Feeding the World: Beyond the GMO/Organic Dichotomy

Posted on August 19, 2014

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Here’s an older post that never made it onto this blog. Originally published by The Genetic Literacy Project on March 25, 2014, this piece addresses common assumptions about organic agriculture’s ability to “feed the world” (including cost and yield) and calls for a recognition that there is no “one right answer” to this issue – in a diverse world, a diversity of strategies are required.

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We should all recognize by now that “feeding the world” is much more a logistical and political challenge than an agricultural one. As a farmer, however, I spend a lot of time thinking about producing food economically, efficiently, and ecologically. Conventional wisdom dictates that genetically-engineered crops are a vital part of the overall solution, while organic methods are nothing more than a way to fill a niche market for affluent consumers. Is that assumption accurate? What is it going to take to meet production challenges?

The typical perception is that organic food is so expensive because it is much more expensive to produce. The myth is so pervasive that it even infects farmers, who should know better than anyone that the cost of production is only marginally related to the retail price of food.

What really makes organic food expensive? Factors like economies of scale, supply and demand and profit-taking to name a few. Take organic dairy for example. Here in Canada, an organic dairy farmer will likely get paid about 20% more for their milk, but the consumer often pays double, if not more. Some of the costs are easily justified: it costs more per unit to transport smaller volumes from more widely-dispersed farms to the processors and then out to distributors and retailers. These companies are also dealing with smaller volumes and hence less economy of scale, not the mention the costs associated with keeping organic separate from non-organic products during processing and handling.

Retailers also recognize that unlike regular groceries, some of which are used as “loss-leaders” to bring people into stores, organic products are a hot commodity—many people are willing to pay more for them. If the market will bear higher prices for organic products, everyone in the food chain is willing to take a piece of that pie! And if demand exceeds supply, the price will inevitably rise. The bottom line: don’t blame higher costs of production for expensive organic food—blame free market economics!

If we need to find the cheapest, most efficient way to feed the world, we need to look at what it costs the farmer to grow that food. There are a number of studiescomparing and analyzing cost of production between organic and conventional management for a wide variety of crops. The conclusion is that costs of production can either be higher or lower for organic food, depending on the crop and the context. For many crops input costs for traited seeds, fertilizers and herbicides are slashed by relying on biological processes, leaving labor costs and pest control products as the two largest variables. In my experience, organic farmers tend to spend more time on management and planning—when “quick-fixes” are relatively scarce and expensive, designing and maintaining systems that avoid problems is preferable. But what about yield?

Again, the available data offers conflicting results: there’s evidence that organic yields can match conventional yields over the long-term, especially in less-than-ideal conditions. Other studies point to lower organic yields, especially in crops with high fertility requirements. The primary challenge in extrapolating these results to a “feeding the world” scenario is the issue of context.

A major consideration for production agriculture is the law of diminishing returns: smart farmers are in the business of achieving profitable yields, not maximum yields: where organic inputs are relatively more expensive than conventional inputs, organic farmers will use less inputs in order to be more profitable—the extra bushels just aren’t worth the extra cost.

Now flip the coin to consider genetically engineered crops. Arguably, the biggest benefit of herbicide-tolerant and Bt crops has been convenience, simplicity, and reduced risk, as Grist’s Nathanael Johnson discovered. The extra cost of GE seeds can negate reduced input costs for pesticides and other inputs. Of course, this farm-level analysis also fails to consider the millions of dollars it takes to bring a GE crop to market (which partially explains the higher seed costs). The genius of conventional agriculture, seen at its pinnacle with GE seeds, is the ability to simplify systems and reduce labor with purchased inputs.

To return to the question of “feeding the world” economically, a farmer’s choice may well boil down to whether they have access to cheap labor (and the knowledge and management skills to grow organically) or the available capital to invest in GE seeds and any associated inputs: without the capital or even the ability to purchase inputs, developing a more self-sufficient, integrated system employing their own labor and know-how may prove to be a better answer.

At the same time, we also need to consider the environmental impact and long-term sustainability of food production. Again, there are a number of options and approaches to consider. For example, I know that good soil and crop management practices can effectively address fertility and pest challenges, but l also believe that crops bred to resist pests or diseases, or to thrive in less-than-ideal environments, play an important role. Biotechnology can help develop these crops, either through direct genetic engineering or the use of genetic screening technologies. In addition, the long-term sustainability and profitability of agriculture relies on both becoming more energy-efficient and on using more sustainable sources of energy: biologically-driven systems can do that.

Even considering the relatively small and seemingly-simply issue of increasing food production to “feed the world”, a “one-size fits all approach” is clearly not workable. But don’t just take my word for it—look at global flagship of biotech crops. In the past year, Monsanto has made significant investments in data gathering and management technologies (most notably with the acquisition of the Climate Corporation), and in biologicals (with the formation of the BioAg Alliance). Love them or hate them, this is a company clearly positioning themselves where they see agriculture headed.

I’m forced to agree: this trinity of biotech, biology and knowledge-based management, blended and adapted to fit a variety of markets and environments is how the world will be fed in the years ahead. Not just the opportunity, but the actual need, for all types of farmers is real and present.

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Posted in: Agriculture, Food, Organic