Go go organic to feed the world

Organic farming could feed the world – provided there’s also a 33% reduction in the consumption of animal products, changes to animal feed and a reduction in food waste.

The claim is made in a new study published in the journal Nature Communications. It came in the same week that the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations forecast that global food production will need to increase by 70% if the population reaches 9.1 billion by 2050.

Organic production has long been recognised as more sustainable and low impact (and some research has even suggested the food is healthier). But critics point out it’s not a system that can feed nine billion come 2050 given far more land would be needed.

A team of researchers, led by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland, therefore posed the question: are there circumstances under which organic farming could feed the world?

And the answer is yes. “Our study shows that organic agriculture can contribute to providing sufficient food and improving environmental impacts,” the team said. Though there are caveats: it would only be possible if adequately high proportions of legumes are produced and with significant reductions of food-competing feed use, livestock product quantities, and food wastage..

They said that even if there was a 60% conversion to organic, combined with a 50% reduction in both food waste and use of concentrated feed, the environmental impacts would be “significantly decreased” and, critically, there would only be a “marginal increase” in agricultural land area.

Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen was involved in the study. He said the findings show that “we are not committed to remain on the express train to ever greater intensification of agriculture”.

He added: “If we are willing to reduce our consumption of animal products, reduce food waste, and to feed the remaining animals in the food system according to their biology [ruminants fed on grass and pigs and poultry fed on food leftovers] we can not only feed everyone in 2050, we [can also] choose the food production systems we want.”

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