Can ‘organic’ feed us all?


Having experienced firsthand the waste, power abuse and nepotism that malign the United Nations from within, I am not usually a fan of its conferences.

I am, however, a big fan of organic produce and composting, so my interest was piqued earlier this month by news that the International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security was being held in Rome, in connection with a meeting of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Committee on Food Security.

More on composting later. First, I have to confess my delight at seeing organic farming attracting global attention as more than just an expensive predilection of guilt-driven urban greenies.

Besides helping to feed the world’s mushrooming population, it has been confirmed that organic agriculture can offer a harvest of benefits, including safer food, less exposure of farmers to toxic chemicals, less use of costly fertilizers, more absorption and sequestration of carbon dioxide, and improved soil quality for future generations.

This comes as very good news to my family, since we buy organic and low-chemical foods whenever possible. While some shoppers go out of their way to find the cheapest produce available, we have the opposite affliction. We’ll walk twice as far and, if necessary, pay twice as much, for organic products.

No, we can’t be sure that the foods we buy are truly organic, nor do we believe that an “organic” label offers a magic potion for health and longevity. But we do believe that organic farming is the only approach to agriculture that can be truly sustainable over the long term.

We also believe that the best way for lowly consumers like us to bring about change is to vote with our cash. If we, and millions of like-minded people buy more organic produce, stores will stock more of those products and, in turn, more farmers will consider switching to soil- and health-friendly agricultural methods.

Apparently we’re not the only ones spending more to get less chemicals.

“In 2006, the organic market was estimated at nearly $40 billion (2 percent of food retails) and is expected to reach $70 billion in 2012,” according to the conference report released following the Rome meeting.

The FAO defines organic agriculture as “a holistic production management system that avoids use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms, minimizes pollution of air, soil and water, and optimizes the health and productivity of interdependent communities of plants, animals and people.”

Consider the paradoxes

So what’s there not to like?

Unfortunately, most of the industrial farming systems that dominate agriculture worldwide promote practices that do just the opposite. And with the world’s population expected to increase from today’s 6.2 billion to 9 billion by 2050, we’re going to need a lot more food produced in a much more environmentally sustainable way.

The purpose of the Rome meeting was to consider the role organic agriculture is playing, and can play, in global food production, and to consider the paradoxes that now stand in the way of achieving global food security.

According to the conference report, our global food supply is sufficient to feed us all, and yet 850 million people still go hungry. In addition, even as the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has increased, grain productivity has declined. The costs of these agricultural inputs have risen as well, but the prices farmers get for their commodities continue to drop.

The report also notes that despite an abundance of easily accessible information on health and eating, nutrition-related diseases are increasing.

But perhaps the most challenging paradox is that “industrialized food systems have environmental and social costs that threaten food security, e.g., occupational deaths through pesticide poisoning, farmers’ suicides due to debts, and loss of millions of jobs in rural areas,” according to the report.

Concern over these challenges has now spread worldwide. The Rome meeting attracted 350 participants from more than 80 countries, as well as representatives from 15 international nongovernmental organizations, 30 national NGOs, 24 research institutions, 31 universities, eight private companies and nine farmer associations.

Reading through the issue papers that came out of the meeting (available at: www.fao.org) it is clear that today’s mass-production, industrial agriculture focuses too much on quantity and too little on quality. Time to bring farming back to the Earth.

“Current food models are creating problems for the future and the new environmental and macro-economic challenges will mostly hurt vulnerable populations,” warns the report, adding that organic management can mitigate some of these problems, including climate change and industrialized food systems.

Regarding the most vulnerable, the report notes that because organic agriculture requires 30 percent more labor input per hectare, organic management offers greater employment opportunities than industrial approaches to agriculture. It also helps to alleviate poverty by contributing to rural development and revitalization, and by generating more equitable trade, through fairer wages and non-exploitative work that increases local people’s control over local resources.

Organically managed farms also offer greater environmental sustainability. More careful husbandry of the soil means less erosion, which means less carbon is lost into the atmosphere. “The carbon sequestration efficiency of organic systems in temperate climates is almost double compared to conventional ones, when the total of above and below ground biomass of cash and catch crops and weeds is calculated,” according to one of the issue reports.

Another major advantage of organic agriculture is that fossil-fuel-based nitrogen fertilizers are not used. In contrast, a nonorganic, 100-hectare stockless arable farm in the United Kingdom “consumes 17,000 liters of fossil fuel annually through fertilizer inputs,” notes the same report.

By not using chemicals, organic farming also increases water security, ensuring better-quality drinking water from both ground and surface sources. As well, organic management reduces the need for irrigation, because organic matter in soil helps retain water.

In addition, since organic farming depends on crop rotation and the use of diverse species, it plays a key role in conserving a broader range of plant species (or agrobiodiversity), for future generations.

No doubt petrochemical companies and major agro-business firms will insist it isn’t possible for organic farming to produce enough food to feed the world. But models cited at the conference suggest otherwise. “Organic agriculture has the potential to secure a global food supply, just as conventional agriculture does today, but with reduced environmental impact,” the report maintains.

As the report notes, however, the crux of the issue is political will.

Unless governments worldwide make a concerted effort to subsidize and educate farmers, multinational agrobusiness firms will continue to seduce farmers into dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Given the latter, a few corporations will be the richer, but our air, water and soil, and our rural communities and meals, will be all the poorer.

Plastic and misplaced silverware

Unfortunately, I’m not (yet!) a farmer, so for now I’ll continue to vote with my wallet.

But being a big fan of Earth, there is one other thing I can do: I can compost.

Composting is a tangible thing I can do to reduce garbage and recycle, and it’s one of the most satisfying eco-efforts available, because it’s 100-percent effective: Everything you put in the compost, except bits of plastic and misplaced silverware, becomes useful output.

Until recently, though, we lived for two years in a place where we couldn’t compost, and each garbage day I felt twinges of guilt and frustration, seeing perfectly good compost go out with the “burnable rubbish,” as kitchen waste is classified here in Japan.

Then last month we moved to a place with a small garden. Hallelujah!

One of the first things I did was to set a compost bucket into the ground next to the back wall. Now, instead of sending off several kilos of kitchen waste each week to be incinerated, we pass it all to the worms, molds and microbes that will, within a year, turn our coffee grounds and fruit skins into rich, black soil.

All we need now is a coffee bush and an apple tree, and we’ll have a zero-waste breakfast loop.