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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 think almost everyone can see this story was paid for by monsanto as well as columbia university. This article demonstrates a fundamental lack of comprehension of the mechanics by which by which nutrition is provided to plants in the soil. chemical fertilizers pesticieds and herbacides all destroy the soil food web shich is the very mechanism which regulates and enable plant nutrient uptake. the fact is companies lie mosanto and IG farben are a bunch of money grubing charlotons who overcomited to a chemical technology based on petrochemicals. now they have invested so much in technology which dosn't work they are forced to launch a massive campaign to brainwash and misinform the public. reading articles like this is sickening and confirms my speculations that NPR is propaganda factory

If you listen to NPR, you might have been surprised to hear a story that ran last week on the program Marketplace that sounded as if it were written by Monsanto itself.

The report, entitled "The Non-Organic Future," claimed that the only way to feed the world is to give poor farmers fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds.

Pedro Sanchez, a proponent of industrial agriculture who works as a soil scientist at Columbia University, is the mouthpiece for the absurd proposition that soil is "like a bank account, you've got to have a positive balance, and if you deposit only organics, you're going to go broke."

In a comment posted at Marketplace's website, Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet, pointed to a gaping hole in their reporting: the failure to acknowledge the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report, a joint project of the U.N. and the World Bank, among other agencies. Here's Anna's apt description of the report:

"The groundbreaking study brought together 400 experts who worked for 4.5 years to explore the most efficient, productive, and sustainable strategy for feeding the world. The conclusion - quite the opposite of the one reached by those quoted in this segment - stated in no uncertain terms that we must move away from chemical- and fossil[-fuel]-dependent agriculture, which by the way includes biotech.

"Business as usual is not an option, was the radical consensus. Instead, small-scale and mid-scale agroecological farming holds our best hope for feeding the world safe, healthy food, all without undermining our natural capital."

As the IAASTD report shows, Sanchez's view is hardly the only or even the dominant view among development experts about how to "feed the world." Indeed, if there is a consensus, Sanchez's views are in the minority.

Listeners might chalk the whole thing up to sloppy reporting, if it weren't for the fact that over the last couple of years, Marketplace has been underwritten by Monsanto, and the program's been running ads that tout Monsanto as a sustainable agriculture innovator! Rather than being sloppy, it turns out that the reporting is actually a carefully constructed thank-you gift for a prized advertiser!

If you find this type of corporate influence and media bias unacceptable, please ask American Public Media, producers of Marketplace, to stop spreading Monsanto's lies.

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If you listen to NPR, you might have been surprised to hear a story that ran last week on the program Marketplace that sounded as if it were written by Monsanto itself.

The report, entitled "The Non-Organic Future," claimed that the only way to feed the world is to give poor farmers fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds.

Pedro Sanchez, a proponent of industrial agriculture who works as a soil scientist at Columbia University, is the mouthpiece for the absurd proposition that soil is "like a bank account, you've got to have a positive balance, and if you deposit only organics, you're going to go broke."

In a comment posted at Marketplace's website, Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet, pointed to a gaping hole in their reporting: the failure to acknowledge the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report, a joint project of the U.N. and the World Bank, among other agencies. Here's Anna's apt description of the report:

"The groundbreaking study brought together 400 experts who worked for 4.5 years to explore the most efficient, productive, and sustainable strategy for feeding the world. The conclusion - quite the opposite of the one reached by those quoted in this segment - stated in no uncertain terms that we must move away from chemical- and fossil[-fuel]-dependent agriculture, which by the way includes biotech.

"Business as usual is not an option, was the radical consensus. Instead, small-scale and mid-scale agroecological farming holds our best hope for feeding the world safe, healthy food, all without undermining our natural capital."

As the IAASTD report shows, Sanchez's view is hardly the only or even the dominant view among development experts about how to "feed the world." Indeed, if there is a consensus, Sanchez's views are in the minority.

Listeners might chalk the whole thing up to sloppy reporting, if it weren't for the fact that over the last couple of years, Marketplace has been underwritten by Monsanto, and the program's been running ads that tout Monsanto as a sustainable agriculture innovator! Rather than being sloppy, it turns out that the reporting is actually a carefully constructed thank-you gift for a prized advertiser!

If you find this type of corporate influence and media bias unacceptable, please ask American Public Media, producers of Marketplace, to stop spreading Monsanto's lies.

Take Action

If you think ORganic food is ONLY sampled by ich yuppies from San Francisco, think again. I make $10000 a year, and grow my own food. I don't have healthcare, except for Organic Food, to keep me healthy. Lots of my friends are getting cancer, and other maladys from poisons in the environment.Monsanto is evil.Sorry!

Africa, for example: The failed "Green Revolution" of the 70s. The idea was that the developed US/European countries would offer their convential methods and Africa's spartan arable land would produce, produce, produce. This all went badly, but here's an interesting tidbit: most of Africa's farming lands today produce crops for EUROPE and CHINA.
Beyond organic, we must focus on sustainability. Zaire's food should be grown in Zaire to feed Zaire's people. Same goes for all regions, tribes, people throughout the world.
Also, nutrients in food crops should come from the soil. Land detroyed by pesticides and fertilizers cannot provide those nutrients. I understad the desire to alleviate the suffering and hunger of legions of people, but polluted their ground is not the way.
Why don't WE eat what's available to us locally and seasonally and stop eating year-round summertime harvests from developing nations. That might help.

I don't mind articles that are contrary to mine unless they are complete spin. If organics cause farmers to go broke, why is it such a fast growing segment of the food industry. Does the "cost" of nonorganic farming take into account the damage to water and soils? I know NPR is struggling against the conservative attacks but please try to at least stay neutral and just give us the truth, no spin please.

This article is complete rubbish. Is Monsanto writing the articles you publish? Completely one-sided, factually incorrect, this is not journalism. Has APM become a corporate whore for Monsanto? Sure smells like it.

I'm pretty shocked that Marketplace is perpetuating the myth that chemical agriculture and bioengineering will solve our food problems. The second half of this report seemed a little bit more balanced and reasonable, touching upon the importance of how we look at food and how land-intensive our Western diet is. However, to state that organic agriculture is not a major player in feeding our future generations, when gasoline is $4 a gallon and rising, our worldwide oil production in a perpetual decline, and therefore our sources for those chemical pesticides/fertilizers (OIL) very limited, I find the perspective of this report to be extremely short-sighted and biased.

To feed the world we need better food distribution, education, MANY more people actually farming, and a focus on non-monocultures that build up organic matter in the soil, plant diversity, and take up smaller amounts of space. (Ever think about how much space is wasted just so that massive tractors can get through the fields?)

This is complete rubbish and a very unbalanced story perhaps funded by Monsanto? I am not willing to put my dollars in the pocket of Monsanto promoters and will no longer be a paying contributor of NPR.

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