Organic Can Feed the World

Given that current production systems leave nearly one billion people undernourished, the onus should be on the agribusiness industry to prove its model, not the other way around

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"We all have things that drive us crazy," wrote Steve Kopperud in a blog post this fall for Brownfield, an organization that disseminates agricultural news online and through radio broadcasts. Kopperud, who is a lobbyist for agribusiness interests in Washington, D.C., then got downright personal: "Firmly ensconced at the top of my list are people who consider themselves experts on an issue when judging by what they say and do, they're sitting high in an ivory tower somewhere contemplating only the 'wouldn't-it-be-nice' aspects."

At the top of that heap, Kopperud put Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, a contributor to Atlantic Life and the author of Food Politics, the title of both her most well-known book and her daily blog.

"There's a huge chunk of reality missing from Dr. Nestle's academic approach to life," Kopperud wrote. "The missing bit is, quite simply, the answer to the following question: How do you feed seven billion people today and nine billion by 2040 through organic, natural, and local food production?" He then answers his own question. "You can't."

What is notably lacking in the "conventional" versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can't feed the world's growing population.

As a journalist who takes issues surrounding food production seriously, I too have things that drive me crazy.

At the top of my list are agribusiness advocates such as Kopperud (and, more recently, Steve Sexton of Freakonomics) who dismiss well-thought-out concerns about today's dysfunctional food production system with the old saw that organic farming can't save the world. They persist in repeating this as an irrefutable fact, even as one scientific study after another concludes the exact opposite: not only that organic can indeed feed nine billion human beings but that it is the only hope we have of doing so.

"There isn't enough land to feed the nine billion people" is one tired argument that gets trotted out by the anti-organic crowd, including Kopperud. That assertion ignores a 2007 study led by Ivette Perfecto, of the University of Michigan, showing that in developing countries, where the chances of famine are greatest, organic methods could double or triple crop yields.

"My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can't produce enough food through organic agriculture," Perfecto told Science Daily at the time.

Too bad solid, scientific research hasn't been enough to drive that nail home. A 2010 United Nations study (PDF) concluded that organic and other sustainable farming methods that come under the umbrella of what the study's authors called "agroecology" would be necessary to feed the future world. Two years earlier, a U.N. examination (PDF) of farming in 24 African countries found that organic or near-organic farming resulted in yield increases of more than 100 percent. Another U.N.-supported report entitled "Agriculture at a Crossroads" (PDF), compiled by 400 international experts, said that the way the world grows food will have to change radically to meet future demand. It called for governments to pay more attention to small-scale farmers and sustainable practices -- shooting down the bigger-is-inevitably-better notion that huge factory farms and their efficiencies of scale are necessary to feed the world.

Presented by

Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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