Industrial agriculture opponents have been on the offensive of late, bolding asking the question: “Can organic agriculture feed the world?” Organic advocates have been taking the bait. There are innumerable articles outlining why organic agriculture can feed the world. However, no one seems to be tackling the statement implicit in the question. By asking the question, people are inferring that industrial/conventional agriculture CAN feed the world.
I hate to break it to you, but the answer to the question “Can industrial agriculture feed the world?” is an emphatic “No.” Industrial agriculture consumes natural gas, oil, soil, water and organic matter. The natural gas is an input to the creation of nitrogen fertilizers. Oil powers the machines, transportation and food processing. Most of the soils of agricultural regions are classed as “degraded” by the United Nations. Canada has a set of maps that show estimated erosion across Canada. The maps don’t have a colour for no erosion. The “Green” colour is used for low erosion that is still measured in tonnes per hectare annually.
If you live west of the Mississippi in the US, agriculture is sucking the water out from under your feet. Every major aquifer from the Ogallala west is being depleted faster than it can recharge. The dead zones at the mouth of every major river system in the world are partially the result of industrial agriculture.
Industrial agriculture is reducing our ability to feed ourselves at the very time when we need to be increasing. Nitrogen application rates per tonne of expected yield are rising – we are less efficient in our use of nitrogen than we were 20 years ago.
All of this is masked by rising yields produced through increased use of fertilizer, unsustainable irrigation and crop “protection” chemicals. Industrial agriculture is an extractive industry. Agriculture could be a regenerative industry but the current industrial model is extracting and consuming resources with no attention to regenerating them.
While the questions to organic are designed to slow the growth of organic production (in political parlance, industrial agriculture is trying to “define the ballot question”) and gain mindless acceptance for new technologies, the real question we should be asking is “how does agriculture need to change to be truly sustainable long term?”
Watch for my book “Real Dirt: Confessions of a Reforming Industrial Farmer”, slated to be published by Iguana Books in the fall of 2013. It starts the discussion on my final question.