The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that the global population will increase by 2.3 billion between now and 2050. This demographic explosion, intensified by an emerging middle class in China and India, will require the world's farmers to grow at least 70 percent more food than we now produce. Making matters worse, there's precious little arable land left (PDF) for agricultural expansion. Barring a radical rejection of the Western diet, skyrocketing demand for food will have to be met by increasing production on pre-existing acreage. No matter how effectively we streamline access to existing food supplies, 90 percent of the additional calories required by midcentury will have to come through higher yields per acre.
How this will happen is one of the more contentious issues in agriculture. A particularly vocal group insists that we can avoid a 21st- century Malthusian crisis by transitioning wholesale to organic production—growing food without synthetic chemicals in accordance with the environmentally beneficial principles of agro-ecology. As recently as last September the Rodale Institute, an organization dedicated to the promotion of organic farming, reiterated this precept in no uncertain terms. "Organic farming," it declared, "is the only way to feed the world."
This is an exciting claim. Organic agriculture, after all, is the only approach to growing food that places primary emphasis on enhancing soil health. But is the assertion accurate? Can we actually feed the world with organic agriculture?
New research undertaken by Dr. Steve Savage, an agricultural scientist and plant pathologist, indicates that it's unlikely. In 2008 the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service conducted the first comprehensive survey of certified organic agriculture. The study—which had a 90 percent participation rate among U.S. organic farmers who responded to the 2007 Census of Agriculture—recorded acreage, yield, and value for dozens of crops on more than 14,500 farms, in all 50 states.
Savage took these unprecedented USDA/NASS data and compared them with similar USDA statistics from conventional agriculture during the same crop year. (The USDA tallies conventional agriculture stats every year in order to track U.S. agricultural output over time.) The reason why the USDA did not make the comparison to organic production itself is anyone's guess. But what Savage found strongly suggests that organic production, for all its ecological benefits, is in no position to confront the world's impending demand for food.
Perhaps Savage's most striking finding is how few U.S. acres are actually in organic production. Characterizations of organic agriculture routinely portray it as a hard-charging underdog capable of competing for market share with conventional agribusiness. The USDA's Economic Research Service, for example, notes how "Organic agriculture has become one of the fastest growing segments of US agriculture." It's surprising, then, that the 1.6 million acres of harvested organic cropland in 2008 comprised a mere 0.52 percent of total crop acreage in the United States, as Savage found.