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Our Food Our Future

Condensed from an article by Donella H Meadows, Ph.D.,
who argues that organic farming can and must feed the world

We are often told that the world can only be fed if we intensify and bio-engineer agriculture. The media, politicians and so-called experts even say there is no alternative (TINA).

Their arguments are based on three assumptions:

  1. It will take a lot more food to feed the world.
  2. More intensive agriculture can produce a lot more food.
  3. Organic farming cannot.

The evidence supports none of these claims. We already grow enough food to feed everyone; the excess simply is not distributed where it is needed. Industrial agriculture is actually undermining the resource base ­ soil, water and biodiversity ­ needed to sustain the world's growing population in the long term. If anything can restore that resource base, it is organic methods.

Can organic farming produce enough?

The notion that organic means low-yield is not supported by research and trials which have demonstrated that organic agriculture is a viable alternative to conventional farming.

Supporters of chemical farming criticise organic rotation for including a forage crop in addition to corn and beans. Thus at any given time a third of the farm is not planted with a direct cash crop. Critics who argue that this means a lower annual yield of corn fail to recognise that the forage provides nourishment for cows, which in turn provide milk for humans and manure for soils. Keeping cows and forage on the farm solves two major problems that plague intensive agriculture: soil degradation caused by growing all the grain in one place, and manure pollution caused by feeding all the cows in another. Organically manured plots at the Rothamsted Experimental Station in England delivered wheat yields of 1.58 tons per acre compared to synthetically fertilised plots that yielded 1.55 tons per acre. This may seem a small difference but those manured plots contain six times the organic matter found in chemically treated plots. Moreover, while the organic systems included a fodder crop for cows, the synthetically fed plots depended on a fertiliser factory consuming fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases.

Research in 1989 found that average yields from 8 US organic farms were generally equal to or better than those from the high-intensive farms surrounding them ­ and they could be sustained year after year.

A 1987 study that compared adjoining organic and chemically treated wheat-fields in Washington State found that the organic fields had 8 more inches of topsoil than their chemical neighbours and only one-third the erosion loss.

Many farmers, when they first gave up chemical inputs, experienced disappointing yields. But after several years of building the earth's natural fertility, their harvests came close to or exceeded chemical yields. With any stress on the crop ­ from drought or too much rain ­ organic yields would always be higher.

New research from Germany shows that organic farming does not have to suffer lower yields even in the early years. By starting off with a nitrogen-rich leguminous cover instead of a grain crop, an initial drop in yield can be avoided.

A 1993 scientific comparison of farms in New Zealand found that biodynamic organic farms had better soil structure than conventional neighbouring farms. Their soil also had better aeration and drainage, was more easily tilled, and had more organic matter and nitrogen. Both types of farms were equally profitable.

Is industrial agriculture the answer?

SuperValue Plus supermarket, Nelson City: An example of how organics are making their mark in supermarkets. Sales of organic food in New Zealand have doubled over the last two years, with supermarkets enjoying the lion's share of the growth. Is this partly due to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification and the subsequent publicity, making people more aware of the food they are buying?
There is serious doubt that we can go on increasing food production as in the past through huge inputs of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Certainly we are not likely to raise more food by ploughing more land, as much of the remaining soil is less productive and more fragile.

Over the past 50 years, grain production has tripled, but the price of high yields is the use of synthetic chemicals that bring devastating environmental effects. Nitrate from fertiliser is now a common contaminant in US drinking water. Large rivers that drain farming regions carry fertiliser run-off into the sea, spreading "dead zones", and barren marine life.

In Germany, the city of Munich pays farmers in the watershed that supplies its municipal water to farm organically. This is cheaper than building a treatment plant to take agricultural chemicals out of its drinking water.

Pesticides not only harm the health of farm workers and poison wildlife and wells. They often kill off not only the target pest but also its natural enemies, creating pest resurgence. Furthermore, regular applications of pesticides lead to resistance. In the past 50 years, more than 500 insect pests, 230 crop diseases and 220 weeds have become resistant to pesticides and herbicides.

These environmental costs are seldom charged directly to the intensive farming that seems to produce food so cheaply. But someone will eventually pay them. TINA proponents make a dangerous assumption in thinking that chemical farming can be sustained indefinitely.

Their latest claim is that genetic engineering will feed the world by splicing together alien genes to produce superfoods containing their own pesticides and herbicide resistance. But that technology is fraught with unknown risks and unanswered questions, and it violates the laws of nature.

Nature has already been pushed too hard. It is time to back off a bit. Heal the soils, allow the waters to cleanse themselves, cut back the chronic surpluses that depress farm prices in the most productive places. If more food is needed, increase yields where there is room for improvement. Empower local farmers to provide the food needed in their communities. Help them use inputs that don't need to be bought and that don't harm soil and water and human health. Which is precisely where organic farming comes in.

In what direction does our future lie?

Industrial agriculture relies on technology and expensive artificial inputs. It extracts high yields by depleting and degrading precious natural resources. It sells to people at ever-greater distances, requiring a costly and fuel consuming distribution network, but it sells only to people who have money. It has not managed to feed the world.

Organic agriculture, by contrast, builds nutrients and controls pests through natural methods that are largely free. It regenerates soil and water resources. Above all, it is sustainable.

Ending hunger is a moral imperative and is totally possible. To feed the world, we must be willing to share, to care, and commit to the health of ourselves, our neighbours and our planet through modes of farming that respect nature.SF

Summarised by Noeline Gannaway
Source: Organic Gardening Sept/Oct 2000

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