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Book stirs debate on whether organic can feed the world

Can organic farming produce enough food to feed the world? Yes, according to a new book by a German agricultural expert. But many skeptics, including Germany's development minister, aren't convinced.

Leandro Curia, a farm worker, distributes soybeans on a truck at a farm in Salto, some 190 kilometers, (120 miles) northeast of Buenos Aires, Argentina

Can organic farming ensure global food security?

The question of whether organic food can help tackle world hunger is a subject of heated debate. It's also the topic of a new provocatively-named book in German "Food Crash – We will Subsist Organically or Not all" by Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, the head of Germany's Association for Organic Food (BÖLW).

Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, head of Germany's Association for Organic Food

zu Löwenstein is convinced organic farming is the only way forward

As the title suggests, the book makes the case for organic farming free from pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically engineered crops as the only way to feed the world in the long-term.

It disputes the often-cited claim by advocates of modern intensive farming that "going organic" will not produce enough food to feed large populations.

"The fact is that organic farming only produces significantly lower yields than conventional farming in our high-intensity farms in the West – mainly in central Europe," zu Löwenstein said at a recent book presentation in Berlin.

The trained agricultural scientist pointed out that in less developed countries regularly hit by famine and drought, and where conventional agricultural systems aren't that intensive to start with, organic farming is often much more productive.

Food for thought

The book cites a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to back up its argument. During a development project in Ethiopia, the group found that farms using natural fertilizers had 40 percent higher yields than those using chemical fertilizers.

The success of the project in Ethiopia was largely due to the fact that it drew both on local know-how as well as modern scientific knowledge, zu Löwenstein writes.

The author also points to the high ecological price tag associated with conventional farming.

"Conventional farming often generates a whole pile of additional costs that are then dumped on to the environment," he said, adding that an excessive use of chemical fertilizers meant that harmful residue ends up in flowing water bodies and then in oceans.

Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein, who spent three years in Haiti as a development worker and later in Chad and Burkina Faso, also pointed out that conventional farming in poorer nations often forced farmers to buy expensive fertilizers and pesticides.

A question of economics

The key to success, he says, is an innovative agricultural system that avoids using huge amounts of resources and funds from outside, and focuses instead on making the most of natural soil and nutrient cycles and transferring knowledge to farmers.

That, zu Löwenstein says, would make small-scale farmers – who make up around 70 percent of the estimated one billion hungry people worldwide – less dependant on fluctuating prices on world markets and allow them to keep more of their own yields.

It's an argument that many environmental advocates agree with.

"The most important thing about organic farming is the combination of ecological and economic benefits," Tobias Reichert of German Food Watch told Deutsche Welle. "It improves soil quality, helps biodiversity and can also serve to store carbon dioxide, thus reducing the impact of agriculture on the climate – which also has immense economic value."

Heading for a 'food crash?'

Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein argues in the book that the world's hunger problems aren't necessarily because of a lack of food production.

Food thrown away in a garbage bin in Frankfurt

The book also blames distribution failures for global hunger

Energy-intensive industrial farming, he says, is based on over-exploiting resources, often leading to soil and ground contamination through an excess of chemicals. That, he fears, could lead to what he calls a "food crash" – a collapse of the global food system.

"This is not about the amount of food," zu Löwenstein said. "When we look at what we do with what we produce, we can see that today we're producing much more than we need. And we're just wasting it," he said, referring to the vast amount of foodstuff that ends up in garbage bins every day in western nations.

No right or wrong?

But, critics, including German Development Minister Dirk Niebel, remain unconvinced.

A member of the liberal, business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), a junior partner in the ruling coalition, Niebel was invited to the book's presentation in Berlin.

"Organic farming alone will not solve the problem of world hunger," Niebel said at the event. "At the moment, organic farming is often too expensive and partly too inefficient."

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel with Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein

Dirk Niebel, left, shared the stage with zu Löwenstein during the book's presentation

The minister pointed out that the world population is projected to rise to nine billion by 2050. Those who want to feed all these people should not "completely demonize" the agro-industrial system, he said, adding that gene technology could play a role in fighting hunger, for instance, by developing plants that need less fertilizer.

"I think the ideological fights between proponents of organic farming and those of agro-industrial farming are outdated," Niebel said.

Some experts agree, saying the right approach probably lies somewhere in between.

Daniel Neuhoff from the Institute of Organic Agriculture at the University of Bonn said developing nations such as Indonesia or even Egypt, which has a high population density, would be better served if they combined elements of conventional and organic farming.

That would mean using more natural fertilizers such as composted manure but also, more synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in doses, if necessary.

"Organic farming does make a very valuable contribution in sustainable agricultural management," Neuhoff told Deutsche Welle.

"But I don't believe it can be the only solution to the world's food problems – just as conventional agriculture alone isn't either."

Author: Sonia Phalnikar /Alexandra Scherle
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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