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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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I'm so saddened to witness the lack of basic journalistic integrity in this story. it is factually flawed, relying on the comments of only a few individuals that derive their academic income from performing research for companies that benefit from their conclusions.
and not stating before, during and after this story that APM has funding from the worlds largest company in this non-organic space is inconceivable.
I'm soo disappointed.

Is NPR a Monsanto subsidiary now? This one sided story seems to indicate it is .... very, very, disappointing to have my beloved NPR touting Monsanto's evil agenda.

Genetically modified foods is NOT sustainable, robs poor countries of their natural food while simultaneously enslaving them to corporations. Everyone support congress bills now in session for Labeling GMO products to give consumers choice. A retort you may here is that "We don't want to confuse consumers". The fact is every day more and more people want to educate themselves on WHERE their food comes from and make healthy choices for themselves and their families. GMO will eventually be shamed into submission.

I thought it was interesting that crop yield was mentioned in this story, but not nutritional yield. It is my understanding that although crop yields are indeed lower for organically grown produce and sustainably raised livestock, the nutritional content is far lower. Shouldn't that consideration also matter?

Non-organic is our future if the Genetic engineered coexistence line of bunk is embraced. As patented transgenes migrate to natural plant neighbors, their mutant DNA changes the fundamental nature of that plant forever. Moreover, the new GM protein that's created is recognized as novel by our human biology and causes immune response. We co-evolved with our environment and adapted to eat and absorb nutrients from it. These man-made DNA monstrosities are created commercially to withstand weed killer and to even contain bug killer in every cell. There's NO human health benefit. GMs are used to sell ancillary chemical systems, a very profitable aspect to the bio-science business.

In terms of feeding the world, ironically, what is the US Agri-policy for feeding the world? Growing commodity grain in the US and shipping it overseas! Talk about adding a carbon footprint to your breakfast! The essence of industrial AG is promoting a high input chemical system requiring new yearly seed purchases. For a poor country, these are seed-born shackles that perpetuate subordination and slavery to a industrial system. People can feed themselves thru renewable organic practices. The apparatchik arguing in favor of industrial/chemical/biotech are held captive to an institutional line of reasoning built upon research grants and other forms of monetary compensation that shuns any system that can operate without inputs or academic oversight. It renders them unnecessary....and rightly so.

This story is so factually inaccurate and incomplete that it has prompted me to make my very first comment to NPR. Besides ignoring a March 2011 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, which stated that "agroecology can double food production entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty," the article failed to point out any of the important drawbacks of genetically modified crops.

These drawbacks include:

1) the cost of GMO seed for financially-strapped farmers,
2)the fact that farmers cannot save GMO seed as they have done for centuries, and must instead purchase seed every year,
3)the fact that farmers must often also purchase the corresponding herbicide that the GMO crops are designed for (e.g., Round Up Ready crops must be used with Round Up herbicide),
4) the fact that the active ingredient in Round Up, glyphosate, has caused a) herbicide resistant superweeds that only respond to chemicals even more dangerous than glyphosate, and b) dangerous levels of glyphosate build up in waterways. Glyphosate works by killing every type of plant except GMO plants, and the build up in waterways has been shown to damage other ecosystems.

In addition, respected scientist and professor Don Huber recently notified both the USDA and the EU about worrying concentrations of a certain microfungus that appears at high levels in GMO crops. This microfungus is associated with crop diseases and spontaneous late-term abortions in livestock at rates of over 40 percent.

Further, GMO crops encourage monocultures, which are extremely vulnerable to crop diseases.

What is actually needed is funding for localized crop breeding that produces seeds best suited for particular environments. Those seeds will have the best shot at weathering climate change and feeding the world, not GMO seeds.

My list of drawbacks is woefully incomplete, leaving out the fact that GMOs have been studied almost solely by industry scientists because patent rights have been enforced to keep non-industry scientists from accessing the seeds and crops. If the tobacco companies have taught us anything, they should have taught us not to trust industry-funded scientists with a vested interest in telling us that industry products are safe.

Finally, it is also well-documented that problems "feeding the world" have to do with distribution issues, NOT the amount of food produced. Monsanto and other GMO companies are actively propagating this lie, and it is shameful that NPR is helping them. As a former journalist myself, I find it hard to believe that NPR could allow such a poorly-researched and one-sided story to air.

The Huber letter is available here, and many other places: http://www.greenpasture.org/fermented-cod-liver-oil-butter-oil-vitamin-d...

The UN report is available here:http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=37704&Cr=farming&Cr1

This segment sounds like it was written by Monsanto.

I don't think this story was completely off base. It is very true that many small, overpopulated countries don't have the space to allocate enough land per person to effectively grow enough food. I think some of the anger comes from the feeling that the "anti-organic" movement misses the point of many organic consumers. I try to buy local and organic because I hope to support good practices that help reduce pollution in places like the Chesapeake Bay, not because I think that buying organic is somehow helping feed people in India or China. I appreciated that you covered several facets of the food situation.However, it felt like an introductory paragraph in a thesis paper. Hopefully you can turn this piece into a more in- depth series exploring all the elements touched on in this story, especially food consumption habits/education and economic effects in other parts of the world.

Please stop running disguised ads for Monsanto on Marketplace. This story was incredibly biased, misleading, and simplistic. I expect better from APM. Thank you.

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