I got into a Twitter discussion that evolved out of my Guardian piece about whether or not organic farming can feed the world. I used all my points up and my fellow Tweetie Bird was not convinced, so rather than do my own research, I asked some of my smart farmer friends what they thought.
Here are their responses, which are about 50,000 times too long for Twitter.
I am now going to brunch, then to body board all day in the beach that overlooks the mountains. Oh, life!
David from Permacyclists (click that link, it’s good!):
For the health benefits bit, these things are so hard to establish that I personally don’t worry too much about it – I agree with what you said, the health of the workers and the planet is important, and it’s undoubtedly better with organic farming.
I don’t think he’s right though that organic is only good for resource-rich areas of the world though. I don’t understand at all why that would be the case, in fact. Industrial farming is far more resource-intensive than organic farming. Also, industrial farming only works in areas of the world with strong rich soils. It is so destructive of the soil that only areas with incredible amounts of pre-existing topsoil can continue applying those products for any sustained amount of time. In places like Africa, where soils are generally poorer relative to Europe and the US, industrial farming has been a debacle, and erosion has destroyed tremendous amounts of farm land. Harvests go down after a few years unless increasing amounts of fertilizer are applied. If anything, organic agriculture, which builds healthy soil, should be seen as essential for areas of the world with poor soils.
Not to mention that in areas without many resources, becoming dependent on agribusiness in order to produce your food hasn’t exactly been a blessing.
But that’s just me rambling – why take my word for it? In 2008, the UN issued a report titled “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa” (for download here:http://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/2306) concluding:
“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. This is in line with the findings of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security, held in May 2007. Therefore, we encourage policymakers and development cooperation partners in Africa and around the world to take a new look at this promising production system with fresh eyes. It offers not only improved food security, but also an array of other economic, environmental, health and social benefits.”
I’m an organic believer, for sure. But actually participating in organic agriculture has made me realize its challenges, acutely. Asking a farmer to switch to organic methods means asking the farmer to increase his risk in the operation immensely. The most challenging part of being in farming isn’t the labor or the sweat or anything: it’s the risk that should the weather or bugs not cooperate, she or he has no income, despite doing everything “right.” (Yes, chemicals increase cost, but they generally mean guaranteed crops.) In developed countries, CSAs and higher price points for organic produce buffer this risk. In the developing world, unless a farmer is growing for export to richer nations, the premium on organic produce is much less or nil. I certainly believe that organic methods can feed the world. I think the problem is one of capitalism and entrenched interests (in the US, for example, why does the Farm Bill create an enormous command economy for the growing of certain crops (i.e., corn and soybeans) while giving piddly token grants to cover papework costs for those converting to organic?).
Sorry–that probably doesn’t help your argument, but maybe it adds some insight to the whole discussion? Sometimes I think when people say that organic farming “can’t feed the world,” they’re not talking about the limits of soil resources or anything. They’re really saying that chemicals can fend off major crop losses, which means guaranteed food, which means everyone eats and farmers stay in farming. The alternative is a social safety net for farmers and loads of education on successful organic techniques, which is a lot more complicated than a bottle of RoundUp.
The other is whether current economic policies and practices are set up in such a way as to allow food to reach the people who need it. I think the answer to the first question is becoming clearer, and I believe that given massive alterations to the current supply chain, as addressed by the second question, we can make meaningful strides.