Can organic feed the world?

By Rob Symons

This is my 41st article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life


Whenever I attend a workshop or seminar on food security I always come across this question, “can organic farming feed the world?”. Invariably the question is posed in a mocking tone as if the negative is blindingly obvious. We have become acculturated to the notion that industrial technology will deliver the goods, while the ecological alternative is nothing but a bourgeois feel good affectation.

We fail to to give enough thought to this question. Lets take a look at what the individual words in this question mean. The term organic is often misunderstood. It is a term used mainly in the English speaking world. The alternatives in the German and Latin speaking countries are Bio agriculture or Eco agriculture.

Essentially they all mean the same thing. It is an agricultural system that is sustainable and aims to enhance the health and fertility of the soil. It preserves and nurtures the ecosystem thus increasing biodiversity. In return it relies on the ecosystem to provide crop protection and enhanced growing conditions.

Organic farming draws criticism from both sides of the economic divide. It is not compatible with the capitalist system and so draws criticism from that sector. Because it relies on a self sustaining ecosystem approach it does not require much in terms of inputs. In other words there is not much to sell to an organic farm.

My own farm has become an agricultural reps nightmare. The rhythms of an organic farm tend also to be out of sync with those of the current economic paradigm, making it a scary place for a bank. The left of the divide has been particularly critical of the concept of organic certification seeing it as elitist.

Certification is only an optional assurance program and does not define organic farming. You can farm organically without being certified.

The father of the “Green revolution”, Norman Borlaug, criticized organic farming thus, “We aren’t going to feed 6 billion people with organic fertilizer. If we tried to do it, we would level most of our forest and many of those lands would be productive only for a short period of time.”

This statement is wrong on a few counts. His statement of “organic fertiliser” shows that he was still thinking under the input paradigm. Organic farming eschews input based farming to seek a self sustainable, ecology based soil fertility program.

He is wrong in thinking that organic farming will only be productive for a short time. Organics is a system designed for long term sustainable fertility. It is ironic that the very lands in India that were put under the “Green Revolution” are now suffering from a loss of fertility that is requiring an ever greater application of chemical fertiliser with all its attendant destructive side effects.

We do not need more land to feed people organically. Lets not forget that when we say “feed the world”, we mean food for people. We do not mean commodity crops to feed the economic system, nor do we mean crops to feed the bio-fuel industry. Small scale organic farms, employing techniques such as permaculture and bio-intensive farming, can be more efficient and more resilient than large scale mono-crop farms.

On a finite planet, with a civilisation that is fast running up against its limits, organic farming will be the only way to feed people with real food, and help heal the biosphere at the same time.


About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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5 Responses to Can organic feed the world?

  1. elledurow says:

    Organic farming and gardening is the only way to heal the damage that has been inflicted to our soils through the practice of continuous chemically-sustained monoculture. Wherever we look today we see crop yields declining due to the fact that chemical fertilisers and agrochemicals have destroyed the soil structure and the essential micro-organisms in the soil. The only hope that we have is to switch our agricultural systems to employing organic and permaculture methods without the use of any chemical fertilisers, herbicides or biocides. This will repair the damage and ensure sustainable crops to feed the world in the future.

  2. Resilience Bruce says:

    Very strong arguments outmanouvering (for me at least) an entrenched industrial paradigm Rob, thanks for the thought you have put into this!

  3. Kelly says:

    Fantastic argument and very well said. You touch on so many important topics that we all should be paying more attention to. It’s refreshing and uplifting to know that there are intelligent, hard-working people dedicating their lives to reversing the damage that we’ve done and continue to do to our one planet and most importantly, spreading knowledge. Thank you.

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