Will vegan, organic, or industrial farming feed the 10 Billion?

Tim Smedley
May 2 · 6 min read

One image, two very different responses. A group of combine harvesters process across a vast, dusty field, harvesting a crop that expands beyond the horizon. One take, when tweeted by a farming union (I cannot name them because they have since deleted the tweet), was how it highlighted the natural beauty of the agricultural countryside. Another response, from the animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming, is rather that such scenes are evidence of “a faceless, heartless, relentless machine… Intensive farming causes immense harm to wildlife and is one of the biggest drivers of species extinction on the planet.”

The beauty of the countryside, or desolate industrial landscape? Photo by Joao Marcelo Marques on Unsplash

The scene above also depicts a battleground. Feeding a world population expected to grow by 2.2 billion by 2050 will involve huge changes in agricultural production and diet. Currently, just four crops — wheat, soy, rice and corn — are grown on almost half the world’s agricultural lands. These four crops are typically vast monocrops with high levels of fossil-fuel derived fertiliser and pesticide leading to low-levels of biodiversity.

Peter Stevenson, Chief Policy Advisor of Compassion in World Farming, tells me: “One thing is certain: the current intensive model of crop and livestock production cannot feed the world long-term as it is undermining the core factors — soils, water and biodiversity — on which the future health of farming depends… insect populations are declining at an alarming rate and intensive agriculture with its monocultures and pesticides is the key driver of this.”

Moreover, says Stevenson, “we need to look not just at farming models but also at consumption patterns — it may be that no form of farming can feed the world if the anticipated population in 2050 of 9.7 billion were to consume a Western diet.”

By the same logic, industrial livestock production further undermines food security by being dependent on feeding cereals to animals, which then convert them inefficiently into meat and milk. Globally 36–40% of crop calories are used as animal feed. For every 100 calories of human-edible cereals fed to animals, just 17–30 calories enter the human food chain as meat or milk. Or for every 100 grams of protein in human-edible cereals fed to animals, just 43 grams of protein enters the human food chain as meat or milk.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The UN Environment Programme calculates that if all the cereals that are expected to be fed to livestock by 2050 were instead used to feed people directly, it could provide the necessary food for 3.5 billion extra people (or a world of 11 billion). “We produce sufficient food; the problem is that over half is lost or wasted in various ways”, says Stevenson. Meanwhile, if such cereal crops were organic, according to the Soil Association, pesticide use would drop by 98% and the soil would sequester up to 450kg of carbon per hectare.

However, this is not the mainstream view. In his op-ed in the New York Times, Jayson Lusk, professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, writes that: “increased [farm] size has advantages, especially better opportunities to invest in new technologies and to benefit from economies of scale… These technologies reduce the use of water and fertilizer and harm to the environment.” Such industrial practices, he says, “have significantly lowered the use of energy and water, and greenhouse-gas emissions of food production per unit of output over time. United States crop production now is twice what it was in 1970. That would not be a good change if more land, water, pesticides and labor were being used. But that is not what happened: Agriculture is using nearly half the labor and 16 percent less land than it did in 1970.”

In 2017, Our World in Data — which presents empirical evidence on global development — took on the thorny topic of ‘Is organic really better for the environment than conventional agriculture?’ Citing Clark and Tilman (2017) — a meta-analysis of published organic-conventional comparisons across 742 agricultural systems — it comes to the conclusion that:

“Organic systems consistently perform worse in terms of land use, regardless of food type… the world has achieved large gains in productivity and gains in yield over the past half-century in particular, largely as a result of the availability and intensification of inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. As a result, the majority of conventional systems achieve a significantly higher yield as compared to organic systems. Therefore, to produce the same quantity of food, organic systems require a larger land area.”

The author even goes on to say that, “If your primary concern is whether the potato accompanying your steak is conventionally or organically produced, then your focus is arguably misplaced.” The article does, however, concede that the intensive use of fertiliser and pesticides has been linked to “a greater than 75 percent decline in insect populations over the last 27 years”. So, you know, there’s that. And it neglects to mention the link between intensive farming use of antibiotics in healthy animals and crops leading to antibiotic resistance — named as one of the greatest threats to mankind.

At this stage in an article you might expect me, the writer, to attempt a neat conclusion. However, there isn’t one. This is a complex topic with no easy answers. Instead, let’s engage in a conversation on this topic and see where it takes us — leave your thoughts and comments below, and if themes emerge that could help us further explore (and potentially answer) these problems together, I’ll write more follow-up pieces.

One thing seems clear from both sides of the debate, though. Our diet choices will have to change. Veganism might be too extreme for some, but it is undoubtedly the best for the planet (see tables below). At the very least, we need to get used to eating less meat.

In a study published in Nature, Austrian researchers modelled 500 food production scenarios to see if we can feed an estimated world population of 9.6 billion people in 2050 without expanding beyond the farmland we already use. They found that enough food could be produced if people eat a plant-based diet with lower meat consumption. Today’s existing farmland can easily feed 9.6 billion people if they are all vegan; it can feed 94% if they are vegetarian; only 39% with a completely organic diet; and barely 15% with a Western-style meat-based diet.

Stevenson concedes, “I would not suggest that organic is the only ‘good’ form of farming. I think organic, agro-ecology, rotational farming, agro-forestry, integrated crop-livestock systems and well-managed pasture-based ruminants are all part of a mosaic of approaches to farming which, between them, are needed if we are to feed the world in a sustainable manner.” So, how would you feed the world?

Tim Smedley

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Freelance environment & tech writer for the BBC, Guardian and Financial Times. Book about air pollution ‘Clearing The Air’, published by Bloomsbury, out now.