Can Organic Farming Feed the World?

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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.
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Organic farming using traditonal farming methods and natural fertilizers can provide fresh, healthy produce.

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:

“… has many undesirable consequences for the soil quality, above all greater soil compaction, resulting in worsened tilth, easier erodibility, lowered water-holding capacity, and weakened ability to support diverse soil biota and to buffer acid deposition. … Higher applications of nitrogen fertilizers have also increased the opportunities for losing the nutrient from fields and transferring it to fresh and coastal waters, to soils and into the atmosphere. Such enrichment must have a variety of consequences for aquatic and terrestrial biota that are now subjected to this steady, and often increasing eutrophication. … Haber-Bosch synthesis has made it possible to sever the traditionally tight link between cropping and animal husbandry, and to move increasing amounts of fixed nutrients not only within individual countries but also among nations and continents. This has given rise to disjointed, one might say dysfunctional, nitrogen cycling. Individual farms, even whole agricultural regions, have ceased to be functional units within which the bulk of crop nutrients used to keep cycling during centuries or even millennia of traditional farming.

This pretty well sums up the main environmental arguments against the use of chemical fertilizers. Nor does Smil hide the fact that Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and Carl Krauch, the men who around 1910 developed the process which a century later is still used for extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere, were all highly compromised characters.  

Research Dollars Favor the Agrochemical Industry Over Organic Farming Methods

It is possible that Smil could be wrong. What would have happened if the Haber/Bosch process and all the rest of the agrochemical armoury had never been developed, either because such developments were technically impossible, or else because, in the context of a pattern of civilization that one might usefully call Sino-Luddite, they were banned? Would the world’s population have expanded as it did in Europe in the 14th century? Would it have encroached upon grazing land and suffered declining yields, until humanity succumbed to a global demographic catastrophe?

Perhaps; but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the world might have pursued an entirely different course, through which population growth was relatively restrained (as it was for example in the 17th century in England, or the 18th century in China) while scientists and innovators concentrated their research upon breeding better varieties, improving the performance of nitrogen-fixing crops, and finding better ways of making complex agricultural ecosystems function productively.

In this context, the main charge levelled at the agrochemical establishment by the organic movement is that virtually all funding for research has been pumped into fossil fuel-powered agriculture, and that is the main reason why organic yields have so often lagged behind the yields from chemical farming. The water mill wasn’t developed until 1,000 years after it was invented, because slaves could do the job cheaper. How many potential agricultural improvements are there which have remained ignored because they can’t compete with fossil fuels?

Organic Farming Methods: Bringing Back Traditional Farming Methods

Over recent years commentators such as Jules Pretty, Mae-Wan Ho, Lim Li Ching and others have reported impressive improvements in yields in Third World agriculture through the introduction (or reintroduction) of organic farming methods such as intercropping, green manuring, animal composting, introducing ducks into paddy fields to keep down weeds and pests and provide fertilizer, or interplanting crops with prolific legumes such as the velvet bean tree, Mucuna pruriens.

In his book, Smil draws attention to one promising organic farming  method of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere: “Since the late 1950s monsoonal Asia has added an intriguing form of green manuring by cultivating and distributing floating Azolla ferns [also called duckweed fern], which harbour N-fixing cyanobacterium Anabaena. Fern stocks are preserved in nurseries for distribution to flooded fields where they could double their mass in just a few days, producing sometimes more than one tonne per hectare of phytomass per day. After the plantlets die and settle to the paddy bottom, their mineralized nitrogen helps to raise rice yields in paddies.” In 1980, China was reported to have 3.2 million acres of paddy fertilized with Azolla.

Can Organic Farming Feed the World? 

Nonetheless, it takes a big leap of faith to conclude from the success of small-scale ventures such as SRI that China could feed all of its population to the current level of nutrition solely through organic farming methods. This would require all of the 75 percent of China’s nitrogen which Smil estimates is currently extracted from the atmosphere by fossil fuel-powered factories, to be derived through nitrogen-fixing plants such as lucerne, Azolla or Mucuna pruriens. This may be theoretically possible, but it would also require extra land, extra water, and a supply of other key nutrients, notably phosphates. I have to agree with Smil that this looks like a pretty tall order.

The challenge is almost as daunting in some other low-income countries, such as Egypt, Indonesia and Bangladesh, although it is noticeable that India is considerably more economic with nitrogen fertilizer than China (India has 1.6 times as much arable land per person as China, but China uses 2.6 times as much fertilizer as India).

The situation is very different in many of the developed countries, particularly those in the New World. Smil calculates that the United States, even though it is the world’s second largest consumer of nitrogen fertilizers after China, “in the 1990s could have supplied a healthy diet for 250 million people without using any synthetic nitrogen compounds.” This could be achieved by reducing food exports, the amount of grain-fed meat, and most significantly the 45 percent of food which is wasted. No doubt countries such as Canada and New Zealand could feed themselves just as easily, and I suspect that France, and even Britain, could feed themselves through organic home production, though we British might have to eat more porridge and potatoes.

Britain is fortunate in enjoying a temperate climate, but its famous fertility is not inherent, it has been built up over the last 500 years through a series of historical advantages. The agricultural revolution, by slowly building up soil fertility and introducing legumes and root crops, enabled more stock to be kept, more manure to be produced, more nitrogen to be applied to the land and higher yields to be obtained. The colonization of the New World allowed surplus peasants, who had they remained at home would have increased grain production at the expense of grass, to be exported abroad where they could grow a surplus of crops on virgin land. And fertility has been further enhanced by the importation of guano, rock phosphates, and untold quantities of biomass in the form of wheat, beef, animal feed and other crops (much of which, but not all, we have flushed out to sea).

None of these options were available to China and other South East Asian nations. When China finally emerged in the 1980s from a centuries-long struggle at the brink of carrying capacity, it was not thanks to an agricultural revolution which increased nitrogen levels through the agency of legumes and livestock, but on the wave of a green revolution fuelled by chemical nitrogen and superphosphate. If Smil is right, the option to go organic is a neo-colonial luxury which cannot be afforded by the majority of the inhabitants of the Third World, because they do not have enough land, water or biomass to go around. The only immediate prospect of redressing such inequity is to promote large-scale migration of Chinese and South Asian peasants to the less congested farmlands of North America, Australasia and Europe, where they could take up the niche currently occupied by a superfluity of livestock — a scenario which advocates of globalization and the free market ought to totally support.

A more tempered approach will be to increase research and experimentation into organic agriculture in both the North and the South, in the hope that the Third World, in contrast to Europe, will undergo its biological “agricultural revolution” after having undergone its chemical “green revolution,” since it failed to do so before. The world is waiting for an organic answer to Justus von Liebig, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Meat: A Benign Extravagance, published by Chelsea Green, 2010.

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