Feeding the world in a sustainable way is a challenge. Organic agriculture is often put forth as a solution to environmental ills. According to the Pesticide Action Network, “In 1940, we produced 2.3 food calories for every one fossil fuel calorie used… we now get one food calorie for every 10 fossil fuel calories used.” Using fewer petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, as organic agriculture would require, would clearly be a step in the right direction.
The environmental benefits of going organic are sometimes contested.
According to a May 2012 article in the scientific journal Nature, organic methods of food production produce 25 percent less food than industrial agriculture does.
The benefits might be offset by the need for additional crop land to feed the growing global population. However, I still believe steps should be taken to implement organic methods. This could potentially decrease the use of fossil fuels, the loss of topsoil and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides into lakes and rivers.
Further, it is not certain that the figures given in Nature were accurate, or based on farmers with the most effective organic methods available. The same article noted that organic agriculture’s productivity increases or decreases with the amount of nitrogen in the soil, and these levels are largely dependent on the skills of the farmer.
Growing legumes, a kind of plant that includes beans and pea pods, is one way to ensure soil has enough nitrogen, according to the 2006 Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems article “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply.” If the farmers in the Nature article were not using enough legumes as cover crops, that may have decreased their production.
The earlier article states that organic yields for grains and other staple crops are 93 to 106 percent that of industrial agriculture and more than sufficient to meet increasing global demands. In other words, well-managed organic methods can do the job for most of our caloric needs. Unfortunately, organic fruits and veggies weigh down the overall figures with yields that are about 30 percent lower than conventional methods.
Even if the lower calculations are correct, we can still offset the impact of agriculture on the global climate and ecology. By addressing the following three concerns, we can feed the world with a smaller environmental footprint.
First, according to “Food Wastage Footprint,” a report released by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations earlier this month, “approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted.”
If we put our efforts into harvesting, storing and distributing the food we produced in a non-wasteful manner, slightly lower organic yields would not be an issue.
Second, figures from the World Health Organization show that per capita food consumption has increased worldwide by almost 450 calories per day from 1966 to 1999 and is forecast to increase by 200 more calories by 2030; this is correlated closely with the spread of an American-style diet high in meat, sugar and processed foods. If we changed our diets to include less rich food, perhaps we would eat less, need to produce less food per person and feel healthier as well.
Third, by eating food that has been produced locally, even by conventional means, we can avoid adding excessive fuel expenditure in transportation to the negative consequences of large-scale agriculture. A 2007 study by the University of Alberta showed that the environmental costs of shipping organic food long-distance cancel out potential environmental benefits. Food miles matter as much as production methods. Local and organic is clearly the best combination, but eating local should be our priority – even when organic food is not available.
By going organic, fixing our food distribution system and eating locally grown foods that cater more to our nutritional needs than our cravings, we can meet the challenge of sustainably feeding the world.
Zach Wilson is a senior studying philosophy. Why do you support organic agriculture? You can tell him at firstname.lastname@example.org.