Organic Agriculture can Feed the World’s Hungry

Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World’s Hungry

A farmer on a farm.

The verdict is in: According to projections released this past fall, the world’s population is expected to hit more than 9.5 billion in 2050, and continue climbing up to 11 billion or more by 2100, if the current trend continues. But as research on world population growth and climate change moves forward, farmers, economists, and policymakers are still struggling to address a major concern: How will the Earth feed all these people? Further, can we do so without destroying the remainder of the planet’s resources?VegeHead200pp

As it turns out, happily, the planet already produces enough food to feed everyone, but the problem of unequal distribution and poverty remains, leading to two of the leading causes of illness across the world: Chronic hunger and obesity.

Scientists and experts of all sorts have weighed in with potential solutions to the ongoing problem of feeding a growing population and ending world hunger. Up until recently, most of these solutions have focused on utilizing conventional agricultural technology to produce more food. Solutions have ranged from embracing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to indoor farming, among other, technology-based fixes. On the flip side, small farmers and organic agricultural methods have hardly been researched, or even considered, because, as previous experts have noted, these farms simply cannot compare to their conventional counterparts when it comes to production. Or can they?

According to recent research conducted by scientists at the University of California Berkeley, small farmers could play an important role in saving world hunger, after all. The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society earlier last month found that when organic farmers utilized certain diversification methods, the yield gap between organic and conventional producers essentially vanished, proving what organic food devotees the world over already suspected — that organic food can help to feed the world. The UC Berkeley study “found relatively small, and potentially overestimated, differences in yield between organic and conventional agriculture, despite historically low rates of investment in organic cropping systems.”

One of the most important merits of organic agriculture on a global scale is that, unlike conventional methods, organic agriculture doesn’t rely on synthetic chemical inputs, and is therefore much easier on the environment than conventional farms. Since agriculture is one of the largest contributors to climate change, the idea that organic agriculture could compete with its conventional counterparts is monumental.

The report notes that while our current, conventional agricultural system is “tremendously productive,” it also “causes many environmental problems, often trading off long- maintenance of ecosystem services for short-term agricultural production.”

The UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) also points out that while experts may have a tendency to ignore the small farmer’s contributions, “the world’s smallholders produce 70 percent of the world’s food on 25 percent of the land.” So while one small farmer may not seem to make much of a difference, the reality is that they absolutely do. And further, because small farmers are often important members of smaller, local communities, they have one of the biggest roles to play in helping to curb world hunger.

Professor Hilal Elver, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, would agree. In her first public speech in September, Elver noted that the focus on small farmers and alternative agricultural models “is critical for future agricultural policies. Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness. This must change. Governments must support small farmers.” According to the UN, 80% of subsidies and 90% of research funding in the European Union goes to supporting conventional industrial agriculture.

Source: Thinkstock

Despite the fact that organic agricultural methods are just now beginning to gain traction as a viable solution to world hunger and climate change, in actuality the UC Berkeley’s study isn’tthe first to suggest that the “yield gap” between conventional and organic agriculture may be much smaller than previously thought, although the study has found new clues as to whyorganic agriculture has historically been less productive.

The study notes that agroecology, more so than simply “organic” practices are among the key differences which help to narrow the “yield gap” between conventional and organic farming. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “agroecology” has been defined by the UC Berkeley as “a scientific discipline that uses ecological theory to study, design, manage, and evaluate agricultural systems that are productive but also resource conserving.” Organic agriculture,notes FoodFirst, an activist group advocating for a sustainable food system, isn’t inherently synonymous with agroecological methods of farming, but, in the same way that a rectangle isn’t always a square, many organic farms utilize agroecological methods and philosophies as a sort of natural extension or byproduct of their organic practices.

