Smallholder Organic Farming not GMOS – the Solution to World Hunger

We are republishing this excellent article from Organic Federation of Australia Feb 2011, to bring factual information to our readers and subscribers.  ABC, 30 August 2010 reported “Global biotechnology company Monsanto has begun an education and advocacy campaign to change the opposition many Australia consumers have to genetically modified food. Speaking at the NSW Farmwriters Forum in Sydney, Monsanto’s head in Australia, Peter O’Keefe, argued that organic and permaculture production was “not viable” on a large scale, and Australia was falling behind other countries in productivity improvements because of the reluctance to embrace GM technology.” 

(I note with interest that ‘permaculture’ has now caught Monsanto’s attention) In 2010 Monsanto allocated millions of dollars in a concerted campaign to  make the Australian public think GM crops provide the only solution to feeding the world, and that it’s ‘safe’ – essentially using the same tactics employed by the oil and coal coorporations to sew doubt and denial of Climate Change. As advocates of sustainable future and earth stewarship, we need to arm ourselves with factual information not driven and skewed by corporate interests, and share this information with our friends, collegues and communities. We thanks OFA for this excellent response and putting issues of world hunger and GM food production into perspective.

Smallholder Organic Farming not GMOS – the Solution to World Hunger


According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) world hunger has been steadily increasing since 1995 and reached 925 million people in 2010.

The response from several governments and industry organisations is that GMOs are necessary to produce the extra food that is needed to feed the world. This response needs to be analysed in the context of the current increases in world hunger and the rises in agricultural commodity prices.

GMOs Feed the World?
The data from FAO shows that the number of hungry people was decreasing slowly until 1995-97 and then started to increase every year. It was at the exact point in time when world hunger began to increase that the widespread increase in the planting of GMOs started. The increase in the number of hungry people and the increase in the number of hectares planted to GMOs mirror each other.

Number of undernourished people in the world   Source: FAO

Global Planting of GMOs  Source:

This is not a coincidence. It is because the major GMO crops of corn, soy and cotton are traded as commodities.

One of the critical issues that the data shows is that the number of hungry people is not related to the level of food production as the world produces more than enough food. It is due to the way that the global economy distributes food as a commodity. According to the FAO: ‘Global cereal harvests have been strong for the past several years – even as the number of undernourished people was rising – but the overall improvement in food security in 2010 reflects improved access to food through the expected resumption of economic growth … but food prices in most low-income food-deficit countries remain above the pre-crisis level of early 2008, negatively affecting access to food by vulnerable populations.’ (FAO 2010)

The Need for Food Production – Not Commodity Production
There is more than enough suitable agricultural land to feed everybody. It is incorrect to assume that all the current agricultural land is being used productively or efficiently. Inefficient, unfair distribution systems, agricultural commodity speculation, poor farming methods and political crises are the causes of global hunger.

The agribusiness model of commodity production is a key reason why hunger continues to rise. World food production is at an all time high however it is not getting to the hungry simply because they cannot afford to pay for it.

A good example of this was seen in 2007 when food prices increased dramatically due to market shortages. The increases were blamed on biofuels, poor seasons and not enough land to grow crops. In 2008 food prices decreased in many countries due to the global economic crisis even though biofuels, poor seasons and the amount of land to grow crops were much the same as 2007. The number of hungry skyrocketed to over 1 billion despite the decrease in prices because the hungry did not have the money to pay for their food.

The main reason for the high 2007 prices was due to futures traders hoarding food and creating market shortages and artificial high prices. The problem is due to food being treated as a mass commodity.

This market speculation caused a huge spike in global hunger from 850 million to peak of 1,023 billion in 2009. Over 170 million extra people suffered due to the greed of the food commodity traders.

In 2011, world agricultural commodity prices are on the increase again due to market speculation because the production levels for 2010 are slightly lower than 2009. This is despite the fact that total food production is still at an all time high.

