Friday, November 16, 2012

Can Organic Feed the World?

Oh dear. Has it really just been 6 weeks of grad school? It feels much, much longer - but in a good, whirlwind kind of way. I am daily reminded about how little I know and how much there is to learn - but also, what an important, valuable topic I chose as my (hopeful) career path. Before coming here, I was thinking a lot about how to process all the information I undoubtedly would gather here, and thought, blogging might be a great tool both for me to organize the thoughts swirling through my head - and to get the word out on the issues I am so passionate about. These first few weeks, though, I felt like a sponge, just soaking up knowledge and way too busy to do anything with it, but now I feel... ready, I think, to share. I am hoping to make this as regular a feature I can muster, focusing on things I learn in class, in seminars, through readings and just on the go talking to my fellow classmates, but we will see whether these expectations can be met. I think it might be a nice veering-away from my travel-blog theme (though there will most definitely be more pretty Bonn pictures like this one -> 

I just think it might be more interesting to know WHAT I am learning about than to listen to me yap on about how nice the library is that I am learning it in. If anybody is still listening? Hello? :) 

Starting out sweet and short (edited to add - not really that short..), I just finished watching a documentary that our teacher in the class "Ethics of Food Production and Consumption" recommended we see at the beginning of the semester - and am so glad I found time for it! It is called "Die Zukunft pflanzen - Bio für 9 Milliarden" (Planting the Future - Organic for 9 Billion People) and is a Franco-German co-production by ARTE. I tried and failed to find a version with English subtitles online, but saw that the DVD (with subtitles) will be out by the end of November and will be available through Amazon. German-speakers - there is an easily google-able Youtube version online. 

It follows the French producer Marie-Monique Robin around the world onto all continents to explore the question whether organic and sustainable production methods would have the potential to mirror the yields of industrial agriculture or whether, as often claimed, it is simply a niche concept without worldwide applicability. In doing so, we explore 
  • Milpa-agriculture in Mexico, which takes advantage of the unique interactions between corn, bean and squash crops (also traditionally known as the "Three Sisters" in North America) which are grown symbiotically together on one plot, enriching the soil and contributing to the food sovereignty of small-scale producers in the region; 
  • the push-pull method, developed by the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya and spreading throughout Africa, which uses particular plants to "push" out weeds and pests from in between the food crops and "pull" them towards alternative plots in the vicinity (this method is becoming a cheap and sustainable alternative to costly pesticide use for example in Malawi, where Robin visited local producers - see this illustration for a visual explanation); 
  • the origin of Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) schemes in Japan - the so-called Teikei system, where consumers purchase their produce and rice directly from farmers which they know personally - in the example given, the farmer doesn't even ask for particular prices, but delivers his food and, in return, receives a "thank-you-donation". This enables a family/community feeling about food production and consumption and fosters real appreciation for the importance of farmer's jobs - namely, to feed the population. 
  • There are also other examples of organic production methods in Germany, market intervention schemes in Senegal, and many interviews of leading researchers and scientists in the fields of agro-forestry and agroecology. All in all a super interesting documentary! 
  • My take-home messages: 
    • To answer the question, from what we know, organic production methods might very well be able to replace industrial ag. The Rodale Institute - which was also featured - compared organic and conventional production methods on two adjacent plots of land over 30 years and did not find significant differences in yields - except that the organic soil was more resilient in the case of drought. Also, the organic system used 45% less energy and emitted 40% less greenhouse gases. 
    • The Rodale Institute also found - very importantly for developing countries - that organic farming, which is far less reliant on expensive inputs, are more profitable in the long run. 
    • Expert after expert in the documentary stressed the importance of small-scale farmers and more localized systems for the achievement of both food security and food sovereignty, particularly in the Global South. If I may add my two cents, already reducing barriers to market access or to a successful shift toward organic production methods can help small-scale farmers significantly and are attainable policy change objectives. 
    • Organic, agro-ecological or agro-forestry-based methods of production are not a "reversion back towards the Stone Ages", as supporters of the industrial food system like to point out, but based on cutting-edge scientific research and a much deeper understanding of nature and ecosystems than the current system. 
    • Woohoo change is possible! 
I will definitely look into a lot of the issues mentioned above more, particularly the different components of agro-ecology, but would recommend the movie to anybody interested in looking behind the scenes of current shifts in thinking about how our food is grown. And if you don't have an hour and a half - this is a good starting point:

Tomorrow I am going to a conference on Food Behavior and Globalization in Latin America - I will be sure to report back! Until then! 

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