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A note from the editor on 'The non-organic future'

Marketplace welcomes comments on its reporting. Ideally - especially on a critical subject such as sustainability - we hope our reporting will spur public discussion.

Adriene Hill's report on Wednesday on food production was intended to be thought-provoking. With a billion people going hungry now - and with Africa's population alone projected by the U.N. to triple this century - how is the world going to feed itself? If converting to organic agriculture can't do it, what then?

Among the listeners who commented, many challenged the starting point of the report: that organic agriculture alone can't feed the world.

Hill's reporting began with a report by the U.K.'s Government Office of Science, "Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming." It concluded that organic agriculture cannot be the single solution to the world's food supply. "The universal adoption of organic agriculture would close off too many important approaches," the report concluded, "though the wider application of specific practices will make a significant contribution."

Read and listen to the original story: The non-organic future, by Adriene Hill

Many of the other approaches Hill surveyed provoked disagreement. Chemical fertilizers are needed, said Dr. Pedro Sanchez, one of the world's most prominent soil scientists. He is the 2002 World Food Prize laureate and a 2004 MacArthur Fellow.

Genetic modification of crops will play a role. Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute said some crops will need modification to withstand drought and heat from global warming.

Less controversially, the food writer Mark Bittman said people in developed countries should eat more like people in undeveloped countries - they should eat less meat, which consumes far more resources than crops.

Each of these points could be a story in itself. In practice, Marketplace, like most news organizations, thinks of its coverage as ongoing and cumulative. We've aired scores of pieces on organic food and organic farming (do a search on Marketplace.org for "organic food," for example), and we will do more.

Today alone, for example, our Sustainability Desk editor is working on plans for a year-long series of in-depth reports on the world's food supply, and reporter Adriene Hill is visiting a sustainable pig farm outside Los Angeles, to learn what sustainable animal husbandry can teach the meat industry. We welcome your comments on all these reports.

George Judson,
Managing editor


To listen to some of the responses to Adriene's story, check out our letters segment from Wednesday, May 11.

About the author

George Judson manages Marketplace’s coverage of sustainability: not only food, energy, water and other resources, but the question of how our generation can meet its needs without harming the ability of future generations to meet theirs.
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Here is the subtitle from that story...

"Think organic food plays an essential role in feeding the future? Think again."

Even before you rolled the audio, you've put out there an assertion that organic, in your opinion and that of your weighted panel, that organic will play almost NO role...I think that's part of what upset alot of people including myself.

While many of us would love to see agriculture be freed from the hands of a few corporate bullies...from seed to harvest to sale...most of us realize it'll be combination of techniques, such as organic, bio-dynamic, aquaponics...and yes, even conventional. However we'd still love to see our dependence on conventional routines be drastically decreased as it's not just playing God with our food, it's dependence on fossil fuels for that future.

And for those of us who farm organically and prove every day as our CSA's, farm stands, farm to schools/hospitals grow each and every year...we're already well down that road leaving conventional ag behind.

Indeed! Thank You Lynn G. Tera Preta, also know as bio-char is something I'm using in my own yard. It has great abilities to sustain and hold nutrients and could be a viable solution to run-off pollution and the expansion of the dead zones off the coasts.

Using bio-char as a soil amendment retains water and improves the soil tremendously. It can be made a little at a time or in large quantities and is a way of converting some bio-material to a form that captures carbon. The process can even sustain itself once the container reaches the proper temperature.

Dear Marketplace Program,

As a Marketplace listener, I am disturbed that you would let such a biased perspective be broadcast. I am disappointed that such an insinuation was broadcast as fact. This is yellow journalism at its worst. I would appreciate a retraction or correction.

As it seems to me that sustainable agriculture, certified organic or otherwise, can feed the world population, I find it nips my ire to say that an unsustainable world of chemo-agriculture, such as the one created by Monsanto, that destroys soil fertility, is dependent on subsidies and bankrupts family farming, is the answer. Why would you call such propaganda a news story?

Real news would include an expose of the many chemicals created by Monsanto, how they work, how they effect plant and animal cells, how they behave when mixed with others chemicals, such as bonding agents, and what studies have not been done to secure public safety in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breath.

This is shameful. If the answer to a global food shortage is a unsustainable practice of poison and lies, we have others issues to deal with as important as hunger. Maybe you should consider this the real story and investigate, and report it. Certainly we need to know. The onus of balanced reporting is on your desk.

