Less hunger through more ecology: Feeding the world with organic farming

Less hunger through more ecology: Feeding the world with organic farming

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Date of Publication: November 10, 2011
Number of Pages: 19

Can the world be fed in the long run? This question has been posed at regular intervals ever since Malthus published his theory of population 200 years ago. Drastic rises in food prices since the beginning of the 21st century, coupled with an increase in the number of hungry in the world to close to one billion people at present have renewed the pertinence of this question.

At the same time, environmental issues in agriculture are increasingly at the forefront of the public debate. This concerns climate change mitigation, the preservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of water resources and the protection of cultural landscapes with their various ecosystem services such as drinking water, clean air, and recreation space. Food security can therefore no longer be viewed as an isolated issue these days but as part of a multi-dimensional target function of multifunctional agriculture, which, in addition to producing food, must also satisfy numerous ecological and social tasks.

With regard to food security, there would be sufficient food in the world to feed the global population today. The vast majority of the hungry are either too poor to afford food or do not avail of the requisite access to production resources (land, water, seed, etc.) to feed themselves and their families through self-sufficient means. The problem is frequently aggravated by misguided agricultural policies or even wars and conflicts.

As a consequence, the solutions needed to eliminate hunger, malnutrition or undernourishment are highly complex. There is a pronounced need for distributive justice when accessing vital means of production such as land, water and seed; there is also an urgent need for the improved utilisation of scarce resources including the avoidance of post-harvest losses, while, among the poorer classes of the population, long-term income security is required. Moreover, a political framework must be established, in both agricultural and economic policy – and equally in trade and investment policy – which empowers small-scale farming systems and does not lead to a softening of the income situation and, by the same token, a reduction in food security among poor populations.

That said, a mere growth in production does not bring the desired effects. Nevertheless, an increase in food production is highly important. More than ever before it has to be asked how this can be achieved on a sustained basis – given the limited amount of natural resources (land and water), the rising prices of crude oil and the challenges posed by climate change. How can food be secured for those suffering from hunger today, and for the nine billion forecast for 2050?

There is mounting evidence that agriculture must be fundamentally realigned in order for the following three goals to be achieved collectively: food security, adaptation to climate change, and preservation of natural resources. Today, very few people dispute that the ecologisation of agriculture is a core principle for this realignment. Organic agriculture has already provided significant impetus, and it can also be viewed as the driving force behind a renewal of agriculture in the future.

Conclusions and recommendations

6.1 Conclusions

Agriculture must be fundamentally realigned in order for the following three goals to be achieved collectively: food security, adaptation to climate change, and preservation of natural resources. Today, very few people dispute that the ecologisation of agriculture is a core principle for this realignment. Where they disagree is what development it should undergo.

Organic agriculture has already provided significant impetus for such realignment, and it can also be viewed as a future driving force. In contributing to a renewal of agriculture, it serves a dual system: for highly intensive, large-scale and industrialised agriculture, it generates innovations that can help to use resources more efficiently and in an environmentally friendly way; for smallholder agriculture, it provides systems of food and livelihood security which are, in many instances, ecologically and economically superior to other forms of agriculture.

Compared with the goals of food security and sustainability in production, organic agriculture in its present state is not yet efficient enough, but it does offer plenty of development potential and is perhaps the most future-proof option available today. Though still in its infancy, research into organic agriculture is vested with the task of tapping this potential. For this to be realised, research into organic agriculture needs to be given a significant boost of funds and realigned.

When determining the content of future research, more emphasis should be placed on the intensification of production, yield increase and global nutrition than has been the case thus far. In this context, two fields of work in urgent need of being addressed are plant breeding and soil productivity.

At the same time, the geographical focus needs to be changed. To date, organic farming research has centred on the industrialised nations of Europe and North America. Organic agriculture has a significant role to play in the future food security of countries in the south. This must be taken into account when determining the geographical scope of agricultural research.

Research into organic agriculture – which, until a few decades ago, had been funded almost exclusively by private and non-profit sources – has since managed to secure state and international funding. However, public funding remains extremely low. It is not in proportion with the share of land assigned to organic agriculture, and most definitely not to the importance of organic farming in modernising agriculture. Cost-benefit considerations are yet another reason for boosting funding, given the high efficiency with which research funds have been used to date.

6.2 Recommendations for agricultural scientists

(1) The issues of global nutrition and sustainable intensification in production should be afforded greater consideration. In this context, plant breeding and an increase in soil productivity should be given priority.

(2) Organic farming research in the tropics and subtropics has, thus far, played a very minor role. In keeping with the available and, as yet, untapped potential, this climatic region (in addition to the northern hemisphere) should be turned into a second pillar.

(3) To be able to fundamentally understand and to further develop organic agriculture, repeated calls have been made for holistic and system-based research methods. Their application is still in its infancy and should be advanced with greater forcefulness than has been the case to date. In doing so, in particular the principles of transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity should be afforded greater consideration.

(4) The latest initiatives designed to bolster international networking and cooperation within organic farming research are ground breaking and should be developed further.

6.3 Recommendations for policy-makers

(5) To date, the amount of public funding allocated to organic agriculture has been minimal. Such neglect is unjustified. Organic agriculture should be perceived as a serious strategy for solving global problems, namely food security, climate protection and the preservation of natural resources. Accordingly, the amount of funding allocated to research and development activities in organic agriculture should be raised significantly.

(6) National governments should initiate a discourse on the goals, strategies and methods of a future agriculture. In this process, organic agriculture needs to be viewed as one of the options, and one which must be afforded no less attention than other strategies. Those to be included in such a discourse should, on the one hand, be all stakeholders involved (farmers, consumers, scientists and politicians), and, on the other, the key political departments (not just the ministry for agriculture). The process should be moderated across different departments so as to achieve the requisite political coherence. This could ultimately lead to the emergence of agro-political visions and a coherent agricultural research agenda in individual countries.

Table of contents: 

1 Introduction
2 Agricultural intensification to date and the need for realignment
3 Potential and impact of organic agriculture
3.1 Agricultural production
3.2 Biodiversity
3.3 Climate protection and adaptation to climate change
4 Research into organic agriculture
4.1 Scientific understanding and research methods
5 Future direction of research – a pool of ideas
5.1 General considerations
5.2 Focus on the tropics and subtropics
6 Conclusions and recommendations
6.1 Conclusions
6.2 Recommendations for agricultural scientists
6.3 Recommendations for policy-makers