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Defusing the War of Words Over Organic Food

Has anyone noticed that the war of words over organic food has become nearly as ritualized as a high-school debate-team practice session?

First, there will be a provocation. For example, a few weeks ago scientists at Stanford University published a meta-analysis of food-policy research that concluded that organic foods have no more nutritional value than nonorganic food, if slightly less pesticide residue. Next, organic food advocates will rise to make what forensics professors call the appeal to nature, arguing that nutrition is not the point; the point is to protect plants and animals, including ourselves, from factory farming and toxic chemicals. Then the opposing side (professional contrarians, developmental economists) will stand up. Their counterarguments may be ad hominem, as when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen called the organic food movement “an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype,” but are usually ad misericordium, that is, based on compassion: Organic farming takes place on too small a scale and won’t solve world hunger any time soon. Resolved: we can save the planet or feed its people.

Is there a less polarized way to think about the future of farming? Jesse H. Ausubel, an environmental scientist who directs the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, thinks he’s found one. You might say he argues from nature as well as compassion. His claim is that high-yield farming, that is, high-tech, non-organic agricultural practices that produce more crops per square foot, is actually kinder to the environment than lower-tech, organic farming. Ausubel insists that his politics are green, but he’s “habitat-oriented,” he told me. “What I’m concerned about is releasing more land from agriculture and letting it revert to nature.” 

When Ausubel says revert to nature, he mainly means revert to forest. As he put in a 2006 paper, forests have benefits that are obvious to the eye—a forest “harbors biodiversity, beautifies landscape, and bestows solitude”—but also do things the environment desperately needs. For instance, a forest “anchors soil, slows erosion, and tempers stream flow.” A forest’s most important job, though, at least in the face of global warming, is to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it as plant tissue. (As journalist Jim Robbins writes in his splendid new book on forests, The Man Who Planted Trees, “If the right planted in the right place, it will store four to five thousand pounds of carbon over its life.”) “We need a lot more regrowth in many more parts of the world,” Ausubel continues, “and for that to happen yields need to continue to rise.”

To talk to or read Ausubel is to experience unexpected uplift, at least if you’re used to the depressive affect perceptible in most environmentalist literature. Ausubel and his collaborators—the most frequent are Paul E Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and Iddo K. Wernick, also of Rockefeller--are fond of cheerful catch phrases like “the Great Reversal” and “the Great Restoration.”  The Great Reversal refers to their theory that the worst pressures on our overtaxed planet are actually easing up. As they like to point out, world population growth peaked at about 2 percent between 1965-1970, and has dropped steadily since then. Fertility rates in much of the world have fallen. Around 1980s, the United States used more water per person than ever before, but consumption has lessened since then. “By about 1950,” Ausubel, Waggoner, and Wernick write, “by rapidly lifting the specific productivity of land, the world’s farmers stopped plowing up nature, and the worldwide area of cropland per person began dropping steeply”—from about half a hectare, or roughly half the size of a 400-meter running track, in 1950, to about a quarter hectare in 2000.

Meanwhile, forests have been regrowing at a rapid clip across the country, most abundantly in northeastern states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. In Connecticut, for instance, forests expanded from 29 percent of the state in 1860 to 60 percent in 2002. Other parts of the globe in which forests have been rebounding include industrialized nations such as France, Denmark, Switzerland, Russia, Germany, but also industrializing nations in Asia, such as China, Japan, India and Vietnam, and even, counterintuitively, in less industrialized parts of Central America and the Caribbean, such as El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. (Its neighbor Haiti, of course, remains one of the most deforested spots on the planet.)

Given the Great Reversal, Ausubel et alia ask, “could we envision a Great Restoration?” Returning acres of farmland to “wilderness or wilder uses,”  Ausubel says, will depend on whether farmers around the world get smarter about agriculture—whether they master what he calls “precision farming.” Higher yields will come when they adopt twenty-first-century techniques, such as instantaneous application of rapidly improving weather forecasting, better seeds, and closer spacing of them. (Will denser planting hurt the soil? Ausubel says no. Among other things, the shade of a bumper crop helps keep weeds from growing and insects from flourishing, which means smaller doses of pesticides and herbicides than are required in more sparsely planted plots.) If genetic modification increases output, Ausubel is all for it. “Humanity has been tinkering with the genetics of plants for 3,000 years or so,” he says. “People are making a strange fuss.”

Ausubel argues that we can greatly reduce the use of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, even if he doesn’t recommend getting rid of them altogether. “There’s been a tremendous overmedication” of the soil, he says. “It’s just like with humans. If you go to the doctor and he tells you to take two aspirin, a lot of us will take four or six.” The best thing about the organic movement, he says, is that it serves as “a good reminder to people that maybe you could be using a third of what you’re actually using and get the same results.” Artisanal farming elevates agriculture, he adds, by creating consumers with higher standards and more demanding tastes, just as high-end clothing design electrifies consumers and stimulates the garment industry. “Most calories in the world are going to be mass-produced, just as most clothing is going to be mass-produced,” he says. “But life would be poorer, in an ethical and cultural sense, if we didn’t have farmers’ markets or Jersey tomatoes.”

Ausubel’s optimism is infectious. If you want to get depressed all over again, turn to the United Nations 2011 report, Looking Ahead in Food and Agriculture. Its authors also pin their hopes on more efficient farming on less land, but they’re less sanguine about how easy that will be to achieve. Chances of success plummet particularly steeply in very poor countries with high fertility rates, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, that aren’t about to put a lot of money into research or give small farmers a helping hand. On the upside, though, in places where such investments and policy reforms do occur, the report adds to Ausubel’s list a whole slew of neat breakthroughs: better irrigation, better grain storage, more sophisticated plant physiology, informatics, and biometrics.

Despite the decline in the rate of world population growth, U.N. fertility projections still put as many as 10.5 billion people on the globe by the end of the century. (There are nearly 7 billion now.) To feed them all without stripping the earth of forests–Ausubel calls this scenario “Skinhead Earth"–we’ll have to make painful trade-offs between keeping food pure and reducing world hunger. My children roll their eyes when I buy what I know to be overpriced, and they consider underflavored, organic food, but I plan to keep doing it, just because, to be honest about it, I can. I don’t worry too much about my body, which probably won’t pop out any more babies, but I’d just as soon keep those underregulated agricultural chemicals out of theirs. But as public health scholars like to point out, people in rich countries are living longer and are healthier than ever before, so whatever harms these toxins are wreaking upon us, they haven’t reached pandemic levels yet. I guess I’d rather have my children grow up in a cooler, better-fed, more peaceful planet than a totally pristine one.