Can Organic Farming Feed the World? Part 4

“Organic farming methods are the only way forward…Even in the short term, organic is the only way to achieve acceptable yields”. Carlo Leifert

High input farming methods that produce low-cost food are fast becoming obsolete. The synthetic chemical fertilisers that produce quantity instead of quality are becoming more expensive and, in the case of phosphorus, are running out.

The European Union spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year in agricultural subsidies encouraging high volume yields. Recently they have funded Leifert’s project Quality Low Input Food Project which works with farmers to use low cost methods to grow high value food. This food, which is nutritionally dense, has less impact on the environment but a great impact on the community’s health and therefore could reduce many of the world’s ills while also saving money.

Chemical fertiliser made up of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) is the foundation stone of modern industrialized agriculture. It lets farmers specialise and grow the same crops on the same field year after year. Organic farmers, who rotate many crops of veggies, grains, animals and green manures, cannot compete on labor, time or price.

The N in NPK is the major input in conventional agriculture because it’s the chemical magic ‘that gives plants energy, albeit at a cost of spewing out 2.38 tons of global warming gases for every ton of fossil fuel- based nitrogen’ – not exactly environmentally friendly. (And yes, it does take 2.38 tonnes of fossil fuel to extract just 1 tonne of synthetic nitrogen from the atmosphere just for farmers’ convenience!) But when it comes to resources and productivity the ‘P for mined phosphorus, the cost of phosphorus imports alone is already so expensive that in Europe it is starting to drive conventional food prices to the level of organic’.

Synthetic fertilizers produce quantity at the expense of quality, for the simple reason that artificial nitrogen encourages plants to grow fast to compete for light, thereby prioritizing starch relative to complex nutrients. Pesticides also discourage plant production of nutrients, which may have evolved to protect plants from pests.

The organic fertility strategy, which relies on recycling crop and animal wastes instead of purchasing them from off-farm, can survive the resource crunch and even more importantly is the nutritional quality. When it comes to meat and milk, the difference is dramatic. There is more protein, more Vitamin E, more lutein, more caretenoids and more omega 3 fats in food coming from animals wandering outdoors to chew on fresh pasture, — much better than the results from animals fattened fast inside a barn on stored grains even organic grains. Vegetables and fruit show likewise more mineral density.

Therefore organic food makes for a healthy difference in cancer, heart disease, diabetes, some child allergies and even e-coli incidents and a significant reduction in medical costs. As well, a person gets the same nutrients from 10 to 20 per cent less calories. Sir Albert Howard, one of the pioneers of organic farming in the 1940s also said that this fertility “is the basis of the public health system of the future …and can reverse the “famine of quality”.

That plague may now be coming to an end with the rapid growth of the organic movement. Individuals who buy organic food can now expect to get more nutrients for their money, and public health likewise depends on higher cost food that leads to lower cost medicine – a smart and humane trade-off since food-based disease prevention is always cheaper and happier than medical cures.