Feeding the World, Organically

Many Italians must have read the recent Report investigation into organic food, and we imagine that most of those who spent their Sunday evening doing so, did not see their expectations met.


For anyone who truly cares about what they eat and how it is produced, and about finding food that is good in itself, for the environment and for its producer, perhaps a news report that had the merit of instilling doubts and pressing for more controls, but offered no refuge to the end consumer, was of little use. For us, the rule is always the same: We try to get to know whoever is offering the food we bring to the table, we are curious, we don’t worry about bothering our regular grocer with a thousand questions and we use not just our nose and mouth but also our head. Presumptuous? I’d call it prudent and interested.


Organic yields can be as high as conventional


Returning to Report, perhaps a little more in-depth from a program of this level (which did have the merit of waking some sleeping dogs, especially in Piedmont) would have been welcome. Certainly, it’s good to be on our guard against frauds (but in cosmetics marketing that’s hardly news, is it?), but can they really all be crooked? The aspect we’d like to dwell on, however, is another one. Why does a producer need an avalanche of certificates—acquired only at an outrageous cost and by following demeaning bureaucratic procedures—to show that their food is completely natural? Shouldn’t such a burden fall instead on those who pollute, whose products are full of poison? Why is it the virtuous who have to make the effort? A rhetorical question, sure, but it would be nice if consumers demanded more, considering that we are the ones who hold up the market.


And while we’re talking about organic, we’d like to note two other pieces of news, two studies that show how organic cultivation could feed the world. The study published by the Royal Society on December 10 suggests that yields from organic agriculture could be nearly as high as those from conventional agriculture, and all without using huge quantities of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that suffocate marine ecosystems with noxious algae blooms. The research, conducted by the prestigious University of Berkeley in California, shows how, if crops are rotated each season, the difference in yield between organic and conventional agriculture can be as low as 8%, a decidedly smaller percentage than the previously estimated 25%. If what the Californian researchers claim is true, it would mean that organic crops could feed the planet. But before the applause, how about a little reflection?


Higher yields will not help to combat hunger and obesity (the absurdly paradoxical twin problems about which we are shamefully indifferent), mostly because in reality the majority of crops end up feeding livestock and fuelling cars, not on people’s plates. Indeed, in the United States, more than three-quarters of the calories produced by farms go to animal feed and biofuels. The point is always the same: zero hunger can only be achieved by increasing access to food, not increasing yields. According to the data, then, how much do we need industrial agriculture to feed us? The problem is not growing more, but guaranteeing that communities have access to food and food sovereignty. The way forward, as we never tire of saying, is family farming.


Focus on family farming


And once again, we are not the only ones. Thanks to data collected around the world, a recent survey by Grain highlights how small-scale producers are the ones feeding the world, and they are doing it using just 24% of the world’s farmland, or 17% if you leave out China and India. How do these farmers feed everyone while cultivating such a small share of the land? The paradox is that small farms are often much more productive than big ones. According to The Ecologist, if the yields of Kenya’s small farmers were matched by the country’s large-scale operations, its agricultural output would double. In Central America, food production would triple. If Russia’s big farms were as productive as its small ones, output would increase by a factor of six. 


In short, let’s believe. With a bit of effort and interest we really can make the world better with our forks. Organic produce costs too much and we don’t trust it because of a few fraudsters? Let’s ask questions, get informed and evaluate our purchasing priorities.


Michela Marchi (Slow Food Italy)



Environmental Working Group



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