Posted by: Mahdi Ebrahimi | February 3, 2008

Organic farming and world hunger

Organic Farming is not earth-shattering new science. A couple of generations ago, farmers everywhere called it “common sense.” Certainly in the age of communication we have more opportunities to share experiences and learn useful techniques, but there is nothing new in understanding the role of compost and building up healthy, living soil.

These organic practices are still common in places where land ownership has not been centralized by agribusiness, where subsistence farmers eke out a living on small marginal plots. Such people cannot afford energy wasting and chemical intensive modern farm techniques. They make do, as their great-grandparents did, by feeding the soil that feeds them.

Inevitably, all farming will be done organically in the not-so-distant future. There really aren’t many other choices, if we want to survive. Nature makes the rules we must live by, and the cycle of life must be supported if we are to remain a part of it.

The question is not whether organic farming can feed the world. Except for the last several anomalous decades, it always has, since the beginning of gardening. The question is “How long will it take us to recover from the damages of modern, industrial agriculture?”

There are several features of industrial agribusiness which will lead to its demise. Perhaps the most pervasive of these is shortsightedness. Modern corporations tend to focus on this quarter’s profits. But experienced farmers can tell you a lifetime is too short to learn the best techniques to encourage an ecosystem to support more people, much less to implement them.

Imagine by contrast the patience of the traditional practitioners of sylvan culture in America’s Pacific Northwest, who would often wait 50 years or more to stage a controlled burn. To maintain the maximum biodiversity on which they depended required understanding each phase of the natural cycle of trees, which takes centuries to run its full course.

The undoing of modern agriculture will be its dependence upon cheap oil, a short-lived exploitation of a natural resource that took tens of thousands of years for the ecosphere to produce. At this point in time, humans have extracted about half of all the petroleum that ever existed on Earth. The second half will be increasingly expensive to get at and there will be great competition among the many human processes that depend upon it. Farming is not likely to win out.

That is a good thing, because petroleum has not been particularly useful in raising healthful food. Draft animals are far better for soil health than machinery. While natural fertilizers and pest control methods may not produce the great immediate yields of petro-chemicals, over the long term, they foster the healthy soil upon which life depends.

Chemical-intensive modern mono-cropping has cost a great deal in terms of loss of topsoil. Over-cultivation and irrigation have washed away what it took nature centuries to build. It will be good for us to return to the slow, patient processes of organic gardening. The transition, however, may be quite painful for those who are not prepared. Many may die off before our population is pared to a level that the earth is able to sustain over time.

Every citizen of the future will need to be more actively engaged in producing what she consumes, especially food, which will no longer be transported or stored in energy wasting ways. This doesn’t mean we’ll all be laboring long hours every day of the year. Even the most difficult agricultural practices are seasonal. Good farmers work smarter, not harder.

It will make sense to study the wisdom of local indigenous people and to apply the principles of permaculture to foster a supportive ecosystem with minimal intervention. The strength of a diverse selection of interdependent crops takes a level of understanding far deeper than modern techniques have fostered.

Not every modern method must be scrapped. Diesel engines were invented to run on peanut oil. Farmers can choose to spend some energy growing fuel. But bio-fuels won’t support a continuation of current practices. Today the US government pays corporations subsidies to grow corn for ethanol, a process which uses more energy than it produces. Such nonsense cannot long continue, once the debts are called in.

Methane and methanol, which can be produced through anaerobic decomposition of nearly any compost, hold some promise. But these fuels yield relatively low energy, so conservation and clear prioritization will be essential. The trade-off of food for fuel may allow some to move quickly while many starve. Democratic systems that work will be essential to prevent such waste.

Widespread return to the timeless practices of organic gardening and sensible hunter-gatherer techniques, combined with scientific understanding and appropriate applications of newer technologies, are the best hope for preventing widespread hunger as our current practices hit the wall of natural limitations. Let’s prepare now, so our future can be as bright as possible.



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