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Can Organic Feed the World?

by Carol Trauner

It’s that look again. That look, given sympathetically by some, patronizingly by others, as they ask your least favorite question: "Sure, organic is a nice idea, but can it feed the world?" Why, you think, does organic agriculture have to prove that it can feed the world when conventional agriculture is busily growing the raw materials for ethanol and corn-based plastic? Maybe you grit your teeth and wonder why people are hungry, even in this country, if conventional agriculture does such a bang-up job of feeding the world. But is this a fair reaction to the person asking the question, and, perhaps more importantly, is this fair to the organic farmers? Are we so afraid to think about it that we're overlooking some of organic agriculture's strongest selling points?

Green Revolution

When we talk about "modern agriculture," we're inevitably talking about the Green Revolution, the term to describe the "revolution" in world food production in the 1960s. The term was crafted in 1968 by William Gaud, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who drew a rhetorical link between the vast technological changes in agriculture and the "Red Revolution" of the Soviets and the "White Revolution" of Iran, perhaps in reference to the redistribution of land which accompanied both.

This modern approach used newly developed high-yield crop varieties in combination with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, watered by intensive irrigation, which was frequently made possible through massive dams and expensive infrastructure. It was intended to solve the problem of hunger by dramatically increasing crop yields without increasing cropland and converting every square inch of forest to cropland. Without question, the Green Revolution succeeded at increasing yields—wheat production in India and Pakistan nearly doubled in the 1960s and production of cereal grains in Asia more than doubled.

Fears about worldwide hunger because of a shortage of food were largely put to rest. The reality of worldwide hunger, however, was not. The first step in preventing hunger surely is producing enough food, but it’s just as important to get that food into the hands of the hungry. Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the areas most in need, was largely untouched by the Green Revolution because of its poverty, lack of rainfall or irrigation resources, with land and climate illsuited to the type of agriculture encouraged by the new approaches.1

The Green Revolution relied heavily on synthetic chemicals and irrigation to boost crop yields dramatically. However, these methods have diminishing returns in the long run, and ultimately lead to soil degradation. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that 24 million acres of cropland are abandoned each year due to soil erosion, and that a further 24 million acres are damaged by salinization, a problem with excessive salts that is frequently the result of poor irrigation and drainage.2 Water for irrigation is already limited, in high demand for competing uses such as drinking water, and expensive or inaccessible for many small farmers. For those farmers who do not have or will lose access to irrigation water in coming years, conventional farming methods requiring irrigation will not be possible.

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