Monthly Archives: July 2010

Chef Dan Barber, Can organic farming feed the world

As a counter argument to my last post, I provide this link about organic farming: Q&A with Chef Dan Barber: Can organic farming feed the world? Here, Barber argues that organic farming can feed the world and that it can produce enough yield to equal or surpass industrial farming. I like Barber’s point about the impacts of environmental change on food:

If you look at the carrying capacity of agricultural areas throughout the world, their ecological habitats are changing. So I think we’re looking at — in our lifetime — great collapses of food services. We need the humbleness and clarity to see that our food, while benefitting from technological advances, has benefitted even more from free ecological resources: Cheap energy, lots of water everywhere, and a stable climate. But studies have shown these are eroding. And if you take these away — if you don’t have those in abundance — you’re not only going to NOT feed the world, you’re not going to be able to eat the way we do now. We’re going to be forced into a new system. The question is: Is that going to be a traumatic transition, or are we going to start preparing for it now?

Now, as I stated in my last post, I believe that the best path is the middle path between organic and industrial. We can draw advantages from both. There are definitely lessons to take from Barber.

Is Organic Really Sustainable?

I heard a thought-provoking interview with Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where he discussed his latest book, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, and his related article “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers” published in Foreign Policy magazine. This interview was on Chicago Public Radio’s World View Food Monday segment.

Dr. Paarlberg offers some complexities around sustainable agriculture and challenges some assumptions that may equate organic agriculture to sustainable agriculture. He argues that they are not the same thing and that we must work to draw sustainable benefits from organic and science-based/industrial agriculture.

Much of Dr. Paarlberg’s concern centers around rich countries imposing limits on poor countries (such as African counties) who need agriculture productivity. In Africa, they are concerned with getting enough to eat. They desperately need improved seeds, nitrogen fertilizer, and investments in irrigation. He says that it is very important that we support local agriculture science in places like Africa so that local seeds can be made more efficient. Survival of rain forests and other native habitats and the animals that live on them could be improved with more efficient agriculture. There are many people in the US who believe that organic, local, and slow foods are better people, but this is the exact agriculture that poor countries already have. It doesn’t work for them. Along with their organic, local, and slow good system, they also have more disease and a less safe food supply. Many areas of Africa are not at all impacted by fluctuations in world food prices, because they have no means to refrigerate, store, and ship foods. Thus, they are totally excluded from world markets. More efficient crops could be absolutely vital to improving their lives and changing their decision making, since importing food is not a reality.

He also discusses the attacks on genetically modified crops, which have been on the market since 1995. All of the world’s top research institutes have yet to find risks to human health or to the environment from these crops. That includes the National Academy of Sciences, British Medical Association, Royal Society, French Academy of Science & Medicine, Research Director of the European Union, and the World Health Organization. There is a precautionary principle that is often invoked because of a fear of hypothetical situations on the impact of the environment that has never been observed. This precautionary principal has little impact on rich countries. We can afford “organic” foods that are low yield and higher cost. But, poor countries are not as fortunate. Traditional seed breeding (selection breeding) has mutilated crops for centuries. These techniques have changed our plants greatly. But, there are some changes, such as adding beta-Carotene to rice that cannot be done with traditional breeding that could have significant impact on poor countries.

But, Paarlberg does not just focus on global food supply. He also discusses our views on agriculture. For instance, he asks if locally grown food is going to produce fewer CO2 emissions than food grown in Mexico or California? He emphasizes that, It doesn’t depend on how far it travels as much as it how it is shipped. For instance, food that is shipped in bulk can move a long ways with a small carbon footprint per calorie of food when compared to some local foods that are transported by pickup truck or in family automobile. The local farmers’ market may not reduce carbon at all. (Although, it does support the local economy and provide other benefits.)

