Can organic farming feed the world? : a contribution to the debate on the ability of organic farming systems to provide sustainable supplies of food

K.W.T. Goulding, A.J. Trewavas, K.E. Giller

Research output: Book/ReportReportAcademic

Abstract

A recent paper Badgley et al. (2007) claimed that organic farming, if used worldwide, would provide sufficient food for a growing world population. The paper stimulated much critical response. Our paper makes a critical assessment of this claim for wheat, a major cereal crop and source of food throughout the world. We consider the problems of using experimental yields in estimating the productivity of any crop or farming system and then look at farm yields, comparing organic and conventional systems. We examine in detail the comparisons made by Badgley et al. and find many of them unsupportable: the ratio of organic : conventional wheat yields of 0.85 proposed by Badgley et al. we believe to be closer to 0.65. Nitrogen (N) fixation by legumes, the main source of N supply in organic systems, is shown to be much too small and variable to support large and consistent wheat yields of acceptable quality, and ideas that cereals could one day fix their own N found wanting. Our conclusion therefore contradicts that of Badgley et al. but agrees with that of a recent report by the University of Reading's Centre for Agricultural Strategy that organic agriculture cannot feed the world using current technologies and with the meat-rich diet that people have or aspire to. We do, though, agree with Badgley et al.'s view that there is a need to improve soil quality by adding organic material, reducing over-optimal use of fertilisers and agricultural chemicals, and optimising rotations to reduce losses to pests and diseases. There is also, perhaps, a wider societal need for people to reconsider diet in the context of their health and the ability of the world to supply the wants of its anticipated 9 billion population.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationYork
PublisherInternational Fertiliser Society
Number of pages28
ISBN (Print)9780853103004
Publication statusPublished - 2009

Publication series

NameProceedings / International Fertiliser Society, ISSN 1466-1314
PublisherInternational Fertiliser Society
No.663

Keywords

  • organic farming
  • food security
  • food production
  • plant nutrition
  • crop yield
  • sustainability

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