Can Organics Feed the World?

On May 5, 2011 Rodale News published a report on a speech given by Prince Charles (the future King of England) at the Future of Food conference where he says “Organic Can Feed The World.” At that conference in 2011 he made a very compelling case. Some excerpts from his speech I found particularly appropriate as the debate continues:

“We have to maintain a supply of healthy food when there is mounting pressure on every element affecting the farming process,” he told the crowd. “Soils are being depleted, demand for water is growing even more voracious, and our entire system is at the mercy of the increasingly fluctuating price of oil.” According to one statistic he cited, the average person on a Western-style diet consumes a gallon of diesel every day through food, due to our current system’s heavy dependence on fossil fuel–dependent fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery.

In addition, world hunger and world food insecurity, which plague roughly 2 billion people, are made worse by the fact that industrial food systems being pushed upon farmers in developing countries have led to crop yields that, for the first time in history, are lower than the rate of population growth, he said.

“I have been told ceaselessly that sustainable or organic farming cannot feed the world,” he added. “And I find this claim very hard to understand.” He cited a 2008 report from the United Nations that compiled research from more than 400 scientists worldwide that concluded that small family farms were the most productive food systems in the world.” And yet, for some strange reason, the conclusions of this exhaustive report seem to have vanished without trace.”

“Capitalism ultimately depends on capital, but our capital depends on nature’s capital,” he concluded. “The two are in fact inseparable.”

As I recently visited his Duchy Home Farm on the Highgrove royal estate, I was interested to see his ideas in action and realized we are still having the same conversation in 2015, as he was in the 1980’s when he decided to convert the farm to an organic agricultural system. At that time he believed that he needed to put his interest in healthy, sustainable food to some sort of action. After a few years, the farm became productive enough to support a commercial food business he named Duchy Originals, and it now includes more than 200 organic meat, dairy, and packaged food products sold throughout the United Kingdom. The Prince has been a champion of sustainable food production ever since.

I recently read an article on Food Navigator, April 28, 2015, which is what prompted this article. As an organic farmer, I, like Price Charles and most organic farmers, firmly believe that organics is not just one of the ways to feed the world, it is THE way to feed the world. Our current system is so far off track that I cannot believe we are still talking about it as though speeding up the train will avoid the inevitable train wreck rather than looking for ways to change directs and avoid the train wreck all together. Why is the same old rhetoric prevailing? I’m tired of hearing that out dated excuse that organic crops generally have lower yields than conventional crops and therefore cannot feed the world or that it is too expensive. Why are we not questioning the nutritional value of conventional crops and the related health problems connected to our chemical ag system? Why do we not factor in the cost of the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, which in fact are leading to poor soil quality or considering the cost of clean up when contamination occurs? Why are we not managing our food supply in a less wasteful manner?

In the USA alone, 30-40% of the food supply is wasted, equaling more than 20 pounds of food per person per month. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more food reaches landfills than other type of municipal solid waste. It is estimated that 25-40 % of the food that is grown, processed and transported in the United States will never be consumed. Globally, the reasons for food waste vary. For example, in developed countries, at retail level, large quantities of food are wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasize appearance. Consumers in rich countries are generally encouraged to buy more food than they need and fail to plan their food purchases properly. In developing countries the problem is essentially due to inadequate harvest techniques, poor post-harvest management, lack of suitable infrastructure, processing and packaging, lack of marketing information. Food losses during harvest and storage reduce the income of small farmers and result in a higher price for poor consumers who can’t afford to pay for the food. Reducing food losses can therefore have an impact on improving the livelihoods and food security of small farmers and poor consumers.

There is some encouraging news however. I recently was invited to speak at an organic symposium in Bankok. One speaker presented a paper on the positive impact of organic farming in India. He stated that adopting organic farming methods increased peasant farm production by 2.5 times.   He then cited similar results from previous studies in Africa.

In fact, US economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin suggests that global agriculture must shift toward organic in order to reduce dependence on petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, which are likely to see prices skyrocket in the mid-to long-term. His idea to initiate the shift towards organic is to incentivize the transition by shifting the subsidies. A vegetarian since 1977, he is not advocating the whole world become vegetarian, just think about the high cost of feeding the human race meat. According to the FAO, 40% of the food grown in the world today is feed for animals and its predicted to increase to 60% in the next 20 years. But there are always two sides to every argument. In Montana, so much of the land can’t be farmed, so having livestock harvesting the grass makes perfect sense.  In my opinion, It’s not so much the production of meat, but the great amount of grain feed to animals, which needs to be questioned.


At the end of the day, we have to find better ways to feed the world—food waste, high cost of pesticides and fertilizers and inefficient food production really makes organic a much more viable proposition.


So, let’s go forward, let’s make organic the way of the future.