels of domestic food production are an important part of food security and should be implemented to balance those promoting export. There is of course an important role for international trade, given that it is likely that in countries with difficult climatic conditions and limited natural resources, in the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, increased food security will require trade. Nonetheless, it is essential that any new trade rules and agriculture geared for export do not undermine growth in local agriculture and are closely linked to environmental regulations.50
How can agriculture ensure food security in a resource constrained future?
Ensuring food security in a future which will have constrained resources, and which will be feeling the effects of climate change, is one of the thorniest issues facing policy makers today. The natural resource base upon which agriculture depends, soils, water and biodiversity, is being degraded. Supplies of fossil fuels used to make inputs, and minerals such as phosphate, will become increasingly scarce. This means that we urgently need to improve the resource use efficiency of farming systems.
There is a growing body of evidence that organic farming systems can be more energy, nutrient and water efficient than their non-organic counterparts. Research published in the journal Science found that nutrient inputs of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium in the organic systems to be 34-51% lower than in nonorganic systems, whereas average crop yields were only 20% lower over a period of 21 years.51 In terms of water use efficiency, studies have shown organic crops out-yielding conventional crops by 70–90% under severe drought conditions.52
So organic farming can feed the world then?
In short, the answer is yes, although we should perhaps be talking about how organic farming can help the world feed itself. As well as investment in organic and other agro-ecological methods for farmers in the Global South in order to increase local food production and markets, for the Global North it is imperative that we see a significant shift in diets.
As well as changing our farming systems, it’s as much about eating differently, feeding our livestock differently and wasting much less food.
Dr Isobel Tomlinson wrote this report in her capacity as a policy and campaigns officer at the Soil Association. She has recently taken up the post of Lecturer in Environmental Geography at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London.
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1 UNEP-UNCTAD (2008) Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, United Nations
2 Urs Niggli presentation to European Commission, RTOACC, Brussels October 2011
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9 UNEP-UNCTAD (2008) Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, United Nations
10 De Schutter, O., 7 December 2010. Human Rights Council Sixteenth Session, Agenda Item 3 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
11 Ibid; de Schutter, O., (2010) Press release, Right to Food: “Agroecology outperforms largescale industrial farming for global food security,” says UN expert
12 European Commission (2011) Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR) ‘Sustainable food consumption and production in a resource-constrained world’ (http://ec.europa.eu/research/agriculture/scar/pdf/scar-feg-ultimate-version.pdf)
13 UNEP-UNCTAD (2008) Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, United Nations
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16 McIntyre, B.D., Herren, H.R., Wakhungu, J.W., Watson, R.T., (Eds) (2009) Agriculture at a Crossroads: Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report Washington, D.C, Island Press for International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development
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