Decision and Policy Analysis Program – DAPA
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Can organic farming feed the world?

A widely discussed issue relating to feeding the world’s growing population is the debate between conventional farming VS. organic methods. A special ‘food report’ by the Economist a few weeks ago made their view very clear. They argue that organic farming could feed Europe and America but not the rest of the world.

This debate is extremely clear cut. For example, the biotechnology and agribusiness perspective would argue there is no alternative to using GM crops. Moreover, it is perceived that without large inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, food supply would automatically decline due to crop loss as a result of weeds and pests.

On the other hand, there are a growing band of academics, practioners and smallholder farmers who disagree with this view. For example, a report from the University of California provides some insightful case study examples of comparisons between organic and conventional farming methods. According to the author, the experiments showed, ‘the ability of organic agriculture to produce comparable yields’ to convention methods and ‘organic farming systems have proven that they can prevent crop loss to pests without synthetic methods.’

Moving beyond a simplistic organic vs. conventional systems approach, there are some who argue for a synergy between both. For example, Don Seville, Co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab believes it is more worthwhile to try and increase organic practices (use of compost, biomass, rotations with legumes, and integration of animal manure) in conjunction with artificial fertilizer and pesticides. The goal would be to increase organic fertilisation, without necessarily trying to ensure the strict certification standards of ‘organic’ are met. This appears to be an ideal middle way approach.

When talking about ways to feed the world population and which production techniques are the best we must be cautious. In today’s context, approximately 925 million suffer from hunger and as I have mentioned in previous articles, this is mainly a result of poverty, distribution and wastage of crops during production. Therefore, we need to focus on these problems in conjunction with production techniques. Without a doubt, there is a definite need to integrate sustainable farming methods to promote soil and water conservation. This is necessary in order for land to continue being productive for the years to come. We must also be weary of proponents of purely conventional methods, as the real focus to feed people may be overrun by business interests.

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