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We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People… and Still Can’t End Hunger

We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People… and Still Can’t End Hunger

 

Written by Eric Holt-Giménez

A new a study from McGill University and the University of Minnesota published in the journal Nature compared organic and conventional yields from 66 studies and over 300 trials. Researchers found that on average, conventional systems out-yielded organic farms by 25%—mostly for grains, and depending on conditions.

Embracing the current conventional wisdom, the authors argue for a combination of conventional and organic farming to meet “the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts.”

Unfortunately, neither the study nor the conventional wisdom addresses the real cause of hunger.

Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ˝ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day—most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land—can’t afford to buy this food.

In reality, the bulk of industrially produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.

But what about the contentious “yield gap” between conventional and organic farming?

Actually, what this new study does tell us is how much smaller the yield gap is between organic and conventional farming than what critics of organic agriculture have assumed. In fact, for many crops and in many instances, it is minimal. With new advances in seed breeding for organic systems, and with the transition of commercial organic farms to diversified farming systems that have been shown to “overyield”, this yield gap will close even further.

Rodale, the longest-running side-by-side study comparing conventional chemical agriculture with organic methods (now 47 years) found organic yields match conventional in good years and outperform them under drought conditions and environmental distress—a critical property as climate change increasingly serves up extreme weather conditions. Moreover, agroecological practices (basically, farming like a diversified ecosystem) render a higher resistance to extreme climate events which translate into lower vulnerability and higher long-term farm sustainability.

The Nature article examined yields in terms of tons per acre and did not address efficiency ( i.e. yields per units of water or energy) nor environmental externalities (i.e. the environmental costs of production in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, etc) and fails to mention that conventional agricultural research enjoyed 60 years of massive private and public sector support for crop genetic improvement, dwarfing funding for organic agriculture by 99 to 1.

The higher performance of conventional over organic methods may hold between what are essentially both mono-cultural commodity farms. This misleading comparison sets organic agriculture as a straw man to be knocked down by its conventional counterpart. While it is rarely acknowledged, half the food in the world is produced by 1.5 billion farmers working small plots for which monocultures of any kind are unsustainable. Non-commercial poly-cultures are better for balancing diets and reducing risk, and can thrive without agrochemicals. Agroecological methods that emphasize rich crop diversity in time and space conserve soils and water and have proven to produce the most rapid, recognizable and sustainable results. In areas in which soils have already been degraded by conventional agriculture’s chemical “packages”, agroecological methods can increase productivity by 100-300%.

This is why the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released a report advocating for structural reforms and a shift to agroecology (De Schutter 2010). It is why the 400 experts commissioned for the 4-year International Assessment on Agriculture, Science and Knowledge for Development (IAASTD 2008) also concluded that agroecology and locally-based food economies (rather than the global market) where the best strategies for combating poverty and hunger.

Raising productivity for resource-poor farmers is one piece of ending hunger, but how this is done—and whether these farmers can gain access to more land—will make a big difference in combating poverty and ensuring sustainable livelihoods. The conventional methods already employed for decades by poor farmers have a poor track record in this regard.

Can conventional agriculture provide the yields we need to feed 10 billion people by 2050? Given climate change, the answer is an unsustainable “maybe.” The question is, at what social and environmental cost? To end hunger we must end poverty and inequality. For this challenge, agroecological approaches and structural reforms that ensure that resource-poor farmers have the land and resources they need for sustainable livelihoods are the best way forward.

This post was originally published by Common Dreams.

 

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57 comments

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12:23PM PDT on Sep 1, 2012

WASTE, waste and more waste. This is the Culture of the USA, starve the people. and grow excess food, just increase the Corporate profit.

5:43AM PDT on Aug 4, 2012

Grazie per la condivisione.

7:25PM PDT on May 15, 2012

The problem is not just politics, although part of the problem is politics. The problem is also food distribution. Many of the world's hungry aren't in places with paved roads. There isn't refrigeration to preserve food. Food distribution is a huge obstacle when it comes to feeding the world's hungry. Food production is not. But it is also true that many people go hungry in industrialized places. And sometimes food meant for the hungry is taken and sold by unscrupulous people. Those issues should be addressed through politics. But we need to work on helping to bring more of the world's population into places with roads/railroads, power, and so forth.

8:41AM PDT on May 14, 2012

Thank you for sharing.

9:01PM PDT on May 13, 2012

we could feed the starving people if we wanted to...instead food is being grown for livestock, not people. it's moronic...

5:27PM PDT on May 13, 2012

I AGREE WITH BETH. TERRI MUST NOT BE LIVING IN OUR WORLD, JUST IN HIS OWN LITTLE SPACE. HE NEEDS TO GET A LIFE IF THATS ALL HE CAN THINK ABOUT IS ILLEGAL ALIENS OUT OF 10 BILLION PEOPLE

5:10PM PDT on May 13, 2012

Terry, you ignorant fool, that's GLOBAL population they are writing about.

5:05PM PDT on May 13, 2012

Thanks and NO thanks to ALL the ILLEGAL ALIENS that are raping our system

12:54PM PDT on May 13, 2012

thanks :)

10:43AM PDT on May 13, 2012

You could probably end hunger on the amount of food thrown away by the USA alone every year. I won't even get into all the food we waste by chronically overeating ourselves on a path to morbid obesity. But the real issue in 'ending hunger' and 'ending poverty' is a very simple and ugly reality that very few in the developed world are willing to accept or acknowledge. There is a finite amount of wealth in this world, if you are to truly elevate the billions of poor people, it will come at the expense of the billion or so 'rich' people (if you are sitting in a home with a nice new computer, a few HDTV's, and a car or two in the garage, you ARE rich compared to these people). As the 'economic crisis' has clearly demonstrated, the general population (including ALL Americans, not just the 1%) will not stand for ANY threat to their own well being and wealth. We do not care that hundreds of millions of people throughout Asia have been elevated out of poverty and towards the middle class by taking our money and our jobs, all we can do is complain that we are making less money than we were 5 years ago (without ever acknowledging that a lot of that money went to help the really poor people). I agree that the 1% has stolen more than their fair share, but their ill-gotten wealth alone will not help the world, all of us need to accept less if you really want to end poverty.

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