Sustainable organic farming or 9 billion people on Earth? Is this really an inevitable choice?
Although organic farming and sustainability are widely supported in theory, they are still considered a naive strategy when discussing the global food supply. How will we be able to supply the predicted 9 billion global population, and increase agricultural production by 50% using only organic farming methods? It seems impossible. But is it really?
Models provided by the scientific journal Nature Communications1 give surprisingly evident but not so popular answers to this question. The brief but scientific conclusion is that we need to change. We should change both our habits and our systems, which is not so easy.
Will we be able to change and live a less comfortable life in the present in order to protect our future?
Although the publication does not give an answer to this question, it explains what we can expect if we really make a change.
Here are three scenarios from dozens of alternatives for 2050, calculated by the SOL-model2:
A: If we do not change anything. In this case global agricultural production will follow FAO forcasts3 taking into consideration the expected changes to yields, animal husbandry practices and eating habits. This is called the reference scenario.
B: Everybody eats only organic food, but nothing else changes. Although agriculture would switch to 100% organic in this scenario – meaning that we would not use any synthetic fertilizers or conventional plant protection agents either, the other elements of the food supply system (e.g. consumption and eating habits) would not change at all.
C: Everybody eats only organic food, and the amount of food waste and the use of animal fodders competing with food production are to be decreased by 50%. Animal husbandry would become less intensive, and the ratio of animal proteins in our diets would also decrease. So forget about your daily hamburger!
If any of the above-mentioned scenarios came to pass, the ratio of arable lands would change in the following way according to the model:
A: The arable land needed to sustain humanity would increase by 6% by 2050. This new arable land would mostly replace forested areas. If we also take the yield level related negative impacts of climate change into account, then an additional 21-46% area increase would be needed for a secure food supply. Sustainability and the mitigation of environmental damage caused by agriculture are not included in this scenario.
B: If all human food came only from organic production, the arable land needed to feed all humans would increase by 16% or 33% by 2050 compared to the reference scenario (scenario A). (The value of 16% or 33% depends on the method used for defining the differences between the yield levels of organic and conventional production systems.) It is not surprising at all that organic farming requires more land since the basic philosophy behind this system is sustainability and environmental consciousness, rather than achieving the highest yield levels per area unit, which is true of conventional farming. So, just switching to 100% to organic food by 2050 would not be a good solution, as it would require an increased area of arable lands.
C: At the same time, if we were also to reduce our consumption during the process, the arable land needed to sustain the human population would be 4% lower by 2050 compared to the reference scenario (scenario A), even if we switched to 100% organic production. But this scenario would also require one-third of the produced food to not get wasted (stopping every third sandwich ending up in the bin). Since the land suitable for producing food for humans would be used only for that purpose, and not for fodder production, grazing would remain the only option for raising animals. At the same time, we would have to make do with more beans. However, the animal protein we did eat would taste better, as it would come from happier animals.
Theoretically, organic farming alone could feed 9 billion people. If we were able to think systematically, in parallel implement complementary strategies, and make compromises when conflicting interests appeared then it could work. We could feed even double the number of people with organic food using the same area that conventional farming uses. But the difference would lie in the quality of our life and our food, not in the area of land utilized.
Unfortunately, 100% organic production is not realistic (of course 9 billion people is not either), but if we were able to achieve some small progress in our everyday consumption habits, that would already lead to great benefits.
1Muller et al. 2017: Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture
2The SOL model is a statistical approach enabling the systematic modeling of the food supply system and the forecasting of changes resulting from the different strategies. The SOL model is different from the others in the way that it can be also used for the simulation of the agronomic features (lack of synthetic fertilizers and conventional plant protection agents, lower yield levels, higher ratio of legumes and higher ratio of grazing based animal husbandry) of organic farming. This model has been intentionally elaborated for developing a more sustainable – that is more organic – food supply system instead of the current one. (This model does not take into account the impacts of the different choices made by the farmers and the consumers or the economic consequences caused by the changing market prices.)
3 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations