Is Organic Farming the Key to Solving Hunger? And Climate Change?

Researchers say small-holder farms can produce enough to feed the world without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Originally Published in TakePart, Sept 24, 2013,

By Willy Blackmore,

Organic produce harvested from small, diverse farms may be fine and good for anyone who can afford to pay $3 or more per pound for tomatoes. But to the hungry masses of the developing world? What’s the heirloom-tomato-and-baby-lettuce model going to do for them? Sating that kind of hunger will take acre after acre packed with staple crops like rice and corn, grown with the aid of whatever chemicals and technology can optimize yields—at least that’s what many think.

A new report published last week by the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development suggests a far different approach, however, one that has more in common with the style of agriculture that produces your favorite tomatoes than a 1,000-acre field of corn in the Midwest. And it might not only be able to feed the world—the authors says it can help mitigate climate change too.

The report is exhaustive, with six full pages dedicated to listing the different acronyms referenced throughout the 321-page document. Topics range from the benefits of locally developed plant varieties, to carbon sequestration as social justice, and democratizing access to seeds and other products. Full of sometimes dense, academic writing, it isn’t exactly something you’d want to curl up on the couch with. But the title—“Wake Up Before It Is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate”—comes through like a shout.

The document makes a lengthy case for organic, low-input, small-scale agriculture as the best means for not only feeding the world, but for also managing the stresses of drought, rain and other catastrophic weather brought on by climate change. It’s not a new idea, nor does the U.N. explicitly endorse it—you won’t hear Ban Ki-moon talking about it at the General Assembly this week. But even if the report carries no weight beyond its rhetorical value (the U.N. isn’t making any policy recommendations by publishing it), having the organization’s logo, that top-down view of the globe, stamped on the cover still carries significance.

In the chapter “Strengthening Resilience of Farming Systems: A Prerequisite of Sustainable Agricultural Production,” Miguel Altieri and Parviz Koohafkan offer a lay thesis for the report, one that’s less confrontational than the title. Describing the importance of the various forms of traditional agriculture found around the world, the pair write, “They tell a fascinating story of the ability and ingenuity of humans to adjust and adapt to the vagaries of a changing physical and material environment from generation to generation.”

The approach they and their co-authors advocate for is based on that history of adaptation. “Whether recognized or not by the scientific community, this ancestral knowledge constitutes the foundation for actual and future agricultural innovations and technologies,” the pair concludes.

That’s a very different proscription for the future of agriculture—which will soon be taxed with feeding eight billion mouths—than is often put forward. Last year, for example, the Director of National Intelligence’s Global Trend Report for 2030 singled out biotechnology as the most promising means of managing increased demand and resources diminished by climate change. The report says that GMOs, “hold the most promise for achieving food security in the next 15-20 years.”

“What people are realizing is, first of all, industrial agriculture is not feeding the world,” Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at UC Berkley, said in a phone interview. “Most of what it produces is biomass, which is for cattle, biotech crops, and biofuels.”


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