Food Fight

Seed Debate / by Maywa Montenegro /

Is organic farming an elitist fetish that hampers efforts to stanch global hunger? Or is it the kind of holistic approach we’ll need to produce food on a circumscribed planet? Seed kicks off an Oxford-style debate on global food security and what we mean by "scientific farming."

Food Fight: An Oxford-style debate on sustainable farming

Two experts debate the causes of hunger and the meaning of “sustainable agriculture.”

Late last month, political scientist Robert Paarlberg sparked a small firestorm on the web with an essay in a Foreign Policy taking aim at the organic, local, and slow food movements—a “cause celebré,” according to Paarlberg, that is advocating the “wrong recipe for helping to feed those who need it most.” Touching on topics he has written about at length in two books (Starved for Science and Food Politics), Paarlberg rejected claims that organic foods are either more nutritious or safer to eat, and argued that organic farming could turn out to be environmentally disastrous:

“Less than one percent of American cropland is under organic production. If the other 99 percent were to switch to organic and had to fertilize crops without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, the US cattle population would have to increase roughly fivefold. And because those animals would have to be raised organically on forage crops, much of the land in the lower 48 states would need to be converted to pasture.” An all-organic Europe, he writes, would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland—equal to all of the remaining forest in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark.

Paarlberg’s biggest beef, however, has to do with the developing world, and especially Africa. Elitist foodies in the US and Europe, he believes, are promoting a low-tech approach to agriculture that is effectively undermining African development. “A new line of thinking has emerged that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and linking those farmers to international markets,” he wrote, arguing that such thinking poses a grave threat to global food security—and is all the more absurd considering that Africans already have a de-facto organic food system, where food is purchased and sold locally, uses very little chemical inputs, and is prepared in a “painfully” slow fashion.

“If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming,” Paarlberg wrote. “And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West.”

Not surprisingly, Paarlberg’s piece elicited immediate outcry from the alternative agriculture community. In addition to the flurry of comments on Foreign Policy’s own website, and experts writing extensive critiques on e-mail listservs, there was a formal rebuttal published the following day by Anna Lappé, daughter of the renowned environmental justice activist Frances Moore Lappé and co-founder of the Small Planet Institute.

Lappé’s counter-argument centered on a number of scientific studies indicating that it is indeed possible to feed the world using a variety of organic and agroecological methods of farming. She pointed to a multi-year, multi-disciplinary study by Catherine Badgely and colleagues at the University of Michigan, which concluded that a hypothetical worldwide alternative agriculture system could produce between 95 and 157 percent of the calories presently produced—without agricultural expansion and with no net increased use of resources. Researchers at the University of Essex who analyzed 287 projects in 57 countries found similar improvements with a transition to less resource-intensive agriculture. And the seminal IAASTD report—engaging 400 scientists and development experts from 80 nations over a period of four years—also determined that “resource-extractive industrial agriculture is risky and unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy, and water crises.”

At Seed, we’ve long been fascinated  by the intense debate over the future of food. What does “sustainable agriculture” truly mean—and what should it look like? Given the tensions between achieving global food security and limiting the environmental impacts of food production, what kind of system can meet both challenges? And as we watched this most recent media eruption play out, we were frustrated by what appears to be ongoing orange-to-apples comparisons. One person’s definition of “organic” was not the same as another’s. Some peer-reviewed studies show that organic and agroecological farming can feed the world in 2050. Other, seemingly equally valid studies, indicate that this can’t possibly be true.

In an effort to make sense of conflicting information, and to get beyond the tit-for-tat towards meaningful dialogue, Seed has invited Dr. Paarlberg to participate in an Oxford-style debate with Dr. M. Jahi Chappell, a co-author on the Badgely paper that supported an important role for organic agriculture in contributing to the global food supply.

Beginning this Thursday, we will be hosting their discussion on and soliciting reader feedback as the arguments unfold. Email the editors here  or send us a tweet at @seedmag. We look forward to what we expect will be an energetic debate.

Front image courtesy of the International Rice Research Institute


Originally published May 11, 2010

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