Our Food, Our Future

Can organic farming feed the world? A noted scientist argues that it can—and must.

By Donella H. Meadows Ph.D.


But can organic farming produce enough?
The TINA folks seem to have fixed in their heads the notion that organic means low yield. I don't know where they get that idea. Maybe they are looking backward at preindustrial farming instead of at the performance of modern organic farms. There is a strong body of evidence that organic methods can indeed produce enough food for all—and can do it from one generation to the next without depleting natural resources or harming the environment.

For example, at the Farming Systems Trial at The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research facility (which receives financial support from Organic Gardening) near Kutztown, Pennsylvania, three kinds of experimental plots have been tested side by side for nearly 2 decades. One is a standard high-intensity rotation of corn and soybeans in which commercial fertilizers and pesticides have been used. Another is an organic system in which a rotation of grass/legume forage has been added and fed to cows, whose manure has been returned to the land. The third is an organic rotation in which soil fertility has been maintained solely with legume cover crops that have been plowed under. All three kinds of plots have been equally profitable in market terms. Corn yields have differed by less than 1 percent. The rotation with manure has far surpassed the other two in building soil organic matter and nitrogen, and it has leached fewer nutrients into groundwater. And during 1999's record drought, the chemically dependent plots yielded just 16 bushels of soybeans per acre; the legume-fed organic fields delivered 30 bushels per acre, and the manure-fed organic fields delivered 24 bushels per acre.

"With this unique living laboratory, we have proved scientifically that organic agriculture works," says John Haberern, president of The Rodale Institute. "It is a viable alternative to conventional farming because it's an economical resource that can empower people to build healthy soil, produce healthy food, and sustain human and environmental health."

Adds Jeff Moyer, the institute's farm manager: "Our trials show that improving the quality of the soil through organic practices can mean the difference between a harvest or hardship in times of drought."

Adherents of the chemical-farming model point out that the organic rotations include a forage crop in addition to corn and beans. What that means is that at any given time, a third of the acreage is not planted with a direct cash crop. TINA proponents argue that that means a lower annual yield of corn. What they don't point out is that the forage in the organic rotation provides nourishment for cows, which in turn provide milk for humans and manure for the soil.

Keeping cows and forage on the farm may mean less room for corn, but it solves two big problems that plague conventional agriculture: the soil degradation caused by growing all the grain in one place and the manure pollution caused by feeding all the cows in another. As Darryl Amey, an organic farmer in Saskatchewan, puts it: "When you put 2,000 pigs in one place, you have a pollution problem. Put 2,000 pigs out on 10 mixed farms, and you have fertilizer."

In what must be the longest-running organic trial in the world—150 years—the Rothamsted Experimental Station (also known as the Institute of Arable Crops Research) in England reports that its organic manured plots have delivered wheat yields of 1.58 tons per acre, compared to synthetically fertilized plots that have yielded 1.55 tons per acre. That may not seem like much, but those manured plots contain six times the organic matter found in the chemically treated plots. Again, the organic system is based on the assumption that at any given time, some of the acreage is planted with a fodder crop that will go to feed cows. The synthetically fed plots are based on a profoundly different assumption: that their survival depends on a fertilizer factory somewhere that is consuming vast amounts of fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases.

In 1989 the National Research Council wrote up case studies of eight organic farms that ranged from a 400-acre grain/livestock farm in Ohio to 1,400 acres of grapes in California and Arizona. The organic farms' average yields were generally equal to or better than the average yields of the conventional high-intensity farms surrounding them—and, once again, they could be sustained year after year without costly synthetic inputs.

And a 1987 study that compared adjoining organic and chemically treated wheat fields in Washington State found that the organic fields had 8 more inches of topsoil than their chemical neighbors and only one-third the erosion loss.

The anecdotal evidence perhaps speaks most loudly of all. Talk to organic farmers and most will relate a similar experience: When they first gave up chemical inputs, they experienced disappointing yields. But after several years of building the soil's natural fertility, the farmers found that their harvests came close to, or exceeded, chemical yields.

One of those organic farmers is Fred Kirschenmann of North Dakota. He saw his yields plummet when in 1977 he abruptly eliminated all fertilizers and pesticides from his 3,100-acre farm. But today his yields match the highest of his conventional neighbors except during droughts, when his humus-rich soil provides even higher yields than neighboring farms.

"If we have an ideal growing season, conventional farmers tend to outyield us," Kirschenmann says. "But if there is any stress on the crop, drought or too much rain, we tend to outyield them."