We’ve written before that, despite organic activists’ claims to the contrary, conventional agriculture (a.k.a. non-organic) is the only way to feed the world’s burgeoning population, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So it was with mild frustration yesterday when we read a blog post and heard a Morning Edition segment by NPR’s Dan Charles titled, “American Farmers Say They Feed The World, But Do They?” which glossed over this reality.
To use just one example, one of Charles’s sources whines that American farmers produce mostly grain crops (a.k.a. the building blocks of food) rather than vegetables. The source seems to believe that in places where food is scarce, people would eat vegetables instead of grains, rather than nothing at all. And as for “solving the nutrition problems,” genetic engineering (much maligned by the organic crowd) offers the promise of vitamins in grain crops themselves, if the too-often-criminal anti-biotech activists would let such crops be tested and approved.
According to a study published last year in Nature magazine, researchers concluded that crop yields from organic farming are as much as 34 percent lower than those from comparable conventional farming practices. This disparity is significant for a multitude of reasons, chief among them that lower crops yields necessitate more land, water, equipment, etc., to produce the requisite supply of food for seven billion people worldwide.
Take land use, for example. According to Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug – who is credited with saving a billion lives through his work on non-organic food sources – the U.S. alone could not have sustained its own population growth with an organic-only approach:
In 1960, the production of the 17 most important . . . crops [in the U.S.] was 252 million tons. By 1990, it had more than doubled . . . [but] was produced on 25 million fewer acres than were cultivated in 1960. If we had tried to produce the harvest of 1990 with the technology of 1960, we would have had to have increased the cultivated area by . . . about 460 million more acres of land of the same quality–which we didn’t have . . . (Emphasis added)
But the negative effects of relying on organic crops don’t stop with environmental limitations. Such an approach can also can lead to political crises, particularly in poorer regions of the world. As Harvard professor Calestous Juma noted:
Modern biotechnology is an important force in global agriculture. But it continues to be challenged by those wanting to limit its spread under the pretext of preserving the purity of organic farming. This is being done despite worrying evidence of rising food prices and the associated political unrest.
Upon accepting that organic farming simply cannot sustain the world’s population growth, the only logical alternative would be to limit the supply of people. But after seeing the real world consequences of population-limiting policies, we’ll choose conventional agriculture every day.