fertilzed cornLet’s have a real debate about organic vs. conventional agriculture.Photo: Bio BrothersIn a recent report entitled “The Non-Organic Future,” public radio’s Marketplace program considered the challenge to agriculture of feeding a world population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050. It was, to be frank, a terrible piece of journalism. Short, virtually fact-free, and weakly reported, it gave pride of place to soil scientist Pedro Sanchez of Columbia University. To his credit, Sanchez is a well-intentioned scholar dedicated to reducing world hunger. However, he sees his mission through the lens of conventional ag. In essence, Sanchez is nothing short of an evangelist for the policy of handing out fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds to developing world farmers. Reporter Adriene Hill allowed Sanchez to state, without the need for such things as corroborating facts, the following:

Pedro Sanchez: If you ask me point blank whether organic-based farming is better than conventional, my answer is no. There are just too many of us, we just need too many nutrients.

Adriene Hill: And those nutrients come from plants that need nutrients that organic fertilizers can’t always provide.

Sanchez: It’s like a bank account, you’ve got to have a positive balance.

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Hill: And if you deposit only organics, he says …

Sanchez: … you’re going to go broke.

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Sanchez is deeply involved in Columbia University’s “Millennium Villages” project, which has in several countries handed out fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds to developing world farmers. When you do this, yes, farmers grow more crops and experience higher yields. But what happens when the developed nations of the world decide, for example, that they are about to “go broke”? That in this new era of budget cutting, deficit reduction, and $100+ per barrel oil, we can’t actually afford to give this stuff away? What happens is that all that “progress” in these select villages that Sanchez likes to tout is shown to be a petroleum-fueled mirage; the improvement stands on the verge of disappearing in a puff of good intentions gone wrong. Sanchez wants to wean the developing world off direct food aid, which would be a good thing. But replacing handouts of grain with handouts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides doesn’t increase food security. Maybe Sanchez can’t see that because he’s too immersed in his work. Reporters should take a more skeptical view.

In fact, I would point Adriene Hill to another Marketplace report, this one from Jan. 2010 by her colleague Gregory Warner, about a Millennium Village in Rwanda that took a different path than Sanchez advocates. Warner spoke to Josh Ruxin, director of the project in Rwanda. Ruxin focused on teaching organic methods “like using composts and cow manure to boost the soil.”

Josh Ruxin: Check it out.

Gregory Warner: What’s going on here?

Ruxin: This is, you use it for irrigation.

Warner: Ruxin shows me some recycled water bottles shoved upside down in the soil.

Ruxin: And it works great, costs nothing. Highly effective.

Warner: He says that teaching farmers to go green isn’t only better for the environment, it’s cheaper than handing out fertilizer.

Ruxin: If they can even track down the fertilizer. There’s been such a run on fertilizer that one of the last places in the world that the fertilizer’s gonna reach is the relatively small market of Rwanda.

Right. So who’s living in fantasy land: organic advocates whose techniques don’t rely on annual deliveries of expensive synthetic fertilizers and chemicals — or scientists like Sanchez who believe that the fossil fuel fairy is going to descend on Africa and supply poor, small-scale farmers who live in remote villages that lack passable roads much of the year with literally tons of advanced agricultural chemicals, year after year?

In a comment on the above-linked Marketplace piece, Anna Lappe, author of Diet for a Hot Planet, pointed to a gaping hole in the report: the failure to acknowledge the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report, a joint project of the U.N. and the World Bank, among other agencies. Here’s Anna’s apt description of the report:

The groundbreaking study brought together 400 experts who worked for 4.5 years to explore the most efficient, productive, and sustainable strategy for feeding the world. The conclusion — quite the opposite of the one reached by those quoted in this segment — stated in no uncertain terms that we must move away from chemical- and fossil[-fuel]-dependent agriculture, which by the way includes biotech.

Business as usual is not an option, was the radical consensus. Instead, small-scale and mid-scale agroecological farming holds our best hope for feeding the world safe, healthy food, all without undermining our natural capital.

As the IAASTD report shows, Sanchez’s view is hardly the only or even the dominant view among development experts about how to “feed the world.” Indeed, if there is a consensus, Sanchez’s views are in the minority. There is a debate to be had over organic vs. conventional agriculture and the need to feed a growing population. But let’s have that debate, and not some ill-considered collection of fact-free sound bites. Are we clear, Marketplace?