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Global shift to organic would yield more food, not less - studies

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Two recent studies reveal that a global shift to organic farming would yield more food, not less, for the world's hungry, according to an article in Worldwatch Magazine May/June 2006 issue.

In the article, Worldwatch Institute senior researcher Brian Halweil notes that organic farming tends to raise yields in poorer nations, precisely those areas where people are hungry and can't afford chemical-intensive farming.

Boosting Production     "In poorer nations, organic farming techniques like composting and green manuring and biological pest control may be farmers' best hope for boosting production and reducing hunger," writes Halweil.

Beyond the yield advantage, organic farming had proven benefits for wildlife, water and air quality, and food safety, he said.

"And while analysts on the two sides of this issue are constantly at odds, some experts are starting to advocate a middle path that uses many of the principles of organic farming and depends on just a fraction of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture."

Such an integrative system, they believe, would have great benefits for farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Lack of Govt Support widespread         "The lack of widespread support for organic farming from governments, industry, and farmer organizations is short-sighted and may ultimately be contributing to world hunger," says Halweil.

In a live discussion, answering questions from round the globe, Mr Halweil said organics was not simply about a transition away from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but a transition to a different sort of food system.

Social, ethical and economic               He said the philosophy of organic agriculture reflected this - more equity, more healthy foods and fewer processed foods, more interaction between farmer and eater — more so than current organic farming standards around the world which say "very little about these sorts of social, ethical, and economic issues."

However organic farmers were more likely than non organic farmers to be involved in farmers markets, community supported agriculture and alternate marketing schemes, so the transition to organic growing would naturally encourage change.

Small scale change in US              He said it was difficult to imagine mainstream America making radical changes in its lifestyle without a major motivating event, such as a fuel crisis, or bio-terror attack.

But change was happening on a small scale. The number of farmers markets had grown (more than doubled to nearly 4000 in just the last 10 years). Membership in groups like Slow Food had grown, as had the number of supermarkets carrying local or organic produce.

"Americans are getting better about buying fresh produce to be prepared within a day or so, and getting better at cooking this sort of food."

They were still highly dependent on fast food and frozen dinners, and the drive for convenience wasn't going away.

"I suspect that some degree of disaster-like events (mad cow disease or avian flu or some other fallout of industrial agriculture) will combine with cultural changes. And the cultural changes will partly be spurred by a desire to get more pleasure and satisfaction out of our food."

More land area myth           There is now very solid evidence from around the world that organic farming does not take up more area than conventional farming, and in some cases will take up less.

Grass-fed beef would take up more land than the cows standing in front of grain troughs at feedlots. But the pastured cows were also more integrated into the landscape, would provide fertility and wouldn’t require us to raise as much grain.

Energy solutions                Organic farming holds additional solutions to our energy issues, because it uses a lot less energy, primarily because synthetic fertilizers are so energy intensive.

He said there has been a big increase in CSAs, Community Supported Agriculture farms, and organic farming in the US. One of the biggest growth areas has been large-scale organic grain and soybean production in the Midwest to supply organic meat and dairy production.

Corporate farms and big agribusiness were beginning to get the point, not necessarily because they agreed with organic in principle, but because the market was growing.

"Without altering federal farm subsidies, which encourage chemical-intensive farming, we won't see a more rapid shift on a large scale."

He said experience of people working in the field around the world shows that often farmers want to change or see the benefits of change, but there are still obstacles.

The best solution was wider support for organic farming, from government, industry, and farmers groups.

Tanzanian children taught conventional farming          A Washington DC contributor to the discussion , who had spent 6 months teaching reproductive health and environment in a rural primary school in Tanzania, said the children, many who would farm to provide for themselves for the rest of their lives, worked in school fields that used chemical inputs and learned that they were good.

"We taught about organic farming with our limited NGO funds. If traditional intercropping and organic techniques provide the keys to eliminating hunger, do you see national governments in the developing world adopting extension policies and education to enhance their use and effectiveness, or do you envision the interests of corporations in donor nations override any such attempt?"

Agribusiness influence           Mr Halweil said it was hard to say what plays a role in determining the extension policies of governments in the developing world. Experience from the industrial world showed agribusiness has tremendous influence over farm extension and extension has largely been privatised in recent years.

"Similar trends are taking place in the developing world, but aren't as extensive, and I think there is still great opportunity for governments to steer the techniques towards organic production."

"Look at the experience of Cuba and Switzerland (with agriculture in general) or Uganda and Egypt (with cotton)."

Worldwatch Institute

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