How Will We Feed the World?

I’ve been on an extended book tour, giving lectures and reading from “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive.” It’s been a great ride, and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to a wide range of public, beekeeping, academic and farming audiences.

Whenever I speak, the current plight of honeybees and wild bees has been part of my message. There are many interacting causes behind the decline of bees, but farming practices including heavy pesticide use and the predominance of vast single crop acreages are two of the most significant factors causing bees to circle the drain.

Pesticides have been clearly and irrefutably linked to bee declines, including the immediately toxic as well as longer-term sublethal effects of insecticides and fungicides, and the insidious impact of herbicides that remove flowering plants that are important nectar and pollen sources from fields.

Monocropping has harmed bees by creating vast deserts of one flowering source, which results in poor nutrition and limits nectar and pollen availability to an unduly short few weeks, not sufficient to maintain most wild bees that require longer time spans with floral abundance to survive and reproduce.

My proposed solutions to the negative impacts caused by farming are simple: reduce pesticide use and break up the single-crop system with multiple cropping and crop rotations that extend floral availability for bees. But supporters of conventional farming invariably bring up the “how will we feed the world” argument, suggesting that alternative agriculture is pie-in-the-sky feel good nonsense, and totally impractical to feed the 7 billion and growing human global population.

Until recently there hasn’t been any way to counter the claims of conventional agriculture, except to balance the feed-the-world argument with the benefits of diminished environmental impacts from alternative agriculture, especially organic farming. And the negative environmental impacts of conventional agriculture are concerning, including damage to soil, water and air quality, biodiversity and human health.

But finally a few studies have amalgamated research from many sources that indicate organic agriculture not only leaves a softer environmental footprint, but also stands up well in productivity and profit when compared to high-input, single crop conventional farming.

Organic agriculture has been the most intensively studied, and a 2015 publication by Lauren Ponisio from the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues analyzed 1071 organic vs. conventional yield comparisons from 115 studies. Organic farming was only slightly lower, averaging 10 – 20% less yield, although organic farms that used multi-cropping and crop rotation systems showed differences less than 10%.

What’s most important to realize about this result is that high productivity in organic farming has come almost exclusively from innovative growers, without the benefit of the vast research empires and extensive subsidy payments from government that have supported conventional growers. As the authors point out, “appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management systems could greatly reduce or eliminate the yield gap for some crops or regions.”

But productivity is only one measure of farming success; when profit and income are factored in, organic agriculture has proven superior to conventional systems. Two authors from Washington State University, David Crowder and John Reganold, examined 55 crops over 5 continents, and found that organic farming was 22 – 35% more profitable for growers, due to the higher premiums received for organic food. Further, the authors pointed out that their study didn’t factor in environmental benefits and enhanced ecosystem services associated with organic farming, which further tilts the ledger in favor of organic.

But we don’t require pure organic farming to see improvements in agricultural practices; some simple changes in conventional farming that reduce but don’t eliminate pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use are worth pursuing. A study in Iowa by Adam Davis and colleagues compared the typical conventional crop rotation of maize and soybeans with a four-crop rotation of maize, soybeans, small grains and red clover. They found that yields were equal or greater in the four-crop system, with lower fertilizer and pesticide inputs as well as dramatic improvements in environmental measures such as freshwater toxicity from runoff.

They concluded the “results of our study indicate that more diverse cropping systems can use small amounts of synthetic agrichemical inputs as powerful tools with which to tune, rather than drive, agroecosystem performance, while meeting or exceeding the performance of less diverse systems.”

What might be done to drive agriculture towards organic, or at least in the direction of sustainable farming that reduces pesticide and fertilizer use and increases crop diversity? Certainly the marketplace is one force for change. If consumers demand more organic and sustainable food production, farmers will respond. In fact, they have; organic food sales currently make up about 4% of the U.S. market, and organic production is experiencing continued strong expansion of about 15% annually.

However, it is government that has the capacity to exert the strongest and most rapid levers for change, through setting agricultural policy and by directing payments away from the overly subsidized conventional growers and towards the sustainable and organic modes of food production. Their excuse for inaction in the past has been the “feed-the- world” rationale, but given these recent studies, that argument no longer holds water.

Bees would certainly benefit from enlightened farming practices, but improvements in environmental integrity and our own human health also argue strongly for government intervention in what has become an agricultural system driven too much by corporate profit rather than good farming practices.

There are elections coming up in both Canada and the United States. There is one irrefutable way to influence government to act: vote. I encourage anyone for whom bees are important, as well as those of us who care about where our food comes from and how farming integrates into ecosystem function, to make agricultural reform a key issue.

A vote for organic and sustainable options will not only save the bees, but will provide the kind of agriculture that benefits us all, growers and consumers alike.

 

For more information about the studies cited above, see:

Ponisio LC, M’Gonigle LK, Mace KC, Palomino J, de Valpine P, Kremen C. 2015. Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proc. R. Soc. B 282:20141396 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.1396

Crowder, DW and Reganold, JP 2015. Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale. PNAS, June 16, 112: 76117616, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1423674112

Davis AS, Hill JD, Chase CA, Johanns AM, Liebman M (2012) Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47149. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047149