Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

Natural fertilizers and traditional farming methods, if examined in unbiased studies outside of the influence of the agrochemical industry, could prove that organic farming methods can indeed feed the world.

| July 10, 2012

Meat A Benign Extravagance Cover

In the midst of the debate surrounding meat consumption and livestock farming, author Simon Fairlie wades through the storm of misinformation to bring his well-researched book, “Meat: A Benign Extravagance,” to light. Fairlie delves into the social and environmental impacts of eating meat, specifically seeking to answer whether vegetarianism is indeed better for human and environmental health.


With research based in deep permacultural theory and a respect for natural systems that flourished long before the agrochemical industry and animal factory farms, Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie (Chelsea Green, 2010) delves into the ethical and environmental aspects of meat consumption and farming with livestock. The following excerpt describes Fairlie’s findings on the productivity of organic farming methods in comparison with the yields made possible by the agrochemical industry and the Green Revolution. The following text is adapted with permission from Chapter 8, “The Golden Hoof and Green Manure.” 

The matter of meat consumption levels carries worrying implications for advocates of organic farming. If the world went over to an organic farming system many of the potential gains which might be made from reducing meat consumption in wealthy countries, or even eliminating it completely, could not be obtained because much of the land upon which the livestock had been supported would be required either to supply some grain to replace the meat foregone, or else to provide fertility.

Placed under stress, a global organic farming system might find itself in a parallel situation to that was experienced in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries where, in order to feed increasing numbers of people, meat consumption goes down, the proportion of arable crops increase, and the “grain frontier” makes increasing progress into grass territory — resulting in less meat in people’s diet and a decline in yields because of a shortage of animal and green manures.

Arguments Against Organic Agriculture, Brought to You By Monsanto

Opponents of organic agriculture have not been slow to point this out. There is a camp of 800 scientists and pundits, including Norman Borlaug (the architect of the Green Fevolution), James Lovelock (of Gaia fame), Dennis Avery (of the Hudson Institute) and Matt Ridley (the UK’s best known contrarian and former chairman of Northern Rock) who, under the aegis of the Center for Global Food Issues, have signed a declaration “In Support of Protecting Nature With High-Yielding Farming and Forestry.” The gist of this declaration, laid out most explicitly in supporting information written by Dennis Avery, is that to provide sufficient nitrogen to feed the future population of 8.5 billion people, which industrialization will spawn, we will have to resort not only to chemical fertilizers, but also to genetic manipulation. Any attempt to secure nitrogen and other nutrients through natural, organic means would require undue encroachment upon natural habitats — if not their total destruction. If we want to feed the world and preserve biodiversity, then we’d better continue with industrial agriculture. Rather than share agricultural land with nature, we should spare land elsewhere. To protect nature we have to farm unnaturally.

Frankly, I dislike these mouthpieces for the agrochemical industry, and make no mistake about it, that is what they are: No less than 21 representatives of Monsanto and seven of Syngenta signed their declaration. I particularly dislike the Malthusian complacency with which they assert that the only way forward from the mess that the industrialization of agriculture has got us into is to put ourselves in their hands and pursue yet more of the same. I label them under the acronymically satisfying heading Global Opponents of Organic Farming. The worrying thing is that the GOOFs might be right.

The case they make is put forward most powerfully in a book on the history and legacy of the Haber/Bosch method of producing nitrogen fertilizer by the U.S. academic Vaclav Smil, entitled Enriching the Earth — a book which I would advise anyone who campaigns on behalf of organic farming to read. Smil is not banging so loud an ideological drum as the Center for Global Food Issues, and he does not shrink from cataloguing the problems that chemical agriculture has caused. The move to synthetic fertilizers, he states:

patrick mcgean
8/22/2012 11:22:05 PM

first of all, organic is the myth in the land of chemical fertilizers. Until we realize it is the dirt not the grass for which we compete with the grazers. The fact that cows and humans are here should give us an idea that 'symbiosis' is how we survive on a finite Planet. Just an opinion as a Cherokee, corn is not a food, a fuel or any other weed. What we grow in the arable soil should not be buildings and roadways. Where we are going we won't need any roads. Add organic sulfur to your diet and your need for roads may diminish. Food does not come in a box.

russell bowman
7/16/2012 4:38:42 PM

I totally agree. The vast step lands west of the Mississippi can support nothing but grazing animals. Where we go wrong is in the feed lots. Naturally grazed beef, lamb, buffalo, elk, that is the way to go if the grass is high quality, or added hay is good too, but corn fed animals standing on manure with antibiotics and hormones added to their diet is not good for the animals or us.

deb rankin
7/13/2012 6:55:55 PM

I am so tired of the continuing argument of the benefits of meat to human health and the environment. The truth is that a lot of the Earth's surface soils are not capable of sustaining crops other than grass - what eats grass? Livestock, not humans - what eats livestock humans. Livestock also provide insect control, fertilization, and quality protein for humans and our pets. Sorry fellows - but get real!

t brandt
7/12/2012 10:05:41 PM

Pre-WWII American ag was "organic." We prouced 100bu/ac for corn. Now we get 155bu/ac. The author notes that in the 1990s we could have fed 250 million people if we used only organic methods. We should point out, tho, that the population here was 300 million then, and using industrial ag tech, we were feeding 600 million world-wide....By using industrial ag tech, we raise the carrying capacity of the environment. The population remains well below the carrying capacity, thus reducing competition for resources, ie- improved living conditions.

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