Food and health are areas where we recklessly tread upon myths. Even if little to nothing scientific may be known to us about food, we usually take it upon ourselves to latch on to our own ideas based mostly on our prejudiced beliefs. Prejudices often are turned on their heads once we confront beliefs against real evidence. The volunteers at Safe Food Movement spend a good amount of time and energy in bringing reliable, scientific information; not beliefs, nor myths in the least.
The most common misconceptions around the notion of organic food and farming practices centre around food-adequacy. Rather, the lack of it. Industrialisation accelerated human progress with a tremendous mechanical advantage. The comforts brought forth were as addictive, as they came in quickly. While society appeared to prosper, populations actually boomed world over. The Green Revolution was a by-product of industrialisation. It appeared that the rapidly multiplying headcount of humanity could be fed only by developing hybrid – the fast and furious – varieties of all crops from cotton to cucumber and from coffee to coconut. Now, as medicine is making sure our average lives get prolonged by decades, biotech, hand in hand, is tweaking genes to reap bigger yields to harvest faster. Hybrid varieties mean poorer disease resistance, therefore necessitating chemical pesticides. Monocropping is another commercial compulsion in the argument for food-sufficiency, and therefore endemic to modern agriculture because bumper harvests of single crops in single large farms are logistically welcome.
How Can Growing Populations Survive On Leaner Yields?
Organic is exactly reversing all aspects of aggressive agriculture and on the face of it, appears to produce less. Organic is about multi-cropping, naturally harvested produce grown in sync with local weather-soil-water conditions. It is a definite, but gentle approach that does not force any marketing preconditions such as ill-timed off-season harvests. Therefore it also faces the charge that organic farming can only feed a few and at a higher cost.
What Then Is The Reality?
- Natural farming methods initially harvest 70-80% crop-yields due to a number of reasons that include crop-rotation, mulching & soil-preparation and localising market mechanics of demand-supply. But over two rotations and beyond, the costs saved on chemical fertilisers, the costs of procurement of healthy seeds further boost the improved yield from improved soil. Multi-cropping also keep farmlands healthily engaged over larger duration and the effective gains over the entire year far outweigh the wait and the initial investments.
- Only 1% of world’s tillable land is currently under organic farming. Aggressive mechanised agriculture warrants large tracts of farmland, but organic natural farms can be profitable on any scale. A farm as tiny as an acre has been demonstrated to be viable. This means that disjointed farmlands could be brought under organic farming. Hill-slopes are utilised by tribal farm-groups for profitable micro-cultivations.
- Organic farming is not only profitable to the farmer, but also safe and healthy for their families and labourers working on farms. Increasing consumer awareness is compelling fringe farmers to return to full-scale farming rather than hopelessly wait on menial jobs in sub-urban commercial markets. Organic farming is more knowledge-intensive and farmers need to learn to manage an entire ecosystem geared to producing food—controlling pests through biological means, using the waste from animals to fertilise fields and growing one crop in between another. Educated farmers are a better bet overall.
- The world already produces 22 trillion calories annually via agriculture, enough to provide more than 3,000 calories to every person on the planet. The food problem is not about production. It is about distribution and waste. Waste during harvest, waste in transport/storage, waste after purchase.
If you created a market for olives in the tropics and for mangoes in the Mediterranean, it is but an artificially created demand. Natural farming cannot be held accountable to unnatural wants. The “bumper harvest” of out-of-turn, out-of-place produce of conventional agriculture is fast eroding the soil quality and that is the real problem and not food sufficiency.
For all the debate and the subsequent scientific models and case studies on whether organic can sustain 10 billion of us here, the answers are evident. It turns out, when you actually compare chemical-intensive and organic farming in the field, organic proves just as productive in terms of gross yield—and brings a basket of other advantages to the table in the process.
15th November, 2017
[Data sources: Tom Philpott @tomphilpott, and others.]