Article Archives > Don't Panic, Go Organic

11 May 2010

Don't Panic, Go Organic (visit Foreign Policy for original article)

Be not troubled by Robert Paarlberg's scaremongering. Organic practices can feed the world -- better, in fact, than wasteful industrial farming.


In May 2004, Catherine Badgley, an evolutionary biology professor at the University of Michigan, took her students on a research trip to an organic farm near their campus. Standing on the acre-and-a-half farm, Badgley asked the farmer, Rob MacKercher, how much food he produces annually. "Twenty-seven tons," he said. Badgley did the quick math: That's enough to provide 150 families one pound of produce every single day of the year.

"If he can grow that quantity on this tiny parcel," Badgley wondered, "why can't organic agriculture feed the world?" That question was the genesis of a multi-year, multidisciplinary study to explore whether we could, indeed, feed the world with organic, sustainable methods of farming. The results? A resounding yes.

Unfortunately, you don't hear about this study, or others with similar findings, in "Attention Whole Foods Shoppers," Robert Paarlberg's defense of industrial agriculture in the new issue of Foreign Policy. Instead, organic agriculture, according to Paarlberg, is an "elite preoccupation," a "trendy cause" for "purist circles." Sure, sidling up to a Whole Foods in your Lexus SUV and spending $24.99 on artisan fromage may be the trappings of a privileged foodie, but there's an SUV-sized difference between obsessing about the texture of your goat cheese and arguing for a more sustainable food system. Despite Paarlberg's pronouncements, Badgley's research, along with much more evidence, helps us see that what's best for the planet and for people -- especially small-scale farmers who are the hungriest among us -- is a food system based on agroecological practices. What's more, Paarlberg's impressive-sounding statistics veil the true human and ecological cost we are paying with industrial agriculture.


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Since most of us aren't well-versed in the minutia of this debate, we can't be blamed for falling for Paarlberg's scaremongering, which suggests that by rejecting biotech and industrial agriculture, we are keeping developing countries underdeveloped and undernourished. Paarlberg suggests that we could eliminate starvation across the continent of Africa were it not that "efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided ... advocacy against agricultural modernization."

It's a compelling argument, and one industry defenders make all the time. For who among us would want to think we're starving the poor by pushing for sustainability? (At a Biotechnology Industry Organization conference I attended in 2005, a workshop participant even suggested pro-organic advocates should be "tried for crimes against humanity.")

But the argument for industrial agriculture and biotechnology is built on a misleading depiction of what organic agriculture is, bolstered with shaky statistics, and constructed by ignoring the on-the-ground lessons of success stories across the globe.

For a start, Paarlberg doesn't get what it means to be organic. "Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals," he writes, "so their food is de facto organic." In contrast, industrial agriculture, as he sees it, is "science-intensive." But as Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, "modern organic practices are defined by much more than just the absence of synthetic chemicals"; it's knowledge-intensive farming. Organic farmers improve output, less by applying purchased products and more by tapping a sophisticated understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds through techniques that include double-dug beds, intercropping, composting, manures, cover crops, crop sequencing, and natural pest control.

Biotech and industrial agriculture would in fact more aptly be called water, chemical, and fossil-fuel-intensive farming, requiring external inputs to boost productivity. Industrial agriculture gobbles up much of the 70 percent of the planet's freshwater resources diverted to farming, for example. It relies on petroleum-based chemicals for pest and weed control and requires massive amounts of synthetic fertilizer. In fact, in 2007, we used 13 million tons of synthetic fertilizer, five times the amount used in 1960. Crop yields, by comparison, grew only half that fast. And it's hardly a harmless increase: Nitrogen fertilizers are the single biggest cause of global-warming gases from U.S. agriculture and a major cause of air and water pollution -- including the creation of dead zones in coastal waters that are devoid of fish. And despite the massive pesticide increase, the United States loses more crops to pests today than it did before the chemical agriculture revolution six decades ago.

The diminishing returns of industrial agriculture are one reason why organic agriculture comes out ahead in all the comprehensive comparative studies. In Badgley's study, for instance, data from hundreds of certified-organic, industrial, and low-input farms around the world revealed that introducing agroecological approaches in developing countries led to between two and four times the productivity as the previous practices. Estimating the impact on global food supply if we shifted the planet to organic production, the study authors found a yield increase for every single food category they investigated.

In one of the largest studies to analyze how agroecological practices affect productivity in the developing world, researchers at the University of Essex in England analyzed 286 projects in 57 countries. Among the 12.6 million farmers followed, who were transitioning toward sustainable agriculture, researchers found an average yield increase of 79 percent across a wide variety of crop types.

Even the United Nations backs those claims. A 2008 U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report concluded that "organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and ... is more likely to be sustainable in the long term."

In the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date, several U.N. agencies and the World Bank engaged more than 400 scientists and development experts from 80 countries over four years to produce the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The conclusion? Our "reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is risky and unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy, and water crises," said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a lead author on the report.