Kindly Yours,

Patrick N Migas
Goldendale, WA

Many world-class scientists have serious concerns about what Monsanto is doing with genetically modified organisms. Dr.David Suzuki, in Canada, is a top scientist who has serious concerns about the potential hazards of GMO foods. He says that much more research is needed, and that such research should be confirmed by independent scientists, in the same way that most legitimate science is done. Dr. Vendama Shiva in India has great concerns about the adverse impact of GMO products and methodology on agriculture in India. A major United Nations study of the future of world agriculture concludes that sustainable, organic farming holds the most promise for the future. Any reporter worth his salt should be able to dig out this kind of information, and not simply parrot the Monsanto propaganda.

I did "a search on Marketplace.org for “organic food"(exact phrase) as suggested by Mr. Judson. I got 18 hits for Marketplace and 9 for "Marketplace Morning Report," with dates going back to 2007. "Organic farming" produced 5 on M, and 2 on MMR.

While not negligible, this hardly counts as "scores of pieces." I think framing your piece as "the non-organic future" was unnecessarily provocative and polarizing: there's no once-and-for-all solution to the dilemma of securing the food supply in the face of changing climates and expanding populations.

What's hugely important, however, is the scale at which you approach the problem. "World-famous" scientists and transnational corporations are going to be framing the issue at a high-altitude, macro-level, removed from the on-the-ground issues of growing food; their perspective will dictate the sort of practices they can envision. But policies formulated at that level will have some serious drawbacks, not least of which is overlooking the efforts of people looking to create a different--and a differently scaled--future. As it turns out, those people are among your listeners, too.

Let's not forget that the consensus at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is that chemical- and capital- intensive genetically engineered monoculture growing systems have little application to the developing world. The idea that "high yield" corn tested in a 3,000 foot field in the Iowa heartland with optimal petrochemical inputs, herbicides, and insecticides is relevant to subsistence farming on a small hillside plot in Haiti is hopelessly optimistic and thoroughly discredited. This is why the Haitians burned GMO seed when Monsanto dumped it there after the earthquake.

It's fine to imagine a fantasy future based on fantasy science -- unless someone else's next meal actually depends on it.

I am very glad Marketplace chose to air this report. So far, most of the responses I've heard have failed to address the central issue presented in the story: that organic farming is not efficient enough to produce the food needed to feed the world. If the entire world farmed organic, another billion might go hungry. Organic farming will continue to remain a luxury only the richest nations can afford. Marketplace is right to shed light on the need to produce food to alleviate the problem of chronic hunger. I sincerely hope that the mindless knee jerk criticism of this story does not intimidate Marketplace or APM from continuing to produce the excellent quality journalism showcased in this piece.

I am another person that is dismayed by the Marketplace report "The Non-Organic Future." I feel that this was not a balanced report in the least. I am someone that believes that there are different solutions and techniques that can be used in different geographical regions and situations, but to re-assert the importance of chemical fertilizers and GMOs seems really backward. These are the "technologies" that have been causing us more harm than good. I would hope that Marketplace can produce something more intelligent and less one-sided in the future.

It was a very strange piece in many ways. For one thing, the starting premise was that there are going to be 9 billion people on Earth, so we need to find a way to feed that many. It's as though they've never heard of population biology. If there isn't enough food for 9 billion members of x species to exist at once, then they don't. The population will only grow if the food supply will support its growth.

Another thing: it didn't address the amount of food that is wasted after it's produced. If the food system could be made efficient and people stopped throwing away food uneaten, we'd already have enough food for 9 billion eaters today.

Finally, the correspondent mentioned as an aside that one reason we supposedly need GM crops is their ability to survive in a warming environment. Without mentioning the extent to which industrial agriculture contributes to global warming. That seemed kinda crazy...

I am very glad Marketplace chose to air this report. So far, most of the responses I've heard have failed to address the central issue presented in the story: that organic farming is not efficient enough to produce the food needed to feed the world. If the entire world farmed organic, another billion might go hungry. Organic farming will continue to remain a luxury only the richest nations can afford. Marketplace is right to shed light on the need to produce food to alleviate the problem of chronic hunger. I sincerely hope that the mindless knee jerk criticism of this story does not intimidate Marketplace or APM from continuing to produce the excellent quality journalism showcased in this piece.

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