Organic can feed the world

by Maria Rodale

This article was originally published in September 2010

You probably buy organic food because you believe it’s better for your health and the environment but you also may have heard criticism that “organic cannot feed the world.”

Biotech and chemical companies have spent billions of dollars trying to make us think that synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are necessary to feed a growing population. But science indicates otherwise.

There’s clear and conclusive scientific data showing organic agriculture is key not only to solving global hunger but also to curbing global warming, promoting public health, revitalizing farming communities, and restoring the environment.

If you do just one thing, make just one conscious choice that can change the world, go organic.

The truth about organic farming

The websites of chemical companies, such as Monsanto, Syngenta and a handful of others that largely control global seed and pesticide production, would have us believe that without GMOs and chemical “crop protection,” there will be mass starvation and environmental destruction.

“The world’s population is growing,” says Monsanto, the world’s largest seed and pesticide company, on its website. “To keep up with production farmers will have to produce more food in the next 50 years than in the last 10,000 years combined.”

Syngenta, another seed and pesticide giant, boasts, “We develop new, higher yielding seeds and better ways to protect crops from insects, weeds and disease.”

The idea that organic farms yield less also comes from chemical companies, who have tested their products on degraded and damaged soil, and barred independent research. Research from the Rodale Institute, however, shows that once soil is restored organically, organic crop yields are comparable to the latest chemical yields.

That’s just one finding from a long-running revolutionary research project started in 1981 at the Rodale Institute called the Farm System Trial (FST). The project began by studying the effects of transitioning a farm from chemical to organic methods.

At that time, no university or business would conduct scientific research on organic farming; it was viewed as an inefficient, fringe method of farming. Since then, the FST has produced numerous valuable findings that discredit this belief.

The FST research found that crop yields from organic and synthetic/chemical farms are similar in years of average precipitation.

It also found that organic farm yields are higher than those of chemical farms during droughts and floods, due to stronger root systems in organic plants, and better moisture retention in the soil, which prevents runoff and erosion.

The FST data also showed that organic production requires 30 percent less energy than chemical production when growing corn and soybeans, that organic farms create jobs because labor inputs are approximately 15 percent higher, and that the net economic return for organic crops is equal to or higher than that for chemically produced crops because upfront costs are lower.

The most surprising FST finding of all has been that organically farmed soil stores a lot of carbon — so much, in fact, that if all the cultivated land in the world were farmed organically it would immediately reduce our climate crisis significantly. Organic farming can pull, on an annual basis, thousands of pounds of carbon dioxide per acre right out of the air and keep it in the soil, adding to its carbon stores year after year.

Conversely, soil farmed using synthetic/chemical methods has very little ability to keep or build vital supplies of carbon in the soil. Switching to all organic food production is the single most critical (and doable) action we can take right now to stop our climate crisis.

Global research also supports these findings. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), with $12 million in funding from the World Bank and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, was an unprecedented survey of agriculture around the world designed to determine the best solutions for feeding the world. More than 400 scientists and 58 countries participated in the proceedings and released a report in 2008, unequivocally recommending a return to traditional, natural farming methods (away from GMOs and chemicals).

Despite the propaganda churned out by biotech and chemical companies, organic farming is the only way to feed the world. Chemicals are not necessary to grow food. Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs are necessary only to generate large profits for businesses and to dispose of toxic industrial wastes.

Historically, all agriculture was organic. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we used agriculture as a dumping ground for the enormous quantities of chemical waste that had accumulated.

Transferring our toxic agricultural systems to other countries is sure to bring about a global environmental collapse. The energy required, the toxicity of the chemicals, and the degradation of the soil will be fatal. Instead, we need to export the knowledge we have gained about successful modern organic farming and help others adapt these practices.

Debunking the myths

If the research is so clear, why haven’t more farmers transitioned to organic?

The chemical farmers I’ve interviewed truly believe they need to increase production because they are on a patriotic mission to feed the world. Chemical and biotech companies spend billions of dollars each year to drive this message home. Yet the problem isn’t food scarcity — it’s too much food — but fear of famine sure sells chemicals. Our ability to feed ourselves, in fact, is less about production ability and more about politics and instability.