Agribusiness Commodity Production Diverts Food from the Poor
The current agribusiness model of large scale commodity production mostly benefits the wealthier economies or the rising middle classes of the developing world, rather than directly feeding the poor. Many of the current and proposed land management practices will divert productive agricultural land away from food production. Examples of these are:

A large percentage of the world’s arable land will be used for biofuels such as ethanol
GMO BioPharm: plants modified to produce hormones, vaccines, plastics, polymers, agrifuels and other non-food compounds
Forestry Plantations on prime cropping land
Expansions of urban and industrial centers on agricultural land
All of these developments mean less food grown on the world’s most productive farmland. The reality of most government and industry policies is that mass commodity markets are more important than feeding the poor.

Agribusiness Commodity System a Failure to Feed the Hungry
While there will always be a need for international commodity markets for food and it has a key role in distributing food to a significant percentage of the world’s population, commodity markets are an ineffective model in getting food to the poorest people.

Agribusiness only produces 30% the world’s food and the experience of the last 40 years shows a clear failure in it as a model to feed the hungry. (ETC-group, 2009) At best it only contributed to a short term modest decline, however this has been erased.

GMOs are now proposed as the farming solution with the proponents stating that they can find genes to fix every problem so that they will have plants and animals that give high yields, can cope with salinity, drought and any other problem that comes with farming and climate change. The reality is that most of these traits are fiction at the moment with very few successful examples.

GMOs are being sold to government, industry and the public as the silver bullet to all our problems in the same way as 1950s and 60s propaganda from the nuclear industry sold the fantasy that nuclear power would give us a future of endless cheap power.

The concept that world hunger can be solved by inventing these new super crops shows a complete misunderstanding of the problem. The introduction of GMOs has increased world hunger because it entrenches an agribusiness system that is based on commodity production and marketing.

Change is Needed to Feed the Poor
The need is for a paradigm shift away from large scale commodity production to family scale and local food production.

The largest review into our current agricultural systems by The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) stated ‘the way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse.’ (IAASTD 2008).

The IAASTD report did not endorse the current push for GMOs and large agribusiness as the solution and instead proposed working at a more sustainable local level with lower inputs and family farms.

Increasing Smallholder Production is the Key
The majority of the world’s undernourished people are farmers or landless labourers who do not produce enough food or income to feed their families.

Source: A Viable Food Future

Local and Smallholders – The Future
The present-day reality is that 70% of the world’s food is produced by smallholders. (ETC -group, 2009) Ironically, the majority of the world’s hungry are smallholders or landless farm labourers. One logical solution to reduce world hunger is to increase the production of smallholders in affected regions – providing locally grown food to the people that need it.

Source: A Viable Food Future and ETC-group

Organic Agriculture – a Viable Solution
Organic agriculture has a proven track record of improving yields as well as delivering a range of social and environmental benefits, particularly with smallholders in the developing world. (Badgley 2007), (FAO 2007), (Leu 2004), (Pimentel 2005) (Unep-Unctad 2008)

The majority of the world’s farmers are traditional farmers who are largely organic by default. Significant increases in yields can be achieved by teaching these farmers to add good organic practices to their traditional methods such as:

Better soil nutrition
Improved pest and disease control
Water use efficiency
Better weed control methods
Ecological intensification
A report by two UN agencies, UNCTAD and UNEP, found that organic agriculture significantly increases yields in Africa. ‘…the average crop yield was … 116 per cent increase for all African projects… The evidence presented in this study supports the argument that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term.’ Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary general of UNCTAD and Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP stated. (Unep-Unctad 2008)

The report further stated ‘All case studies which focused on food production in this research where data have been reported have shown increases in per hectare productivity of food crops, which challenges the popular myth that organic agriculture cannot increase agricultural productivity.’ (Unep-Unctad 2008)

Examples of Organic Methods that Increase Yields
Two good examples of organic methods that substantially increase yields are the Push-Pull system in maize production and the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). These are significant because maize is the key food staple in Africa and Latin America and rice is the key food staple in Asia

The Push-Pull method is an excellent example of eco intensification as an integrated production system. It uses the combination of a cover crop and a trap crop to prevent stem borers and the striga parasite in maize.

