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Organic Farming Will Not Solve the Crisis in Food Production

The Future on a Plate: Organic Farming Will Not Solve the Crisis in Food

- Henry Gee, The Guardian: Online, August 08, 2002 

Pick up any recent newspaper and check the headlines. Britons get fatter,
while famine looms over Africa - but should Zimbabweans accept genetically
modified (GM) crops as aid? British fishermen face quotas as North Sea cod
has its chips - while organic farmers chafe under what they perceive to be
unfair competition. And the smoke from the pyre of the livestock industry
devastated by foot and mouth hangs balefully over all. You don't have to
look far to realise that food is news.

But there's nothing new. Food has been news since the first farmers
harvested wild wheat in the Middle East 10000 years ago, turning mankind
into a diseased, overcrowded domestic animal.

As Jared Diamond, of the University of California, Los Angeles, writes in
today's Nature - in one of a selection of articles about the future of
food - if our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew what they were getting into,
they would not have started.

We like to think we've learned the lessons of history. This would be just
as well, given that the decisions we make now - as a nation and as a
planet - will affect our descendants for millennia to come. When the fluff
of headlines is swept away, two big themes emerge - sustainability and
population. The global population is likely to top 10 billion in the next
century. Our task is to feed these mouths, as well as the ones already
here, while coping with the fact that we have nowhere left to grow things.

We must squeeze greater yield out of the same patch of ground while trying
to leave the plot in a reasonable state for descendants. We've been here
before. After the second world war, doom-mongers threatened that we'd all
starve by the 1970s. Instead, scientists averted the crisis by creating
new breeds of high-yield cereal crops.

This "Green Revolution" has been swamped by its success - by leaving an
ever larger population with greater aspirations towards consumption and
wealth. We need to continually pull the rabbit out of the hat. GM
technology is just one of many strategies in a diverse palette of
techniques that New Macdonald will adopt on his small, but efficient,
patch. Others include growing several varieties of grain at once (proven
to reduce pests); micro-management of irrigation (thus conserving scarce
water) and sowing seed without ploughing up the field first (conserving
biodiversity and minimising soil run-off). New Macdonald will grow trees
as a carbon sink, perhaps have a fishpond and will have to grow a few
houses to meet increasing demand.

But it is GM that grabs the headlines. Why? According to Rosie Hails, of
the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxford, it is a function of
land use and how we perceive our environment. In crowded Europe, where
people live "inside their national parks", GM crops and their perceived
environmental risks have become an obsession. It is of less concern in
America, where more space means a more demarcated kind of land use. In the
developing world, in contrast, GM crops are proving themselves.

According to Scott Rozelle, of the University of California at Davis, and
his colleagues, Chinese scientists have 15 GM crops either commercialised
or in trials, ranging from wheat and maize to papaya, peanuts and
petunias. Cotton that carries a bacterial gene for a poison that kills
cotton bollworm - a major pest - means that a subsistence farmer working a
hectare of ground can boost his income by a quarter, cut costs by a third
and slash pesticide use by three quarters. Such statistics tend to show up
protests against GM crops as indulgences affordable only by those who
already have more than enough to eat.

Sustainability issues are illustrated most starkly in two kinds of food
production which, at first sight, seem poles apart - fishing and organic
farming. As Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver,
and colleagues show, fishing represents the last hunter- gatherer
industry. Hunting deer and bison by clear cutting forests and then
blasting them out with heavy artillery is a patently ridiculous idea, but
modern industrial fishing does much the same to the sea. Not surprisingly,
world fisheries are in decline. Aquaculture - fish farming - has been
proposed as a remedy, but farmed fish tend to consume more fish protein
than they yield, so the exercise is inherently unsustainable. Farmed
smoked salmon is a luxury only available in a diversified system of
agriculture in which well-fed people are happy to pay high prices for

Organic farming is much the same kind of exercise. In the quest for
sustainability, organic farming will lose, because it cannot be relied on
to match the yields from intensive agriculture if practised on a large
scale - whatever the perceived benefits. Organic farming only works if it
is subsidised or marketed as a boutique product.

Some may promote organic farming as a panacea - but they would have
history against them. Mankind stumbled across agriculture more or less
simultaneously in several parts of the world, but most successfully in the
"Fertile Crescent", the home of what are still the world's most valuable
domestic plant and animal species, including sheep, cattle, barley and
wheat. The Fertile Crescent is a strip of land stretching from the Jordan
Valley, across Syria and parts of Turkey and Iran, into the
Tigris-Euphrates drainage, and Iraq. It doesn't look fertile any more, and
the reason is simple - agriculture.

After 10 millennia of tillage, says Diamond, "human societies of the
Fertile Crescent inadvertently committed slow ecological suicide in a zone
of low rainfall prone to deforestation, soil erosion and salinisation".
Before artificial pesticides and fertilisers, organic farming was the only
game in town. When practised on a scale sufficient to feed the world's
first empires, the effort could not be sustained and the result was a
Henry Gee is a senior editor with Nature