Shattering Myths: Can Sustainable Agriculture Feed the World?

M. Jahi Chappell | 10.02.2007

Food First Backgrounder, Fall 2007, Vol. 13, No. 2

For years, critics and proponents alike have worried that the related methods of organic, low-input, low- or no-pesticide, integrated, small-scale, and sustainable production may address environmental concerns, but cannot produce sufficient food to sustain the large and growing human population. Such skepticism was understandable—the so-called Green Revolution of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s had been credited with averting widespread hunger crises by drastically increasing agricultural production, while the downsides of its technological advancements only began to enter the popular consciousness in the years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Questioning the source of the cornucopia that provided plenty to people throughout the world seemed downright ungracious and backward. How could we be critical of the Green Revolution when it had staved off so much hunger?

What were originally valid and important doubts among some scientists about sustainable agriculture, have since turned into a “New Myth” that ignores the accumulated scientific work.

Now, years later, with the benefit of both hindsight and the insights available to us in works from Silent Spring to World Hunger: Twelve Myths to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, evaluations of the social and environmental costs of the Green Revolution—and the fact that hunger is still pervasive—have led many to question the Green Revolution’s claims. Sustainable alternatives are receiving greater attention. Organic agriculture is fast on the rise, and the call to buy local, buy seasonal, and buy fair are growing louder. But the question of whether or not such alternatives can provide enough food for a growing human population is still open. Or is it? A recent study by a research team at the University of Michigan addresses just this question.

Smashing the myth that sustainable organics cannot produce enough food

The important question of whether or not sustainable agricultural methods can produce enough food is still a stumbling block for its advocates 40 years after the heady days of the Green Revolution. Can we risk spending scarce resources on an unproven system of production? Indeed, the focus on sustainable and organic agriculture has been portrayed by some, such as geographer Vaclav Smil and the conservative Hudson Institute’s Dennis and Alex Avery as a “liberal fetish” that would bring hunger and ruin to millions in the global south if it were allowed to go forward.

Such concerns would be valid if sustainable methods were as unproven or unproductive as often portrayed. However, besides the thousands of years of small-scale and family agriculture that developed and field-tested the antecedents of many modern sustainable practices, the past 40 years have not been spent idly by those who question the now-conventional industrial agricultural methods. A significant amount of scientific literature has compared “conventional” and “sustainable” agriculture. Nonetheless, what were originally valid and important doubts among some scientists about sustainable agriculture, have since turned into a “New Myth” that ignores this accumulated scientific work. That is, the idea that yields from sustainable agriculture are insufficient to feed the human population is almost regarded as “common knowledge.” Skepticism is a vital and healthy part of science and public debate, but it must be moderated by even-handed evaluations of available information. So what does the available information on organic agriculture say? Are organic yields sufficient to feed us?

Organic agriculture and the global food supply

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A study in the June 2007 issue of the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems looked to answer this question. What do we know now about agricultural production from sustainable methods? Can we say with any confidence that it could provide enough food for a global population? Looking at 293 examples comparing alternative and conventional agriculture from 91 studies, a group of University of Michigan researchers were able to demonstrate that current scientific knowledge simply does not support the idea that a switch to organic and sustainable agriculture would drastically lower food production and lead to hunger. Instead, we found that current knowledge implies that, even under conservative estimates, organic agriculture could provide almost as much food on average at a global level as is produced today (2,641 as opposed to 2,786 kilocalories/person/day after losses). In what these University of Michigan researchers considered a more “realistic” estimation, organic agriculture could actually increase global food production by as much as 50% (to 4,381 kilocalories/person/day).