Organic Farming: What is Technology’s Role?

A recent post on Software Advice entitled Organic Farmers: Can They Be Tech Savvy?” by Mr. Hunter Richards serves as a reminder of why one interested in sustainable farming mustn’t instinctively cringe at the thought of new technology and agriculture.

As the blog states, organic food has taken off as an industry; the Organic Trade Associations estimated that national sales of organic food and beverages total $24.8 billion annually in comparison to $1 billion just 20 years ago. Organic fruits and vegetables, for example, now represent 11.4% of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales. Naturally, one would think that increased demand would push producers to seek efficiency – that is, doing more with less.

Combine food, not just organic food, with demand and, well, you have yourself a headline.

A special report by The Economist, The 9 billionpeople question, introduces the question of if there will be enough food to go around come 2050. But the report focuses on industrial agriculture – since, “traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.”

An entire chapter highlights efficiency. How does one increase yield by 1.5% a year over the next 40 years to feed mankind? The article details three ways: narrowing the gap between the worst and best producers, spreading the “lifestock revolution” (expanding the CAFO system because – “battery chickens” do a better job than traditional methods), and taking advantage of new plant technologies (marker-assisted breeding seems to be the key technology).

Additionally, The New York Times recently asked seven professionals Is the World Producing Enough Food?” Multiple authors were in agreement that meeting the greater per capita food consumption could be met by increasing yields through increasing technologies. Dr. Kenneth Cassman, a professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska, mentioned the current weakness in yield comes partially from “a substantial decrease in funding of research to enhance yields by methods other than biotechnology.”

These three articles all mention new technology’s potential to meet increasing food demand. Although The Economist focused on industrial agriculture and technological improvements, Mr. Richard’s article is a unique reminder that those involved in “organic food,” who some may assume are defined by their aversion to technology, also can crave increasing their efficiency through technology. Read More >

Genetically Engineered Crops Fail to Deliver

Biotech firms have touted the potential of genetically engineered (GE) crops to address the global hunger crisis. Many hopes (and many more dollars) have been invested in the promise of GE technology to increase crop yields. According to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), this technology has thus far failed to deliver.

To better understand these new findings, it is worth elucidating some of the murky terminology. In a recent radio interview, plant pathologist Dr. Pamela Ronald explains “there is nothing that [the typical American family] will eat tonight that is not genetically modified.” She goes on to clarify her use of the term: all but the most wild of crop varieties have been “genetically modified,” in the traditional sense, through conventional plant breeding between compatible species (to complicate matters, the term “genetically modified,” or GM, often refers to GE foods). This is in contrast to GE, or “transgenic” crops, created in laboratories by combining the genetic information of distinct, usually unrelated (a plant and a bacterium, for example), species. Read More >

CLF’s 9th Dodge Lecturer Vandana Shiva: Sustainable Local Food is Imperative

At the 9th annual Dodge Lecture yesterday at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (video will be posted on CLF’s website soon), world renowned scientist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva stated that the most important issues in sustainable agriculture today are the disappearance of nutrition in food (a major public health concern) and localization of food sovereignty. Much of what passes for ‘food’ today -processed foods heavy with corn and soy byproducts – lacks the nutrition that once was the defining feature of food. The so-called gains of the Green Revolution weren’t so much gains as displacements. More wheat, rice and corn was grown, instead of the varied plethora of grains that had supported humans for centuries with diverse nutrients. Good nutrition in food comes from healthy soil, which is a result of biodiverse and sustainable agriculture practices, not vast monocultures. As we continue to grow chemically dependent monocultures of a few crops, we denude the soil of the organisms that keep it healthy and impart necessary nutrients to our food. Dr. Shiva expands on soil health in her recent book: Soil Not Oil. Read More >