Over and over again, I have had this (civilized) argument with certain individuals about whether or not organic food was more delicious (too subjective of a judgment), more nutritious (yes, in a few instances) and able to feed the entirety of the planet (not so says detractors). I actually had a rep for a non-organic tomato distributor audibly snarl at me when I asked if his product was organic. “You know…organic is not nearly as “sustainable” as you think,” he sternly informed me. During the mid-20th century, the developing world was riddled with starvation and food instability and it took the Green Revolution (not what you think) to provide some temporary stability to places like Mexico, India, and various Asian countries. This stability came in the form of increasing crop yields and the liberal use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which have taken their toll on soil vitality and water quality. Many, if not most, agricultural thinkers admit that the Green Revolution, at best acted like a much-needed band-aid, and at worst, destroyed biodiversity and generations of sustainable farming. But in the shadow of the boom years of the Green Revolution, is an organic future really a viable option for the world’s struggling food stocks?
Some would say an emphatic “yes!”
So how do you feed seven billion people today and nine billion by 2040 through organic, natural, and local food production? Well, it seems that it is not only possible, but may be our one and only hope in sustaining the planet and the growing population. A 2010 United Nations study concluded that organic and other sustainable farming methods that come under the umbrella of what the study’s authors called “agroecology” would be necessary to feed the future world. Two years earlier, a U.N. examination of farming in 24 African countries found that organic or near-organic farming resulted in yield increases of more than 100 percent. Another U.N.-supported report entitled “Agriculture at a Crossroads“, compiled by 400 international experts, said that the way the world grows food will have to change radically to meet future demand. It called for governments to pay more attention to small-scale farmers and sustainable practices — shooting down the bigger-is-inevitably-better notion that huge factory farms and their efficiencies of scale are necessary to feed the world.
There was also a report from Roadale Institute, a Pennsylvania think tank and advocate for organic and sustainable agricultural practices, which concluded that conventional farming needs to cease using unsustainable, increasingly unaffordable, petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides and turn to “organic, regenerative farming systems that sustain and improve the health of the world population, our soil, and our environment.” The science the report so amply cites shows that such a system would:
• give competitive yields to “conventional” methods
• improve soil and boost its capacity to hold water, particularly important during droughts
• save farmers money on pesticides and fertilizers
• save energy because organic production requires 20 to 50 percent less input
• mitigate global warming because cover crops and compost can sequester close to 40 percent of global CO2 emissions
• increase food nutrient density
However biotech and big Ag have spent gazillions of dollars trying to convince consumers that synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are necessary to feed a growing population, and that veering away from this model would result in ruin and mass starvation. There are a lot of scare tactics and myths being perpetuated by critics of organic and sustainable food systems, and the result is pretty much business as usual, but there has been a burgeoning interest over the past few years in alternatives to convention farming and what the Green Revolution has yielded. While it is arguable whether or not places like India and Mexico would have fared better in the 1960s and 70s with more sustainable practices, it seems evident that the current model is not going to carry us into a better future. Sure you could buy organic, shop at your local farmer’s market, and commit yourself to local and sustainable food production, but the change may have to come from top down policy on this one – hopefully it will not come too late.
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