Can Organic Feed The World?

I’m getting tired of hearing that sustainable, organic agriculture can’t feed the world. It’s the objection that people often raise after they first call you an elitist snob for wanting to eat local, organically grown foods in season. Never mind that until 100 years ago, all food was local and organic. These days if you buy from local farmers and ranchers, you’re obviously trying to keep the poor and downtrodden oppressed. And, you want children to starve in Africa.

Okay! I’ll turn off the sarcasm and turn on the inspiring news story.

According to the researchers at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, organic agriculture is just as productive as conventional, chemical-dependent agriculture. The center runs the Long-Term Agroecological Research Experiment (LTAR), the longest running experiment of its kind. (They’ve been going since 1998.) Plus, given that organic foods can sell for considerably more than conventional foods, growing organic yields even more economic returns.

So, can organic feed the world?


Tom Philpott explains:

At the LTAR fields in Adair County, the (LTAR) runs four fields: one managed with the Midwest-standard two-year corn-soy rotation featuring the full range of agrochemicals; and the other ones organically managed with three different crop-rotation systems. The chart below records the yield averages of all the systems, comparing them to the average yields achieved by actual conventional growers in Adair County:

So, in yield terms, both of the organic rotations featuring corn beat the Adair County average and came close to the conventional patch. Two of the three organic rotations featuring soybeans beat both the county average and the conventional patch; and both of the organic rotations featuring oats trounced the county average. In short, Borlaug’s claim of huge yield advantages for the chemical-intensive agriculture he championed just don’t pan out in the field.

And in terms of economic returns to farmers—market price for crops minus costs—the contest isn’t even close. Organic crops draw a higher price in the market and don’t require expenditures for pricy inputs like synthetic fertilizer and pesticides.

While this is the latest news from the LTAR’s ongoing study, this is certainly NOT the first time that organic agriculture has been championed as more productive in a scientific study or report. This past spring, the United Nations reviewed a host of studies on the subject and issued a report claiming that small-scale sustainable farming would double food production within 5 to 10 years in undeveloped countries. Before that, we had a steady stream of study after study claiming that sustainable, organic agriculture could produce equal or greater food yields.

So, let’s put this notion that we need synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to rest. Not only does the system make little sense long-term (it’s called “unsustainable” for a reason), but it’s also completely unnecessary to feed the world.

(photo by friendsoffamilyfarmers)


  1. says

    Yes, organic foods can be sustainable, but which organic foods? Corn, wheat, soy and oats? It sounds too similar to the system we have now with monocrops and rows of corn as far as the eye can see. This is not sustainable agriculture unfortunately, and now that the word is out that organic is just as productive or even more so than its conventional counterpart, how will this truly help feed people in the world? We know the system of global food is broken, and yet we triumph over the small victories and turn a blind eye to the real problem at hand…mono crops. Local organically produced food will always go the furthest in the long run, and I hope more small farmers around the world won’t be duped into believing that organic mono crops are just as good as conventional farming…its a disaster waiting to happen. :(

    • KristenM says

      While I agree, the point of the LTAR is to compare apples to apples. The study wouldn’t be particularly scientific if they grew completely different crops.

      What you’re describing is much more like the UN reports that have come out over the past few years — the ones that compare the amount of food produced in a small-scale, sustainable, closed system to that produced by a system requiring expensive chemical and technological inputs.

      • KristenM says

        The implications of the LTAR study is that organic agriculture can SCALE UP and produce equal amounts of food. Thus the same infrastructure that currently exists could support organic agriculture and have similar yields.

        Sure, we could feed the world if everyone implemented local, small-scale sustainable agriculture. But that’s assuming that 40% of us want to start being producers again instead of just consumers (compared to the 1% of us that are farmers today). That will be a long time coming, and will likely be the result of economic and environmental crisis.

        The LATR study shows that today, now, using the infrastructure and tools we have available, organic big ag is as efficient as conventional big ag.

  2. Marcin says

    “Never mind that until 100 years ago, all food was local and organic.” — Enough said. I actually have been using similar statement in most of my arguments :-)

    • Frank says

      Of course, 100 years ago the U.S
      Population was a mere 100.5 million, and the average life expectancy was 52.5 years. So, I don’t know if that’s really a wise, or even apt, comparison.

      Besides, to think that, what was the figure, 40% percent of us will go back to being producers is not only naive, but unrealistic as well. That’s never going to happen. Just because something is possible, or even feasible (which, as every scientist knows, one study does not necessarily equal feasibility), does not mean that it is practical. Unfortunately. While I don’t think that any rational human being will argue that an organic diet is bad for you, not adhering to an organic diet is not that bad for you either. As evidenced in part by the what, extra quarter century that we’ve added to our average life expectancy. Not to mention that since we acquired the ability to move large amounts of food over long distances the population of the planet has increased by 2.5 billion people. While we could all in theory simply by responsible for our own agricultural foodstuffs, the actuality of that paradigm approaches the negative mark. We have become a society that searches for the easy way out. The pandora’s box of “the easy button” is here and now. The advent of google glasses, smartphone refrigerators and dryers and other such time saving devices of convenience will see to it.

