Friday, March 11, 2011

Sustainable Farming: Can it feed the world or not?

First, James McWilliams over at Slate details a recent study on organic farming:
To its credit, organic does quite well in many cases: Sweet potatoes, raspberries, canola, and hay all yielded higher nationally than their conventional counterparts. At the state level, organic squash did better in Oregon than conventional squash; in Arizona and Colorado, organic apples yielded slightly higher than conventional ones; and in Washington state organic peaches beat out conventional varieties. In essence, there's a lot here for organic supporters to cherry-pick as evidence of organic's yield potential (but not cherries, which yielded much lower).

Unfortunately, there's little hope in feeding the world with higher yields of sweet potatoes, peaches, and raspberries—much less hay. What matters most is the performance of basic row-crops. As it turns out, yields were dramatically lower for these commodities: 40 percent lower for winter wheat, 29 percent lower for corn, 34 percent lower for soy, 53 percent lower for spring wheat, 41 percent lower for rice, 58 percent lower for sorghum, and 64 percent lower for millet. Canola was the only row-crop with greater yields with organic farming.
What we might call "secondary staples" did poorly as well. The organic option yielded 28 percent lower for potatoes, 21 percent lower for sweet corn, 38 percent lower for onions, 19 percent lower for snap beans, and 52 percent lower for bell peppers. Perhaps most distressingly, some of the healthiest foods on the planet yielded comparatively poorly under organic production: 42 percent lower for blueberries, 23 percent lower for broccoli, and almost 40 percent lower for tomatoes.
But Mark Bittman just extolled the prospects of sustainable farming in the New York Times:
On Tuesday, Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the Right to Food, presented a report entitled “Agro-ecology and the Right to Food.” (Agro-ecology, he said in a telephone interview last Friday, has “lots” in common with both “sustainable” and “organic.”) Chief among de Schutter’s recommendations is this: “Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just.” (To access a press release about the launch of the report, click here (pdf). To read the full report click here (pdf).)

Agro-ecology, he said, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.” Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks. (Calling it a system is a convention; it’s actually quite anarchic, what with all these starving and overweight people canceling each other out.)
So what gives? Truth is, these two articles are not in conflict. While, as of yet, there is no way we could replace all of the United States food production with organic farming practices... the UN report is about how much we could use what we've learned about sustainable farming practices to improve the farming output in places like Africa. Using "agro-ecology" in such undernourished and under producing areas increases yield, costs much less, and reduces environmental damage.

Pesticide and GMO-free farming is never going to replace high technology farming in the Western World, but it can supplement it... and the advances we make in organic farming can be used to develop low cost/high yield techniques for poor farmers on marginal land.