Sunday, March 13, 2011

Agroecology: Welcome To The 1800's.

Paula Crossfield from Civil Eater posted a story in the Huffington Post which references a UN study that claims to solve the challenges of hunger in an organic manner.

I suggest you all read the HuffPo article, then read the study.  What follows is an analysis of that study.

Allow me to decode this report for everyone:

*Eliminate animal feed and use those inputs to make more human food. - This is entirely unrealistic, especially since it advocates feeding animals the scraps of food we don't want.  Basically, there won't be enough food for the animals, so there will be less of them.  Meat will be a delicacy reserved for the wealthy.

*Revert back to farm labor of the 1800's when people had to work all day to barely produce enough food for their families and caloric intakes were between 1,000 and 1,500 kcal/day.

*Sell all the food locally... meaning that everyone has to be a farmer.   -  The few that aren't farmers will pay huge premiums for the labor intense, niche market food.  This also means you have to eat the food that is grown where you live.  That could be rice or that could be cassava.  Don't like either?  Move... I guess.

*Spend more money and research on plant breeding, but singles out 'industrial ag'.  -  This is a thinly veiled knock on fertilizers, pesticides, and biotech.  Replacing all that will be the way we used to breed crop varieties... when we were all starving.  Breeding desired traits into crops using conventional methods does yield the same results as biotech... except it takes much longer.  Years longer.

*In place of fertilizers, which add nitrogen to the soil, they advocate natural means... of adding nitrogen to the soil.  -  Of course, the natural methods will work(it's nitrogen too) but not as efficiently.

This whole report reads like a fantasy wish list written by a few activists without any regard for reality.

To sum up the plan...
Everyone grow organic since organic costs more money and farmers will make more.
More people will then be needed to farm this way and we'll need much more farms.
Unfortunately, we'll still be short of food so the only animal production that can be tolerated is animals fed the scraps of food we don't eat.
The rest depends on magic, apparently.

This couldn't have been written by agronomists and crop science experts.

There are some good things in here.  For instance, they advocate the use of ponds and nitrogen fixing trees.  They do allow for some fertilizer use where organic methods are unavailable.

The worst of what this plan does, however, is tie poor countries to subsistence level farming so that they may never develop and grow wealth.


  1. I thought both the report and the article were good and not a fantasy. Reducing use of grain for feeding livestock does not eliminate livestock. Where I live we feed grazing animals grass and leaves. Byproducts of human food production (bran and oil seed cake) are also used a lot. Transporting food crops ridiculous distances doesn't happen here either as fuel costs are higher. If fuel prices get higher there (double) you'll get the point. The purpose of old fashioned plant breeding was increased yeild. The purpose of biotech breeding is to sell more herbicide. I know which one I want and I can wait a few years for it.
    Most poor countries farmers grow organic crops already, not by choice, but because fertillizer and chemicals are too expensive. They are already at below subsistence level and the measures advocated in the report, if implemented, would make a huge difference. The difference between one meal a day and three. The difference between children staying home or going to school.
    The standard industriallised form of agriculture works for a while when fuel and fertillizer are cheap. If they go up and when you have destroyed your environment and eroded your soil it will not work any more and you will have to come and learn from us.
    Zambian Farmer

  2. Biotech also works to increase yields or grow in places where it previously couldn't, which has the same net effect of raising total production.

    I'll agree that there are many great tips and tricks to help be more efficient, but this was mostly an idealized report with an agenda.

    As a hog farmer with more than a few animals, I would be comfortable feeding food scraps, however, I would not be comfortable depending on a steady supply.

    A smarter way, and something that is already done in the feed industry, is to utilize bakery scraps in the production of feed as a carbohydrate source.

    Eroding the soil? Most farmers I see anymore use no-till methods, grass waterways, and windbreaks. Most farmers also rotate crops, while some even plant cover crops. It's not the plow intensive, single crop agriculture people think it is in this country.

  3. Excellent blog, Sam. You are using science, reason and logic to explain agricultural issues and solutions. Thanks

  4. Thank you for spreading the word... I have less than 600 followers... wish I had thousands.

  5. R Henson, I agree with much of what you said. Many practices and technologies are out of reach for farmers in developing an underdeveloped countries. However, I have to respectfully disagree with your statement that "The purpose of biotech breeding is to sell more herbicide." Was more glyphosate sold after RR Ready crops came on the market? Most definitely. But that isn't the only use for biotech. In fact, many of it's uses decrease our use of inputs. Insect and disease resistant traits reduce or eliminate the need to spray pesticides and fungicides. Nitrogen use efficieny traits are coming soon, which will help us further fine tune fertilizer application. If I'm applying nitrogen that crops don't use I'm wasting money and potentially at risk for runoff.


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