April 28, 2010
Whether or not organic farming can feed the future world is one of the big questions of agricultural and environmental politics. It is of major importance to the future development of European and developed world agriculture and of even greater importance for the food-short less developed countries. The question of how the agriculture industries of both developed and undeveloped countries are able to provide enough food for the extra 2-3 billion people who will live on the planet by 2050 is of paramount importance.
It is difficult to understand therefore, why the devout followers of the organic farming faith spend so much of their intellectual energy on rubbishing the findings of economists and scientists who have sough to define the scale of this problem and suggest possible solutions. Recently, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has been subject to amazingly rabid attacks from most notably Greenpeace and the UK Soil Association. The basis of these assaults has been the FAO’s conclusion that the world’s food supply needs to increase by between 70 and 100 per cent between now and 2050.
The organic food lobby claim that these estimates have been used by governments and others to press for significant – as they see it, harmful – intensification of agriculture and the stepping up of production. This automatically assumes that peasants breaking their backs with primitive hand tools and planting ‘traditional’ types of low yielding crops is obviously ‘better’ than their using tractors and the latest most productive plant varieties. It is an attitude that displays an amazing high-handedness.
What is important is that if the FAO is only half right in its prognosis, the world still needs to increase its food supplies by hundreds of millions of tonnes over the next forty years – something that will definitely not be achieved by adopting the organic gospel as laid down by the disciples of the SA’s Lord Peter Melchett.
What is certain is that the combined effect of population growth, rising incomes and intensified urbanisation, will result in almost the doubling of demand for food by 2050. What is most politically – if not morally – important is that demand for food will certainly double in the regions of the world where the need for more food is greatest. FAO continues to forecast that the demand for food will just about double in developing countries by 2050 and by that date some 80% of the world‟s population will live in such countries. It is also imperative that the food supply of those millions suffering from malnutrition is increased to at least a minimum standard.
Approximately three quarters of the needed increase in production could come from increased yields, according to FAO, but only by improved farming methods and use of the best technology. Such a target would not be reached by accepting the 20+ per cent drop in yields resulting from ‘going organic’. The Soil Associations basic ‘belief’ is that organic farming could feed the world in 2050m without the use of GM crops or more intensive farming. But it remains just that: a belief with little scientific evidence to support the claim.
Far from assuming “a ghastly starvation and obesity vision of the future” as stigmatised by Melchett announcing the SA’s critique of the FAO analysis, it is a stark warning of what will happen if the agriculturally under-developed countries of the world do not rapidly adopt new and improved agricultural techniques. The arrogance of Melchett’s statement is breathtaking. The 800,000 undernourished people of the world would no doubt welcome the opportunity to risk obesity.