The Common Good
June 2010

Green Surprise

by Ivette Perfecto, Catherine Badgley | June 2010

The bounty of a small plot is not so small.

Can small-scale organic farms feed the world? Most people would agree that diverse family farms practicing sustainable agriculture are better—better for the environment, better for society—than large, pesticide-drenched monocultures that provide few jobs, destroy biodiversity, and contaminate the environment. Many would be concerned, however, that those small, sustainable family farmers might not be able to produce enough to feed the world.

This was our assumption as well—until we took our class “Food, Land, and Society” to visit organic farmers in southeastern Michigan. There, we saw the vast amount of food that could be grown in small and medium-sized organic farms. One farmer produced 27 tons of vegetables in one acre. Another had a 40-acre “community supported agriculture” operation that provided fresh produce to 350 subscribing families during the growing season, with plenty left over every week to take to two local farmers markets.
These experiences convinced us to look more seriously into this issue—to ask the question, “Can organic farmers feed the world?” We gathered close to 300 scientific comparisons of yields by organic and non-organic methods in farms from all over the world. What we found surprised us. Not only could organic farming feed the world using the same cultivated land area, but in developing countries, organic agriculture could potentially increase food production by 80 percent or more from current traditional practices.
We found that in developed countries, organic yields for most food categories were not significantly different from those in “conventional” farms, where high yields have been achieved using hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and, in many cases, irrigation.
But the biggest potential for increasing crop yields is in developing countries, precisely where the need is greater. In areas where farmers can’t afford to buy the agrochemicals and seeds needed for conventional agriculture, we found that applying organic methods could increase grain production by almost 60 percent; legume production could almost quadruple. In other words, farmers could intensify their farms using organic methods rather than agrochemicals. Organic intensification is more accessible to small-scale farmers and increases yields without the expense and negative impacts of conventional agriculture.
Our study did not address the issue of farm size. However, contrary to popular perception, there is plenty of evidence that small farms are more productive than large ones. In agricultural economics, this is known as the “inverse size-productivity relationship,” first pointed out by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. If you stop to think about it, it makes perfect sense. A farmer who has only five acres of land knows every square foot of that land. She knows the best spots for the corn, the tomatoes, and the beans. She also plants a diversity of crops that are adapted to the various microclimatic and soil conditions; by doing that, she optimizes the use of her land. On a large farm, frequently only one crop is planted in a field regardless of the variation in soil conditions, and wide swaths of land can be wasted every time the large tractor turns a corner.
Next time you get the chance, go to your local farmers market and talk with some of the organic farmers. Ask them how many different crops and varieties they plant and how much they produce. Better yet, if the weather is good, volunteer to work for a few hours on one of their farms. You’ll see with your own eyes the bounty that comes from such a small plot of land. Perhaps you, like us, will be convinced that small-scale organic farmers can indeed feed the world.
Ivette Perfecto is a professor of natural resources and environment and Catherine Badgley is an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the Univ. of Michigan.
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