For many years I have been concerned about world health issues. In particular, it bothers me to see the world hunger situation in such dire straits. This month I want to share with you some information from a recent article, that I hope peaks your interest. First, let's examine a bit of history. As early as the 1930s and 40s some scientists were becoming skeptical of what was considered conventional agriculture. They saw the loss and deterioration of the soil, accompanied by the lack of nutrition in food for animal and humans, as a serious problem. These scientists did not get much attention. In fact, some were ridiculed, considered old-fashioned, and even condemned for their scientific contributions.
J.I. Rodale was one man with many concerns in this era. In 1941, he bought a farm in Pennsylvania, and in 1942 started a magazine, "Organic Farming and Gardening," with the goal of developing and demonstrating practical methods of rebuilding natural soil fertility.
In the 1960s many agriculture scientists, and others in government and industry, began advocating that the US had the solution to the world food shortage problems. The movement was called the industrial Green Revolution. In agriculture, that meant "get big or get out," an actual quote from Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. The emphasis in agriculture was on genetics (hybridization and eventually GMOs) and chemical NPK fertilization for increased production. If you look at the agriculture scientific journals for the last 40 years, you can see how this theme prevailed.
As time went on, there was more and more emphasis on chemical herbicides and pesticides. The word "green" in the industrial Green Revolution had nothing to do with its general meaning today. To be "green" in agriculture today implies efforts toward sustainability and a non-invasive, friendly approach to the environment. The industrial Green Revolution was anything but green. While the Revolution was powering its way through the US and the world in the 60s and 70s, more and more people questioned the wisdom of chemical agriculture practices.
By1981, J.I. Rodale had died. His son, Robert, had taken over the "Organic Gardening and Farming" magazine, and had won USDA support to begin the Farming System Trials. These were tests to compare the conventional and the organic systems in farm-size trials. The criteria for comparison included crop production, as well as soil development characteristics, and energy inputs. It would be holistic, long-term, and comprehensive testing.
The Rodale/USDA tests were not the only ones making this kind of comparisons. Many farming-practice tests were being done in other places throughout the US and the world. Results trickled in and were published in Eco and Alternative Agriculture magazines. Throughout it all, conventional farming soils were still being degraded and the answer for more food production was generally the same…pour on more cheap NPK fertilizer. As the soils became poorer, the more fertilizer that was required, the more pest problems that developed, and the more pesticides that had to be applied. This has been referred to as rescue chemistry. No-till farming was developed, but was not the answer to reduction in use of chemicals. Along the way, the disease and insect folks tried to moderate the application of pesticides, through an Integrated Pest Management approach.
So how did the industrial Green Revolution do in answering the call to feed the world? Consider this. Of the 6.5 billion people in the world today, 923 million are seriously undernourished, more than 2 billion suffer from micronutrient malnutrition (hidden hunger), and 25,000 die each day from starvation. FAO reports that the fuel and financial crisis of the past year have plunged an additional 77 million people into malnutrition. The world's most vulnerable people have been hit the hardest. Soils have continued to be depleted and degraded, and the developing countries of the world have become dependent on others for much of their food, fertilizer and seed supplies, i.e. they moved closer to becoming welfare States. Few, if any, of the developing countries were successful in becoming self sufficient in agriculture.
All of this has not gone unnoticed. This world-wide issue involving agriculture and human health has been on the front burner for the United Nations (UN), World Bank (WB), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO) and many other organizations. The issues of food and health have come to an even more poignant junction with the recent increases in high energy costs. It's fair to say that although the intersection of environmental issues, energy, and the economy is messy and complex, it is clear that conventional farming practices need to change. This is not my conclusion, but the confirmed findings and recommendations of the recently released report of the International Assessment of Agriculture Knowledge, Science and Technology panel, supported by over 400 experts from FAO, UNEP, WHO, WB, UNESCO and more. See article "The Organic Green Revolution," by Drs. LaSalle, Hepperly and Diop. Go to RodaleInstitute.com, and click on Famine Prevention to find the article.
Here are a couple quotes from some of the base reports:
"The way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with the growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse."
…" the potential contribution of organic farming to feeding the world may be far higher than many had supposed."
The new Organic Green Revolution proposal is based on two guiding principles: Build soil organic matter through the use of cover crops, crop rotation, and compost; and improve ecosystem health and human nutrition through plant and animal diversity.
The authors list the following benefits of the regenerative organic farming systems that they have proposed.
- Competitive yields
- Improved soil
- Money savings
- Energy savings
- Mitigation of global warming
- Enhanced biodiversity
- Water conservation
- Improved resiliency to weather variations
- Increased food nutrient density
- Reduced toxic load
I personally believe the time in ripe for this Organic Green Revolution. Without it, the road ahead looks dismal. For those of us already on board with an organic approach, we extend our welcome and helping hand to those wanting to make the transition. If you missed the first train, don't worry. We will keep the light on until you arrive.