  3. says

    Another great post. I actually think that a mixed use organic farm produces a lot more food than monocropping. By mixed use, I mean a farm that raises crops, animals, also fruit trees if possible. Chaffin Family Orchards in California, which produces many types of fruits, chickens, eggs, grassfed beef, olive oil, and sometimes lamb and goat, is an example of this type of farm.

  4. Abbey says

    And 40 years ago farms were far more diverse than the forced monocropping seen today. As a girl we had animals and large fields of both cash crops and feed crops for our cows. I’m out of farming now, but today’s farms are nothing like what we had before GMO and synthetic inputs.

    Angela: From what I know of farming and gardening, you can not have both monocrop AND organic. Synthetic inputs and genetically modified seed MUST be used to monocrop.

  5. Hawlkeye says

    No, sorry; organic cannot “feed the world” but neither can chemical agribusiness. The snarky reason is because if you’re really living locally, there is no such thing as “the world”; it’s a concept as fleeting as our chemical fertility bubble and the temporary miracle of global transportation networks. Yes, 100 years ago, all food was organic and local, and 100 years from now it will be again. Was there then, and will there be, 7 billion eaters on the globe? Nope. They’re a result of petro-nitrogen which used to come from critters and legumes ONLY (and will again). So forget about “the world”. Locally-based agriculture has a chance to feed everyone in THAT watershed, but not THIS one (or vice versa, so pick yours well). Clear as mud? The real limiting factor is water; serve your neighbors and let the world go by…

  6. says

    Great article. SPIN (Small Plot INtensive farming) applied locally across the country could supply organic produce where it’s needed most, where the consumers live, negating the need for transportation, there for reducing the overall cost of the organic produce.

  7. says

    What others have said is really hitting home: we do not need to feed the world from Iowa. We already produce enough food in the US not only for ourselves, but for exports. In fact, we produce enough that prices are incredibly low and farmers have a hard time staying in business without government payouts! Our problem is too much productivity, not too little.

    But in other nations, where there is so much hunger, our conventional agricultural methods do no good. Importing food is impractical and expensive (and aid ends up in the pockets of dictators). Huge farms in one part of an underdeveloped country might not reach the other parts, due to lack of infrastructure. Food supply is interrupted, not because of a lack of GMO’s, but because there are political and economic problems keeping people off the land, and because the knowledge they once had about how to farm their land was lost through generations of colonialism followed by instability. And what will cure it is learning to farm through sustainable methods (that don’t require expensive fertilizers or GMO seeds that they can’t save) and solving their political problems. Common sense tells us, though, that if the government is in a state of unrest and infrastructure is collapsing, having your own small farm is the safe way to go. That is the only food you have that can’t be taken from you. (Of course aid will still be needed in time of drought or devastating war. But it will have to be more intelligently supplied than what we’re doing.)

    There is an AWESOME section about this near the end of Cry, the Beloved Country, where there is a teacher of agriculture who comes and saves the village by teaching them to farm. They’ve been destroying their land for decades by farming it badly, and the cure is temporary aid and then instruction to help people farm right. This keeps the sons on the farms with their parents instead of going to the big city (Johannesburg) to get involved in crime. I don’t know if this ever really happened, but we need to start doing it on a bigger scale if ever we want to solve world hunger.

    The promises of GMO’s and chemical fertilizers looked so promising when they were first developed, but all they really do is temporarily boost yields, and then impoverish the farmer who has to keep paying more and more to keep his crops producing. We can survive that here. They can’t survive that in the third world. Organic farming is the ONLY thing that will feed the world.

  8. says

    I get frustrated by the “feed-the-world” question because it has such an industrial bias. But studies like this are important if we want to be able to even open the door to conversation with industrially biased people – which, in this country, is most people.

    Besides, it seems obvious to me that industrial agriculture can’t feed the world. Sure, enough calories are produced every year to feed the world, but still people are dying of hunger. Others, many of them in the US, are food-insecure and suffer from nutrient deficiencies. It doesn’t matter how many calories are produced. The industrial food system is inextricably tied to the industrial economy, and it’s not delivering.

    • Monika says

      My first thought was that there should be a distinction between belong someone not feel hungry and actually providing nourishment.

  9. Jocelyn says

    “Plus, given that organic foods can sell for considerably more than conventional foods, growing organic yields even more economic returns.”

    You said it. Eating organic is not only healthy it is elitist. The best food is only available to those with means? There is something seriously wrong with our thinking when we don’t consider the inclusion of the growing poor among us. That includes many, many of us by the way.