“The world’s worst famines are not caused by crop failure; they are caused by faulty political systems that prevent the market from correcting itself,” writes Charles Wheelen in his book, “Naked Economics.” “Relatively minor agricultural disturbances become catastrophes because imports are not allowed, or prices are not allowed to rise, or farmers are not allowed to grow alternative crops, or politics in some other way interferes with the market’s normal ability to correct itself.”

The recent global recession greatly increased hunger around the world. A study commissioned by the United Nations concluded that the quantity of food was not the cause — the price of food and political instability were.

Volatile fuel prices and the increased demand for biofuels are among the biggest factors. They led to soaring food prices in 2008 (as much as 24 percent higher than 2007), causing riots in more than 30 countries. (See Are biofuels fueling hunger?, Sound Consumer, September 2010)

Beyond feeding the world

The benefits of organic extend far beyond simply being the most effective way to feed the world and mitigate global warming. Organic also is essential for the health of consumers and the environment.

A conservative estimate of current pesticide use in American agriculture is about 1.2 billion pounds a year — about 4 pounds for every person. More than 80,000 new chemical compounds have been introduced since WWII. Many of them are used in agriculture.

Traces of these chemicals can be detected in virtually each and every one of us, yet only half the compounds have been tested, even minimally, and less than 20 percent have been tested for their effects on fetal nervous systems. At least 75 percent of the manufactured chemical compounds that have been tested are known to cause cancer and are toxic to the human brain.

Research links agricultural chemicals and GMOs to asthma, allergies, autism, ADHD, cancer, diabetes, infertility, childhood leukemia, obesity, organ failure, accelerated aging, Parkinson’s disease, genital malformations and intestinal damage. Many researchers have found that there is no such thing as a “safe” dose of these chemicals; smaller doses can be just as harmful as high doses.

The effects of chemical agriculture on the environment are equally damaging. Sixty percent of the fresh water in the United States is used for agricultural purposes. When it’s used for chemical agriculture, all those chemicals leach through the soil and into the waterways and wells to poison our drinking water, our rivers and streams, our bays and oceans, and, ultimately, all of us.

It has been estimated that it would take an immediate 45 percent reduction in the amount of agricultural chemicals applied to our soils to have any impact at all on slowing the growth of the dead zones in our coastal waters. Agricultural chemicals currently account for approximately two-thirds of all water pollution.

Where do we go from here?

Without government policies that keep chemically produced food artificially cheap, organic food would cost less than chemical food — far less. Yet in Congress’ effort to “protect jobs” (mainly at chemical companies) and American farmers, it has put farmers on an economic treadmill. By providing payment incentives to keep growing crops, such as corn and soybeans, chemically, it’s challenging to switch to organic or grow other crops.

Government policies encourage the use of GMOs and chemicals, put farmers around the world out of business by lowering export prices, and teach farmers how to work a system that is dysfunctional rather than how to become better farmers, creating a sense of entitlement and codependency that is hard to escape.

Our government needs to turn its policies upside-down and start giving tax breaks to those people and companies that are benefiting people and the planet and finding positive solutions to our food, farming, energy and climate problems. We need to encourage farmers to transition to organic as quickly as possible. We need to reorient the incentives so that the prices of organic foods and agricultural fibers reflect their real costs and are affordable.

We consumers have an important role to play, too. We must demand organic and we must unite. A unified voice is precisely what the environmental/organic movement lacks. When foodies sing the praises of local food sources and don’t mention organic, chemical companies are laughing all the way to the bank.

We still have time to heal the planet, feed the world, and keep us all safe. Soil can regenerate. People who eat organic foods reduce their pesticide intake by as much as 90 percent.

Buy organic food. Stop using chemicals and start supporting organic farmers. No other single choice you can make to improve the health of your family and the planet will have greater repercussions for our future.

This article is excerpted from Maria Rodale’s newest book, “Organic Manifesto.” She is chief executive officer of Rodale Inc. and the granddaughter of J.I. Rodale, founder of the Rodale Institute.

Also in this issue

Are biofuels fueling hunger?

Once touted as a panacea for America’s energy ills, biofuels now are charged with jacking up food prices, felling rainforests, boosting greenhouse gases, culling biodiversity, and deepening hunger in food-insecure nations.

Your co-op, September 2010

Fall member meeting, Upcoming Talk to the Board opportunities, Board report, and more

Letters to the editor, September 2010

Customer service, Giving thanks, Baked goods “too sweet”, and more