Show organic farmers the money

Stuff it, Mr. Green Revolution. Organic farming can feed the world, if we just gave it a fighting chance

Published July 16, 2007 9:33PM (EDT)

The name of the green revolution's greatest proselytizer, Norman Borlaug, does not appear in the text of "Organic agriculture and the global food supply," a research paper published in the June issue of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. But there's little doubt where the authors are aiming their thesis: Organic farming can feed the world. Check the very first footnote:

Borlaug, N.E. 2000. Ending world hunger: the promise of biotechnology and the threat of antiscience zealotry. Plant Physiology 124:487b

Borlaug has never hidden his immense scorn for organic farming. His argument rests on two contentions: a) the yields from organic agriculture are so inferior to green revolution agriculture (hybrid or biotech crops, synthetic fertilizers, etc.) that organic farmers would require as much as three times the land conventional farmers need to produce the same amount of harvest and b) there isn't enough cow manure in the world to supply the nitrogen fertilizer necessary for global organic farming.

The authors of "Organic agriculture and the global food supply" say he's wrong. Organic farming can provide all the calories necessary for all the hungry people in the world, even with another three billion people added to the planetary population total in the next forty years. As one might suspect, the press release announcing this conclusion last week immediately traveled far and wide across the enviro-blogosphere. As ideological wars go, the showdown between organic farmers, holding high the standard of sustainability, and high-input, high-yield biotech corporate farmers, claiming to be the only savior standing between humanity and a Malthusian die-off, is a doozy. (Thanks to "corresponding author" Ivette Perfecto, a professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan, for providing How the World Works with the full text of the paper.)

To make their calculations, the authors first compared the yields for 160 different food crops, based on how they are farmed. The authors do not claim that organic farming is superior to state-of-the-art green revolution farming. Their key observation is that organic farming does result in significantly superior yields when compared to the "low intensity" farming still practiced in much of the developing world. If organic farming replaced that low-intensity farming, the boost in harvest yields would result in all the food necessary, provided it was properly distributed.

The authors also argue that the claim that there is no available replacement for the vast amounts of synthetic nitrogen necessary for conventional farming is incorrect. Properly managed crop rotations which alternate nitrogen-fixing crops, such as soybeans, with nitrogen-consuming crops, such as corn, would be more than sufficient in supplying the necessary nitrogen. (The authors also note that organic farming is more labor-intensive than conventional farming, which means more jobs for those countries that need to boost employment the most.)

As organic farmers never tire of pointing out, there are serious questions as to whether large-scale monocrop agriculture that requires huge inputs of synthetic petrochemically-derived nutrients is sustainable in the long run. Defenders of the green revolution, such as Borlaug, place their hopes on the promise of a never-ending cycle of innovation. We'll keep redesigning plants into organisms that yield ever greater bounty, while consuming fewer nutrients, staying one step ahead of the grim reaper, for as long as necessary. Science will save us.

But what if scientists poured as much energy into studying how to improve organic farming methods as they did into recombinant DNA? The authors of "Organic agriculture and the global food supply" believe that current organic farming yields could be greatly increased, if we knew more about how to build ecologically balanced agricultural systems. But such research hasn't been the priority of either academia or government. It's time for that to change. It's time to show organic farmers the money.

In spite of our optimistic prognosis for organic agriculture, we recognize that the transition to and practice of organic agriculture contain numerous challenges -- agronomically, economically, and educationally. The practice of organic agriculture on a large scale requires support from research institutions dedicated to agroecological methods of fertility and pest management, a strong extension system, and a committed public. But it is time to put to rest the debate about whether or not organic agriculture can make a substantial contribution to the food supply. It can, both locally and globally. The debate should shift to how to allocate more resources for research on agroecological methods of food production and how to enhance the incentives for farmers and consumers to engage in a more sustainable production system. Finally, production methods are but one component of a sustainable food system. The economic viability of farming methods, land tenure for farmers, accessibility of markets, availability of water, trends in food consumption, and alleviation of poverty are essential to the assessment and promotion of a sustainable food system.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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