A World with Only Organic Farming Is a Dystopia
What if the entire world converted to organic agriculture? Over the past decade, a number of scientists have explored this utopian vision, and they all say it's possible. Yes, even with the human population projected to rise another 2.1 billion to 9.7 billion people in 2050, we can feed them all organically.
But what would a strictly organic world look like? Drilling into the details, it seems more dystopian than utopian. First, off, as pretty much every research group admits, the entire world would need to convert to vegetarianism or veganism. No more hot dogs, steaks, chicken wings, or bacon in the United States. Indians would have to forego their chicken korma. Peking roasted duck would be banned in China. Greek gyros would be gone.
Agricultural land use would need to increase even further, as organic yields are generally at least 20-25% lower than conventional. That translates to converting an additional 500 million hectares of arable land to agriculture on top of the 1.5 billion hectares (roughly 11% of the land surface) already in use, accompanied by an 8 to 15 percent increase in deforestation.
More than 90 percent of the remaining available cropland is located in the developing countries of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "much of the land also suffers from constraints such as ecological fragility, low fertility, toxicity, high incidence of disease or lack of infrastructure. These reduce its productivity, require high input use and management skills to permit its sustainable use, or require prohibitively high investments to be made accessible or disease-free." In other words, farming this land will be like playing Russian roulette with the global food supply.
That means crop failures fueled by drought and disease will be commonplace in our organic food "utopia," resulting in unreliable supply, hugely fluctuating costs, and frequent famines. Millions in the developing world will starve so that wealthy residents of San Francisco and other metropolitan cities will be able to blissfully enjoy their pricey, Non-GMO salads supposedly free from innocuous, infinitesimal pesticide residues.
"Natural" pesticides would still be used on many organic farms, of course, just as they are now. But genetically-modified crops, along with their many benefits, would be gone. Ag companies like Monsanto would likely be out of business, much to the glee of activists.
Thankfully, this dystopia stands no chance of actually being realized. Prohibiting meat consumption is a non-starter for billions of people. Moreover, worldwide organic farming scenarios nobly but naively require a 50 percent reduction in food waste, which almost certainly won't happen. Lastly, as Mark Lynas notes, most researchers touting a completely organic and vegetarian world don't adequately address where organic farms will get their fertilizer without animal manure.
Visions of a worldwide organic farming "utopia" make headlines and excite Whole Foods devotees but don't solve agriculture's real problems, such as environmental degradation, food waste, and antibiotic overuse. What does, says Verena Seufert, a Postdoctoral Fellow in ecology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, is science.
"We should assess many alternative management systems, including conventional, organic, other agro-ecological and possibly hybrid systems to identify the best options to improve the way we produce our food," she stated back in 2012.
Precisely, we should practice evidence-based agriculture rather than ideology-based agriculture. Rather than ignorantly revert back to the "horse and buggy" approach of organic agriculture on a worldwide scale, let's focus on what actually works.