Moving beyond “organic” versus “conventional” when it comes to feeding the world

December 4, 2015

It is an oft used and sobering statistic. The world’s population is projected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050, and some experts say this will require at least a 60 percent increase in agricultural production to feed the world.

Industrial agriculture and major agri-business corporations have used this fact to frame the media debate around food systems reform as one of idealists versus realists. Their logic: our current industrial model provides the yields we need to feed a growing population, while organic agriculture cannot. But is that a fair narrative? Is feeding the world really a battle between organic and conventional? A race to increase yields?

A mounting body of evidence suggests otherwise. The ability of synthetic fertilizer to increase crop yields has been declining, while industrial organic models do have lower yields, require more land, and come with their own host of environmental impacts. Our sustainable food future is not either or. From a communications perspective, as long as sustainable agriculture is framed as organic or bust, we dangerously limit discussion on how to reform our food system.

Yet an analysis of newspaper articles in Australia, the UK and the US showed that “despite the many competing approaches to sustainability found in scientific and agricultural production discourses, media discourses tend to reduce this complexity to a straightforward conflict between organic and conventional foods.

The study found that organic foods are seen as the natural panacea to conventional farming woes, which limits conceptions of what sustainable agriculture looks like. By linking “organic” and “sustainable farming,” the media links “sustainable farming” with an emerging elite market, making it seem exclusive and limited.

Rather than narrowing in on “organic,” advocates need to help reporters acknowledge the goals of a resilient food system, which are less wasteful, fossil-free, ecologically sound, and safe methods of production. This means looking away from aspects of our current industrial practices, organic or otherwise.

Yet, Big Ag media campaigns and Twitter presence do not emphasize these common goals. They continue to focus on the need to increase yields and use biotechnology (aka their products) to feed the world. This emphasis on yield is a problem in and of itself. The logic that increasing industrial yields can solve world hunger is like increasing automobile production so everyone can have a car. It overlooks the central issue of poverty. If simply boosting crop yields were the answer, then the US (the most agriculturally productive country in the world) wouldn’t have the highest hunger rate of any developed nation. But we do, despite the fact that we also spend less on food than “any other country in the world.” Thus, without more income equality, people in the richest country with the most access to the cheapest food will still go hungry.

Ottawa-based ETC Group suggests that we can look to existing systems, or as New York Times columnist Mark Bittman calls it, “the kind of farming we can learn from people who still have a real relationship with the land and are focused on quality rather than yield.” Traditional techniques like diversifying crops, mixing plants and animals, and planting trees, have not only proven to produce more food, promote biodiversity, better withstand volatile weather, and use fewer resources, but they’ve also proven “effective on larger-scale farms, even in the Corn Belt of the United States.” By focusing on techniques and outcomes rather than labels like “organic,” we can have a more nuanced understanding of what sustainable food systems could look like.

These few examples stand to show the possibilities beyond “organic vs. conventional” or “increase yield to feed the world” narratives. We need to broaden the conversation about our goals for a future food system in order to address our current problems. This means putting more research and hope into sustainable agriculture, and reframing our media to see it as something practical, multi-dimensional, and necessary.

— Claire Kelloway, Winter Intern