Can organic farming feed the world?

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Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is persuasive that today’s industrialized agriculture model and the resulting Western diet has led to an American population that is overfed but undernourished, eating more calories than ever before (on average 300 more per day than in 1985) and showing alarming rates of diet-related disease including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer. [1]

In better understanding the causes of this trend, I’m troubled by the influence of food marketers and the rise of what Pollan calls ‘food-like’ products that deliver calories but limited nutrition. That said, I’m more concerned about what’s taken place in the global farming system since the introduction of synthetic fertilizers, and the dynamic that Pollan terms ‘nutritional inflation.’ As an individual, I can avoid products like Cheetohs and Pop-Tarts and opt for whole fruits and vegetables in my diet—but what do I do if that produce has been grown in compromised, nutrient-poor soil? Pollan cites research by The Organic Center demonstrating that conventional farming methods designed to increase crop yields have over time also resulted in the degradation of nutritional quality—and the delivery of fewer essential nutrients per calorie. The apple I’m eating today is likely less nutritious than one I ate thirty years ago, though as a consumer my mental model of its overall health benefit hasn’t changed.

I want to understand how to protect and improve the quality of our food supply and the overall system in which they’re grown. But that leaves open an issue that Pollan doesn’t address: Industrial farming in the US and later the Green Revolution in developing countries emerged as responses to lack of food access: either issues of affordability or food scarcity, problems that have yet been solved in the 21st century. Today, despite global yields sufficient to feed every man, woman, and child on the planet, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 815 million people were undernourished in 2016. Admittedly, embedded in these numbers are the very same overfed Americans Pollan references. In other cases the numbers reflect not issues of crop yield but challenges related to conflict or food distribution (access versus availability). Nevertheless, the FAO anticipates the need to increase food production by fifty percent by 2050 if the world hopes to achieve zero hunger. Can organic farming and permaculture keep up?

One question worth exploring is whether the reduced yield of organic farming can actually be offset by higher nutrient levels.  In other words, extrapolating from Pollan’s argument, could smaller amounts of more nutritious food not only provide adequate supply but also allow us to cultivate sustainably? The inverse question is of course also pertinent: If we don’t move to organic methods, will conventional, industrial farming deplete the earth to such an extent that our ability to produce food is tapped out?

In the transition, is there any middle ground in which more judicious use of conventional methods could be rendered ecologically friendly (or friendlier), and used in tandem with organic methods to balance trade-offs between yield, nutrition, and sustainability—especially in ‘hunger zones’ of the developing world?

Pollan’s book falls short of investigating these questions. Moreover, his eating guidelines, while valuable, are insufficient to address the forces driving global demand for food and ever-increasing crop yield. Moving forward, it will be important for governments, NGOs, and concerned citizens to examine the economic implications—both its advantages and disadvantages—of shifting from industrial farming and incentivizing (even subsidizing) local, organic agriculture or other innovative methods that balance quantity with quality. We will also need to look at the ways in which other factors impacting food access—from trade policy, regulation, and subsidies to food storage and distribution infrastructure—affect our global system. A massive, holistic reform effort is needed if our goal is to not just feed but nourish every person on the planet.

[1] Pollan, Michael. (2008). In defense of food: an eater’s manifesto. New York: Penguin Press.


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