Feeding the World : Organic Production Delivers – Report by the Soil Association

3/12/2009   Living World Issue 238 Winter 2009 Today’s global population is around six billion people, and our dominant form of  agriculture is… based on using synthetic chemical inputs to produce high-yielding   monocultures. Crops such as corn, wheat and soya are grown to be processed into foods   for people, or for animals that then suffer short, miserable lives in factory conditions,   before being fed to people as well.
  According to population experts, by 2050 there will be nine billion of us. If our   government-agreed target on greenhouse gas (GHG) is to be met, we will also have cut   emissions by 80%. Oil and phosphate supplies, on which much modern agriculture is   heavily dependent, will be tow. Climate change will present all kinds of challenges – with   extreme and unpredictable weather events, increased flooding and drought. How can we   meet the challenge of feeding more people in what will undoubtedly be a more   resource-constrained and ‘climate-difficult’ future?
  The current picture
  Farming, food, forestry and land use change are together responsible for a third of total   GHG emissions according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).   Particularly in developed countries, a significant proportion of agricultural GHG   emissions are nitrous oxide (N20), arising from the manufacture and use of artificial   nitrogen fertiliser – N20 is around 300 times more powerful a GHG than CO2. However,   the most significant GHG emissions associated with agriculture come from converting   forests and permanent grassland to cropland, because this releases carbon stored in the   soil.         
  Taking account of carbon stored in soil is vitally important when assessing the   environmental impact of agriculture. Globally our soils are a carbon sink that hold more   than five times as much carbon as all our forests. Organic farming, with its reliance on   pasture rotation, grazing manure and compost to build fertility, generally stores more soil   organic matter (and therefore carbon) than intensive farming, with its reliance on   synthetic fertiliser. But because intensive systems currently dominate global systems, our   soil is not sequestering as much carbon as it easil, could – Professor Pete Smith from the   University of Aberdeen, who lead the agriculture work for the IPCC, estimates that better   soil management could take around 4,000 million tons of CO2 out the atmosphere; a ‘no   brainer’ he says in terms of trying to cut our GHG emissions.
  Historically, the environmental cost of intensive agriculture has been justified by the high   yields that such systems have produced. The policy of maximising food production has its   origins in the food shortages caused by World War II. And modern methods do produce a   lot of food; global  increased yields have seen food production more than double since   1950 – all be it by an increasing inefficient use of non-renewable resources (oil at mineral   phosphates, for example), and at huge cocost to our soil, water, wildlife and environment.
  The problem is that much of this food has been produced in the developed world, with the   help of subsidy that has the effect of reducing global prices – sometimes below the cost of   production. Exporting these subsidised surpluses has frequently had the effect of making   it impossible for farmers in developing countries to sell what they produce at a reasonable   price. Intensive farming has gone hand in hand with increased control of the food chain   by a smaller number of large companies (although many thriving small and artisan   producers are increasingly bucking this trend).
  Farmers in the global South haven’t been able to compete on price, so have been   encouraged, often through active development policy, to rely on growing cash-crops for   export in order to earn enough to buy the food they need to eat. Today, while there is   more than enough food in the world to feed us all comfortably, around one billion people   in the developing world are going hungry each day.
  Radical change?
  If change to our food and farming systems is needed in the wake of the ‘perfect storm of   population growth, climate change, diet related ill-health and diminishing resources, what   should it look like? The bio-tech and agribusiness sectors have not been slow to suggest   that even more intensification of agriculture, based on new technology such as genetic   modification (GM), is the only way to guarantee higher yields.
  The aphorism that only GM and high-input farming can drive high-yields is accepted by   many policy makers. However, this assumption isn’t backed up by evidence. In recent   years several studies have started to examine how yields in organic and low-input systems   compare to intensive systems of farming. In 2006 a paper by Catherine Badgley found   that, while yields from organic systems in temperate regions were typically 9% less than   in non-organic systems, in. tropical regions, organic agriculture can increase yields by   over 50%, with the possibility of more than doubling the production of some types of   food. A report in 2006, by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD),   based on 114 studies in Africa, found that organic agriculture could increase yields by up   to 116% – more than double.
  Combined with ecological, environmental and social benefits, the report was clear that   these yields meant organic agriculture in the developing world could guarantee both food   supply and equitable development.
  This evidence is backed by Gathuru Mburu, the director of the Institute for Culture and   Ecology (ICE) in Kenya, who has been working with communities in the Lari Division of   central Kenya to move away from farming tea for export, and towards using indigenous   seeds and plant varieties to organically farm food for consumption. ‘The community was   growing tea, in order to sell it and then buy food,’ Mburu explains. ‘But they weren’t   receiving enough income to cover their costs, because the price was controlled by the   global market. We’ve encouraged them to take control by growing food to eat.’ In 18   months since they started the project, the 100 or so households have produced enough   surplus to sell at the local market; this in a time when 10 million Kenyans are heading   towards famine brought on by the failure of the (intensively farmed, non-indigenous)   maize crop.
  Challenges ahead
  Organic systems of agriculture release less harmful greenhouse gases, use less fossil-fuel,   sequester more carbon and can double yields in the developing world. So why isn’t the   government promoting organic as a key plank of development policy? There are both   short-term and long-term barriers to this happening.
  In the short-term, farmers in the global South may lack the skills and knowledge to   immediately adopt organic farming. They certainly suffer from limited infrastructural   support and practical ‘routes to market’ for their crops. In some instances farmers may feel   they have no other options than the latest fertiliser, pesticide or GM seed that is being   offered to them.
  If farmers need to make radical changes they need clear positive signals and support from   national governments. Currently there is no clear agreed vision for where global   agriculture has got to go – this is something we desperately need to change.
  In the longer-term, we need to overcome the barriers of money and powerful vested interests;   corporations who stand to profit from the sales of chemicals and patented seeds;   governments that prioritise free trade to the exclusion of food security; and indeed   consumers who are more interested in cheap food today than potential ecological disaster   tomorrow. We need a new politics of food that encourages a balance between increasing   local sufficiency and trade; encourages sustainable, ecological farming techniques and   encourages local, seasonal diets rather than’on demand’ food regardless of time of year.   That is a big, but necessary, change if the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change, diet-related   ill-health, resource depletion and increasing population is to be met.

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