England and Wales under organic agriculture: how much food could be produced?

The Centre for Agricultural Strategy at Reading University undertook a new report in June 2009.

Driven by both consumer demand and public subsidy, the fastest growing UK agricultural sector in recent years has been organic. Critics argue that, due to its lower yields, organic agriculture cannot produce enough food to feed the world. This criticism continues, particularly in relation to subsistence agriculture in the Southern Hemisphere, where it has been shown that yields might increase significantly under organic agriculture. For Northern Hemisphere agriculture, there is wide consensus that organic production results in yields perhaps 40% lower, on average, than under conventional agriculture. The study reported here uses real organic farm data and is a unique examination of the likely impact on domestic food supply of full organic conversion.

The estimates project the likely immediate effect of a switch of all agriculture to organic, taking no account of potential yield increases from the development of new organic management practices, or technology improvements from investment by plant and animal breeders. Constructive argument on the desirability and nature of support for the organic sector has been constrained by limited data on the impact of organic expansion on food supply, input use and farm employment. This study can, hopefully, provide some balance to the debate.

The picture that emerges is mixed. For example, food production losses would not be as great and increases in on-farm employment would be higher than might be supposed. It is also clear that the potential for organic agriculture to vary systems of production is limited and so the ratios of commodities supplied would necessarily change, with some products, such as pig and poultry meat, being significantly under-supplied. To the extent that this study has shed new light on these issues, policy makers should now be better placed to decide how policies supporting organic agriculture should be amended or developed.

You can order the full report here.