Agroecology isn’t a new philosophy of farming, though it is just beginning to find greater support and traction amongst the scientific (and political) community. Agroecology, the report explains, is “a traditional way of using farming methods that are less resource oriented, and which work in harmony with society.” The study adds that “further investment in agroecological research has the potential to improve productivity of sustainable agricultural methods to equal or better conventional yields.”

fresh fruits and vegetables

fresh fruits and vegetables

In September, the UN’s FAO launched a new agroecology initiative, calling on governments to invest more money on researching alternative agricultural models, such as agroecological ones. In a speech, Dr. David Fig, who serves on the board of Biowatch South Africa said, “we are being far too kind to industrialized agriculture. The private sector has endorsed it, but it has failed to feed the world, it has contributed to major environmental contamination and misuse of natural resources. It’s time we switched more attention, public funds, and policy measures to agroecology, to replace the old model as soon as possible.”

There are proponents of both conventional agricultural and agroecological solutions to world hunger and climate change within the food systems community, but the two camps approach the planet’s problems in very different ways. According to FoodFirst, one of the profound benefits of agroecological methods is that “unlike genetically engineered crops (GMOs) which attempt to build resilience into the genomes of specific cultivars one trait at a time, agroecology strengthens the resilience of the entire ecosystem.”

The UC Berkeley study concurs, noting that it found the most effective management practices for increasing yields were practices “that diversify crop fields in space or over time,” such as “multi-cropping and crop rotations,” though the study also found that “these results suggest that polyculture and crop rotations increase yields in both organic and conventional cropping systems” (emphasis added).

Overall, the UC Berkeley study is reason for optimism; more and more experts seem united in viewing the problems inherent in today’s agricultural systems as obstacles with plausible and achievable solutions, and agroecology seems like a viable way forward for future research. FAO scientists recently described agroecology as a “well-grounded science, a set of time-tested agronomic practices and, when embedded in sound socio-political institutions the most promising pathway for achieving sustainable food production.”

It seems, in other words, that in order to solve today’s food crisis, we may need to look to the past, as well as into the future, embracing both traditional, ecosystem-conscious methods, as well as investing in new research and breeding for tomorrow’s farms.

The Truth About Poor People’s Eating Habits

The Truth About Poor People’s Eating Habits

Yet more anti-poor propaganda.

In a country where it is a national pastime to find new ways to blame poor people for the crime of being poor, even food choice becomes a site of class warfare. Consider the popularized image of the low-income family who subsists on a steady diet of fast food; each burger, fry and milkshake they consume regarded as yet more evidence of bad decision-making. It’s one of those ideas now deeply embedded in our poverty-pathologizing culture, the kind of untested “fact” politicians reference to ensure we remain “them” and “us,” even at the dinner table. The trouble is, it simply isn’t true.

A recent Centers for Disease Control survey of 5,000 American children and adolescents age 2 to 19 offers proof that poor people not only don’t consume more fast food than those with higher incomes, they actually consume slightly less. The study, which looked at figures from 2011-’12, found that “no significant difference was seen by poverty status in the average daily percentage of calories consumed from fast food among children and adolescents aged 2 to 19.” In fact, the poorest children surveyed got the least amount of their daily calorie intake from fast food, at just 11.5 percent. That number rose to 13 percent for their more affluent peers.

If anything, the takeaway from the study is that American kids across the board are eating way too much fast food, with “34.3 percent of all children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 consum[ing] fast food on a given day.”

As the Atlantic notes, this isn’t the first study to indicate that the much cited link between poverty and fast food consumption doesn’t really exist. At least, not in numbers any more glaring or worrisome than for other socioeconomic groups. In 2011, researchers from UC Davis noted that people with lower-middle-class incomes — not the poor — ate the most McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Domino’s and the like. “Fast-food restaurant visits rose along with annual household income up to $60,000,” researchers wrote. And a Gallup poll from 2013 found “[t]hose earning the least actually are the least likely to eat fast food weekly — 39% of Americans earning less than $20,000 a year do so.” Conversely, more affluent Americans — “those earning $75,000 a year or more — are more likely to eat [fast food] at least weekly (51%) than are lower-income groups.”

