A vendor sells her fresh produce at the Ottawa Farmer’s market last summer. [Photo © Paige Mueller]
By Paige MuellerT
he planet’s population is set to exceed 9 billion in the next 35 years, according to the UN. This exponential growth has some wondering how we’ll manage to feed everyone, when in 2014, one in every nine people is not getting enough to eat, according to the World Food Program. But some experts say the problem isn’t that we won’t have enough food, it’s that the current agricultural system is failing us.
“We produce enough food to feed about 10 billion people right now,” says Danielle Nierenberg, the president of Food Tank, an organization based in the U.S. focused on building sustainable agricultural processes.
Ottawa organic farmer and food expert Chris Kelly-Bisson agrees. “[W]e don’t have a food shortage on earth,” she says.
So what’s the problem?
According to the World Food Program, lack of investment in sustainable agriculture is one of the main obstacles to a well-fed planet.
This means that traditional farming practices, which are large-scale farms producing single, or monoculture crops and using various agrochemicals to enhance the process, are not sustainable. These types of farms can lead to some potentially severe problems, which will impact future generations of consumers.
Nierenberg says agrochemicals and conventional farming worked for a while, but they’re simply not going to work in the long-term.
“What we’ve done is become very dependent on these chemicals and have begun using them as medicine,” she says. “You’re sick so this is what you need right now, but you don’t need it forever.”
What Nierenberg is referring to is an agrochemical cycle that is present in most conventional farming practices. According to a study by Miguel Altieri, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, planting large-scale monoculture crops can make a farm very susceptible to disease and pests. Farmers will use more agrochemicals and pesticides in order to avoid having their yields destroyed by these threats. Planting a single crop can also sap the soil of the specific nutrients the plant needs to survive over a long period of time. This forces conventional farmers to add artificial fertilizers to their soil.
“Even if traditional farming is capable of producing large amounts of food to support a large population of the planet, it can’t keep doing that indefinitely. Organic is the only way we can count on doing it.”
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, this use of agrochemicals is one of the top three causes of soil erosion and degradation. The use of these chemicals can alter the soil and promote the growth of harmful bacteria. The main problem that stems from soil erosion is a loss of fertile farmland, says the WWF. They note that in the past 150 years, the world has lost 50 per cent of its fertile topsoil. And when it comes to feeding 9 billion people, we’ll need all the fertile soil we can get.
In order to recognize and protect this important but often overlooked resource, the UN declared 2015 the International Year of Soils.
The question becomes, what should replace the failing traditional commercial farming practices?
Organic farming might help
Some of those in the agriculture sustainability field are pointing to organic farming as a viable option to feeding the planet.
“Even if traditional farming is capable of producing large amounts of food to support a large population of the planet, it can’t keep doing that indefinitely. Organic is the only way we can count on doing it,” says Irena Knezevic, an expert on food and communication from Carleton University.
For some small-scale farmers, going organic is simply practical. According to Kelly-Bisson, most local farmers can’t afford the expensive agrochemicals and genetically enhanced seeds. He also points out that the majority of the world’s already fed by organic family farms. According to the World Bank, for 70 per cent of the world’s poor, agriculture is the main source of income and employment. The people who fall into this category cannot afford the agrochemicals that are present in traditional North American and European commercial farming.
The environmental benefits of going organic and its lower costs are not the only advantages however. Generally speaking, organic farming takes place on a smaller scale, with more diverse crops and less agrochemicals. This means that soil erosion and water table pollution is less of a problem. Crop diversity, or planting several different varieties of plant side-by-side means less risk of disease and greater nutrients in the soil. This is turn means less of a dependence on agrochemicals.
However, because of the lack of pesticides and preservatives, the assumption is that there will be greater after-harvest waste on organic farms and smaller crop yields. The idea is that without the pesticides and genetically enhanced crop varieties, foods will not keep as long but according to Knezevic, this is a non-issue.
“The most sustainable options are those that mimic natural processes and when you’re talking about the food system, that means diversity.”
The World Food Program estimates that one third of all food produced goes to waste, whether treated with pesticides or not. In fact, Knezevic thinks organic farmers actually do a better job of dealing with the waste because it is repurposed as composting and the fertilizer becomes another resource for the farm.
Kelly-Bisson says that, “small-scale farms will be the only way we’ll be able to feed ourselves in the future because they have that ecological quality to them that means you’re more effectively stewarding the soil, which is key.”
But some large-scale farmers say they believe that they are doing just that.
“We’re stewards of the land. I mean, this land has been in our family for 50 years. I have friends whose land has been in the family for 100 years and the land is every bit as good or better than it was,” says Brett Law. “If you’re not a good steward of the land, you’re not in business.”
Law is a grain farmer in Central Alberta who says there are some misconceptions surrounding traditional farmers. He notes that some people believe that large-scale commercial farmers are “out to harm the land and that we don’t care what we spray, and it’s all done irresponsibly and that’s not the case.”
According to Law, the amount of chemicals used on his farm is very small and it is all monitored responsibly.
But the challenges of feeding 9 billion people go beyond the organic vs. non-organic debate.
“The most sustainable options are those that mimic natural processes and when you’re talking about the food system, that means diversity,” says Nierenberg.
She notes that having a large-scale organic farm can be just as harmful as a non-organic one if the crop is still a monoculture. It’s the diversity and soil fertility that is key. She says it’s necessary to find a new system that will focus on nourishing people, not just providing calories, and on maintaining soil fertility through crop diversity.
“We can no longer follow this business-as-usual approach. Conventional, industrial agriculture just is not capable of dealing with the things we’re going to face in the future, whether it’s climate change or disease or conflict.”