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Can organics feed the world? May 11, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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Robert Paarlberg pointedly decries the Luddite sympathies of elite Western foodies in a recent piece in Foreign Policy. In “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers,” Paarlberg argues that today’s trendy push to make food sustainable, which he defines as “organic, local, and slow,” hampers our ability to solve a more important food problem: world hunger. Defenders of sustainability, swayed by romantic visions of pre-industrial agriculture, want to take us back to the days before artificial fertilizer and genetically-engineered seeds. If successful, they will prevent the developing world from taking advantage of the huge productivity gains that those tools bestowed on the West, thereby ensuring a future as dogged by hunger as its past.

Paarlberg makes several good points, including that farmers in the developing world need access to improved infrastructure (like better roads to bring products to market) and that they would benefit from food-safety improvements such as reliable refrigeration and packaging. Of course, none of these points would be denied by any advocate of sustainable food, so Paarlberg is attacking a bit of a strawman here. I’d like to focus on one of his more controversial views, which centers on the “organic” part of sustainability. Paarlberg states that organic farming is not friendlier to the environment than conventional farming; that, in fact, it’s worse for the environment because it requires the use of more land to grow the same amount of food. If we force organic practices down the throats of developing nations, then, we aren’t relieving their hunger, and we’re actually speeding up the degradation of their natural resources.

Paarlberg cites two reasons for rejecting organic farming. The first is that without the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is not allowed under organic standards, developing countries would need a lot more animal manure, which means they’d have to do a lot more land- and resource-intensive animal grazing. Oddly, to support this argument Paarlberg uses statistics from the US:

Less than 1 percent of American cropland is under certified organic production. If the other 99 percent were to switch to organic and had to fertilize crops without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that would require a lot more composted animal manure. To supply enough organic fertilizer, the U.S. cattle population would have to increase roughly fivefold. And because those animals would have to be raised organically on forage crops, much of the land in the lower 48 states would need to be converted to pasture.

This is neither true of the US nor applicable to the developing world. Not true of the US because cattle are not the only source of manure. Currently, excess manure produced by conventional livestock production (especially swine production) results in both miles of manure lagoons and toxic overapplication of manure in areas adjacent to livestock facilities. Redistributing this manure to crops that are currently artificially fertilized would greatly reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer, but fertilizer is so cheap relative to the cost of transporting manure that doing so is not financially sound. (Pricing the environmental externalities of artificial fertilizer into its cost would address this problem.) Nor is Paarlberg’s point applicable to the developing world. Meat consumption in the developing world is forecast to rise dramatically through 2050 simply due to increased demand as populations become richer, not because of the need for natural fertilizer.* Nonetheless, with more abundant meat comes, inevitably, more abundant shit. One might argue that meat consumption won’t rise without a prior rise in conventional, non-organic, crop production to feed the engine of intensive animal agriculture, but there is an alternative: the development of farms which raise both plants and animals in a self-sustaining balance (more on that below).

Paarlberg’s second argument against organic methods is an oft-repeated one: that organic crop yields are lower than conventional yields, so farming organically requires more land to produce the same amount of food. In his words, “Organic field crops also have lower yields per hectare. If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined.” Implication: organic techniques in the developing world would require massive deforestation there.

Even proponents of organic, such as the folks at the Organic Center, agree that organic crop yields are generally lower than conventional yields. However, it’s important to realize that most organic agriculture still makes use of low-performing monocultures. All the organic lettuce we Whole Foods shoppers get from Earthbound Farm comes from land that is dedicated purely to lettuce production, and producing monocultures this way results in soil that is lower-yielding. Superior yields have been produced by farmers who reject monoculture crops in favor of so-called “stacked” production methods that rotate plant and animal species frequently, but since these efforts are so new and small in scale the evidence remains purely anecdotal. In sum, we shouldn’t write off organics because they are often grown in monocultures with comparatively low yields; we should continue to explore higher-yielding ways of producing organically.

In any case, even though organic yields in the West are typically lower than conventional yields there, they are still far higher than conventional yields in the developing world. Michael Pollan, that foodie guru, cites a University of Michigan study in his New York Times essay Farmer in Chief demonstrating that adoption of modern organic practices in the developing world could increase food production by as much as 50%. It would seem that feeding the world and sustainability are not mutually exclusive goals.

Having said all this, I’m not insisting that organics are the way to go. The moderate in me says that there are almost certainly cases in which a judicious use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is part of an optimal food production system. But we do need to get a lot closer to the organic ideal. Paarlsberg misses his mark in dismissing that project as no more than misguided foodie elitism.

*UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, p.10.

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