Still, the mythical relationship between poverty and fast-food is used and manipulated, time and time again. In 2014, the Daily Caller — Tucker Carlson’s website — stoked anti-poverty sentiments among its conservative readership with a list of “questionable” items which food stamps can be used, including two fast food restaurants. (“Taco Bell is one of many fast food restaurants that accept EBT cards. Guacamole is extra? Who cares? It’s on the taxpayer.”) Fox’s Boston affiliate, in a piece on its website titled “Should Welfare Recipients be Blocked from Buying Fast Food?” opens with this fine bit of scaremongering: “Massachusetts State welfare recipients have spent a whopping $44,000 worth of Big Macs, Happy Meals and Chicken McNuggets last year in a debit card spending spree.”

But perhaps most troubling is the way this fallacious idea is trotted out when it comes to policy for the poor. Earlier this year, Arizona Senate Republican Kelly Townsend submitted a bill to prohibit the use of food stamps at fast food restaurants. Maine’s Republican governor Paul LePage has been pushing legislation that would keep food stamp recipients from buying “unhealthy” food, whatever that means. In Wisconsin, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, state Rep. Robert Brooks has put forth a bill that would keep food stamp recipients from buying “crab, lobster or other shellfish” — none of which, last I checked, falls under the banner of “junk food.” And Republicans in Missouri are trying to pass a law that would make food stamps invalid for buying “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks” — and unbelievably, “seafood or steak.”

“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards,” Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin, who introduced the bill, told the Washington Post. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”

I don’t for one nanosecond believe Rick Brattin when he says he saw, with his own eyes, EBT card users buying fancy steaks and seafood. I also can hardly believe that Brattin, whose salary is paid with tax revenue, doesn’t see the irony in complaining about anyone doing anything on the “taxpayer’s dime.” However, the one thing I appreciate about Brattin’s words is how they cut to the chase on all this pretend handwringing and faux outrage about how poor people use their food stamps, or what they buy for dinner, or the kind of cellphones they own, or cars they drive, or any of the other nonsense reasons used as justification for taking punitive action. Because let’s just admit that this constant restricting of rights and tightening of resources is absolutely punishment against the poor.

Fundamental to this way of thinking is the idea that being poor is a crime for which one must be humiliated and stigmatized at every possible turn, an offense for which people should be constantly reminded that they both deserve and inherently are less. It perpetuates the dumb and simple idea that the poor are poor because they simply refuse to stop being poor: that they spend their money frivolously and foolishly, and so must be told what to buy and what to eat. It’s an idea that, followed to its logical end, suggests that the poor deserve to be poor. Which is absurd for endless reasons, mainly that it’s straight-up wrong about how poor people use their money.

Talking Points Memo notes “[t]he poor spend nearly double the share that the rich spend on food they cook at home, while the rich spend more on eating out” according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. And a recent Mother Jones article points out that food stamp recipients are more mindful about food than the aforementioned lawmakers would have us know:

[D]ictating what you can buy with food stamps is the kind of thing that only sounds good to people who don’t actually have to survive on a poverty income. No one denies me the occasional candy bar or Coke; why would I feel entitled to exert that kind of control over poor people? And guess what: SNAP recipients already eat more virtuously than the rest of us. A 2008 USDA report found that they are less likely than those with higher incomes to consume at least one serving of sweets or salty snacks per day. More recently, a 2015 USDA study concluded that, adjusting for demographic differences, people who take SNAP benefits don’t consume any more sugary drinks than their low-income peers who aren’t in the program.

There are questions worth investigating based on the CDC study findings. For example, researchers are still trying to understand why the poorest Americans, despite consuming less fast food, are disproportionately obese. (The Food Research and Action Center offers up a number of ideas, from food deserts to unsafe playgrounds that make exercise difficult.) But what it does clear up is the false idea that poverty is somehow uniquely synonymous with fast food. Or that being poor is a simple problem of poor people’s own making.