Asian marketHold the agrichemicals: Organic ag could keep markets brimming with food. I’ve written about it once already, but I want to return to The Economist’s recent special series about how industrial agriculture is the true and only way to feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit the world by 2050. The framing, I think, is extremely interesting.

The widely revered magazine identifies two strains of thought on the food system’s future: one serious and one frivolous.

The serious one — made up of “food companies, plant breeders, and international development agencies” — is “concerned mainly with feeding the world’s growing population,” which it plans to do “through the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries.”

The frivolous one — “influential among non-governmental organizations and some consumers” — “concentrates more on the food problems of richer countries, such as concerns about animal welfare and obesity,” The Economist writes. This group fixates on the question of “what should we have for dinner,” but has little to say about feeding the globe’s growing population. And since The Economist‘s special report “concentrates on the problems of feeding the 9 billion,” not the trivial omnivorous dilemmas of wealthy Berkeleyites, the magazine throws its lot in with the companies, plant breeders, and international development agencies — the Serious People Looking for Real Solutions for Feeding the World.

I’m focusing on this Economist spread because I think it beautifully exemplifies (and reinforces) the conventional wisdom on the future of food.

President Obama displayed his fealty to it by placing an agrichemical-industry lobbyist in charge of agricultural trade negotiations and by tapping a Monsanto-funded scientist to lead the USDA’s research program.

USDA chief Tom Vilsack expresses it when he natters on about ramming open foreign markets to our surplus farm products. 

Nina Fedoroff, until recently the State Department’s chief science advisor, promotes it every chance she gets. She has moved on from shaping U.S. foreign policy on ag science to another influential position: president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The globe’s best-endowed grantmaker, the Gates Foundation, endorses it every time it cuts a deal with agribusiness giants like Monsanto and BASF.

The problem is, the conventional wisdom is wrong — or, at the very least, much more contested than its champions let on. The Economist insisted that international development agencies had embraced Big Ag as the solution to the globe’s food problem, but that simply isn’t true.

Indeed, for years now, a steady stream of reports has emerged from the development agencies calling for new directions. In 2008, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the U.N. Environment Program issued a paper [PDF] called “Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa.” It reads like a direct refutation of The Economist‘s claims. The report concludes:

Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously … Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.

That same year, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report [PDF] that echoed those conclusions. Entitled “Mitigating Climate Change, Providing Food Security and Self-Reliance for Rural Livelihoods,” the report points to the Tigray area of Ethiopia, “previously known as one of the most degraded Regions of Ethiopia.” There, more than 20,000 farming families saw yields of major cereals and pulses nearly double “using ecological agricultural practices such as composting, water and soil conservation activities, agroforestry, and crop diversification” — even as “the use of chemical fertilizers … steadily decreased.” The phaseout of synthetic and mined fertilizers was key, because “most poor farmers, particularly in degraded lands and in market-marginalized areas, are not able to afford external inputs,” the report states.

Perhaps even more crucially, the FAO researchers found that “ecological agriculture” could “assist farmers in adapting to climate change” by making farm fields more resilient to stress. So why isn’t eco-agriculture catching on? The report cites a bevy of obstacles, none of them technological:

[L]ack of policy support at local, national, regional and international levels, resource and capacity constraints, and a lack of awareness and inadequate information, training and research on ecological agriculture at all levels.

At a conference in 2009, the FAO once again bluntly contradicted the conventional wisdom. “In the name of intensification in many places around the world, farmers over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated, over-applied pesticides,” Shivaji Pandey, director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division, declared. “But in so doing we also affected all aspects of the soil, water, land, biodiversity and the services provided by an intact ecosystem. That began to bring yield growth rates down.”

In place of industrial methods, Pandey called for “conservation agriculture,” which he described as a “farming system that does not use regular ploughing and tillage but promotes permanent soil cover and diversified crop rotation to ensure optimal soil health and productivity.”

