Friday, February 5, 2010

Does organic farming mean mass starvation?

I hate arguing politics when I'm not jacked into the Internet. Without the Internet, you can say pretty much whatever you want, and nobody can prove you wrong. I got into an Internet-disabled political discussion last night, wherein the claim was made that organic farming techniques (if universally adopted) would lead to the starvation of one third of the world's population.

Now my first inclination was to think that there are other ways we could respond under the "universal organic" constraint. We could put more land under agricultural production. We could feed more of our grain harvest directly to people, rather than feeding it to animals at 10-20% calorie conversion efficiency. We could give everyone composting toilets, or find other new sources of organic fertilizer. We could slow the growth rate of the population, so that we don't have to feed ten or twelve billion people down the line. We could stop harvesting low- and zero-calorie foods like celery and iceberg lettuce, and eliminate the production of indigestible calorie substitutes, like Olean and Splenda. We could throw away less of the food that we produce.

Now, I can see people having various problems with any of these suggestions, but any and all are more humane and less disruptive than the mass starvation of two or three billion people.

But none of these suggestions -- desirable as I might find them -- should be necessary, because I don't believe that the premise is accurate. According to one study called "Organic agriculture and the global food supply", found here or here (PDF):

The principal objections to the proposition that organic agriculture can contribute significantly to the global food supply are low yields and insufficient quantities of organically acceptable fertilizers. We evaluated the universality of both claims.

For the first claim, we compared yields of organic versus conventional or low-intensive food production for a global dataset of 293 examples and estimated the average yield ratio (organic : non-organic) of different food categories for the developed and the developing world. For most food categories, the average yield ratio was slightly <1.0 for studies in the developed world and >1.0 for studies in the developing world. With the average yield ratios, we modeled the global food supply that could be grown organically on the current agricultural land base. Model estimates indicate that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.

We also evaluated the amount of nitrogen potentially available from fixation by leguminous cover crops used as fertilizer. Data from temperate and tropical agroecosystems suggest that leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use. These results indicate that organic agriculture has the potential to contribute quite substantially to the global food supply, while reducing the detrimental environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.

Right now, most of the land under cultivation isn't being farmed using the high-yield, high-input farming methods that organic's critics claim are necessary to feed our growing population. Most farmland is in the developing world, and cultivated using subsistence farming techniques. The study looked at yield comparison studies from the developting world, and found that yields generally increased when farmers incorporated organic techniques. This is wonderful news, because organic techniques are cheap as hell when compared to having impoverished farmers buy tons of synthetic fertilizer and genetically modified seeds from ConAgra.

To me, the whole "organic farming == starvation" meme seems like something designed by some nefarious right wing think tank, then bounced around their echo chamber until it got traction in the mainstream media, where basically reasonable people started getting the message. It has all the crucial elements. It paints liberals as elitists who would protect the environment even at the cost of vast human suffering. It turns the multinationals who churn out synthetic fertilizers and GMO seeds into the heroes of the starving masses. It tries to create a rift between competing progressive values (as so many bullshit right-wing memes do; they know the value of tricking the opposition into fighting amongst themselves).

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