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The non-organic future

A ladybug crawls on an organic bean plant growing in the land between tarmacs at the former El Toro Marine base in Orange County, Calif.

Tess Vigeland: The United Nations says a billion people go hungry on this planet each day. And the overall population is growing. Experts expect we'll top 9 billion by 2045. The looming question: How to feed everyone with limited resources? This week, several major foundations -- including Ford and Gates -- launched a $3 million a year initiative aimed at figuring out how to come up with the food we need.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Adriene Hill looks at what the answer might involve -- and what it might not.


Adriene Hill: The farmers markets in Los Angeles these days are piled high with organic strawberries and kale. To the contented shoppers, this is what the future should be -- fruits and veggies grown on small farms, nearby the city. But, get over it. This isn't the future -- not if we want to feed everyone.

Pedro Sanchez: If you ask me point blank whether organic-based farming is better than conventional, my answer is no.

That's Columbia University's Pedro Sanchez.

Sanchez: There are just too many of us, we just need too many nutrients.

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.

And if you deposit only organics he says...

Sanchez: You're going to go broke.

One reason experts say organic farming isn't the big-scale answer...

Mark Rosegrant: Organic production tends to have somewhat lower yields compared to non-organics.

Mark Rosegrant is with the International Food Policy Research Institute, an organization focused on sustainable ways to end hunger. He says going all organic would require a whole lot more land. Organic farming is, Rosegrant says, a niche market. It's not bad, per se, but...

Rosegrant: It's not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.

The Economist recently had a special issue on global food supplies. One piece ended with the thought that the reaction against commercial farming -- with it's dependence on chemicals -- is "a luxury of the rich."

So what does the future of farming look like? Rosegrant thinks that genetically-modified crops have to play a part -- especially as pollution causes the planet warms up.

Rosegrant: I think we do think it's part of the toolbox going forward, that for example to get some of the drought tolerance or other kinds of heat tolerance.

The future may also involve more creative farming.


Organic squash grows in the land between tarmacs at the former El Toro Marine base in Orange County, Calif.

AG Kawamura: We're in the middle of what used to be the El Toro Marine base. We're on an airport actually, and we're farming in the open areas between the tarmac.

AG Kawamura is a third-generation farmer. He also is the former California secretary of Agriculture. The afternoon sun bounces off concrete runways and rows of small organic yellow squash. Kawamura and his brother grow organic and conventional crops.

Kawamura: Globally, the idea, it's going to be a big tent. There's big agriculture, small agriculture, there's room for all.

When you grow lots of food, in lots of ways, in lots of places, Kawamura says, droughts and floods and bugs that chomp down on crops become less of a problem. The future may also involve eating differently.

Mark Bittman: We need to address what diet looks like in the developed world and what diet looks like in the developing world, and how to sort of balance things out.

Mark Bittman is a food columnist for the New York Times and the author of "The Food Matters Cookbook." His mantra -- more veggies, less meat. Animals takes a lot more water and food to grow than plants.

Bittman: We hear a lot about how the Chinese are eating more like us, but the reality is we need to be eating more like the Chinese.

For the billion of underfed people in the world today, there are a billion-and-a-half that are overweight. That too needs to change, Bittman says, as we all start thinking more about what we eat.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

Vigeland: When do you buy organic? Adriene asked each of her experts that question. For their answers, and to share yours -- take a look at her blog post.


Read: A note from the editor

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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Extremely disapointed in this article. Under-researched and obviously propaganda fincially supported by Monsanto. Again...very, VERY disapointed.

Of course a healthy amount of skepticism and scrutiny will always be warranted when it comes to massive companies or massive governments or the ways in which they affect our food options.

Having said that, I think it's important to note that this is not a big business conspiracy issue, it's an issue of economics. How to feed the most people the best food for the least money.

In the end, I choose non-organic, despite fitting nicely into the exact demographic that chooses organic (white, upper-middle class, San Francisco, Liberal), precisely because I have concerns about how reasonable it is to tell everyone they should be eating more expensive choice.