Here is a piece of his Foreign Policy article:

“Take industrial food systems, the current bugaboo of American food writers. Yes, they have many unappealing aspects, but without them food would be not only less abundant but also less safe. Traditional food systems lacking in reliable refrigeration and sanitary packaging are dangerous vectors for diseases. Surveys over the past several decades by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that the U.S. food supply became steadily safer over time, thanks in part to the introduction of industrial-scale technical improvements. Since 2000, the incidence of E. coli contamination in beef has fallen 45 percent. Today in the United States, most hospitalizations and fatalities from unsafe food come not from sales of contaminated products at supermarkets, but from the mishandling or improper preparation of food inside the home. Illness outbreaks from contaminated foods sold in stores still occur, but the fatalities are typically quite limited. A nationwide scare over unsafe spinach in 2006 triggered the virtual suspension of all fresh and bagged spinach sales, but only three known deaths were recorded. Incidents such as these command attention in part because they are now so rare. Food Inc. should be criticized for filling our plates with too many foods that are unhealthy, but not foods that are unsafe.

Where industrial-scale food technologies have not yet reached into the developing world, contaminated food remains a major risk. In Africa, where many foods are still purchased in open-air markets (often uninspected, unpackaged, unlabeled, unrefrigerated, unpasteurized, and unwashed), an estimated 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases, compared with an estimated 5,000 in the United States.

Food grown organically — that is, without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizers or pesticides — is not an answer to the health and safety issues. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year published a study of 162 scientific papers from the past 50 years on the health benefits of organically grown foods and found no nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food.”

Health professionals also reject the claim that organic food is safer to eat due to lower pesticide residues. Food and Drug Administration surveys have revealed that the highest dietary exposures to pesticide residues on foods in the United States are so trivial (less than one one-thousandth of a level that would cause toxicity) that the safety gains from buying organic are insignificant. Pesticide exposures remain a serious problem in the developing world, where farm chemical use is not as well regulated, yet even there they are more an occupational risk for unprotected farmworkers than a residue risk for food consumers.”

In the end, Dr. Paarlberg emphasizes the need for a balance between our capitalistic agriculture and organic agriculture. The over-simplified organic vs. non-organic debate misses the point. One is not better than the other. Both have strengths and weaknesses. The point is to take advantage of the strengths.

If you drop your emissions, will China increase its emissions?

I was camping this past week with a friend of mine who is an economist. We were sitting around the campfire chatting about climate change (ironic, perhaps), and he said that he was concerned about the relationship between the costs of fossil fuels and amount we consume on a global scale. He said that there may actually be a situation where our reduction of CO2 could cause China and India to consume more of it. I was intrigued and asked why?

There is a direct connection between the amount of CO2 we emit and the amount of fuels we use. So, to cut our emissions, will essentially mean that we must reduce the amount of fuel we use. As we reduce our consumption, the law of supply and demand (Econ 101) comes into play. As demand drops, costs naturally drop. As costs drop, countries that are rapidly industrializing like China and India will use more fuels at cheaper prices. They would, then, offset any gains that we might make.A recent report from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency found that the current economic downturn has caused the industrialized world (US, Canada, Europe, Japan, etc) to use less fuel and emit less CO2. But, these reduction have been “nullified” by increased use of fuels in the developing world (China and India). The good news is that 2009 was the first year that CO2 emissions were flat. The bad news is that they are still way too high and any gains that could have resulted from the bad economy were offset by the developing world.

This blog post, Global CO2 Trends Show Scope of Climate Challenge By Andrew C. Revkin, discusses the Dutch report. As an example, it compares China to France. These two countries have a fairly low CO2 output per person. France has a low CO2 output because it relies heavily on nuclear power. China has a low output because many of its people do not live in a world with electricity. Over the past 20 years, France’s output has dropped. During the same time, China’s output has grown like crazy. Soon, China will pass France, and, more than likely, it will pass every other country.

So, is there no hope? It seems that India and China are going to eat up more and more fuels and emit more and more CO2. It looks like the ship is sinking, so does it matter if we cut our emissions at all.

Well, if China and India are going to emit CO2 no matter what, we might as well cut our emissions. There is a history of innovation diffusion across economies, so investing in cleaner energy could be attractive to developing countries. Sharing our innovations helps everyone. It is good sign that according to the Dutch report one third of all new wind turbines was installed in China. There is also a connection between us and the developing world. There is evidence that agreements like the Kyoto Protocol helped to reduce emissions. Engaging China and India in these sorts of agreements may bare fruit.