Can organic farming feed the world?

Features

  • Author: Chris Smaje
  • Date: 21 May 2013
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStock Photo

Statisticians have devised some powerful and sophisticated methods for unravelling the implications of their datasets and creating order from the messiness of real world complexity. Paradoxically though, these methods are often most effective when applied to the simplest and most specific questions, but can seem powerless in the face of the larger choices confronting public policy. Ask what factors are associated with forage quality in different polycultures of organic permanent pasture and you can do a principal component analysis to reveal the underlying patterns. Ask whether the government should support organic farming, and statistical methods desert you. Of course, statisticians can justifiably say that their discipline is about making appropriate inferences from data, not being a political oracle. But in the rough and tumble world of politics, everyone is looking for the killer figure that proves their particular point. So how about this for a working hypothesis: simple questions allow for complex analyses, whereas complex questions allow for simplistic analyses. It’s not, I admit, a very testable hypothesis. Which maybe proves my point? 

thumbnail image: Can organic farming feed the world?

In the policy world, all sorts of statistics (or at least numbers) can be mobilised rather questionably by people in support of particular policy positions in ways that wouldn’t pass muster in the more scrupulous arena of scholarship. But sometimes this carries over into scholarship too – perhaps not so much in terms of an unscrupulous use of statistics as in an unthinking recourse to a particular model in which the statistics are grounded, an issue I touched on in a previous article (1).

I’m going to illustrate that here by looking at the debate about whether organic farming can feed the world. Some ground clearance: first, I should probably declare an interest as someone associated with organic farming, whose views on it will doubtless be clear by the end of the article. My aim here isn’t to convince you that those views are right, but instead to illustrate how views and statistics can collide.

Second, I need to say something about what ‘organic farming’ is. The term has a legal meaning, inasmuch as anyone claiming to be an organic farmer has to be certified as such by an authorised body which checks that they are adhering to an extensive and demanding set of procedures. A key element of those procedures – and the one I’m going to concentrate on here – is that the nutrients going into the farm’s crops largely have to come from recycled living (hence ‘organic’) matter. The most important of these nutrients are nitrates and phosphates.

Ask whether the government should support organic farming, and statistical methods desert you. Of course, statisticians can justifiably say that their discipline is about making appropriate inferences from data, not being a political oracle. But in the rough and tumble world of politics, everyone is looking for the killer figure that proves their particular point.

Nitrogen is available in vast quantities from the atmosphere, but it has to be converted into soluble compounds or ‘fixed’ in order for plants to use it. Conventional modern farming relies on fixation via the energy intensive Haber-Bosch industrial process powered by fossil fuels (which admittedly are ultimately derived from organic matter too, but let’s not split hairs). Organic farmers, like their preindustrial forebears, have to rely instead on biological fixation, which they tap by sowing leguminous plants (or ‘green manures’) that form symbioses with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria, or by using composts and manures ultimately derived from such plants, or by farming in watersheds that deliver the nitrate-rich runoff from a wider area. Phosphates are less easily cycled. Agriculture presently relies on the mining of phosphate-rich deposits, much of which ultimately disappears into the sea in the form of human manure. The challenge for both organic and conventional agriculture is to find better ways of retaining and recycling phosphates, including returning human manure to our crops.

So much for the background. Here’s a few reasons why some people don’t think organic farming can feed the world: according to Robert Paarlberg (2) synthetic fertilisers currently supply around 40% of all the nitrogen used by crops globally – to replace that with animal manures would require an environmentally disastrous increase in the global cattle herd from around 1 billion to 7 billion. Meanwhile, the human population is set to top 9 billion by 2050 so we’re going to need to grow a lot more food on the same land area, especially with increasingly affluent populations in places like China and India demanding more land intensive meat-based diets. With rising land scarcity and wage rates in much of Asia, the chances of diverting already pressured farmland to more extensive green manure regimens is minimal.

Now for some counter-arguments. Organic farming requires green manures but not necessarily animal manures, so the 7 billion cattle figure doesn’t stand up. Indeed, we need to produce less meat – as much as 40% of global grain is used as livestock fodder when it could go directly and much more efficiently to humans. And about a third of the food we produce is never eaten. So if we drop the assumption that global food supply has to go wherever existing patterns of demand drive it, the possibilities of growing sufficient food with organic methods seem a lot less daunting (3). Also, as much as 70% of the world’s food may be grown by peasant farmers, most of whom are ‘organic’ by default inasmuch as they have little or no access to inorganic fertilisers (4). This seems incompatible with Paarlberg’s 40% synthetic nitrogen figure, except that the distribution of that 40% is far from even. Crops in the wealthy farms of the US and the EU are heavily fertilised, producing high yields per unit area but with diminishing marginal gains relative to fertilisation, and with significant upstream and downstream consequences in terms of resource take and pollution – some estimates suggest that we may experience ‘peak phosphorus’ as early as 2033 at current extraction rates (5). Peasant farmers of the global south, by contrast, produce a lot of food with little nitrogen input, and could produce still more if synthetic nitrogen were more rationally distributed globally. But that may not even be necessary – a paper by Badgley et al. (6) suggests that it would be possible to feed the world’s population simply by extending the cultivation of green manures in between normal crop cycles. And if more labour is deployed in agriculture, all sorts of fine comb techniques become possible that increase nutrient cycling and unit area yields.

