Commentary: Feeding the world’s hungry and growing population
On the other side, they offer organic production, essentially viewing it as a post-industrial philosophical reaction to the mechanization of agriculture. They then use this reaction to describe a pre-industrial production system.
The proponents of the mechanized agricultural model go on to characterize organic production as offering lower yields and increased labor requirements as a result of higher weed and insect pressure. The argument is often summarized in the declaration that if we wanted to match current US chicken production with free-range chickens, there wouldn’t be enough acres available to do that—we’ve never tried to make that calculation.
By positing organics as the only alternative to the full use of their products, they hope to quash any challenge to their vision. They also ignore a lot of other actions that could be helpful in meeting the challenge of feeding 2 billion additional people by 2050—an increase of 28 percent over a 38-year period. In taking on this challenge, we need to remember that we were able to move from feeding a world population of 4 billion in 1974 to feeding 7 billion in 2012—an increase of 75 percent over a 38-year period.
From our vantage point, one needed action is to reduce post-harvest loss, which can be as much as a quarter to a third of the crop. To do this, low-input storage technologies need to be identified that use resources that are available to farm households and can be maintained over the long-haul by the poorest of the poor.
Returning to a theme that we have touched on before in this column, we need long-term funding for conventional breeding programs that will produce public varieties of what the US National Research Council has called “lost crops:” teff, various sorghums, amaranth, fonio, African rice, millets, and various pulses. Many of these crops currently yield about 1 tonne per hectare—compared to 10 tonnes of corn per hectare in the US—while research plots have identified landraces of these crops that can yield triple or quadruple that. A conventional breeding program could breed these high-yielding characteristics back into the local varieties that would be acceptable to local households.
While intercropping would be a problem for farmers using four-wheel-drive, diesel tractors, it is more common among farmers who depend upon hand labor for their production. And intercropping has the potential to increase total food output from a given plot of land through techniques like succession planting—that is what we do when we plant radish and carrot seeds in the same row in the spring. In Colombia we saw indigenous farmers planting squash in among the hills of corn. With targeted research, intercropping systems that increase total nutritional output per unit of land could be identified using locally grown crops.