Study after study show that organic techniques can provide much more food per acre in developing countries than conventional chemical-based agriculture, says Geoffrey Lean.Forget, for a moment, the impassioned debate over the healthiness of organic food that has been raging merrily since the Food Standards Agency published its controversial report last week.
There is a much more important issue to consider, one that has hardly figured in the argument. Can organic farming do much to feed an increasingly hungry world? Almost everyone assumes that it can’t. It is seen as something purely for the health-conscious Western middle classes. But the counter-intuitive truth is very different.
Study after study show that organic techniques can provide much more food per acre in developing countries than conventional chemical-based agriculture. One report – published last year by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) – found that 114 projects, covering nearly two million African farmers, more than doubled their yields by introducing organic or near-organic practices.
Another study – led by the University of Essex – looked at similar projects in 57 developing countries, covering three per cent of the entire cultivated area in the Third World, and revealed an average increase of 79 per cent. And research at the University of Michigan concluded that organic farming could increase yields on developing countries’ farms three-fold.
It seems hard to believe. Indeed, Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, says the report gave him the biggest surprise of any that have crossed his desk. After all, it’s not long since all our farms were organic through sheer necessity, and the advent of chemicals has since dramatically increased yields in intensive Western-style agriculture.
On examination, it becomes easier to understand. Really intensive use of agricultural chemicals, as in East Anglia or the US Midwest, still produces the most food. But few Third World farmers can afford to buy that much fertiliser and pesticides. The amount they do use will shrink as the prices rise with that of oil.
Organic farming, meanwhile, has come a long way since the days when it was dismissed as “muck and magic”, with the development of increasingly sophisticated techniques. Professor Jules Pretty, of Essex University, who has studied the issue for more than 20 years, says: “Methods used by organic farmers can dramatically increase yields over those achieved by low-intensity conventional agriculture.”
Even more important, as the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development points out, going organic almost always boosts the incomes of small Third World farmers, because they no longer have to buy expensive chemicals.
This is vital, as three quarters of the world’s poorest people depend on small-scale agriculture to eke out a living. Those that have land often do not have enough, so have to buy food as well; half of the word’s undernourished people are smallholders and their families.
The landless are even worse off, and have to seek work as labourers. Again, a switch to organic agriculture can help, for it employs many more people, creating more than 170,000 jobs in 2007 in Mexico alone.
Providing and increasing incomes is the most effective way to combat hunger, which is rarely caused by an absolute shortage of food. People normally go hungry because they cannot afford to buy the food that is produced.
Even the Western organic boom is helping people out of poverty. Exports of chemical-free food from China, for example, soared from $1 million in the mid-1990s to over $150 million today. And some of the poorest and most marginalised areas of the Third World, where few chemicals have ever been used, have often been able to cash in first.
Going organic will also pay long-term dividends, for it builds up soil where conventional farming often depletes it, and stores more water in the ground in what will be an increasingly thirsty world.
Last year, the world’s biggest and most authoritative study – the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development – backed organic agriculture as part of a “radical change” in the way the world grows its food. Certainly, the present over-concentration on intensive agriculture has not succeeded even in reducing the number of people going hungry – this year it topped one billion for the first time.
None of this is to argue for a moment that all farming should be organic, as some of the most fundamentalist environmentalists insist. The immediate drop in Western harvests alone would be catastrophic, and cause hundreds of millions more to go hungry as food prices increased.
A better balance needs to be struck if the world is to be fed. And working out what that should be makes the arguments of the past week seem pretty small potatoes – whether organic or not.