Friday, September 17, 2010

Why I don't believe Organic is always best

It's that time of year again. Fresh coats of paint are being applied to university walls and the place is being given a good polish to make sure it's spick and span before the undergraduate students return to the hallowed halls of academia.

While preparing some 2nd-year lectures for the coming term I was struck by an interesting trend which has emerged.

Every year, I begin a module on Plant Biotechnology by putting the raw facts on global hunger in front of the students. In large, bold lettering I display a figure representing the number of people worldwide who the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation say are suffering from hunger or are undernourished.

For the last 15 years (and I haven't been teaching that long!) this figure has grown steadily up to a record of 1.02 billion people last year (the highest number in four decades). So, every year I'd diligently delete the old number and put in the new one. It's such a quick task to take care of that it often fades into the background with all the other updates and changes that I'm making to the module.

However, perhaps we need to pause a little and think of the people behind the figures. Last year, for example, I changed the figure from around 800 million to that staggering 1 billion figure. When you really think about it, that is horrific. In the space of 12 months, 200 million MORE people slipped into such poverty that they were unable to feed themselves and their families properly.

The relatively good news is that this year's report, released this week shows the first decline in this headline figure for 15 years. Today, 925 million people are undernourished worldwide.

This week also marks National Organic Week 2010 and while I have no problem with buying organic as it has significant positive impacts on the agricultural environments; improving soil health and biodiversity, etc., one has to admit that it is a niche market which is a luxury of well-off, developed nations and does little to support those 925 million people on the UN list.

I'm not trying to apportion blame here, and global hunger has much to do with politics and warfare as well as agriculture. Organic food is, by and large, good, healthy, safely produced food, but so is non-organically prodced food. The difference is, yields with organic foods are so low that they must be more expensive and in limited supply.

If human undernourishment is to be tackled, it will be done by supporting farmers to produce food in developing countries using the best, most high-yielding technologies that are available to them. Yes, that will include such organic methods such as good crop rotation, incorporation of nutrient-rich organic matter and the maintenance of high levels of biodiversity to encourage natural biocontrol systems.

However, it may well also include the safe and controlled use of chemical herbicides and pesticides to control weeds and pest species and the use of improved plant varieties with high yields and the ability to grow under adverse conditions.

The onset of global climate change will require new plant varieties which can grow under different conditions: high temperature, high levels of moisture, high salt stress, etc. Some of these new varieties may well be genetically modified.

So, as I see it, one of the solutions to this problem is to use all available farming approaches from organic to GM. There is no reason why a combination of techniques shouldn't be used if that is what it takes to reduce that terrible figure even further.

Global Hunger 2010, Source: UN FAO


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