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Pundit’s Mailbag — If Wishes Were Horses, Then Beggars Would Ride — Wishing For A Better Way To Feed The Planet

Our piece, Organics, Crop Yields And Feeding The World, brought many responses including this letter from one active in the organic industry.

I think the most efficient way to respond to this article is to offer this link which debunks the idea that GMOs and large scale agriculture are the answer to feeding the world’s population: How to Feed 7 billion of Us Without ruining the Planet.

I’ve been eating organic food since the 1970’s and work for a company which has seen rapid growth in its fourteen year history.  Great civilizations such as the Romans, Mayans and even our own great nation, during the “dustbowl” years, have come to decline and/or extinction simply by losing topsoil, often by mono-crop farming which strips vital nutrients from the ground.   One of the most important aspects of organic farming has to do with the composition of that precious and often overlooked item — dirt.

If we do not revisit how and why we grow food (i.e., for consumption by cows in feedlots, for production of by-products for unhealthy processed foods such as High Fructose Corn Syrup, or for processing into ethanol) and how and what we consume, there will be no answer to feeding 7 billion mouths.

—Ronni Blumenthal, Vice President of Administration
Global Organic Specialty Source
Sarasota, Florida

Ronni is passionate and engaged, and so we appreciate her letter. Interesting enough, Steve Savage is also very concerned about soil. He has developed an intriguing idea that the problem is closely related to the fact that much cropland is leased rather than owned by farmers. You can see his thoughts here.

Although theoretically, property owners have an incentive to only lease to people who will preserve their asset, the information costs of doing so may be prohibitively expensive. If so, his focus may be right on target. If a Libertarian is told that fishermen are exhausting the fish in the lake, his answer would be to give ownership of the lake to someone who will then have a strong interest in sustaining its fish stocks.

Some of Ronni’s pleas, though passionate, don’t seem supported by the law. For example, monocultures may be bad, but the national organic standards don’t block them.

When we turned to the article with which she linked, we did so with enthusiasm, but confess that we found it less than helpful. Here is the “to-do list” that will let us feed 7 billion people without ruining the planet:

On the bright side, Foley’s team of researchers concluded that we can indeed produce enough food and do so in a way that both minimizes environmental and climate damage while treating water as the precious resource it is. We will, however, have to make a few adjustments to our approach to agriculture. The to-do list is surprisingly short:

• Close agricultural “yield gaps” — the difference between the most and least productive regions — while minimizing farming’s environmental footprint

• Stop agricultural expansion into sensitive areas, such as rainforests

• Stop wasting so much food

• Eat less meat and put less food (i.e. ethanol) into our gas tanks.

The first wish seems to us a contradiction in terms. First everything can’t be made equal because some places are better environments to grow things than other places. To the extent we can equalize things, the reason the top productivity agriculture is that way is because it uses plenty of high technology — GMOs, chemicals, tractors, etc. This clearly would not be acceptable to these authors from an environmental standpoint.

The second wish may be a good idea, but it certainly does nothing to increase food production.

The third wish is admirable. Who, after all, is in favor of “waste”? But from a public policy perspective, what could this possibly mean? How will we stop this?

The fourth wish suggests one useful thing — we have long said that federal subsidies for ethanol made no sense. But the same article explains that only 3% of food goes to “biofuel, fiber and seed production” combined. That includes cotton clothes, etc., so ethanol is only a tiny use of the total worldwide food supply.

As far as “eating less meat” goes, the world seems to be going in the opposite direction. Growing middle classes in formally underdeveloped countries are wanting to eat more meat. This trend will overwhelm even diligent efforts by Americans and Europeans to eat less meat, and there is little sign that the mass of westerners are very interested in dramatically changing their lifestyles either.

To us, all this reads not so much like a solution on how to feed the population of the world as it is a kind of lament that we have to. It is almost as if it those impoverished people in Africa and Asia should just keep practicing subsistence agriculture and not get all uppity and want to have lives like us.

We know Ronni is a very nice person and doesn’t think that way, but the implications of the policies being urged by the author of this article are very close to that.

Many thanks to Ronni Blumenthal and Global Organic Specialty Source for weighing in on this important issue.

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