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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Clash of Potential Disasters--How Do We Feed 9 Billion People?

October 16th is World Food Day each year, commemorating the establishment of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on that day in 1945 in Rome--in a building that Mussolini had intended to be headquarters for Italian colonies around the world. The world has increased from 2.5 billion people to nearly 7 billion since that time and the average human is better fed now than then, even though nearly a billion are still undernourished. That increase has been fueled, of course, by the Green Revolution with its technological approach to farming. This year, however, "Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said in a statement to mark World Food Day that there is currently 'little to rejoice about', and "worse may still be ahead". 

De Schutter said the emphasis on chemical fertilisers and a greater mechanisation of production was "far distant from the professed commitment to fight climate change and to support small-scale, family agriculture".
In addition, "giving priority to approaches that increase reliance on fossil fuels is agriculture committing suicide", he said.

Instead, there should be a global promotion of low-carbon farming, he said, adding that "agriculture must become central to mitigating the effects of climate change rather than a large part of the problem".
"Low-technology, sustainable techniques may be better suited to the needs of the cash-strapped farmers working in the most difficult environments," De Schutter said.
"They represent a huge, still largely untapped potential to meet the needs and to increase the incomes of the poorest farmers."
Climate change and agricultural development must be thought of together, instead of being dealt with in isolation from one another, De Schutter urged.

There can be little argument that organic farming methods, combined with preservations of forests, produce better food and better climate. This was the theme of an NBC special program this week featuring Charles, Prince of Wales, who has been a huge champion of this approach to agriculture. However, left unanswered in all of these discussions is how a return to these "traditional" approaches to agriculture will allow us to feed 9 billion people even at today's level of nourishment, not to mention an improvement in that level. This is genuinely the 9 billion pound elephant in the room and it has be addressed. We cannot simply say that organic farming can do what needs to be done--it has to be demonstrated. Will we have a disaster trying to feed 9 billion, or will the existence of 9 billion lead to disaster? That's a huge question.

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