We Already Grow Enough Food For 10 Billion People.
and Still Can't End Hunger
Eric Holt-Giménez, Miguel Altieri, Hans Herren,
April 28, 2012
A new a study* from McGill University and the University
of Minnesota published in the journal Nature compared
organic and conventional yields from 66 studies and over
300 trials. Researchers found that on average,
conventional systems out-yielded organic farms by 25%-
mostly for grains, and depending on conditions.
Embracing the current conventional wisdom, the authors
argue for a combination of conventional and organic
farming to meet "the twin challenge of feeding a growing
population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie
diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global
Unfortunately, neither the study nor the conventional
wisdom addresses the real cause of hunger.
Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not
scarcity. For the past two decades the rate of global
food production has increased faster than the rate of
global population growth. The world already produces
more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the
planet. That's enough to feed 10 billion people, the
population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making
less than $2 a day-most of whom are resource-poor
farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land-can't
afford to buy this food.
In reality, the bulk of industrially produced grain
crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots
rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to
double food production by 2050 only applies if we
continue to prioritize the growing population of
livestock and automobiles over hungry people. But what
about the contentious "yield gap" between conventional
and organic farming?
Actually, what this new study does tell us is how much
smaller the yield gap is between organic and
conventional farming than what critics of organic
agriculture have assumed. In fact, for many crops and in
many instances, it is minimal. With new advances in seed
breeding for organic systems, and with the transition of
commercial organic farms to diversified farming systems
that have been shown to "overyield", this yield gap will
close even further.
Rodale, the longest-running side-by-side study comparing
conventional chemical agriculture with organic methods
(now 47 years) found organic yields match conventional
in good years and outperform them under drought
conditions and environmental distress-a critical
property as climate change increasingly serves up
extreme weather conditions. Moreover, agroecological
practices (basically, farming like a diversified
ecosystem) render a higher resistance to extreme climate
events which translate into lower vulnerability and
higher long-term farm sustainability.
The Nature article examined yields in terms of tons per
acre and did not address efficiency ( i.e. yields per
units of water or energy) nor environmental
externalities (i.e. the environmental costs of
production in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, soil
erosion, biodiversity loss, etc) and fails to mention
that conventional agricultural research enjoyed 60 years
of massive private and public sector support for crop
genetic improvement, dwarfing funding for organic
agriculture by 99 to 1.
The higher performance of conventional over organic
methods may hold between what are essentially both mono-
cultural commodity farms. This misleading comparison
sets organic agriculture as a straw man to be knocked
down by its conventional counterpart. While it is rarely
acknowledged, half the food in the world is produced by
1.5 billion farmers working small plots for which
monocultures of any kind are unsustainable. Non-
commercial poly-cultures are better for balancing diets
and reducing risk, and can thrive without agrochemicals.
Agroecological methods that emphasize rich crop
diversity in time and space conserve soils and water and
have proven to produce the most rapid, recognizable and
sustainable results. In areas in which soils have
already been degraded by conventional agriculture's
chemical "packages", agroecological methods can increase
productivity by 100-300%.
This is why the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to
Food released a report advocating for structural reforms
and a shift to agroecology (De Schutter 2010). It is why
the 400 experts commissioned for the 4-year
International Assessment on Agriculture, Science and
Knowledge for Development (IAASTD 2008) also concluded
that agroecology and locally-based food economies
(rather than the global market) where the best
strategies for combating poverty and hunger.
Raising productivity for resource-poor farmers is one
piece of ending hunger, but how this is done-and whether
these farmers can gain access to more land-will make a
big difference in combating poverty and ensuring
sustainable livelihoods. The conventional methods
already employed for decades by poor farmers have a poor
track record in this regard.
Can conventional agriculture provide the yields we need
to feed 10 billion people by 2050? Given climate change,
the answer is an unsustainable "maybe." The question is,
at what social and environmental cost? To end hunger we
must end poverty and inequality. For this challenge,
agroecological approaches and structural reforms that
ensure that resource-poor farmers have the land and
resources they need for sustainable livelihoods are the
best way forward.
About the authors
Eric Holt-Giménez, PhD, Executive Director, Institute
for Food and Development Policy, aka Food First. Eric is
the editor of the 2011 book, Food Movements Unite!
Strategies to transform our food systems, the author of
the 2009 book, Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger
Miguel Altieri, PhD, University of California, Berkeley,
Professor in MCINS - ESPM Organisms and the Environment.
He is an internationally-recognized entomologist
studying biological control agro-ecology.
Hans Herren, PhD, President of the Millenium Insititute.
Hans is an internationally recognized scientist, was
appointed MI's president in May 2005. Prior to joining
MI, he was director-general of the International Center
for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi,
Kenya. He also served as director of the Africa
Biological Control Center of International Institute of
Tropical Agriculture (IITA), in Benin.
Stephen Gliessman, PhD, University of California, Santa
Cruz, Professor in Environmental Studies, founder and
director of Program in Community and Agroecology (PICA).
He is an internationally-recognized Agro-ecologist.
* "Comparing the yields of organic and conventional
agriculture" by Seufert, V., Ramankutty, N. and Foley,
J. April 25, 2012. Nature. 10.1038/nature11069
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate