The compelling humanitarian goals expressed today at the corporately sponsored Global Harvest Initiative symposium were laudable, as were some of the hunger-relief projects cited. Missing, however, was an honest assessment of the limits of dead-end chemical agriculture to play a leading role in actually feeding people.
Also absent from the high-powered forum was a prominent role for what organic agriculture is already doing to meet the most important goals on the food-hunger-nutrition side of the problem.
The event, despite all the good people presenting and all the calls for curbing the environmental harm of chemical ag, amounted to glitzy green packaging for the same unnecessary gift of chemical dependence for the world's farmers. GHI is sponsored by ADM, DuPont, John Deere and Monsanto. (Yes, the same Monsanto which has promised to double its profits by 2012 with continuing introductions of "high impact technology" seeds.)
In his opening remarks, GHI executive director William Lesher placed the focus firmly on the need for more food, highlighting a projected "productivity gap" that will require a doubling of current world food output by 2050. This thinking follows the outlines of a white paper by GHI in April: "Accelerating Productivity Growth: The 21st Century Global Agriculture Challenge: A White Paper on Agricultural Policy." Yet more food alone won't help starving people until the global agricultural system radically shifts its focus to address the barriers of poverty (the inability to buy food) and distribution (getting food people want to where they are).
By framing global food security in terms of "not enough food," the Global Harvest Initiative seems stuck on doing the same old thing harder and faster. It backers still push expensive seeds and continued dependence on climate-damaging inputs. Organic and near-organic techniques offer robust, biodiverse, productive and regenerative systems that can out-produce chemical approaches in drier and wetter seasons.
The symposium's highlighting of groups seeking environmental and social benefits may do some good -- if the groups can break industrial ag's profit-driven willingness to sacrifice soil vitality, agricultural biodiversity, human endocrine and neurological health, farmer control of seeds and a nation's nutritional well-being. Or it may just be the best agri-greenwashing money can buy.
This event kicked off a campaign by these corporate leaders to claim the moral high ground in addressing world hunger, which already impacts 1 billion people, according to the UN. While nutrition received prominence at the event, the top three agenda items listed at the GHI website are seeking new funds for research, liberalized ag trade, conservation.
The GHI overture appears to be geared to grab even more money, attention, research, trade and policy support for high-input dependent systems. This mission runs counter to calls from several world food study groups (here and here) who say organic and ecological production systems are the best hope for transforming the "feeding the world" challenge from simply producing more corn and soybeans on industrial farms toward growing more diverse and nutritive crops, better suited to feed the hungry poor, produced in more ecologically sound ways based on locally-available, biologically renewable resources.
Food-focused farmers already know how well biology works. Without further research, organic farms in widely varied climates and sizes are already producing highly nutritious food in sustainable ways that are reducing greenhouse gases, increasing resilience in the face of changing climatic conditions, and providing greater economic opportunity.
With a fraction of the hundreds of millions of research dollars already spent to overcome chemical agriculture's failures, agricultural researchers around the world could work on organic farming advances relevant to their bioregions. NGOs dedicated to exploring ecologically sound ways to optimize hunger-relieving livestock and crop production could adopt and teach organic techniques to help bring degraded soils into production -- a goal of the GHI's white paper -- while improving nutrition through complex crop mixes that are impossible when pesticides are used.
"Conservation" in today's symposium too seemed to be crafty balancing of "agricultural sacrifice zones" (where pesticides and fertilizers protect commodity monocrops) with non-farmed wild areas. Mitigation is good, but organic systems done well actually increase biodiversity throughout farmed land: in the soil, as fungi and other microorganisms build up to support crop productivity over time; in the fields as crops are protected by health soil and beneficial insects; around the fields through hedgerows and scattered bio-habitat plantings.
And how telling about GHI means and ends is this quote from its white paper:
While the technological advances brought by the Green Revolution have been fully exploited by now, a new frontier -- biotechnology -- has emerged with the capacity to provide important new benefits for both developed and developing countries, and even to target new technologies specifically to local needs and conditions, including those in developing countries.
I want hungry people to be fed, farmers to prosper, ecosystems to thrive while farming improves, wildlife to flourish and whole bio-regions to develop sustainable economies. That's why I demand organic agriculture be front and center on the global food agenda.
Rodale Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit engaged in research and advocacy for "Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy People, Healthy Planet." We were founded in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, in 1947 by organic pioneer J.I. Rodale.
Our research findings are clear: A global organic transformation will mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere and restore soil fertility. Our mission: We improve the health and well-being of people and the planet.