The Badgley paper is controversial, with various critics highlighting its methodological flaws. One of them, Kenneth Cassman (7), criticised studies that derive organic/conventional yield ratios by comparing locally customised organic farming with averaged figures for conventional farming, thereby failing to take account of the fact that conventional farming is usually locally customised too (though he didn’t address the extent to which the Badgley paper indeed relied upon such studies). Later in the same response, he suggested that organic/conventional comparisons require careful attention to the conventional system to ensure that the performance of the latter isn’t compromised by nutrient deficiencies that could be corrected by application of the appropriate commercial fertiliser. In other words, he seems to be criticising the Badgley analysis both for neglecting how carefully customised conventional farming is and for how badly customised it is. Another critic, Jim Hendrix, wrote “It is elitist to condemn people to the drudgery of hand labor required on small organic farms”, adding “We [producers] are not driven by ideological concepts, political correctness or environmental persuasions; we are driven by the market-place” (8).

...we need to produce less meat – as much as 40% of global grain is used as livestock fodder when it could go directly and much more efficiently to humans. And about a third of the food we produce is never eaten. So if we drop the assumption that global food supply has to go wherever existing patterns of demand drive it, the possibilities of growing sufficient food with organic methods seem a lot less daunting.

I think Hendrix’s comments help explain the curious way in which statistics figure in this debate. The various numbers that are bandied about – 7 billion cattle, peak phosphorus in 2033, 40%, 70% – sound like punch lines to a joke you haven’t heard. That’s because there’s a whole set of political assumptions about how the world is, how the world ought to be and how it’s likely to change underlying them. These are rarely brought to light in the debate, but Hendrix does so unconsciously. To a sociologist, everybody is driven by ideological concepts, of which the market-place is a fundamental one of our times and the question ‘Can organic agriculture feed the world?’ cannot but be answered ideologically. The question matters because in a possibly energy and phosphorus scarce future we may not be able to continue farming as we do. Can we use biotechnology and smarter farming practices to produce more with less, and keep furnishing consumer demands without fundamentally changing the economic basis of the food system? That’s what Cassman’s more technical work addresses itself to, though even he states ‘the magnitude of this challenge should not be underestimated’ (9). Perhaps we need to trim our expectations more closely to what biotic cycling can provide. But one study that looked at phosphate use in various historic agricultures of the premodern world suggested that even they were rarely sustainable in their long-term phosphorus use (10). Whichever future path we take, the challenges are indeed profound.

I imagine many people might plump for some bet-hedging. There’s always a case for a bit of both, so why not organic and conventional instead of either/or. Certainly, it would be hard for us to abandon synthetically fixed nitrogen and mined phosphates any time soon, so it makes sense to use all the technological means at our disposal to optimise the efficiency with which we do so. But do we also need to rethink the way we cycle nutrients in farming practice, our demands for meat, our production of waste, the way we structure labour markets and evaluate ‘drudgery’, the way we allocate global resource flows, and the way we deal with poverty? The Badgley paper and other studies are at least suggestive that that organic farming path is a viable possibility, but to tread it would involve a thorough overhaul of the way that global politics and economics are done – maybe ‘a bit of both’ isn’t a long-term option because you can’t have a bit of a thorough overhaul.

This is where the politics and the statistics collide. Statistics proper involves numerical analysis to address a carefully formulated question of one’s data, not hurling context-free numbers about in public debate. Proper methodological caution aside, my personal view is that many attempts to debunk numerically the possibility of a global organic agriculture are grounded in assumptions about retaining the political and economic status quo, and indeed are motivated by a desire to retain it. At least 75% of them, I’d say – statistically speaking, that is.

 

References

1) Smaje, C. ‘From the model of reality to the reality of the model’ StatisticsViews.com, 31st March 2013.
2) Paarlberg R (2010) Food Politics: What Everyone Needs To Know, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3) Soil Association (Undated) Feeding The Future: How Organic Farming Can Help Feed The World
4) ETC Group (2009) Who Will Feed Us?
5) Soil Association (2010) A Rock And A Hard Place: Peak Phosphorus And The Threat To Our Food Security
6) Badgley C et al. (2007) ‘Organic agriculture and the global food supply’, Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 22, 2: 86-108.
7) Cassman K (2007) ‘Editorial response by Kenneth Cassman: can organic agriculture feed the world – science to the rescue?’ Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 22, 2: 83-4.
8) Hendrix J (2007) ‘Editorial response by Jim Hendrix’, Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 22, 2: 84-5.
9) Cassman K et al (2002) ‘Agroecosystems, nitrogen-use efficiency, and nitrogen management’, Ambio, 31, 2: 132-40.
10) Newman, E (1997) ‘Phosphorus balance of contrasting farming systems, past and present. Can food production be sustainable?’ Journal of Applied Ecology, 34, 6: 1334-47.

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