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Feeding the world with organic farming

August 9, 2019

Feeding the world
with organic farming by Jacques Caplat Hi, Working as an agricultural adviser and then
as a national coordinator on organic farming, I was often confronted with farmers
who told me in good faith: “Organic farming, it’s interesting
but it’s not generalizable so I prefer looking for something else”. It is this false commonplace idea
that I am going to attack. Actually there are alternatives
to conventional agriculture. I call “conventional” the type of agriculture
that makes convention today, that is based on chemistry, mechanization, etc. This approach of agriculture
has numerous dead ends, that many documentary movies and books
have exposed the past few years. I’d rather adopt a positive outlook
than focus on denunciating, but it is necessary to say a few words about it
to understand the alternative solutions. Obviously, conventional farming
has a problem with pesticides. This doesn’t concern only human health,
but also biodiversity, particularly in soils. Pesticides are made to kill unwanted herbs,
insects or fungi, but they also kill the microfauna,
the microflora and the fungi of the soils which become gradually impoverished. Besides, “conventional” agriculture is problematic
for greenhouse effect and energy balance. When a farmer spreads 100 kilos of
chemical nitrogen over 1 hectare, he contributes as much to the greenhouse effect
as a car that travels 10 000 kilometers. Multiply then by the number of hectares… Moreover, the energy balance of this type
of agriculture is negative from now on in certain farms of Europe and North-America. It means that this agriculture
consumes more fossil energy than it produces assimilable energy
for humans beings… Yet the first role of agriculture is to transfer
solar energy into assimilable energy for us. A negative energetic balance means
that hunting and gathering is more effective than farming,
that beats everything! Lastly, conventional farming is
the first cause of world hunger. If you think that world hunger is due to a deficit
of production, I’ll have to contradict you. Hunger is above all
due to economic and social problems. In agronomic terms, we already produce 330 kilos
of equivalents cereal per person per year, while 200 kilos of equivalents cereal
are enough. Thus, on the global scale
production is sufficient. Unfortunately a large part of that production
is used to feed cattle or produce agro-fuels, and is anyway not accessible
to the poorest people. Yet, the first cause of world hunger
is poverty. For example, brazilian agriculture
is based on large, exportation-driven domains. It could feed twice the current population
of Brazil; nevertheless 12 millions of Brazilian go hungry,
that is 6 % of the population… because the large domains replaced
their agricultural employees by machines and chemistry. The former farming manpower
rots in favelas today and starves. Yet, these big farms export soybean, which feeds in particular North-American
and European cattle. Where I live, in French Brittany, cows are fed
with local corn and imported soya. An area the size of french Brittany
is cultivated in Brazil to feed our animals. That type of agriculture is now “half-soilless”. How did we get such an unsustainable system? Not only because of multinationals,
even if they contributed to set up this system, and mostly block its evolution today. This system was set up at first by agronomists
and politicians who acted with good intentions, and then by the farmers
who did what they were told to do. These agronomists followed a totally outdated
way of thinking, so called reductionnism. It consists in studying a system
by isolating elements from each other, and then by assembling them again. At the end of the 2nd world war
it was justifiable to try to increase yields. Agronomists selected vegetable varieties
by focusing on the yields, but in such “ideal” and theoretical conditions that
they no longer corresponded to conditions of culture. Indeed, these varieties obtained
very high yields in these virtual conditions, but when one wanted to put them back in real fields, one had to completely reverse
the way of conducting a farm, compared to the previous 10 000 years
of agriculture. Instead of adapting the varieties to the environment,
one had to adapt the environment to the varieties. As these varieties get high yields
in artificial conditions, we have artificialized soils
with chemical fertilizer. These plants become twice fragilized:
because they’re no longer adapted to their environment, and because they’re fed by soluble fertilizers. We thus have to protect them
by applying pesticides. Furthermore, they’re single, clonal crops.
These varieties with high yields were selected separately with only one plant by plot of land,
as it’s easier to select, and in a wheatfield all ears
are genetically identical: they’re clones. This single, clonal cropping
allowed mechanization. It was useful after the WW II
for it freed hands to rebuild Europe; it’s much less useful today
for it creates unemployment. All this was coherent at that time, it worked in Europe
and North-America, that is in the temperate areas — at least temporarily, as it now begins
to deplete the soils. The problem is that outside Europe and North-America
the planet consists of non-temperate climates! That is climates are unstable, the variations
which are exceptional for us (floods, droughts) are ordinary for the greater part of the planet. When agronomists tell us that “improved varieties”
of the “green revolution” obtain higher yields than the traditional ones,
it is an imposture. They speak about yields
during the ideal years, and consider that the other years
“do not matter because they’re accidents”. But in the tropical countries,
bad years are majority, NOT accidents. In reality, in non-temperate countries,
over 5 or 10 years conventional farming obtain lower yields
than organic farming. But then, we have alternatives
to conventional farming. Instead of the “single cropping”, we could practise
what is called “multiple cropping” (intercropping). This consists in having several plant species
in the same plot. Multiple cropping always have a higher yield
than single cropping for various reasons. First, less nutritional competition, as
different plants mobilize different mineral elements. But particularly, certain plants
will bring nutritious elements; for example, leguminous plants are able
to collect atmospheric nitrogen and transform it into organic nitrogen
which is then found in the soil. Nitrogen is the main component of air,
it is an infinite resource. Trees are able to extract potassium,
close to the bedrock very deep in the ground. Potassium is little exported into fruits,
and gets down again in roots in autumn. Of course, trees do not bring it back deeply
where they extracted it, but through their entire root system;
they thus enrich the whole soil in potassium. As far as phosphorus is concerned,
trees can also draw it from deep down, and some crops, as such as buckwheat, can transform
unavailable phosphorus into available one. Fertility can thus be self-maintained
by complex multiple cropping. Of course, it is rare to have
a really perfectly balanced complex system, that is why it is recommended to bring
animal excrement in the form of compost. It is thus useful to also have animals,
at least at the beginning and in Europe. This system also allows
mutual protection of crops, because diversity of plants means
diversity of habitats for animals and insects, and some plants are going to shelter
predators of the other plant’s parasites. Most importantly, this system allows
to optimize photosynthesis. Consider a corn field, in Europe
or in North-America, in Spring: it’s a large field of naked ground with some
small ears of corn that are just coming out. The naked ground means that the rain captures
the nitrogen in the soil, and causes water pollution. But that also means that the sunlight falls
on the ground instead of falling on plants, and does not benefit to the crop
(but possibly to the weeds!). On the contrary, if you associate corn with
another crop (for example peanut in Africa), that crop is going to cover the ground
in Spring, then will be harvested
when the corn starts developing. This system means that the ground is always covered,
and uses more of the sunlight to produce food. As the use of sunlight is optimized, the production of biomass
of the plot in the year is necessarily superior; the yields are necessarily superior. Finally multiple cropping allows
to stabilize grounds, to fight erosion, which is a major issue
in non-temperate countries that have steep topography and undergo very violent
intertropical thunderstorms, monsoons, etc. To stabilize the ground, you should
definitely not practice annual single cropping. You have to keep trees and shrubs,
which help keep the soil intact, and the annual crops are then grown
between them. This system gives by very far the highest yields. Let me give you an example by considering the production
that, in Europe, is closest to multiple cropping: that is market gardening,
with often 30 or 40 different vegetables. I’m going to compare it with a conventional wheat crop,
which is really the archetype of conventional farming. A wheat crop, with all the possible chemical inputs,
is going to yield at the most 100 quintals by hectare, which means 10 tons of consumable grain,
thus 8 tons of dry matter. The market gardening is going to yield 20 to 70 tons
of consumable materials by hectare, that is 15 in 20 tons of dry matter. So, the market gardening obtains higher yields than a single crop of wheat
supported by heavy chemical treatment. You wonder why I compared wheat / market gardening
and not wheat / wheat? Because it’s necessary to wonder about the studies
led in temperate countries on the yield of organic farming. What do they really compare? On the one hand, a single wheat crop
