Buying an organic avocado at Whole Foods may make you feel warm, fuzzy, and morally superior to conventional avocado-buying friends. But can that feeling of moral superiority also feed the entire world?
Scientists dug into this question in a study published on Tuesday in Nature Communications. The answer in a nutshell is it’s technically possible, but only if we drastically cut food waste, stop feeding animals our crops, cut livestock production, and dramatically expand agricultural land. Oh, and if climate change gets really bad, we’ll have to commit even more land to organic agriculture.
So yeah, it’s possible but not really feasible for the world to go 100 percent organic, as much as your local food co-op would like you believe it is.
There are currently 1.5 billion hectares under agricultural production around the world. That’s an area roughly the size of Australia. Organic agriculture—which doesn’t rely on the fertilizer, pesticides, or genetically modified crops used in conventional farming —is currently practiced on about 1 percent of that land, typically relying on crop rotation to help restore soil nutrients.
This all-organic challenge will only get harder as the world population swells to 9 billion people by 2050, requiring agricultural production to increase by 50 percent.
Assuming conventional agriculture continued to be the predominant mode of production, the world would only need to convert another 500 million hectares to cropland (assuming climate change was only moderately bad for crops). But because organic yields are lower, going 100 percent organic would require double that amount of land to be converted to crops, on top of changing practices on most of the 1.5 billion hectares already in production.
That’s a huge chunk of additional land and an extremely heavy lift. While doing it would have benefits, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping improve biodiversity, it’s far from the only step we’d have to take to improve the food system to make 100 percent organic work.
Meat consumption—one of the hallmarks of developed world diet—would drop. Going organic itself doesn’t reduce meat consumption that much, but adding in necessary reductions in crops grown for feed makes a huge change, dropping protein from animals from 38 percent to 11 percent in most diets.
Another recent study takes that to an extreme by modeling what it would look like to turn the U.S. vegan. It also shows it would be impossible to meet nutritional needs (to say nothing of the societal uproar), underscoring the challenge of getting everyone on a no meat diet.
On top of much less meat, we’d have to stop wasting so much damn food (another hallmark of the developed world and the U.S. in particular, which throws away half of all produce). That led the authors to conclude that “solely converting to 100 percent organic production within an agricultural production system that should provide the same quantities and composition of outputs as in the reference scenario is not viable.”
Instead of going to extremes, though, the study’s authors suggest that the world could succeed using a Goldilocks approach: Rather than going in on one strategy to make the food system sustainable, they all have a role to play in moderation.
“We need to utilize all the potential strategies we have, without supporting one extreme and leaving out other approaches,” Adrian Muller, the scientist who led the research, told the Los Angeles Times.
The findings lay out a scenario where going 50 percent organic while cutting back on meat a bit and reducing waste is difficult but achievable. Of course solving global problems these days feels less achievable than it used to.