Then there’s the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Under the auspices of the United Nations, World Bank, World Health Organization, and other institutions, the IAASTD gathered 400 scientists and development experts from dozens of nations to assess the very problems examined by The Economist. A three-year project, it has been called the IPCC of agriculture.

Its conclusion [PDF]: agroecological practices — including the very organic-farming techniques scorned by The Economist — are at least as important as agrichemicals and biotechnology in terms of “feeding the world” in the decades to come. As for the alleged panacea of genetically modified seeds, the IAASTD was so unenthusiastic about GMOs that Croplife International, the trade group for the globe’s dominant GMO/agrichemical purveyors, angrily pulled out [PDF] of participation shortly before its release — as, disgracefully, did the U.S. and Canadian governments in solidarity.

Just last week, the U.N. Environment Program yet again came out against Big Ag, this time as part of its broad Green Economy initiative. The agency released an advance copy of a report called “Agriculture: Investing in Natural Capital.” It amounts to a blistering assault on the agribusiness-as-usual model. It briskly names the main problems with the goal of spreading U.S.-style industrial agriculture to the global south:

Conventional/industrial agriculture is energy- and input-intensive. Its high productivity relies on the extensive use of petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fuel, water, and continuous new investment (e.g. in advanced seed varieties and machinery).

In place of the industrial model, the report calls for what it terms “green agriculture,” characterized by low-tech, high-skilled methods like “restoring and enhancing soil fertility through the increased use of naturally and sustainably produced nutrient inputs; diversified crop rotations; and livestock and crop integration.” In other words, the basic tenets of organic agriculture, which were developed by an English plant pathologist drawing on the methods of Indian peasant farmers in the first half of the 20th century.

Such agriculture can indeed “feed the 9 billion,” to use The Economist‘s phrase. The report concludes that “use of green agricultural practices and technologies” can boost global per capita calorie availability from today’s 2,800 to around 3,200 calories by 2050. And it can do so in a way that doesn’t drive millions of smallholder farmers off the land and into cities ill-equipped to absorb them, like the so-called Green Revolution transition to industrial farming in the ‘60s and ‘70s did in South Asia. “Green agriculture has the potential to be a net creator of jobs that provides higher return on labour inputs than conventional agriculture,” the report states.

Transitioning to green agriculture will take serious investment, the report acknowledges: $198 billion per year from 2011 to 2050. But the original Green Revolution required massive investments, too — as do present-day schemes that involve “feeding the world” with patented biotech seeds, large, energy-sucking machines, and chemical fertilizers. And investing in green ag offers high returns:

Studies suggest that “Return on investments (ROI) in agricultural knowledge, science and technology across commodities, countries and regions on average are high (40-50 per cent) and have not declined over time. … In terms of social gains, the Asian Development Bank Institute concluded that investment needed to move a household out of poverty through engaging farmers in organic agriculture could be only US$32 to US$38 per capita

This latest report confirms that there is indeed a consensus forming in development-policy circles on the feed-the-world question, but it’s the opposite of what The Economist presented. Green ag, not Big Ag, points the way forward.

The question becomes, why are so many influential commentators behind the curve? How can The Economist so confidently pretend away the emerging consensus? (I can’t resist noting that in the acknowledgments to its special food series, the magazine named as sources Monsanto, Syngenta, the Monsanto-funded Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and Kraft Foods, along with the World Bank and the FAO.) Why did Obama staff his ag-policy positions with people who act like they’ve never heard anything but Big Ag propaganda? When is the Gates Foundation going to move its considerable resources behind green ag? How can a smart writer like The Washington Post‘s ace political blogger Ezra Klein casually declare, as he did last year, that “Industrial farms are the future,” citing nothing more than a half-baked newspaper report? By all means, disagree with the consensus if you find it flawed; but acknowledge it, wrestle with the literature, refute it (if you can).

Perhaps the tide will turn with the ascension of veteran food writer Mark Bittman to The New York Times op-ed page — still probably the nation’s most influential opinion forum. In his latest column, published today, Bittman teases out the implications of the new U.N. report. Are you listening, President Obama? Mr. Gates?