Wednesday 4 April 2012

6 Reasons Organics Can Feed the World

Ok, so I know this is isn’t simply about soil and water, but please indulge me while I climb up onto my soapbox for a rather long posting.

So it’s time for another of those ‘reasons why organic farming is the best and conventional agriculture will kill us all’ articles, this time from the Huffington Post. I’ll come on to its content in a minute. These articles, and the same tired arguments, appear time after time and only serve to reinforce the unhelpful polarisation between the organic and conventional sectors which has developed and strengthened in the past few decades.

What would be far more helpful in the global debate of climate change, environmental degradation and ‘how are we going to feed the 9 billion by 2050’ would be a recognition by all that there is not one single agricultural system which we should all be following – successful food production will depend on a range of systems, including organic and conventional, all working together.

There is plenty that organic farmers can learn from conventional growers – but equally, there is just as much knowledge, information and experience that can be shared the other way. In some circumstances broadacre monocultures are the most appropriate way of producing food, because of the fact that existing knowledge, economic factors, and infrastructure are geared up to do so.

That doesn’t mean that more environmentally sustainable practices, including those gleaned from more low input systems, can’t be employed in such ‘conventional’ set-ups, and many famers throughout the world are doing this – cover crops and non-inversion tillage spring to mind. Of course, such systems should continue to evolve and find ways of further reducing their costs, waste and environmental impact.

And likewise, in many situations, low input agriculture, more closely linked to the narrow legal definition of ‘organic’ farming is far more appropriate, especially where fossil fuel-based inputs are not available. But that’s not so say that we should deny those smallholder farmers access to pesticides and modern technology – we just need to ensure that it is used safely, efficiently and in a way which complements rather than competes with traditional agricultural and ecological systems.

Agriculture needs to reduce its environmental footprint. But it also needs to feed increasing numbers of people. There is no room for a one-size-fits-all approach here; as the UK Government’s 2011 Foresight report pointed out:

Advocates of organic production systems have suggested that it represents a complete system for achieving sustainable food production. However, production costs are higher and yields from organic agriculture in high-income countries are typically lower than those from other production systems. Scenarios suggest organic production systems can satisfy expected future global food demand but would require major changes in consumer diets which may be unachievable.

The Report concludes that organic agriculture as currently codified should not be adopted as the main strategy to achieve sustainable and equitable global food security. The universal adoption of organic agriculture would close off too many important approaches, though the wider application of specific practices will make a significant contribution to integrated and sustainable approaches to food production.

OK. I’ve got that off my chest, so I’ll finally offer some critique on this article in the Huffington Post.

So here are author Maria Rodale's 6 Reasons Organics Can Feed the World:
1. Chemical farming isn't "feeding the world" now. Despite more than 70 years of chemical- and petroleum-reliant farming practices, about 1 billion people are malnourished or starving in today's world.

The last point is true.  But it implies staggering naivety to suggest that global hunger is simply the result of one farming system. People go hungry for all sorts of reasons: poverty, bad governance, pests and diseases, waste, lack of water, war, corruption, climate change etc etc. Farming needs to become more sustainable – no-one can deny that – but there’s a lot more that needs to change in this world for people to stop going hungry. And don’t forget that ‘chemical farming’, as Maria puts it, does feed billions of people.

2. It takes three calories of energy to create one calorie of edible food with conventional farming. These facts from a report from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health don't even include the energy used in transportation or processing. Our current system relies on practices that actually diminish the resource base that is needed to sustain it.

Yes, well, this report does say that. But as the report acknowledges, much of the systems referred to are from, or relate to, the US, including the fact quoted above about energy. Systems in the US are not representative of systems across the globe and it is therefore impossible to extrapolate in this generalised way. For instance, the vast majority of beef produced in the UK is reared extensively on grass and only finished on grain. And even organic beef is produced in this way! So the amount of grain used in this sector is far, far lower than in the equivalent conventional US beef sector.

3. Biotech crops falter and fail without expensive herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation. While enormously productive in ideal conditions, biotech crops gobble up incredible amounts of resources to produce that yield.

This may or may not be true – I’m no expert on GM technology. But, as Maria argues, these crops can be enormously productive, and we do not feed to sustain our growing population. I would argue that a more pressing need is to tackle the obscene amounts of waste generated by our current food systems, including retailers, food processors and in the home.  And also to give farmers in developing countries the tools which they need to tackle waste and losses, whether those tools are chemical or cultural.

4. Organic methods can produce harvests 180 percent larger than chemical farming in communities that struggle to feed themselves. Although global population is on the rise, population in the developed world is actually on the downturn. Most of the growth is in the developing world, where organics have been shown to have the most beneficial effects.

Great. But let’s not stifle sustainable development in the developing world by telling communities there how to grow their food. Low-input farming is often going to be more successful and viable, especially in poorer communities, than systems requiring expensive, imported inputs. But in some situations modern pesticides, for instance, may be necessary to improve yields and provide sufficient food. We need to allow these people to look at what works best in their own situations; to help ensure that they have access to appropriate knowledge which allows them to cherry-pick the best bits from organic and conventional farming to allow them to sustainably produce what they need.

We should pass on our own knowledge and experience to help countries minimise environmental degradation as they develop, rather than restricting what they do according to the whims of dogmatic, well-fed Westerners.

5. We could double food production in just 10 years using organic practices and other agroecological farming methods, according to a report from the United Nations. Agroecological practices, such as organic farming, attempt to mimic natural processes and rely on the biology of the soil and environment rather than synthetic sprays and other inputs.

As Maria herself points out, organic farming can be described as just one example of agro-ecological farming – a concept which should undermine all agricultural production. While the report which she refers to argues for measures to be put in place which reduce the need for artificial fertiliser and pesticides, it certainly does not suggest that farming systems should become fully organic.

6. Organic farming creates more of the resources on which our food supply relies, while conventional farming destroys them. Conventional farming leeches nutrients from the soil, puts a strain on our water supplies, and relies heavily on fossil fuels to make it work; organic farming builds better, more self-sufficient land, creates cleaner water, recycles nutrients, and leaves us with a cleaner atmosphere.

It is impossible to generalise in the way that Maria has done in this last point. Nutrients can be leached from bare soil on an organic farm as much as they can on a conventional farm. So the challenge is to prevent this, such as through the use of cover crops. There’s nothing ‘organic’ or 'conventional’ about that – it’s just good practice. Similarly, a supermarket-bought organic lettuce will have been grown using just as much water as its neighbour on the non-organic shelf. And in farming, just as in any other industry, we get good practitioners and bad practitioners, both organic and conventional.