Sustainable Food | Do we really need industrial agriculture to feed the world?

Reading from the script.

MYTH: The world’s population keeps growing. By 2050, we’ll have to double food production. For that we’ll need genetic engineering, advanced pesticides, and fertilizer – lots of fertilizer.

Fifty years of this myth – and lobbying dollars to support it – have tilted the playing field to favor corporatecontrolled, chemical agriculture, giving farmers little or no support for any other path.

To keep this unnatural system going, these farmers now buy expensive inputs, all from ever-fewer corporations demanding ever-rising prices. It’s a quick addiction: pests become resistant so you’ve got to use more chemicals; livestock become sicker so you’ve got to use more drugs; soil loses its natural fertility so you’ve got to use more chemical fertilizer.
Then, on the other side, when farmers try to sell their crops, they face only a few big buyers offering unpredictable prices. The economics don’t work for long. Over the last fifty years, millions of desperate farmers have had to sign contracts with corporations that dictate their every move or have lost their farms altogether.

Industrial farms degrade and erode precious topsoil – 64 tons per acre are being lost every year in some spots in our heartland. They suck up huge amounts of water – a lot of it from deep underground – essentially irreplaceable. And they use millions of pounds of antibiotics – a practice that leads to dangerous new bacteria. They also produce toxic run-off that pollutes our rivers, our oceans, and us! The average American already has at least 13 pesticides in our bodies. And thanks to chemicals in the field, farmers and farm-workers have higher rates of many cancers.

But we have to feed the world, right? If not this way, what choice do we have?

State-of-the-art sustainable farming ends this unnatural chemical addiction. It uses better practices, not ever-more expensive purchases. Sustainable farmers build healthy soil by planting a variety of crops and rotating them. They raise their animals on the farm, not in cramped factories. They fertilize using compost and livestock or planting soil-nourishing crops.
Healthier plants with good crop rotation also help keep pests in check without hurting the bugs we need – like those all-important pollinators.

So the sustainable farm is better for farmers and the environment but can it really feed the world? Study after study is saying yes (1)! Sustainable farms produce as well… and in drought years even better.

  1. There are lots of great studies on the resiliency of sustainable farms, especially during weather extremes like droughts. The Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute found that during a ten-year period comparing organic and non-organic corn growing systems, the organic corn fields yielded on average 30 percent higher during dry years. Rodale Institute, “The Farming Systems Trial: Celebrating 30 Years.” Kutztown, PA: 2011. For an example of a study from sub-Saharan Africa, see Amede Tilahun, “Yield Gain and Risk Minimization in Maize (Zea Mays) through Cultivar Mixtures in Semi-arid Zones of the Rift Valley in Ethiopia,” Experimental Agriculture 31, no. 02 (1995). Researchers found that fields in this drought-prone region of Ethiopia planted with biodiverse fields yielded about 30 percent more than monocultures during normal rainfall years, and yielded 60 percent more during dry years.
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