Too bad we don't hear these success stories from Paarlberg. Instead he claims that without industrial food systems, "food would be not only less abundant but also less safe." To build his case, he points to improvements in food safety in the United States, such as the drop in E. coli contamination in U.S. beef. He neglects to mention that the virulent form of E. coli, a pathogen that can be fatal in humans, only emerged in the gut of cattle in the 1980s as a direct consequence of industrial livestock factories -- precisely the model he would export overseas. Meanwhile, Paarlberg conveniently ignores the diet-related illnesses spawned by industrial food in the United States, where the health-care system is now crippled with these preventable diseases. Hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes have all been linked in part to diet.

Paarlberg defends his case by pointing to a staggering death toll in Africa where, he claims, 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases compared with only 5,000 in the United States. But he's deceptively comparing apples and oranges: Those U.S. figures are only for food-borne illnesses. And the lack of an industrial food system isn't responsible for most of that high death toll in Africa. The World Health Organization attributes much of this tragic toll to unsanitary drinking water contaminated with pathogens transmitted from human excreta, causing a massive spike in cholera that year. Oh, and pesticide poisoning, too. Yes, that would be pesticides from industrial chemical farming.

Paarlberg's praise for industrial practices is similar to the biotech industry trumpeting its technology for saving us from famine, farmer bankruptcy, blindness, disease, poverty, even loss of biodiversity. Back in 1994, Dan Verakis, a spokesman for the industrial agricultural firm Monsanto, claimed that biotech crops would reduce herbicide and pesticide use, in effect reversing "the Silent Spring scenario." In 1999, Monsanto said it had developed genetically engineered rice to be a vital source of vitamin A, reducing blindness caused by its deficiency. That same year, then Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro boasted that GM technology would trigger an "80 percent reduction in insecticide use in cotton crops alone in the United States."

Few of these promises have borne fruit. Instead, commercialized biotech crops have fostered herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant pests, while reducing biodiversity. "In the past, farmers used a variety of chemical controls and manual labor, making it unlikely that any weed plant would evolve a resistance to all those different strategies simultaneously," explains gene ecology expert, Jack Heinemann, another IAASTD author. "But as we oversimplify -- as we industrialize -- we make agriculture more vulnerable to the next problem." Already, examples of herbicide resistance are popping up from canola fields in Canada to farms in Australia.

Another cause for concern is that industrial agriculture and genetically modified crops dangerously reduce biodiversity, especially on the farm. In the United States, 90 percent of soy, 70 percent of corn, and 95 percent of sugarbeets are genetically modified. Industrial farms are by their very nature monocultures, but diverse crops on a farm, even weeds, serve multiple functions: Bees feast on their nectar and pollen, birds munch on weed seeds, worms and other soil invertebrates that help control pests live among them -- the list goes on.

So are farmers in southern Africa, across India, in villages throughout the developing world really waiting for biotech and industrial agriculture to feed them, as Paarlberg suggests? "No," says Sue Edwards, a British-born botanist who works at the Institute for Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "Farmers we work with don't hold much hope" for these technologies; they see hope in their fields.

Starting in 1996, Edwards and colleagues engaged smallholder farmers in drought-prone regions in Ethiopia to investigate whether resilient food systems could be fostered by tapping ecological agriculture, building farming skills, emphasizing crops indigenous to the continent that had evolved to be drought resilient. They enlisted farmers in field trials, comparing crops grown using ecological methods like composting with those raised with chemical fertilizer or without any inputs at all. (That'd be what Paarlberg calls "de facto organic.") The results are conclusive: By 2006, they were finding significantly higher yields in the ecological test sites of every single crop compared with the chemical-fertilizer plots and even more dramatic benefits compared with the no-input plots.

Among the pitfalls in Paarlberg's analysis, two stand out. First, the benefits of his approach are speculative, at best; at worst, his assertions are disengenous, based on cherry-picking evidence and misrepresenting data. We need only compare his claims with Edwards's work and similar research around the world that demonstrates that agroecological approaches can protect natural resources and increase yields. Not in five years; not in 20. But right now -- today.

Second, his approach ignores power relationships that ultimately determine who will benefit from any technology. In agroecological approaches, farmers gain knowledge, including knowledge about ways to adapt to changing climate and to share their knowledge with each other. Farmers become less dependent on distant, centralized suppliers of high-priced biotech seeds and chemical inputs and therefore less vulnerable to their notoriously unstable prices. Though perhaps harder to measure, this independence may be the most critical advantages of agroecological farming.

Take away Paarlberg-esque mythologizing -- along with the government handouts, international financial institutional backing, tax breaks, and externalized environmental and human costs that prop up industrial agriculture and biotechnology -- and industrial agriculture would go the way of the Hummer: an overhyped footnote in the history books.

Anna Lappe