Organics 101 with Dr. Hans Herren

Is organic food just another fad? Why should we care?

Flippant as they may seem, these questions are asked very seriously every day by a lot of people of all ages, economic backgrounds and political persuasions, from California to Quebec, and from Europe to Australia and Japan. In fact, a lot of my friends, no matter on what side of the Atlantic, are still wondering what the fuss is all about.

TIME magazine’s recent attempt to answer the question did not do it justice, in my opinion. For fear of sounding too radical or offending anyone, seemingly, the special health issue hinted at how some organic food may be better for your health and occasionally offer you a better dining experience. And if you happened to scan the pages too fast, you probably missed the couple of quick references to what is truly at the core of the “organic” approach to food : abiding by a set of practices, starting in the soil and ending in your plate, that promote not only healthy bodies and minds, but also healthy natural systems, healthy communities, healthy local economies and a healthy planet.

Few people in this world are as well qualified to talk about this as Hans Herren, an internationally renowned scientist who received the World Food Prize in 1995 for his outstounding work in Africa. He spoke with me last month about why we, as consumers and citizens, should indeed support organic food and farming (note: a strong wind and the road traffic caused by a nearby casino lost in this remote Californian valley make for poor sound conditions—please prick up your ears, wear your earbuds or let me know if you request a written transcript).

Now, the inescapable question, asked from all fronts by believers and skeptics alike, is whether farming practices that ignore the wonders of technology (chemicals and GMO) and the economies of scale provided by industrial farming, would ever yield enough food for everyone if the world population grows, say, to 9 billion people.

Here is the first counter-intuitive way one can think about the future of food: the relevant question is not even whether organic farming will feed all of us by 2050 but whether conventional farming will provide what we need within 10-20 years.

And here is why: what is also known as industrial farming is highly dependent on oil (“peak oil”, anyone?) and patent-protected seeds (GMO are owned by a small handful of corporations); its intensive use of chemicals not only pollute soils and waterways but also destroys the topsoil that plants need to grow; the monoculture approach threatens biodiversity and, in the process, offers a breeding ground for pests that require more and more aggressive chemical or biotech responses.

At any rate, bearing in mind that Hans Herren developed organic farming programs in Africa for 27 years, listen to what he has to say about the ability of organic farming to feed the world (note: the sound is better here).

But what’s with the assertion that consumers should be fine with spending more money on their food—organic food, that is?!

Now, here is the second counter-intuitive way to consider what is happening with food: its economy has been distorted beyond recognition by the conjugated efforts of government and industry, leading prices way lower than a healthy economy would actually reflect. The logic of the conventional food supply chain is one of high volume and low cost, high quantity and low quality. In this context, it is common for farmers to sell their products at or below cost, making razor-thin margins at best and surviving on government subsidies at worst (it is ironic to consider that many farmers in developed countries don’t benefit from “fair trade”). Meanwhile, cutting corners and growing economies of scale to produce food at low cost cause proportionally huge damages (to the environment and public health, to name just a few) whose costs are “externalized” out of sight. While the consumer may be happily oblivious, the tax-payer ends up paying the real price.

As Hans Herren has made clear earlier, consumers bear a huge responsibility to shift the market toward organic foods and, in doing so, transforming agriculture. At the same time, governments have a huge role to play. Hans argues that just as government subsidies have been a powerful tool in distorting the food economy, they could just as well serve the transition towards sustainable farming practices.

I doubt too many of us would argue against a future where governments, corporations, farmers and consumers conspire for health—their own and the health of our planet. Yet how could this be done? The answer lies in the thousands of pages of a report created in more than three years by 450 researchers around the world, at the request of the United Nations : the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Think of it as the ag equivalent of the reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Except that it has received no, or very little publicity, despite its co-chair’s efforts. The latter is no other than Hans Herren, who tells us here about the report and its unambiguous conclusion: “business as usual is not an option”.

Solutions include promoting family farms, bringing people and animals back to the land, giving farmers a fair compensation for their labor, providing proper education and amenities to rural communities (note: a strong wind and the road traffic caused by a nearby casino lost in this remote Californian valley make for poor sound conditions—please prick up your ears, wear your earbuds or let me know if you request a written transcript).

So now what? Which path lies before us? Saying that we are at a crucial crossroads is not an understatement. The IAASTD report has not been received by governments with open arms, even though 60 have officially voted to support it (unsurprisingly the USA is not one of them) : too much inertia, too much pressure from the private sector that has an obvious vested interest in the status quo.

It’s up to us, as consumers and citizens, to support the kind of agriculture that will make us whole. One food-shopping trip, one meal at a time.

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