    • Mallory says

      Thank you for bringing up this extremely important and too often overlooked aspect of this conversation!! The alternative food movement is growing in popularity, which has not been missed by the large corporate argibusinesses. These big businesses have capitalized on the movement, driving up costs for organic or locally grown food, it is the same industial food system and food giants that are suppling most of the ‘organic’ food available in supermarkets. More often than not, the added costs of organic food further lines the pockets of these corporations and the profits rarely trickle down to the farmer. In addition, good food is increasingly inaccessible to the majority of people due to price increase. The movement’s conversation needs to put more focus on the inequality present in every step of modern food production and consumption. This is not a movement for the elite, this is a movement to provide a basic human right, access to high quality, nutient dense food to all of humanity, not just those who can afford it.

  10. says

    The recent complete cave-in on the issue of GMO Alfalfa regulation – basically giving Monsanto and Forge complete freedom in the marketplace, is a serious blow to natural foods and American freedom to choose organic foods over so-called “frankenfoods.” Vilsack’s previous close ties to Monsanto may well be the reason of this regrettable decision to release GMO Alfalfa without regulation anywhere inside the USA.

  11. Mike says

    I agree that organic and local are sustainable but that really isn’t the argument used to support conventional crops. It’s about economics and not sustainability. As long as organic food is more expensive conventional farming products will thrive.

    What is needed is to force the mainstream to focus on the health implications & costs of mono-crop over consumption and toxicity of pesticides.

    Probably more important than the above would be to get the government out of agricultural subsidies. Local growers can’t even begin to compete while the government is pushing it’s idea of health on us.

    Another aspect of this that I feel people haven’t considered is that increased government regulations only benefit the mega corporations by placing an overwhelming burden on smaller businesses. In econ 101 this is called ‘barrier to [market] entry’.

    People often think in terms of ‘economies of scale’ which translate to the more of something one makes the cheaper it can be produced. This is why people think government run health care is a good idea. However there is another economic concept called ‘diminishing returns’ in which at some point the cost of producing one additional unit derives less benefit than the prior unit. This is why government run health care will fail.

    In a free market for any given product there is a pinnacle of efficiency (until something better, stronger, faster comes along). Government interventions distort the markets which in turn generate waste.

    Reduced government intervention and increased government transparency will go a long way to fixing our nation… in my opinion of course :-)

  12. Jennifer says

    It pisses me off that organic is so expensive. So much so, that we are considering moving states to become self sufficient. (or at least, mostly)

  13. says

    Organic, naturally raised and local small farms can feed everyone. It simply takes more farms than when Big Ag does it. That means more farmers, more jobs, more diversity, more food security. Gee, the Department of Homeland Security should be promoting small farms as the way to fight terrorism. There’s no point in poisoning small farms because each one just hits too small a group to make an impact. This means that if we had more small farms we would be better off in all these ways.

    Yes, food would cost a little more at the counter, but that is because you’re not paying for it in your taxes in the form of subsidies.

    Then there is the whole issue that there already is plenty of food. There is no food shortage. Merely there is a lack of food distribution and that is caused by governments, terrorists and warlords who use food as weapons against populations.

  14. says

    So glad to see this post! I work for an NGO that teaches subsistence farmers in developing countries how to improve their farming methods, often using Farming God’s Way, which emphasizes an organic, sustainable approach. The truly poor cannot afford GMO seeds, chemicals, etc. and they are able to feed themselves–and have surplus to sell–without using them, by using other methods to improve their yields. The reasons for hunger are many, but organic farming practices are not among them.

  15. says

    Just stumbled across your blog. Really great! Your political slant I totally agree with. I have 53 acres of north Erath County land that I have turned mostly back into native grass with Big Bluestem over six-feet high (see my Sage to Meadow blog). My other blog is left of center ( and you might enjoy it, too, although I do not post that frequently on it. Thanks for your website and blog. ~ Jack of Sage to Meadow and Poprock Hill blogs.

  16. Johnny says

    Let me get this straight:

    1) Author is angry that anyone could have possibly perceived her as snobby for adhering to an uncompromising dogma regarding agriculture.

    2) Author cites a study about a county in Iowa.

    3) Author comes to the immediate conclusion that fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides have absolutely nothing to offer any kind of farming, anywhere in the world.

    Call me a skeptic, but it strikes me as a slight leap in logic to start with one specific study about a specific set of crops in a specific county in Iowa, and then draw a conclusion regarding all crops grown everywhere throughout the entire world, adamantly proclaiming that the whole debate has been so easily and incontrovertibly settled.

    I suspect that some places in rural Africa, often subject to extreme droughts and other severe climate factors, may not offer quite the organic yields that a temperate Iowa county can boast.

    Having said that, I might add that I am a big advocate of organic food and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. But the disparity between the author’s isolated cases of evidence and her brash conclusion is too much to be humored by a more logical approach.

  17. Michelle says

    While I care very much about this subject, it is a shame I am not in a position to change the world. All I can do is buy organic, when possible. Although I really can’t afford it. I am banning Monsanto also. Anyone who holds the power or has a say on feeding the masses is only interested in money and not humankind.

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