New Internationalist

Future organic

Issue 368

Andre Leu argues that there is only one way to feed the world - organically.

The push for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), growth hormones, animal feed antibiotics, food irradiation and toxic synthetic chemicals is being justified, in part, by the rationale that without such products the world will not be able to feed itself. Thomas Malthus wrote his An Essay on the Principle of Population way back in 1798 and was the first to raise the spectre of overpopulation. Since then various experts have been predicting the end of human civilization due to mass starvation.

The theme was popularized again by Paul Erhlich in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb. According to his logic, we should all be starving now that the 21st century has arrived: ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines; hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked upon now.’

Most famines that occurred since 1968 have been in African countries saddled with corrupt governments, political turmoil, civil wars and periodic droughts. The world had enough food for these people. It was political and logistical events that prevented them from producing adequate food or stopped aid from reaching them. Hundreds of millions of people did not starve to death.

Yet the spectre of mass starvation is being pushed again and the motive this time is to justify the use of GMOs. In June 2003 President George W Bush stated at a biotechnology conference: ‘We should encourage the spread of safe effective biotechnology to win the fight against global hunger.’

The shortage myth

In this first decade of the 21st century, many farmers around the world are facing a great economic crisis of low commodity prices. These low prices are due to oversupply. Many areas of countries such as the US and Australia have fewer farmers now than 100 years ago and the small rural centres they support are disappearing off the map. Thousands of farmers have had to leave their farms in Argentina due to higher production costs and lower commodity prices. The sugar industry in Australia is on the verge of collapse for the same reason. Australian dairy farmers continue to leave the industry since deregulation forced down their prices.

Most of the major industrial countries are subsidizing their farmers so that their agricultural sectors do not collapse. Countries like India and China, once considered overpopulated basket cases, are now net exporters of large quantities of food. The reality is that the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone and has more than enough suitable agricultural land to do it. Unfortunately, due to inefficient, unfair distribution systems and poor farming methods, millions of people do not get adequate nutrition.

In a 2001 editorial the New Scientist pointed out that low-tech sustainable agriculture is increasing crop yields on poor farms across the world, often by 70 per cent or more.1 This has been the consequence of replacing synthetic chemicals in favour of natural pest control and natural fertilizers. According to Jules Pretty, director of the Centre for Environment and Society at Britain’s University of Essex: ‘Recent evidence from 20 countries has found more than two million families farming sustainably on more than four to five million hectares. This is no longer marginal. It cannot be ignored. What is remarkable is not so much the numbers, but that most of this has happened in the past five to ten years. Moreover, many of the improvements are occurring in remote and resource-poor areas that had been assumed to be incapable of producing food surpluses.’2

The real green revolution

An excellent example of this type of agricultural extension was documented in the January 2003 edition of World Vision News. Working in conjunction with the Australian agency AusAID, World Vision linked farmers from the impoverished Makuyu community in Kenya with the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming (KIOF). They arranged workshops where KIOF members taught the principles of organic farming, including compost-making, preparing safe organic pesticides, vegetable gardening and organic care of livestock. Maize yields were between four and nine times previous levels. Organically grown crops had yields that were 60-per-cent higher than crops grown with expensive chemical fertilizers. The wonderful thing is that many of these farmers now have a surplus of food to sell, whereas previously they did not have enough to eat. They are organizing marketing co-ops to sell this surplus. The profits are going back to the community. They have distributed dairy goats, rabbits, beehives and poultry to community members and have planted out 20,000 trees. Several of the organic farmers are training many other farmers in the district and helping them to apply the techniques to their farms. The mood of the community has changed. Farmers are now confident and are empowered with the knowledge that they can overcome the problems in their community.3

The Makuyu community in Kenya is not an isolated example.

There is a wealth of examples from around the world of farmers who have shifted to sustainable and/or organic methods and increased their yields.

• 223,000 farmers in southern Brazil using green manures and cover crops of legumes and livestock integration have doubled yields of maize and wheat to 4-5 tons per hectare.

• 45,000 farmers in Guatemala and Honduras used regenerative technologies to triple maize yields to between 2 and 2.5 tons per hectare and diversify their upland farms, leading to local economic growth that has in turn encouraged migration back from the cities.