Wow, the overwhelming consensus is that most commenting people don't seem to agree with the program. Organic is not just for the wealthy. In fact while I grew up in the city for most of my life, we always had vegetable and fruit gardens in our yards. We had to in order to get by. As I later got hooked on the fast food nation and "production convenience food" my health over time deteriorated. Now even though I am unemployed, it is more cost effective for me to buy organics to maintain my health then to pay the doctor for treatments and medicine. Marketplace really needs to do a lot more research, that article was biased, factually inaccurate and downright dangerous when you consider all the negative impacts of genetically modified foods on human and animal health, the soil and our ecosystem., More and more scientists are opposing GM foods then supporting them. While a little old (2000), there is a link to a statement endorsed by 828 scientist from 84 countries opposing the spread of genetically modified organisms and foods and demanding that more research must be done before such products be released to the world food chain. At that time substantial research was already showing that there were significant dangers from GM food crops. The link is: http://www.i-sis.org.uk/list.php

At the same time today we are finding that more and more global research is showing that organic or traditional methods enhanced by modern scientific knowledge of soil, plants and ecosystems can not only create sustainable agriculture that favors organic but can actually adapt itself to the various global conditions. Sustainable organic farming creates jobs, produces better quality food that is more compatible with human and animal systems, reduces the need for shipping food long distances, reduces the dependence on oil (a finite resource), has no need for chemical herbicides,pesticides and fertilizers to feed their localities, returns more prosperity to local economies and generally contributes more to overall health. The whole argument for GM food is based upon theories of what it might accomplish someday not on facts of what it has done outside of carefully controlled test plots.

Further take a long look at the efforts of of the multi-national biotech industry to prevent independent research and review (a key component of real science) and global efforts to denigrate, suppress any scientists who's scientific research threatens their global profit motive. Biotech produces a great message about feeding the world but their real world application is more about chemical sales and profit that goes to the already wealthy.

Time to return farming to the real farmers and get big industry out of it. And as a note, Europe and many third world countries (outside of a few corrupt politicians) are strongly opposing the further introduction of GM foods which threaten their own agricultural systems. GM biotech farming has not helped feed anyone, and has destroyed the small farmers and their families in many areas in the US and globally.

Lastly for all those crops we produce so much excess in, (corn, soy, etc) and ship the excess to other countries you need to leek at the whole picture. We are shipping our GM poison at below cost to third world markets where we are underselling the actual cost of production in those markets and the only reason we can do that is because US taxpayers have been subsidizing the production of that excess since 1972. Many industrial farmers do not make any profits off of the food they produce (due to high cost of seed, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etct.) but only off the federal subsidies. They have themselves become slaves to the biotech industry, caught in a loop from which they cannot escape.

We need to require much more independent research on any GM food before release, we need to suspend the introduction of new GM foods, we need to BAN the patenting of life in any form (especially seed but now also animal life) and use of terminator technologies that prevent farmers from saving seed.

Biotech has not made food better, has not consistently increased yields over time, has not increased nutrition, has not improved lives for the average farmer, and has not improved lives for humanity in general. It has increased corporate profits for the minority wealthy, poisoned the soil, introduced large scale disruption and pollution to our ecosystems, increased oil consumption and is destroying many indigenous plant and animal species who play vital roles in maintaining balance. Further biotech industry in their rush to profits have pushed out technologies on which no long term studies have been done, have fought independent third party studies (contrary to scientific principle) and have no idea what the long term consequences of their actions may be. Do not confuse GM and biotech technologies with science. While they may employ some scientists (who are under severely binding contracts) they have opposed all independent scientific study and have used their PR and political influence machines to interfere with such studies. The truth is out there and it does not favor the current state of biotech and GMO technologies.

Understand I am very pro science and pro GM research, as knowledge is power, but research without peer review and rushed into the world market without long term impact studies and is bad science. The very process of creating GM organisms today is highly disruptive and unpredictable, not to mention controversial.

We need to stop the GM food machine, take control out of the hands of profit only oriented corporations and put it back into the hands of real scientists. In government programs such as the EPA and USDA, we need to take the decision making out of the hands of bureaucrats who are beholden to the industries and put it back in the hand of the actual scientists who have on many occasions opposed the introduction of GM foods due to significant concerns regarding the possible impacts on human life. In the US we must mandate that our watchdog agencies exist to serve the welfare of the people and not the industries. The rush to introduce new technologies must be weighed against the long term human impacts.

