Organic Food Could Actually Feed the World
Supporters of the big agribusiness status quo routinely attack organic foods by trotting out old arguments that they couldn't possibly feed the whole world. This is a particular favorite of Alex and Dennis Avery of the conservative Hudson Institute (which is funded by Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Novartis and others in the sector). However, there are a number of problems with this argument.
For one thing, agribusiness is in business to make money, not to "feed the world." If they really wanted to "feed the world," all it would take is $13 billion, according to some estimates. That's the amount Americans and Europeans spend on perfume every year. Monsanto alone made $4.23 billion in profits in 2007 and expects to make roughly $10 billion in profits in 2012. If their primary goal was to "feed the world," it would certainly be easier to divert some of their considerable profit to strategies we know work (you know, like giving people food), than developing some purported silver bullets that might not turn out to be so great. In secret. Without the input of the folks you supposedly want to help.
Further, some experts have estimated that half the food grown in the world is wasted. Most of the rest is unfairly distributed. Given that we do such a poor job on these fronts it seems a bit irresponsible to assume that improving yields in the short term will somehow make hunger go away. In real numbers, there are more hungry people now in the world than there were before the start of the Industrial Revolution, so technology does not always equal more full bellies.
But a fundamental thing that people often miss in this argument, and one that's hard to stress enough, is that organic agriculture is not anti-technology. Author Michael Pollan made this point recently, arguing that "we wouldn't be doing developing nations a favor by exporting a fossil fuel-dependent ag system when it's clear that fossil fuels are only going to become more scarce and expensive." Instead, today's organic farmers are taking advantage of the latest knowledge on fighting pests and improving soil, and as the fruits of such labors become more popular, R&D budgets will swell, further improving organic technology.
In 2007, scientists at the University of Michigan published research that concluded: "Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries, as low-intensive methods on the same land." The scientists said this "refute[s] the long-standing claim that organic farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed the global population."
An ongoing long-term study at the University of California at Davis has shown that yields of organic systems have been comparable, and in some cases, higher than conventional systems for all crops tested -- tomato, safflower, corn and beans. Interestingly, organic corn has shown higher variability than conventional, with lower yields some years and higher in others. However, over 15 years, soil fertility was enhanced in the organic systems, while it degraded considerably in conventional systems. In a serious drought in 1999, according to the Rodale Institute, yields of organic soybeans were 30 bushels/acre, compared to only 16 bushels/acre for conventional. This suggests that the healthy, holistic approach of organics may help plants become better able to survive challenges.
According to a review of a large number of studies across several decades (published by the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture as "The Economics of Organic Grain and Soybean Production in the Midwestern United States"), in all cases organic production was equivalent to, and in many cases better than, conventional.
The more we learn about organic agriculture, which is evolving rapidly, the more a picture of abundance -- not sacrifice -- emerges.
Page 1: When organic doesn't always make sense
Page 2: Learn the secret behind many of your favorite organic brands
Page 3: Learn what some farmers think of organic
Page 4: Discover the surprising ingredients in organic foods
Page 6: Is organic really healthier?
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