Today is the 95th birthday of Norman Borlaug, the man who invented modern industrial agriculture and (some say) fed the world. Here is Ron Bailey’s post in honor of the day, which includes these striking remarks from a 2000 interview:
Even if you could use all the organic material that you have—the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues—and get them back on the soil, you couldn’t feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.
At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.
For good measure, here and here are a couple of my earlier posts on organic crop yields and the sustainability of sustainable farming (be sure to read the comments!), and here is Kevin Carson’s take on why the official “Green Revolution” mythology is a load of bunk. Also, here is what I wrote about the subject of crop yields in my TAC piece on “culinary conservatism”:
Proponents of a new way of eating are on shakier ground when they claim that a widespread turn toward small-scale and deindustrialized agriculture would not affect crop yields. McKibben proudly cites a study in which sustainable farming methods were found to lead, on average, to a near doubling of food production per hectare. He does not mention the many cases in which results have been less impressive. A much discussed study published in the journal Science in 2002 found that switching to organic farming reduced yields by 20 percent, though the possibility of lessening our reliance on petroleum may be worth the investment of some extra land. Reincorporating into the human food chain some of the millions of acres where corn and sorghum are now grown for ethanol production would also make a great difference.
But no reasonable person wants to remake the world or do away with modern agricultural technologies all together. The best solutions will come through honest, case-by-case engagement with the subtle demands of specific situations. As the UC Berkeley agroecologist Miguel Altieri puts it, a sound approach to agriculture “does not seek to formulate solutions that will be valid for everyone but encourages people to choose the technologies best suited to the requirements of each particular situation, without imposing them.” (That this could just as well be the summary of the ideal domestic or foreign policy ought to argue in its favor.) Respect for tradition and social and ecological responsibility can work together with technological innovation and capitalist resourcefulness to respect the ridges and valleys of regionalism in an increasingly flattened world.
In any case, a very happy birthday to Dr. Borlaug, and many happy returns indeed. In my home, we will be eating free-range chicken and organic brussels sprouts in his honor.
(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth.)