You signed up for a CSA box. You’re on a first name basis with the herb guy at the farmers market. You singlehandedly keep the natural food store across the street in business. That is, you eat organic. You know its better for the soil, the rivers, the oceans, our climate and our collective health. But something gnaws away at you. Perhaps it’s a gut feeling or maybe something you overheard in conversation. Can organic farming feed the world? Must eating organic remain the purview of the privileged few? Is our current oil-thirsty and chemical-laden food production a necessary evil?
The received wisdom of the last few decades was that only conventional agriculture could feed a growing world population. But its becoming increasingly clear that the so-called efficiency of the current system is based on a systematic externalization of costs both within and across generations. So for some crops, farming conventionally may increase yields somewhat, but that increased yield is coming at a cost of oceanic dead zones (due to fertilizer run off), depleted soil, climate change (due to higher use of fossil fuels to create said fertilizer), drop in biodiversity and risks to human health.
As Dan Barber puts it, “we need the humbleness and clarity to see that our food, while benefitting from technological advances, has benefitted even more from free ecological resources: Cheap energy, lots of water everywhere, and a stable climate. But studies have shown these are eroding.”
The current food system also produces too much of the wrong crops. Prime amongst these is corn, half of which is used as animal feed to support our meat-laden diet, another huge chunk to make ethanol to feed our cars and the rest to create the arsenal of processed foods that have ignited obesity rates around the world.
We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations,” wrote Olivier De Schutter in a recent UN report recommending policies to support small-scale organic farming. Organic farming decelerates global warming through less fossil fuel use, avoids ecological destruction from chemical use and improves food security due to its more decentralized nature. Its not that organic farming will not also require resources, but that the resources required – human labour – are renewable. This does not mean we revert to farming as it existed a century ago, wherein much of the population was engaged in food production. Indeed, organic farmers embrace innovation, technology and mechanization where they make ecological sense.
While no one can definitively answer how a world of nine billion will be fed, more and more scientists and policymakers are recognizing that smaller-scale organic farming must be a big part of the answer.
Question of the Day: Do you believe organic farming can feed the world? Why or not why?
Ran Goel was born in Israel, raised in South Africa, moved to Canada and then studied investment law in New York City. He decided to forgo the world of Wall street for the wonderful world of farming, and now owns and operates Fresh City Farms in Downsview area of Toronto. As Ran says "To be frank, the status quo of our food system sucks. It really does. You probably know the drill: it pollutes, it climate changes, it fattens, it under nourishes, it misdistributes."