Many published studies have tried to answer the question of whether organic agriculture can feed the world, often concluding that it can't. As someone with scientific training, I shudder every time I read one of these articles. Why? Because most of them, if not all, have 3 underlying assumptions: (1) conventional agriculture CAN feed the world; (2) organic agriculture is like conventional agriculture (i.e. large monocultures) but without the chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers), which means lower yields, more land needed, more deforestation, etc. (hence their conclusion); and (3) these (monocultures) are the only option we have to feed the world. What’s wrong with these assumptions? While they are practical, particularly when analyzing global numbers, I believe these assumptions are flawed, and very much so. Let’s dig deeper.
Picture your favourite city, with its vibrant and diverse neighbourhoods, heritage architecture, parks, recreational facilities, community gardens, museums and galleries, restaurants, stores, etc. Imagine we bulldoze all of it, from the historic buildings to the house built yesterday, and replace them with the exact same replica of a house, evenly spaced, on a grid pattern, for miles and miles and miles. Do you see yourself thriving in an environment like that? I guess not. And I guess most life forms would agree with you. However, vermin would thrive. Because once they figure out how to break into one house, they would be able to use the resources in it, reproduce, and easily break into the next one, because they are identical.
This is basically what conventional agriculture does: It replaces diverse ecosystems filled with life, with thousands and thousands of acres of one plant, a monoculture. As in the city example, monocultures are not very appealing to most life forms, except for whatever eats that plant, the so called pests. And how do we deal with them? Pesticides. And how do we make those plants grow once those pesticides and the lack of plant diversity impoverish the soil? Fertilizers.
In the last 70 years or so, we have gotten very effective at growing staple crops (like corn, soy and wheat) this way. But this is not only NOT feeding the world1, it is destroying the life-supporting ecosystems we depend on. Without ecosystems to support life, well, there will not be life for long. So even if conventional agriculture is putting food on our plates today, it will not be able to do so forever. If you look at the inputs used in conventional agriculture, you will find that a lot of them are non-renewable resources (like mined phosphorous, oil-based pesticides, and nitrogen fertilizer created from natural gas). Many of those resources are already in decline, which drives up the price of food.
First, let’s get this out of the way: organic doesn’t mean NO chemicals, it means OTHER chemicals. Yes, there are chemicals approved for organic production. Most of them are made with natural ingredients and are not as toxic or energy-intensive as synthetic ones. Not every organic producer uses chemicals though. We know many organic producers (certified or not) that don’t use any pesticides even when they can. We count ourselves among them.
Many studies compare yields between conventional monocultures and organic monocultures. We saw before how unappealing these are for life. Are they even the best way to produce food efficiently? Let’s look at some numbers:
According to the Ontario government, the average carrot yield in Ontario between 1979 and 2021 is 1.02 lbs/sq ft per season, ranging between 0.6 lbs/sq ft on a very bad year, and 1.47 lbs/sq ft on a very good one2. Over the last 3 years, at Nature’s Apprentice Farm we have gotten a carrot yield of 1.52 lbs/sq ft per season fairly consistently; that is with no chemicals and using compost as our only source of fertility. Why the difference? Because we grow and harvest carrots using hand tools, and this allows us to grow carrots at much higher densities than one could with a tractor. Not only that, we are improving our soil every year along the way3. We can not only grow more, but also better! Carrots are the crop that we hear most about from our clients. People regularly remark on how good they taste compared to store-bought, or even to carrots from other farms. And taste is often seen as an indicator of nutrition.
So when studies compare conventional monocultures to organic monocultures, conventional ones usually show higher or equivalent yields. This misses the potential of small-scale organic agriculture to produce more and better food. This brings us to assumption #3:
Monocultures are practical. At our farm, our production unit is a bed (125 sq ft). Each bed is a tiny monoculture (although we do a lot of interplanting). That way all plants in a bed grow at the same pace, have the same requirements, and are harvested at the same time. This makes for efficient planning and work flow. While one bed may be a tiny monoculture, when you zoom out to the scale of our 6.5 acre farm, it is a diverse agro-ecosystem, with 70+ varieties of vegetables, berries, and flowers, let alone all the wild plants surrounding the production areas. Could staple crops like cereals, beans and potatoes be grown in a diverse mosaic too?
There is at least one way to combine diverse plantings and the practicality of mechanically-harvested monocultures: Enter agroforestry. Agroforestry often involves growing rows of trees (for fruit, nut, fibre and/or fuel production) with wide alleys between them. These alleys can be dedicated to growing pasture for animals (aka silvo-pasture) or crops (aka alley-cropping). Besides producing a crop, the trees support ecological functions such as air and water filtration, climate control, habitat for animals, erosion control, and soil building. The crops growing in the alleys benefit from all of these functions. Once the trees are mature, part of the crop in the alley is shaded by the trees, and therefore doesn’t produce as much. But when you count calories produced by the acre, this is a much more efficient way of producing food than conventional monocultures1.
Is agroforestry the silver bullet? I suspect it is not; for example, there are soils where trees don’t grow well. Complex problems require nuanced and diverse solutions. But this is just to show that there are multiple ways of growing food, and I believe it is a combination of them that CAN indeed feed the world.
Go back to the picture of your favourite city. Imagine every unused space and every lawn filled with edible plants and flowers, with people smiling and talking to each other, working side by side. Imagine the farms surrounding the city with rows of different trees and bushes, a diversity of crops growing among some rows, and a diversity of animals grazing among other rows, with insects buzzing and birds flying overhead. Some may say this is not realistic. I like to think we are only limited by our imagination. 200 years ago it may have seemed unrealistic that women could vote, or that people with different skin colours could attend the same school, or that we could communicate instantaneously across the world. WE get to decide the rules of the game, as well as when and how to change them.
What can you do?
Grow a garden. When it comes to food, it doesn’t get more fresh, local and cheap than that. You can choose the varieties you like the most, instead of just what ships well (and tastes like its packaging). You can choose how you grow it. If you don’t have room, join a community garden or ask a neighbour and share the bounty with them, building relationships along the way. Gardening, particularly in community, can be very grounding and relaxing. If you feel intimidated by the idea of gardening, we would love to help you.
If gardening is not for you, find the local farmers like us who are growing in a diverse, ecological way and get your groceries from them. We are all around you, ready to serve you. If you are in the Ottawa Valley, check https://savourottawa.ca/ for a comprehensive list of food producers and vendors.
Can organic agriculture feed the world? We may be asking the wrong question altogether. Once a lot more people are involved in food production and everyone has access to a thriving, farming community around them, we will not even need to worry about feeding the world.
1 Mark Shephard explains this in detail in his book Restoration Agriculture using the US as an example
2 I assume these stats come mostly from large-scale, conventional producers (I can’t get away with making some assumptions myself!).
3 Between 2019 and 2021, our soil organic matter went from 2.7% to 4.6%. Soil organic matter is an indicator of fertility, water retention and carbon sequestration, and it is critical for soil microbes to thrive.