Senior Researcher, Brian Halweil, appeared on NPR’s Science Friday, ”Sizing Up Sustainable Food ,” last week with Michael Polland and James Mc Williams
On a recent episode of Science Friday, when the host asked whether organic farming could feed the world, one of the guests suggested that the impracticality lay with compost.
“The concerns with fertilizer really have to do with compost,” said journalist James McWilliams. “Compost is extremely heavy. And this is, in some ways, going to be tremendously unwieldy and unachievable, especially in poor countries.”
Yes, it’s true that compost is best made and used locally. But compost isn’t the only form of fertilizer used by organic farmers. In addition to bulky sources like compost and manure, there are cover crops, green manures, and leguminous plants added to the crop rotation, some of which are more accessible and affordable for poor farmers than chemical fertilizers. And if weight is your main concern, organic farmers also have an array of concentrated fertilizers to choose from, from bone and fish meal to chicken litter teas and microbial soil inoculants. A Michigan State team of agricultural scientists and ecologists found that there was, in fact, no shortage of “organic” sources of nitrogen if the world needed to depend on these for fertility. (I took a look at this study and others a few years ago.)
At a time when the number of hungry people on the planet has just topped one billion, this guest’s anti-compost statement was good evidence that journalists, agricultural scientists, politicians, and even farmers often dismiss agricultural approaches based on misinformation. This is part of the reason that Worldwatch has launched a project to evaluate and point the world towards agricultural innovations that can nourish people, as well as the planet.
Which isn’t to say that an all-organic approach is necessarily the solution. Or that an all-anything approach is the best solution. In fact, if there were any broad conclusions from the Science Friday discussion it was that the world’s agricultural discussion is moving away from extremism and towards nuance. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where soils are so depleted in nutrients, organic forms of fertilizer are most effective at raising yields only after farmers use some chemical fertilizer to build back essential nutrients. In other situations, where poor farmers are exporting vegetables or coffee or cashews to wealthy nations, the greatest benefits will come from combining these long-distance markets with investment in local processing and local marketing cooperatives that add as much value as possible before the crops leave the country.
Past attempts to eradicate hunger, in addition to common sense, show us that no one answer will save the world—or millions of people from hunger and malnutrition. The most enduring solutions will suit the setting—a pest-resistant crop variety will be indispensible in some cases, whereas in other regions farmers will benefit most from access to low-cost irrigation. A diversity of solutions will be the strongest solution, just as the world’s wealth of crop and livestock diversity is our ultimate insurance against the emergence of new diseases or more erratic weather from climate change.
As the show wound down, I found myself channeling some commonsense wisdom from my grandfather: “We shouldn’t let doing the perfect prevent us from doing the good.” I suppose this is as true for our own lives as it is for agricultural development.