Humanity and our world has become nothing more then guinea pigs for the biotech and industrial ag industries who are focused on profits, not human, animal or ecological balance and welfare.

Trust the science, if properly done with long term studies and independently reviewed globally, but don't trust the corporations who are driven only by profit or the politicians they sponsor through contributions.

Another eater here who wants multi-national agribusiness out of our soil, water and food supply.

As much as the piece is shameful, it shouldn't come as a surprise.

Whether we’re talking about people directly or indirectly on the payroll of Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, DuPont, etc. supporting 'conventional’ agriculture, or just people that are well-intentioned and fundamentally misinformed, this grand theater here is playing out much like many other issues.

When you have so much profit to be made by publicly traded agribusiness firms, things are going to get ugly.

Agriculture is something everybody used to know about and now very few people know about. So, its easy for those firms to propagate misinformation.

Just like with so many other issues, the common man & woman believe what their TV news, radio, & government tell them. People really want to believe that the government, its laws and trusted brands have their best interest in mind. If they started to question one big issue, the whole ball of yarn would unravel and that’s too much for most people.

Not enough people stop to look one step deeper, to see the media and governments are bought and paid for by our noble corporations.

You don’t have to go as far as studying the history of modern agriculture and deep ecology to see that all of our US secretaries of agriculture come straight from Monsanto, etc.

Or that we managed to find find loop holes in the US constitution so that Monsanto and others can be allowed to patent actual seeds and other forms of life.

Or that for some reason, our latest expert in agriculture, Bill Gates is giving tens of millions of dollars to the Monsanto Foundation, Monsanto’s ‘non-profit division.’

I believe this issue of GMO’s and the general agribusiness take over of our planet to be the single most insidious thing happening in the world today. And clearly there’s a growing if not still marginal group of concerned citizens trying to keep some of our genetic legacy clean and sovereign, but if we are to have tru food sovereignty it will take a lot more people getting their hands dirty, both in their own gardens and farms, but also by educating themselves, their friends and family as to the basic political / corporate takeover of our air, water and soil by Brave New World profiteers.

Whether its via larger ‘corporate organic’ farms or the best case scenario, BioDynamic, Permaculture small farms, community gardens, etc.... we need millions more people with their hands in the dirt and less and less people in line at the stupor-market and the drive-thru windows.

If we want a better food system, we’ll have to build it ourselves. Let’s get to work!

Chris Powers
Northern California

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Organic farming is the past and the future. Practices that were proven effective for our great grandfathers that still work in our modern world with minimal inpact on the environment. Coporations and governments need to get on board and imbrace organics.

I used to be a diehard NPR fan, but the airing of one sided stories like this one makes me turn the channel now. Poor reporting. Plain and simple.

It may well be that Monsanto is realizing that it is fighting a losing battle and has certainly decided (as many other multi-nationals have) to manipulate the media to gain some time to maximize it's "rape & pillage" policies. Anyone with half a brain knows this story is not only biased but full of lies and misinformation. The age of "Big Ag" is nearing it's end - thankfully, but they won't go away without a fight.

Thank you Marketplace for informing me that I should no longer be listening to your show due to the poor knowledge and understanding of agriculture practices. I hope you lose plenty of funding due to this story and learn your lesson. Adios!

I am so heartened by these comments. I too was appalled at the snarky tone and one-sidedness of your story. Are you like NOVA -- taking money from David H. Koch now?

How can you run an article about the promise of GMOs and fail to acknowledge the pesticide and herbicide laden foods that come as a result? Those -cides run off into our water and have caused dead zones in our waterways, they disrupt hormones in our bodies and can lead to cancers ... Our body body does not know how to deal with the synthetic chemicals that we are unknowingly absorbing when we think we are eating healthy.

GMOs are not the future, humankind has gotten by with organic farming since 10000BC.. something tells me we'll do fine. It's just a matter of having enough local farmers for a population, instead of relying on monocultures, mass production, and pollution-intensive transit to get food to people. Companies like Monsanto are trying to make money off of food, they aren't trying to make food that will feed the world.

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