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May 15, 2010

Paarlberg - Organic, Local & Slow Food Won't Solve Looming World Hunger Crisis

Robert Paarlberg, Ph.D., author of Starved for Science and Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know writes in the May issue of Foreign Policy that the most effective way to solving world hunger is not organic, local or slow food.  The most effective way is to teach "the world's poor to feed themselves."  In his view, "[f]ood has become an elite preoccupation in the West, ironically, just as the most effective ways to address hunger in poor countries have fallen out of fashion."

Paarlberg (featured in the photo to the left) is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and an associate at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.  In his opinion, "[i]n Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that "sustainable food" in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn't work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished."

Paarlberg's solution?  "We need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we've developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world."

Paarlberg refutes the common assumption today that the first Green Revolution was a failure.  He argues against eco-activist Vandana Shiva's view that it brought nothing to India except "indebted and discontented farmers."  Instead, he provides a historical account of how Norman Borlaug introduced high-yielding wheat and rice to the developing world.  With this he acknowledges that the first Green Revolution did disrupt rural social systems.  But in the long run, he concludes that hunger decreased dramatically.

Paarlberg also addresses the socio-economic disruptions that might occur if U.S. agriculture switched from industrial to organic methods.  "Less than 1 percent of American cropland is under certified organic production. If the other 99 percent were to switch to organic and had to fertilize crops without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that would require a lot more composted animal manure. To supply enough organic fertilizer, the U.S. cattle population would have to increase roughly fivefold. And because those animals would have to be raised organically on forage crops, much of the land in the lower 48 states would need to be converted to pasture. Organic field crops also have lower yields per hectare. If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined."

Paarlberg describes how the "precision farming" techniques of modern industrialized agriculture "have significantly reduced the environmental footprint of modern agriculture relative to the quantity of food being produced."  For example, he cites a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published in 2008 that concludes: land area taken up by farming declined 4%; soil erosion from both wind and water fell; gross greenhouse gas emissions from farming declined 3%;, and excessive nitrogen fertilizer use fell 17%. Biodiversity also improved, as increased numbers of crop varieties and livestock breeds came into use."

Paarlberg concludes that the hunger problem in Africa is due to policies that create dependency on food aid.  In his opinion, "[f]ood aid doesn't help farmers become more productive ... in recent years, the dollar value of U.S. food aid to Africa has reached 20 times the dollar value of agricultural development assistance."  He believes there is a clear choice to be made: 1) "support a steady new infusion of financial and technical assistance to help local governments and farmers become more productive, or 2) take a 'worry later' approach and be forced to address hunger problems with increasingly expensive shipments of food aid."  He argues that [i]t's time for leaders with vision and political courage" to pick the first choice.
Photo Credit: Robert Paarlberg, Ph.D. courtesy of Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.

For more see:

Paarlberg, Robert.  "Attention Whole Foods Shoppers: Stop obsessing about arugula. Your "sustainable" mantra -- organic, local, and slow -- is no recipe for saving the world's hungry millions." Foreign Policy (a division a division of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLC) May/June 2010.


Paarlberg, Robert. Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Paarlberg, Robert. Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

About Margaret


CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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