Earth & Conservation

Organic Farming Could Feed the World, but Only If People Consume Less Meat

Organic farming has been promoted as good for health and the environment, but research suggests it could also meet global food demand under certain conditions.

A migrant farm worker from Mexico harvests organic zucchini while working at the Grant Family Farms on September 3, 2010 in Wellington, Colorado. The farm, the largest organic vegetable farm outside of California, hires some 250 immigrant workers during the peak harvest season. | John Moore/Getty Images
A migrant farm worker from Mexico harvests organic zucchini while working at the Grant Family Farms on September 3, 2010 in Wellington, Colorado. The farm, the largest organic vegetable farm outside of California, hires some 250 immigrant workers during the peak harvest season. | John Moore/Getty Images

Advocates of organic farming claim people’s health and the environment would be benefit if farmers stopped spraying chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and weed killers on their crops.

But their arguments have rung hollow among those who question whether farmers can grow enough organic food to feed the world’s growing population without the help of science.

Now researchers in Europe believe they have broken the impasse in that debate.

Writing in the journalNature Communications, the scientists conclude that organic agriculture could feed everybody on the planet if people wasted less food and ate less meat.

“Organic or not organic is a question that is really important,” study co-author Christian Schader, an agricultural economist at the Switzerland-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, told Seeker. “But in terms of food security, there are other things that have an impact. This is about how we deal with food. How much food do we waste and what do we eat? Do we need to eat tons of beef and eggs?”

Schader and his colleagues simulated a range of potential scenarios for 2050, when the United Nations has said farmers worldwide will need to grow 50 percent more food in order to feed a forecasted global population of 9 billion people, or around 1.5 billion more than today.

They modelled different outcomes based on how much food people stopped wasting, how much range now devoted to livestock became farmland and climate change.

If everyone in the world went organic but kept eating burgers and tossing their uneaten fries into the trash, then farmers would need around 33 percent more land to meet demand — a nearly impossible demand, said Schader.

But if people reduced their food waste by half and converted all the land now used for animals into farms for growing food for people, then humankind would need 18 percent less land to feed everyone. In that case, people’s protein intake from animals would drop from around 38 percent to 11 percent.

Those two scenarios, however, assume climate change won’t impact agriculture around the world in 2050.

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If floods, storms, or other weather events halt farming and destroy crops according to the most extreme, pessimistic projections — and at the same time societies continue to waste food and allow animals to occupy land at current rates — farmers would need to find around 46 percent more land to grow non-organic crops and 71 percent more land to grow organics to prevent famines.

Under the extreme weather scenario, humankind has little choice but to reduce our wasteful, carnivorous habits. Conserving at least half the food now wasted and converting all the land now devoted to livestock grazing to croplands would result in around 1 percent surplus farmland without organic farming and permit organic farming if growers could find around 7 percent more land for crops.

Schader noted that organic farmers would need to take special measures to farm organically on a massive scale, including growing more legumes that could be used for fertilizer that provides nitrogen for plants. On conventional farms today, artificial fertilizers have polluted waterways with nitrogen that causes algae blooms that suck up oxygen and kill off fish and other life. 

He also believed food would need to become more expensive to help discourage waste. “If something is cheap, it’s wasted more easily,” he said.

Lastly, Americans, Europeans, and others in the developed world would need to reduce the steaks, pork chops, and piles of chicken wings they enjoy, he added, especially as the developing world grows more prosperous and grows tempted to dine the same way.

“There is no way that we can continue for the long term eating so much meat,” said Schader. “Some people eat meat everyday. This cannot be done by everyone. Not everyone needs to become vegetarian or vegan. But everyone who living in a vegetarian way is reducing the problem.”

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