• As part of sustainable agriculture programmes 200,000 farmers across Kenya have more than doubled their maize yields to about 2.5 to 3.3 tons per hectare and substantially improved vegetable production through the dry seasons.

• 100,000 small coffee farmers in Mexico have adopted fully organic production methods and increased yields by half.4

• In Madhya Pradesh, India, average cotton yields on farms participating in the Maikaal Bio-Cotton Project are 20-per-cent higher than on neighbouring conventional farms.

• In Madagascar, SRI (System of Rice Intensification) has boosted harvests from the usual 2-3 tonnes per hectare to yields of 6,8 or even 10 tons per hectare.

• In Tigray, Ethiopia, a move away from intensive agrochemical usage in favour of composting has seen an increase both in yields and in the range of crops it is possible to grow.

• In the highlands of Bolivia, the use of bonemeal and phosphate rock and intercropping with nitrogen-fixing species of lupin have significantly contributed to increases in potato yields.5

The reality is that the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone and has more than enough suitable agricultural land to do it

One of the most important aspects of teaching farmers to increase yields with sustainable and/or organic methods is that the food and fibre is produced close to where it is needed and in many cases by the very people who need it. It is not produced halfway around the world then transported and sold to them. Another important aspect is the low input costs. Farmers do not need to buy expensive imported fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Increases in yield come with lower production costs allowing farmers more profit.

In addition, the substitution of more labour-intensive activities such as weeding, composting and intercropping for expensive imported chemical inputs means more employment for local communities. Such employment allows landless labourers to pay for their food and their other basic needs. As in the example of the Makuyu community in Kenya, these benefits have a positive impact on the wealth and the mood of the community. These communities are revitalized, proactive and empowered to improve their future.

Will GMOs feed the world?

Argentina is a good example of what happens when a country pursues the policies of market deregulation and GMO crops. Argentina is the third largest producer of GMO crops, accounting for 28 per cent of the world’s production. By the 1999/2000 season, more than 80 per cent of the total area given over to soybeans (6.6 million hectares) had been converted to GMOs. These are some of the results:

Farmers’ profit margins fell by half between 1992 and 1999, making it difficult for many to pay off bank loans for machinery, chemical inputs and seeds.

Between 1992 and 1997, 54,000 farmers were forced to leave the industry – meaning a 32-per-cent decrease in the number of producers.

Industrialization of grain and soybean production has not only boosted dependence on foreign agricultural inputs, but has resulted in an enhanced role for transnational corporations and increased foreign debt.6

The study was published before the Argentinean economy collapsed, causing riots and the resignations of several governments, leaving the nation effectively under the control of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Its standard of living has declined and thousands more farmers have been forced off their farms. Rural and urban poverty and hunger has increased.

According to Caritas Argentina, the social services agency of the Catholic Church in that country, over 40 per cent of all Argentinean children are now undernourished.7 If GMOs cannot feed the children in the country that is the world’s third largest producer of GMO crops, how will they feed the rest of the world?

It costs tens of millions of dollars and takes many years to develop one genetically modified plant variety. This money would be much more productively spent on organic agricultural education, research and extension in the areas where we need to overcome hunger and poverty.

  1. Editorial, New Scientist 3 Feb 2001.
  2. Jules Pretty, The Living Land: Agriculture, Food and Community Regeneration in Rural Europe, Earthscan, London, 1998.
  3. World Vision News, Jan 2003.
  4. Jules Pretty, SPLICE, Aug/Sep 1998.
  5. Nicholas Parrott, ‘The Real Green Revolution’, Greenpeace Environmental Trust, 2002.
  6. Lehmann and Pengue, ‘Herbicide Tolerant Soybean: Just another step in a technology treadmill?’ Biotechnology and Development Monitor, Sep 2000.
  7. ‘Argentina Crisis Leaves Millions of Children Undernourished’, Caritas, 17 March 2003.

Andre Leu is Chair of the Organic Federation of Australia. He owns a certified organic farm in the Daintree River Valley in north Queensland where he grows organic tropical fruits while retaining the balance of his farm as tropical rainforest.

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