Farm Progress

Organic farming will remain a healthy sub-sector of the agricultural industry. But it won’t ever be more than this. It can’t ever be more than this if we’re serious about feeding the world.

March 29, 2012

4 Min Read

Woody Allen won an Oscar for the screenplay to his film Midnight in Paris on Sunday night, but he didn’t collect his golden statue in person. He’s semi-famous for not attending the Academy Awards, which is odd because he also once said that 80 percent of success is just showing up.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement, but let’s face it: 80 percent usually isn’t good enough. The rest of your success depends on more than showing up. After you show up, you have to perform.

That’s why a new study in a scientific journal has so much to teach about food security. If we’re going to succeed in feeding a global population of billions in the 21st century — one of the greatest challenges of our time — we’re going to need every tool and technology available so farmers around the world can choose what will work best on their farm. This must include new farming technologies. Farmers cannot be limited to the methods that were used in the past.

The researchers discovered an important truth: Organic agriculture can’t feed the world.

“Our results show that organic yields of individual crops are on average 80 percent of conventional yields,” write Tomek de Ponti, Bert Rijk, and Matin K. van Ittersum of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, in the latest issue of Agricultural Systems, a peer-reviewed academic publication. They examined 362 studies that compared organic and conventional crop yields, creating what they call a “meta-dataset.” That’s a fancy way of saying their work was comprehensive.

Organic foods make up only a small percentage of overall food production, but sales have boomed in the last 15 years. Although they can be pricey, many consumers have expressed a preference for them, and so farmers have met the demand. Opportunities are about to increase, following the announcement in February that the United States and European Union will accept each other’s organic standards.

So organic farming will remain a healthy sub-sector of the agricultural industry.

Perpetual sub-sector

But it won’t ever be more than this. It can’t ever be more than this if we’re serious about feeding the world.

Most analysts believe we must double our food production by 2050, to meet the needs of a growing population as well as the desires of people in developing countries who simply want to eat better.

Unfortunately, we don’t have an unlimited supply of farmland. We have to get more from the land we already cultivate. That means improving not only conventional farming practices, but utilizing every technology available, including biotechnology, and making the most of its promise so that yields will rise.

Farmers are doing this right now: Almost 17 million of them plant GM crops, 90 percent of those are smallholder, resource-poor farmers in developing countries, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). In 2011, biotech crops took up nearly 400 million acres of farmland, up 8 percent from a year earlier.

If we’re to meet the food objectives of 2050, we’ll need to see growth like this for years to come.

Organic crops may continue to find a market among choosy buyers in wealthy countries, but their yields won’t meet the needs of the world: 80 percent just won’t cut it.

In a basketball game, if you score 80 percent as many points as your opponent, you get blown off the court, 100 to 80. That’s not March Madness; it’s March Badness.

In school, 80 percent usually earns a grade of B-minus, which is so-so at best and pretty close to a C-plus, which is heading toward not-great. It means you probably should do more homework.

If you show up for work 80 percent of the time, your boss will fire you. If your boss pays you 80 percent of your wages, you’ll quit your job–because it just isn’t good enough.

Yields of 80 percent fall too short as well. That means skipping one meal out of every five, or one out of every five people in the world not receiving the food they need to survive.

Any volunteers?  I didn’t think so.

Organic food is a choice. Those with the means to choose it have every right to do so. Farmers have every right to supply what these consumers want.

But let’s also recognize that it’s a luxury, and our needs are urgent: more food, better technology, and widespread awareness of what must be done.

Showing up isn’t good enough.

Carol Keiser owns and operates cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Illinois.  She is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member (

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