of a standard variety selected for chemical treatment, grown with no ecosystem and
supported by chemical treatments… and, on the other hand, a single wheat crop
of a standard variety selected for chemical treatment, grown with no ecosystem
but WITHOUT chemical treatments. It is obvious that the second will obtain
lower yields than the first one! These studies compare a “conventional standard” crop
with a “conventional without chemicals” crop. An organically grown wheat doesn’t work that way!
it would be grown using multiple cropping, with a functioning ecosystem,
and varieties adapted to the environment, etc. A real comparison has to compare conventional
single cropping and organic multiple cropping. And numerous studies worldwide showed
that multiple cropping in organic farming have higher yields in the tropical areas
than conventional farming. So, what is organic farming then? Well, it is nothing but the best solution
to optimize the multiple cropping. Organic farming is not an ancient agriculture,
it is a modern agriculture that makes the synthesis between
ancient knowledge and very modern knowledge. For example, compost is an invention of Sir Albert Howard,
one of the founders of organic farming in 1940. Another pioneer, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer in 1937, set the very clear foundations of
what organic farming is. It is an agriculture that recreates,
at farm level, an “organism” with interrelations
between its elements. This agricultural organism associates, on the one hand,
an ecosystem (=the ground, hedges, water sources…), on the other hand, an agrosystem
(=crops and livestock), and finally human beings. Human beings have been taken into account
by organic farming since its foundation! They bring of course their working strength,
but they also bring their knowledge. A farmer’s knowledge is not written
but remains a constructed knowledge which is transmitted from generation
to generation and relies on experimentation. Human beings also bring their needs
and their desires. Two different societies in the same environment
will not cultivate the same plants. The agronomist does’nt have to
make them change but optimize them. Thus organic farming aims at recreating
a complex agro-ecosystem. And the ban on chemicals after all that? Well I hope that you understood that it is
only a WAY to recreate an agro-ecosystem. It is not the purpose of organic farming. When one has understood the alternative between
single cropping supported by the chemicals or organic multiple cropping,
one has the choice. We can start off from the system which has
the lower yields, single cropping, and improve these yields with chemicals. Or start off from the system which has
the higher yields, multiple cropping (intercropping), and improve these yields with organic farming. Not only in the long run the yields are higher
with multiple cropping grown with organic farming, but furthermore it is a system applicable
to the whole planet and not only in temperate areas. Of course, this organic farming of multiple cropping
(called sometimes agroecology) is much more difficult to implement in Europe
or in North-America than in tropical areas. For here, we start off from a system
that is completely impoverished: farms do not have ecosystems anymore,
almost no human workforce anymore, no knowledge anymore,
no varieties adapted to our environment… Thus in Europe and North-America,
the evolution will take time. The farmers who were close to organic farming
already got into it, those who will get organic tomorrow are
increasingly far away from the organic farming. Nevertheless they will have to evolve,
it will be necessary to accompany them, the policies have to set up supports,
fiscal reforms; it is necessary to give
to the organic farmers the means to help the conventional farmers
to learn and to evolve. In any case it’s very important that the farmers
go out of the confinement in which they were trapped. The farmers today feel trapped
between two walls, on one side, the society
that tells them “you poison us” and, on the other side, the agro-industry
that tells them “you cannot act differently”. These walls crushes them,
and one of the ways to escape is suicide, which is frequent amongst farmers
and is a real drama. Another, less tragic, solution is
to break one of the walls by being in denial and saying “no, it isn’t true,
we farmers do not poison you”… but the trouble is that it is true,
the current conventional agriculture poisons us. But fortunately there is a much simpler,
much more optimistic and positive solution: it’s to bring down the other wall.
It’s wrong to claim that we cannot act differently. We can perfectly produce enough
to feed the world and to feed our countries, with organic farming based on multiple cropping
and varieties adapted to the local environments. The solutions are here,
we just have to get on with it.

1 Comment

  • Reply india's century old traditional agriculture by satish August 24, 2014 at 3:10 pm

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