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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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This is an outrage. I will not listen to any "public" radio who gets its advertising dollars from Monsanto! Monsanto - scourge of the earth, would poison all of our food and is doing so, would poison our soil with its products that NEVER biodegrade (Round-up), would bankrupt third world farmers (over 200,000 cotton farmers in India committed suicide over Monsanto's corporate practices which ruined the livelihood and soil of these farmers), would ruin biodiversity by creating a "terminator" gene which sterilizes open-pollinated seed. Monsanto has only one aim: to control the world's food. They don't care how they do it; in fact, they seem hell bent on poisoning the entire planet. Monsanto is evil incarnate. I will no longer support Public Radio until Monsanto is off their donor/advertisor roster.

So Monsanto now is Marketplace's program writers? This is a very biased article. Organic farming can feed the world. Ask Christos Vasilikiotis, Ph.D. from Berkley: "Results from the first 8 years of the project show that the organic and low-input systems had yields comparable to the conventional systems in all crops which were tested"

Ask Ivette Perfecto from Uni Michigan: "In developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods"

Ask the UN! According to the report, Agro-ecology and the Right to Food, organic and sustainable small scale farming could double food production in the parts of the world where hunger is the biggest issue. Within five to 10 years we could see a big jump in crop cultivation.

This article is biased to your Advertisers I think.

People keep repeating the Monsanto myth that organic agriculture can't feed the world. Gary hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms says their organic operations in South America outproduce conventional agriculture. Further, the costs of chemically intensive agriculture are never figured in ... the depletion of the soil and the poisoning of our ecosystem. ADhD in children has been clearly correlated to pesticide levels in their bodies. What is the cost of ADhD in our children?

It's way too easy to shout about the evils of Monsanto and generalize all of this debate on one company. Intelligent, rational people shouldn't do that. The modern seed industry is complex and not well understood by the average consumer. Yes, there are global giants that control a large portion of the market for row crops. But, there are also hundreds of smaller regional companies around the globe that compete successfully against the big players. The playing field is becoming more level everyday as new genomics technologies enable conventional breeding to compete with transgenics.

Seed companies don't just fund research as a 'marketing expense'. The average seed company puts 10-15% of sales back into R&D every year. Plant breeding and research is an on-going effort that never stops. They are solving problems with plant diseases, improving quality traits, and increasing yields so all of us can have secure and affordable food supplies.

Ask your organic food supplier, especially the big growers who supply packaged/processed products where they get their seeds. It's a high probability that some of the seeds they use come from Monsanto, through their vegetable seed division. Also, ask if the seeds for that organic tomato or lettuce were themselves grown organically. Only 29% of organic vegetable acreage is planted with organic seeds. http://www.seedalliance.org/Publications/

There is a huge opportunity in organics. But, it takes a long time for things to change in agriculture (things only move as fast as the plants grow) and we are just at the beginning of the growth of organics. There is way more to this industry than just the evils of one company as portrayed so loudly in some media outlets. There are thousands of people and companies working to feed the world and make a living.

Cheers to Marketplace for bringing a realistic perspective to the debate. To all who shout conspiracy of the corporate overlords - grow up. If we all want to get concerned about our food system, from the field the seed is grown in, to the way the end product is delivered, then it all has to start with a clear understanding of how the industry works.

The future requires us to use less fuel to get more of our food. That means eating more whole foods and reducing transportation costs. As a poor college student I discovered I could eat much better on veggies than on meat and processed foods. I was trim, healthy, very active, and excelled in my course work. Americans need far less than they currently consume. A chicken in every backyard, a canning rack in every pot. It's not that hard.

There is truth in the comment about many NGO's creating more problems than they solve. Especially the ones involving Bill and Melinda Gates that promote GMO crops so they can eventually trick the peasants out of seed saving.Our NGO's ofen have hidden agendas. But how can people say organic cannot feed the world? It can. People are just limited by their innovation. And I am convinced that many of the most creative minds, thanksfully, are going back into small farming. And teaching people about innovations such as permaculture and bio-dynamics. Or for people like me, vertical gardening. Great for the suburbs.I rarely by veggies anymore,and it's not even summer gardening time yet. Can't wait for the eggs from under my deck!! Our planet can support a tremendous population, so it really isn't our business to be telling people how they should or should not breed. If someone really wants to try and help, they should work with systems in the third world that emerge from the grass roots.ANd back home we can utilze techniques such as companion planting etc. However, the best help we could provide would just be to quit subsizing our corporate agriculture, preaching to them about Malthus and quit dropping bombs on them (which we prefer to call humanitarian kinetic actions rather than attacks by depleted uranium carrying Tomohalk missiles which will undoubtedly cause many future miscarriages/defects). An population reduction innovation that would make Malthus proud).

The most critical factor in your report, "The non-organic future", is conspicuous in its glaring absence: the mathematics of population growth, rendering every conclusion reached in this piece null-&-void.

Malthus remains the uncontested master of Real-Economics, and no amount of "wishing" will negate the Natural consequences.

Indeed, the past half century's Green Revolution and ever-increasing NGO relief programs stand as the greatest achievements in constructing the road to hell, fueling the very process of explosive overpopulation that predictably stretches far ahead of these short-term, short-sighted, and always self-defeating efforts.

To sum up, we don't need to "start thinking more about what we eat",
chronically overpopulating nations need to start balancing the way they breed.

Organic food is big business and thousands have turned to organic food as the answer to almost all of the problems in the current food industry. Many people are saying its not all good business, though. There are in fact many disadvantages to organic food production.
One is that simply organic farming can not produce that amounts of food we receive through modern methods.
Another is that although people assume its safe, it could be contaminated with harmful toxins.
All in all the world would not survive on organic alone. There isn't enough room, organic has a shorter self life, which mean we would need a contestant supply, and due to the lack of organic food its costs a lot more.
Sup Noth You, SFeds and im out.

Marketplace, I don't respect you anymore. You've been bought and paid for by Monsanto, the single most evil and inhuman company on the planet. Thanks for showing the public your true colors and running this article full of lies.

I was quite surprised by this one-sided story full of bias and misinformation. It is not necessarily true that organic yields less. Organic is much more sustainable than chemicals upon chemicals and genetic modification.

Highly disappointed in the reporting by American Public Media's Marketplace.

Does this mean I must doubt content in the future when I hear your program? Too bad...

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