Switching To Organic Crops Helps Poor
Organic food has long been considered a niche market, a luxury
for wealthy consumers. But researchers told a U.N. conference
Saturday that a large-scale shift to organic agriculture could
help fight world hunger while improving the environment.
Crop yields initially can drop as much as 50 percent when industrialized,
conventional agriculture using chemical fertilizers and pesticides
is converted to organic. While such decreases often even out over
time, the figures have kept the organic movement largely on the
sidelines of discussions about feeding the hungry.
Researchers in Denmark found, however, that food security for
sub-Saharan Africa would not be seriously harmed if 50 percent
of agricultural land in the food exporting regions of Europe and
North America were converted to organic by 2020.
While total food production would fall, the amount per crop would
be much smaller than previously assumed, and the resulting rise
in world food prices could be mitigated by improvements in the
land and other benefits, the study found.
A similar conversion to organic farming in sub-Saharan Africa
could help the region's hungry because it could reduce their need
to import food, Niels Halberg, a senior scientist at the Danish
Research Center for Organic Food and Farming, told the U.N. conference
on "Organic Agriculture and Food Security."
Farmers who go back to traditional agricultural methods would
not have to spend money on expensive chemicals and would grow
more diverse and sustainable crops, the report said. In addition,
if their food is certified as organic, farmers could export any
surpluses at premium prices.
The researchers plugged in data on projected crop yields and
commodity prices until 2020 to create models for the most optimistic
and conservative outlooks.
Alexander Mueller, assistant director-general of the Rome-based
U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, praised the report and
noted that projections indicate the number of hungry people in
sub-Saharan Africa was expected to grow.
Considering that the effects of climate change are expected to
hurt the world's poorest, "a shift to organic agriculture could
be beneficial," he said.
Nadia El-Hage Scialabba, an FAO official who organized the conference,
pointed to other studies she said indicated that organic agriculture
could produce enough food per capita to feed the world's current
One such study, by the University of Michigan, found that a global
shift to organic agriculture would yield at least 2,641 kilocalories
per person per day, just under the world's current production
of 2,786, and as many as 4,381 kilocalories per person per day,
researchers reported. A kilocalorie is one "large" calorie and
is known as the "nutritionist's calorie."
"These models suggest that organic agriculture has the potential
to secure a global food supply, just as conventional agriculture
today, but with reduced environmental impacts," Scialabba said
in a paper presented to the conference.
However, she stressed that the studies were only economic models.
The United Nations defines organic
agriculture as a "holistic" food system that avoids the use of
synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, minimizes pollution and
optimizes the health of plants, animals and people. It is commercially
practiced in 120 countries and represented a $40 billion market
last year, Scialabba said.