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Only Organics Can Feed the Hungry World: Here’s Why

Students working on UGA's organic demonstration farm in summer 2012. (Photo: UGA College of Ag)

A new approach to agriculture that combines the best in industrial production with organic and sustainable practices is the key to meeting the changing needs of a changing world, where resources are rapidly depleted by a growing population.

“Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?” is the title of a controversial report released last week by Stanford University’s Center For Health Policy. The study concludes that there is “little evidence of health benefit” from eating organic food.” The meta-analysis of more than 200 separate studies found that organic products were no more nutritious – based on vitamin and mineral content – than conventionally-grown meats and vegetables.

The press weighed in with a bewildering range of instant reactions. The New York Times published an op-ed disparaging the “fad” in buying organic, claiming that it offered “no obvious health benefits” over cheaper conventionally-produced foods and calling it an “elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype.”

The LA Times, on the other hand, pointed out in an editorial that the study largely ignored the ill effects of pesticide residues on conventionally-grown produce, and the hormones and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that taint factory-farmed meat and poultry. It also failed to look at processed foods, the health impact of the chemical food additives, dyes, preservatives and genetically modified foods which are allowed in conventional products, but not in those which are labeled “organic.”

But what most of the media responses to the Stanford analysis ignored is the most compelling argument of all for organic growing – which is the environmental impact of its opposite, the chemical-intensive agriculture that dominates the American landscape and much of the globe.

My own appreciation for organic agriculture dates to a conversation that I had years ago with a cotton grower from the Central Valley of California who told me about his switch from conventional to organic growing. We talked about the benefits to the water, soil and ecosystem of farming without toxic chemicals. But what struck me most was his sheer boyish enthusiasm for a line of work that in my urban arrogance I had envisioned as backbreaking, mindless and numbingly routine.

Thanks to the switch to organics, he said, farming had become for him a labor of love – and also an intellectual challenge that required him to think out new approaches to controlling pests and maintaining soil fertility, rather than depending on standardized applications of toxic chemicals and petroleum-based fertilizers.

“When I started out farming,” he told me, “it was like showing up at an assembly line day in and day out. You work with heavy machinery – combines, planters, sprayers and harvesters – and can spend an entire growing season without actually getting any dirt underneath your fingernails.”

Going organic, on the other hand, had forced him to pay attention in a whole new way to what was actually happening on his land. “It is not like playing a pre-set score. It’s more like jazz: You improvise; you respond to the world around you.” Organic growers, he explained, are constantly innovating, trying out new locally-adapted seed varieties, rotating crops, plowing back stalks and other organic residues, planting cover crops, and experimenting with a variety of natural approaches to controlling weeds and insect pests in response to changes in the weather, in insect populations and soil vitality.

Organics can be tougher to get right than conventional agriculture, he conceded. But precisely because it is far more “hands on,” it also tends to be more rewarding. “It brought me back in touch with nature,” the cotton farmer effused. “I rediscovered what farming is all about.”

I remembered these words the other day when I read about yet another study, this one conducted by McGill University in Montreal and the University of Minnesota, a statistical synthesis of 66 separate studies that compared organic with conventional agriculture. The conclusion published in the journal Nature: Organic Is Not as Efficient as Its Big Ag Rival – at least when judged according to the holy grail of yield-per-acre.

No surprise there. If all that matters is the sheer volume of food that can be produced on a given plot of land, then chemical-intensive farming is the hands-down winner – although organics are closing the gap, especially in certain fruits, legumes and leafy vegetables, where the productivity of the two methods are essentially equal. But for big cash crops like corn, soybeans and wheat, conventional agriculture still produces more than 25 percent more per acre.

Nobody disputes the fact that modern agriculture is fabulously productive. A single acre of farmland in Iowa produces 170 bushels of corn. But the rub is that, while industrial agriculture produces more “calories-per-acre,” it can scarcely be called more efficient than organic, if efficiency includes the full environmental costs and not just the narrow question of yield-per-acre.

Farming today requires massive inputs of fossil fuels to run big machinery and produce the petroleum-based fertilizers and agrochemicals that it depends on; and it employs methods that deplete the soil of nutrients and use water less efficiently than organics. It also kills birds, bees and other pollinators with toxic pesticides and herbicides, and exhausts and pollutes the groundwater. Moreover, dependence on heavy machinery and over-plowing contributes to the erosion of untold millions of tons of irreplaceable topsoil per acre every year.

