One of the bedrock tenets for supporters of our industrial agriculture system — monocrop farming, large scale livestock production, reliance upon chemical fertilizers, genetic engineering and pesticides, etc.— the mistaken belief, that’s the only possible way to feed the world?
Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer and distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture turns this question on its head by first pointing out that world hunger is an access problem not a supply shortage as implied by the question. In addition, Kirschenmann points out, organics can produce high yields especially when locally adapted to a particular climate and region.
Fred Kirschenmann asks: How is industrial agriculture going to continue to feed the world when oil prices rise to $300 a barrel? How is industrial agriculture with its substantial contribution to climate change able to continue under extreme and increasingly more volatile weather conditions? In contrast, organic farming is more compatible with the environment, and more kinds of food will be grown on an acre of land offering greater nutritional value for eaters per acre of farmland.
This interview was filmed in 2009 and his thoughts are as relevant today, more so perhaps, as the effects of climate change are now bearing down upon us.
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Transcript (lightly edited):
My response to the claim that organic can feed the world, or the question that is are often put as “how are you going to feed the world with organic?”, the assumption behind that, that you’re going to have lower yields, etc.. So we’ve been had millions of people starving to death. Well, in the first place, how are you going to feed the world with our industrial system, when oil prices go over $300 a barrel. Because it’s absolutely dependent—our so called cheap food— is absolutely dependent on cheap energy that’s not going to be there.
But my other serious response that’s more than what I just said. There’s been enough research that’s been done now. That farming organically doesn’t necessarily mean a reduction in yield. If it’s well managed organic, you know that the yields are essentially comparable. But the other thing is, in the first place we have not fed the world, we always see the figure 800 million people that are malnourished. It’s actually more than that right now, and it’s going to go up some more because of the current circumstances, and hunger.
The problem of hunger is not a problem of Inadequate production. We are right now producing enough calories to feed every man woman and child on the planet. The problem of hunger is a much more complex problem of access to food, access to land, access to the resources that people need to feed themselves, that’s the problem of hunger. It’s not inadequate production. But even when you look at it from the point of view of production when you stop to think about it, monocultures are a very inefficient food system because you’re only producing one commodity off of an acreage [of farmland]. And we know from experience, in permaculture etc., that we could in most instances be producing two, three, four, sometimes seven or eight commodities off of the same acreage, so we could dramatically increase the productivity beyond monocultures.
So we have deluded ourselves into believing that the only way to feed the world is to have dramatic increases of yield of a single species. And, you know, it’s just not true, and that seems to end that way of approaching a single species will require the continued access to cheap energy to surplus water and to stable climate and we’re not going to have that. If we’re truly are interested in feeding the world, we’ve got to change the food system.