Desmodium is planted to repel the stem borer and also to attract the natural enemies of the pest. Its root exudates stop the growth of striga which is a parasitic weed of maize. Napier grass is planted outside of the field as a trap crop for the stem borer. The desmodium repels (Push) the pests from the maize and the Napier grass attracts (Pull) the pests out of the field.

High yields are not the only benefits. The system does not need synthetic nitrogen as desmodium is a legume and fixes nitrogen. Soil erosion is prevented due to a permanent ground cover and the system provides quality fodder for stock.

A scientific Review by Cornell University into the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) found that:

Organic SRI yields greater than the traditional rice farming systems
Organic SRI had significantly lower input costs (fertiliser, pesticide, weeding etc) than the conventional crops.
SRI involves changing the planting densities and the watering cycles to build stronger root systems and larger plants with more heads of rice per plant. ‘Results from Madagascar show that the new system of rice intensification (SRI) is indeed a superior technology…the technology generates the estimated average output gains of more than 84%. The increased estimated yield risk associated with SRI would nonetheless make it unattractive to many farmers within the standard range of relative risk aversion.’ (Barrett 2004)

The larger rice plant on the right comes from the SRI production system

Other studies in Madagascar have found that SRI has increased yields from the usual 2-3 tons per hectare to yields of 6, 8 or 10 tons per hectare. (Parrott 2002)

Organic Agriculture is Suited to Smallholders
Organic systems are well suited to improve smallholder production. The UNCTAD/UNEP report stated ‘Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.’

‘Organic production allows access to markets and food for farmers, enabling them to obtain premium prices for their produce (export and domestic) and to use the additional incomes earned to buy extra foodstuffs, education and/or health care. A transition to integrated organic agriculture, delivering greater benefits at the scale occurring in these projects, has been shown to increase access to food in a variety of ways: by increasing yields, increasing total on-farm productivity, enabling farmers to use their higher earnings from export to buy food, and, as a result of higher on-farm yields, enabling the wider community to buy organic food at local markets. (Unep-Unctad 2008)

The UNCTAD/UNEP report gives many examples of where organic systems provide substantial benefits. ‘Malawian smallholder farmers… established the Lipangwe Organic Manure Demonstration Farm (LOMADEF)… While surrounding farmers suffered wilted and stunted crops, the LOMADEF farm gave very conspicuous results which encouraged more farmers, other agricultural NGOs and the Government to take an interest. Over 1,200 farmers have since been brought in to observe the benefits of organic agriculture and to learn some simple organic agriculture practices. LOMADEF has now grown from one club to thirteen and membership has increased from 13 to 200, with clubs spread across the country.’ (Unep-Unctad 2008)

In Ghana, rural women have increased their income over 90 per cent through the collection, processing and trade of certified organic shea nuts. Through the Export Promotion of Organic Products from Africa more than 60,000 farmers of Uganda and Tanzania receive a price premium of 15 to 40 percent for their organic crops.

Professor Jules Pretty gives many examples from around the world of increases in yield when farmers have replaced synthetic chemicals and shifted to agroecological/organic methods such as:

223,000 farmers in southern Brazil using green manures and cover crops of legumes and livestock integration have doubled yields of maize and wheat to 4-5 tons/ha;
45,000 farmers in Guatemala and Honduras used regenerative technologies to triple maize yields to 2-2.5 tons/ha and diversify their upland farms, which has led to local economic growth that has in turn encouraged re-migration back from the cities;
200,000 farmers across Kenya as part of sustainable agriculture programmes have more than doubled their maize yields to about 2.5 to 3.3 t/ha and substantially improved vegetable production through the dry seasons;
100,000 small coffee farmers in Mexico have adopted fully organic production methods increased yields by half; (Pretty 1995 ),(Pretty 1998),(Pretty 1999)
Nicolas Parrott of Cardiff University, UK, authored a report, ‘The Real Green Revolution’. He gives case studies that confirm the success of organic and agroecological farming techniques in the developing world. Excellent examples are:

20,000 farmers in the Tigray, formally one of the most degraded regions of Ethiopia, have doubled crop yields though the use of ecological agricultural practices such as using compost.
Madhya Pradesh, India, average cotton yields on farms participating in the Maikaal Bio-Cotton Project are 20 per cent higher than on neighbouring conventional farms.
Madagascar, SRI (System of Rice Intensification) has increased yields from the usual 2-3 tons per hectare to yields of 6, 8 or 10 tons per hectare.
Bolivia, the use of bonemeal and phosphate rock and intercropping with nitrogen-fixing Lupin species have significantly contributed to increases in potato yields. (Parrott 2002)

Most of the world’s farmers are smallholders who use traditional methods that are largely organic. Training farmers in techniques to improve these practices with good organic methods is a practical, low cost and proven way to increase yields and income.

One of the most important aspects of the teaching farmers to increase yields with organic methods is that the food and fibre is produced close to where it is needed and in many cases by the people who need it. Another important aspect is the low input costs. They do not need to buy expensive imported fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.

The substitution of more labour intensive activities such as cultural weeding, composting and intercropping for expensive imported chemical inputs, provides more employment for the local and regional communities. This employment allows landless labourers to pay for their food and other needs. These types of simple community based organic agricultural models are what are needed around the world to end rural poverty and starvation, rather than GMOs and expensive toxic chemicals.

Most importantly while the green revolution and the promises of GMOs have not delivered the food to where it is needed, organic agriculture has a proven track record in delivering food security to these communities.

The proponents of GMOs believing that the solution to feeding the hungry just requires new food varieties with better traits show a lack of understanding of the problem and also of agricultural systems.

Billions of dollars are spent around the world in the research and development of new GMO crops. This money would be more effectively utilized if it was spent on training the 70% of the world’s smallholders to adopt best practice organic methods and increase their production by over 100% as is the case in Africa. This would feed the hungry.


A Viable Food Future, Part I, (2010), The Development Fund /Utviklingsfondet, Norway, 2010, ISBN 978-82-91923-19-2 (Printed edition) ISBN 978-82-91923-20-8 (Digital edition)
ETC -group, (2009), Who Will Feed Us? Questions for the Food and Climate Crises. (
Badgley et al, (2007), Organic agriculture and the global food supply, Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems (2007), 22: 86-108 Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/S1742170507001640
Barrett C et al (2004), Better technology, better plots, or better farmers? Identifying changes in productivity and risk among Malagasy rice farmers , Am.J.Agric.Econ., 2004, 86, 4, 869-888
FAO (2007), FAO international conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, 2007: Organic agriculture can contribute to food security, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy
FAO (2010), The State of Food Insecurity in the World, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy
IAASTD (2008), International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), Island Press, 1718 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 300 Washington DC, 20009-1148
IFOAM (2011), IFOAM Smallholder Position Paper in publication
Leu A (2004), Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World, Acres USA, Vol. 34, No1
Parrott, Nicholas (2002), ‘The Real Green Revolution’, Greenpeace Environmental Trust, Canonbury Villas, London ISBN 1 903907 02 0
Pimentel D et al (2005), Environmental, Energetic and Economic Comparisons of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems, Bioscience (Vol. 55:7), July 2005
Pretty J, (1999), The Living Land – Agriculture, Food and Community Regeneration in Rural Europe, Earthscan, London. August 1999.
Pretty, J (1998), SPLICE magazine, August/September 1998 Volume 4 Issue 6.
Pretty J, (1995). Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practice for Sustainability and Self-Reliance, Earthscan, London.
Unep-Unctad (2008), Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, Sept 2008.

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