And the impacts are felt far beyond the farmers’ fields. Commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere are threatened by dead zones – some the size of the state of New Jersey – caused by algae blooms fed by nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from conventional farms. Nitrogen-based fertilizers also contribute significantly to the release into the atmosphere of nitrous oxide, a leading greenhouse gas with more than 300 times the heat-trapping impact of carbon dioxide. The New York Times reports that nearly a third of all the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and forestry.

All of these factors need to be weighed when assessing the efficiency – not to mention the sustainability – of our current agricultural system.

Still, one of the questions that advocates of organics frequently run up against is whether its generally smaller-scale operations and lower yields can ever hope to feed the world. Development experts counter that feeding the hungry is not simply a matter of growing more food, but of producing the right kinds of foods in the right places, and finding ways of getting it into the hands of those who need it.

This is where the current system is failing. Take the 170 bushels of corn grown on the typical acre in Iowa. Most of that grain is being fed to cattle. Yet meat production is a notoriously inefficient way to feed the hungry. The ratio of fossil-fuel energy required to produce one unit of food energy is 35:1 for beef production, compared to 3:1 on average for all other agricultural products.

The bottom line is that growing feed for livestock creates only one-tenth of the food-per-acre that growing grains and vegetables for human consumption does.

That may not be a problem for Americans with our large food surpluses and relative affluence. But the impact in poor countries is more problematic. Huge swaths of the Brazilian rainforest and other regions in the global south are being cleared to grow soybeans to feed beef cattle in the US – with the result in many places that thousands of small farmers are being forced out to make way for large-scale industrial agriculture.

If we are serious about tackling world hunger, many agronomists argue, then we will need to keep those farmers on their land growing food for local consumption, rather than using it to produce cheap hamburgers for the global fast food industry. And we will also need to shift production to lower-tech, more diverse, less energy- and chemical-intensive modes of growing. This was the conclusion of the UN and World Bank’s “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.” Widely regarded as the most comprehensive study to date of global agriculture, the 2008 report called for “food sovereignty” an approach that favors small-scale sustainable agriculture over the export-driven factory farming which is being pushed by large multinational corporations.

The fact is that farmers in the Third World often can’t afford the expensive agro-chemicals, patented genetically modified seeds and the latest oil-guzzling farm equipment. For the rural poor, low cost natural farming methods may be a better way to get food to their families and neighbors who need it.

As Hans Herren, an agriculture development expert and president of the Millennium Institute, told Mother Jones Magazine: “We don’t need to grow more food, we need to shift what we grow, where we grow it and who grows it.”More attention should be paid, in other words, to developing small-scale regional agriculture. Locally-adapted seeds need to be developed, and low-input methods developed that are suitable to the climate and soils. Herren says that yields in Third World countries could be doubled almost overnight if farmers were properly trained. For its own part, the developed world would do well to, “grow less food and focus more on things like improving quality and building soil.”

At present, 11 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S, are organically grown. Yet less than 1 percent of the research budget of the USDA goes toward improving organic farming methods. The other 99 percent is spent on research designed to enhance industrial agriculture. This amounts to a huge ongoing subsidy for Big Ag. If we shifted research spending toward developing sustainable agriculture, organic farming could gradually boost its productivity to rival that of chemical-intensive growing.

Actually, the question is not – as it is routinely framed by the media – whether organic or conventional agriculture can better feed the world. There is no way to turn back the clock to a purer age when farming was pursued without chemicals and heavy farm equipment.

Modern agriculture is here to stay. But it does need to change – because the world itself is changing: Underground aquifers are drying out, bees and other pollinators are dying, the climate is getting hotter and drier in many places (witness this summer’s historic droughts in the Midwest.) Arable land is declining worldwide. Desertification is encroaching on huge swaths of Africa, China and elsewhere. And, in what Foreign Policy Magazine called “the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of,” the world’s reserves of phosphorus, which is essential in fertilizer production, are rapidly being depleted to the point of exhaustion.

All of this means that farmers will need to learn how to grow our food more sustainably. And we need to reverse the trend toward mindlessly increasing the acreage devoted to meat production. Neither organic nor conventional agriculture can do it alone. We will have to develop a “hybrid path in agriculture,” according to the Nature study cited earlier, an approach which combines the best in industrial production with organic and sustainable practices. Only then can we hope to feed the billions of new mouths that are expected in the coming decades, and preserve the earth and its irreplaceable farmlands for future generations.

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