Food Fight

Food Fight

According to Robert Paarlberg, organic agriculture is an "elite preoccupation," a "trendy cause" for "purist" circles ("Attention Whole Foods Shoppers," May/June 2010). Sure, sidling up to a Whole Foods in your Lexus SUV and spending $24.99 on artisanal fromage may be the trappings of a privileged foodie, but there’s an SUV-sized difference between obsessing about the texture of your goat cheese and arguing for a more sustainable food system.

For a start, Paarlberg doesn’t get what it means to be organic. "Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals," he writes, "so their food is de facto organic." But organic farming isn’t just about not using chemicals — it’s about doing much more. Organic farmers improve output less by applying purchased products and more by tapping a sophisticated understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds through techniques that include double-dug beds, intercropping, composting, manures, cover crops, crop sequencing, and natural pest control. It could be aptly dubbed "knowledge-intensive" farming.

In contrast, Paarlberg calls biotech and industrial agriculture "science-intensive." But these practices would in fact more appropriately be called water-intensive, chemical-intensive, and fossil-fuel-intensive. All would require external inputs to boost productivity. Industrial agriculture gobbles up much of the 70 percent of the planet’s freshwater resources diverted to farming, for example. It relies on petroleum-based chemicals for pest and weed control and requires massive amounts of synthetic fertilizer.

In fact, in 2007, we used 13 million tons of synthetic fertilizer, five times the amount used in 1960. Crop yields, by comparison, grew only half that fast. And it’s hardly a harmless increase: Nitrogen fertilizers are the single biggest cause of global-warming gases from U.S. agriculture and a major cause of air and water pollution.

The diminishing returns from industrial agriculture are just one reason why organic agriculture comes out ahead in all comprehensive comparative studies.

Anna Lappé
Author, Diet for a Hot Planet
Brooklyn, N.Y.


Robert Paarlberg is gravely misguided to dismiss rapid population growth as a food-security issue. The 1 billion people who suffer from chronic hunger worldwide would surely argue otherwise.

Paarlberg acknowledges the late Norman Borlaug’s successes with the Green Revolution, yet he chooses to omit Borlaug’s strong support for family-planning programs to address population issues. From 1971 to 1999, Borlaug was a member of Population Action International’s board. Unlike Paarlberg, he understood that family-planning decisions directly affect food security in developing countries.

Although improved yields would be welcome, achieving food security will undoubtedly be more difficult if population growth rates are not addressed. The simplest way to do this is to meet the needs of the 215 million women in developing countries who lack access to modern contraception.

Perhaps next time Paarlberg, an advisor to the CEO of biotech giant Monsanto, should take integrated policy responses to hunger around the world more seriously before advocating for biotechnology. Even Monsanto recognizes it will be difficult to increase agricultural yields sufficiently to keep pace with projected global population growth.

Jeffrey Locke
Legislative Policy Analyst
Population Action International
Washington, D.C.

Robert Paarlberg replies:

If Anna Lappé is correct about the higher productivity of organic farming, why are organic products so much more expensive, and why is this farming method used on only 4 percent of agricultural land in Europe? Farmers know — apparently better than she does — that nitrogen fertilizer (banned under organic farming regulations) lowers labor costs and boosts yields. The idea to reject nitrogen fertilizer came not from a farmer, or an agricultural scientist, or even an environmentalist. It came from a 19th-century Austrian mystic philosopher named Rudolf Steiner who also believed in human reincarnation and the lost city of Atlantis.

Lappé says organic production depends on "a sophisticated understanding of biological systems," but it actually depends on excessive land use (because yields are lower) and on burdensome investments of human labor needed to do all the hand-weeding, double-digging, and composting. This can be a labor of love for weekend gardeners in rich countries, but for poor farmers in Africa it is a tyranny of toil.

Lappé’s assertions about energy use in modern farming are badly out of date and deceptive. High fuel prices in the 1970s drove U.S. farming away from energy-intensive methods. While grain yields have continued to increase, fertilizer use per acre has been declining since the 1980s. Lappé tries to conceal this by offering a comparison between rates of increase in fertilizer use versus yield. She hopes readers will forget that a high rate of increase from a low base produces less actual growth than a lower rate of increase from a high base.

I share Jeffrey Locke’s embrace of both crop science and family planning, and in my article I should have made clear that I was only rejecting the crude Malthusian view that Africa’s troubles come from population growth alone. As for modern biotechnology, I don’t get the complaint, because my FP article never mentioned genetically engineered crops.