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"Organic and Feeding the World"
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Organic and Feeding the World
- Rachel Laudan July 13, 2009 http://www.rachellaudan.com/2009/07/organic-and-feeding-the-world.html
For today, three items that add refreshing new perspectives to the often depressingly static battle lines about modern food with their proponents hunkered down in trenches that it seems so difficult to break out of.
When I was at the University of California at Davis in February, I had the chance to hear Pamela C. Ronald, as a plant geneticist the real McCoy, a hard nosed scientist, make a passionate appeal for genetically engineered crop varieties. She knows the subject inside out, having worked in the lab, in research plots, and in field in Nihe in China and Orissa in India developing a rice that can withstand fourteen days of flooding.
She’d just produced the book above with her husband Raoul Adamchak who manages the Organic Market Garden at the UC Davis student farm. If you are interested in organic and suspicious of GM, then you might enjoy this book.
Both authors see GM as a way to move organic forward and make it economically viable. There are lots of great examples (Hawaiian papaya, Amish tobacco growers, rennet) and very clear explanations of how genetic engineering works, and on its politics and the economics. Although I differ with the authors on a variety of points, I learned a huge amount. And I am an enthusiastic follower of Pamela Ronald’s blog.
And, of course, one of the things that the authors are very aware of is the importance of cereals in feeding the world. There they coincide with another piece I have found very useful, this time by K.W.T. Goulding of the Department of Soil Science at Rothamstead Research (the major British agricultural research station) and A.J. Trewavas of the Institute of Molecular Plant Science at the University of Edinburgh.
"If arguments are to be made about feeding the world from organic farming then the primary concern must be the yield ratios of organic/conventional for the major cereal crops. Whether organic cabbage, tomatoes or even oats or apples for example can match conventional yields and used by Badgley et al., (2007), is of relatively little importance, so we have not considered these at all. Wheat is grown on 220 million ha worldwide, a substantially greater area than that of corn (maize) or rice, is tolerant of arid climates and, containing more protein than corn or rice, is one of the primary food staples. Therefore, for brevity and simplicity, our critical assessment of the claims made by Badgley et al. (2007) is limited to wheat. However the criticisms and serious omissions that we describe are likely applicable to all the data provided by these authors."
You can find the full article hereand it is well worth reading through because it is carefully argued and well documented. Their main point is that many of the claims floating around for the high productivity of organic crops just don’t hold up, particularly where wheat is concerned.
They argue persuasively, to my view, (and this is a different tack from that taken by Ronald and Adamchak) that organic fertilizer needs to be supplemented with artificial soluble fertilizer that can give wheat a boost when it most needs it.
Their article was posted on a website called AgBioWorld run by Professor C.S. Prakash of the Tuskegee Insitute. This is also highly recommended, especially their mailings, which round up news about agricultural research. Even if you don’t share my view that farming benefits from scientific and agricultural research, you should not miss this an invaluable resource.
Anyway, back to the point made by Goulding and Trewaras, it’s all too easily forgotten in the US where we have plenty of calories and are concerned about getting more vegetables and fruits in our diet that cereals are the big, big news in farming. For the last 12,000 years, it is cereal crops that have delivered most of the world’s calories, an astounding range of delicious dishes, and all kinds of subsidiary products from various kinds of alcohol, to oil, to sweeteners. This is not likely to change.
Now compare their point with this terrific map from the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2009/05/03/business/03metrics.graf01.ready.html (thanks to Diana Buja for the tip) of where the organic farms are in the US. Definitely not cereal country.