Study: Most organic crops less productive than conventionally farmed crops.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
March 10 2011 7:10 AM

Organic Crops Alone Can't Feed the World

A new study shows why.

Wheat hay. Click image to expand.
Wheat hay

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?

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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.

Savage's methodology couldn't have been simpler: He lined up and charted organic and conventional yield data for the same crop and state in which they were harvested. Although Savage was working with, as he put it, "the largest such data set on Organic that I have heard of," it wasn't without limitations. The USDA/NASS studies tracked harvested acres without differentiating between irrigated and non-irrigated acreage; it gathered data on planted vs. harvested acres for some crops but not others; it did not account for systems in which "baby vegetable" crops (usually organic) are grown in short rotations on the same plot (such as spinach, lettuce, and carrots) and thus have lower yields; and it omitted some data that would have revealed too much information about individual farmers, in cases where very few growers produce a particular crop.

But even with these qualifications, the numbers are discouraging for the organic option. The rubber really hits the road when it comes to yield. To its credit, organic does quite well in many cases: Sweet potatoes, raspberries, canola, and hay all yielded higher nationally than their conventional counterparts. At the state level, organic squash did better in Oregon than conventional squash; in Arizona and Colorado, organic apples yielded slightly higher than conventional ones; and in Washington state organic peaches beat out conventional varieties. In essence, there's a lot here for organic supporters to cherry-pick as evidence of organic's yield potential (but not cherries, which yielded much lower).

Unfortunately, there's little hope in feeding the world with higher yields of sweet potatoes, peaches, and raspberries—much less hay. What matters most is the performance of basic row-crops. As it turns out, yields were dramatically lower for these commodities: 40 percent lower for winter wheat, 29 percent lower for corn, 34 percent lower for soy, 53 percent lower for spring wheat, 41 percent lower for rice, 58 percent lower for sorghum, and 64 percent lower for millet. Canola was the only row-crop with greater yields with organic farming.

What we might call "secondary staples" did poorly as well. The organic option yielded 28 percent lower for potatoes, 21 percent lower for sweet corn, 38 percent lower for onions, 19 percent lower for snap beans, and 52 percent lower for bell peppers. Perhaps most distressingly, some of the healthiest foods on the planet yielded comparatively poorly under organic production: 42 percent lower for blueberries, 23 percent lower for broccoli, and almost 40 percent lower for tomatoes.

Given these figures, a switch to organic agriculture would require a 43 percent increase over current U.S. cropland, according to Savage. As he puts it, "On a land-area basis, this additional area would be 97% the physical size of Spain or 71% the size of Texas." (Yes, Texas is bigger than Spain.) These are depressing figures, especially in light of the fact that global food demand is entering a 40-year upward trend. It's no wonder that Savage, who spent part of his career developing organic pest controls, concludes that organic "is too small and unproductive to ever be the 'solution' to our need to simultaneously feed the world and protect the environment," as he told me via e-mail.

So should we dismiss organic agriculture outright? Absolutely not. Organic may not be "the" solution to global food demand, but it can certainly be part of it. As Jason Clay, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, writes, "I think we need a new kind of agriculture—kind of a third agriculture, between the big agribusiness, commercial approach to agriculture, and the lessons from organic and local systems." With enhanced investment in agricultural research, there's every reason to hope that organic yields will improve and that the organic model will become more prominent. The fact that we're not yet there, as Savage's study verifies, doesn't mean we should abandon the quest for agricultural systems that are both high yielding and as ecologically responsible as they can be.

James E. McWilliams is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a professor of history at Texas State University.

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