Organic Consumers Association, August 24, 2011
Extreme weather, crop failures, commodities speculation, land grabs, escalating prices, soil degradation, depleted aquifers, routine contamination, food-related disease, and mass hunger represent the “new norm” for food and farming. The global agricultural system, with the exception of the rapidly growing organic sector, rests upon a shaky foundation. Patented seeds, genetically engineered crops, expensive and destructive chemical and energy-intensive inputs, factory farms, monoculture production, eroding soils, unsustainable water use, taxpayer subsidies, and long-distance hauling and distribution, including massive imports that amount to 15% of the U.S. food supply amount to a recipe for disaster.
A “perfect storm” or “ultimate recession” as described by Lester Brown in his new book, World on the Edge, could develop at any time, precipitated by extreme weather and crop failures on a massive scale. A growing number of nations, including the oil giants and China, are now scrambling to secure overseas farmland to feed their domestic populations. World grocers and supermarkets, including the U.S., have, on the average, only a four-day supply of food on hand. An oil shock, global disease pandemic, prolonged drought in the American heartland, or nuclear meltdown could set off a global food panic. Supermarket shelves and grain silos would be stripped bare within a short period of time. Have you thought about this? Are you and those in your local community ready for this?
Peak Food, Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Soil
World grain reserves amount to less than 75 days of supply. Harvests of strategic food grains and cereals have basically leveled off or even decreased, with enormous amounts of acreage now providing fuel for cars instead of food for people. At the same time, affordable fossil fuel energy supplies have peaked (Peak Oil), with the world increasingly dependent on “extreme” oil and natural gas extraction (deep sea and Arctic drilling, tar sands, and fracking), accelerating the prices of petroleum-based farm inputs, as well as food distribution and processing costs. Billions of people in the Global South are now spending 50-70% of their household income on food (although in the U.S. it is only 11%). Hydrologists and agronomists warn that Peak Water is fast approaching, when the already limited availability of water from underground aquifers for crop irrigation exponentially decreases. Peak Soil is also fast approaching, with soil erosion and desertification already degrading 25% of the earth’s land. Peak Soil is directly related to unsustainable farming and forestry practices, including heavy pesticide use, chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered mono-crops, and non-sustainable grazing and clear-cutting. Meanwhile global population numbers (in direct relation to poverty and lack of education for women) and demand for food (especially meat and animal products) are accelerating.
Of course, we could go on and on, citing the ever more disturbing information we read every day in the mainstream media and on the Internet. But the life or death question is: what are we going to do about it?
Crash-Resistant and Climate-Friendly: The Organic Revolution
Fortunately, over the past 40 years, a new generation of organic farmers and ranchers have proliferated, building upon the wisdom and practices of indigenous and traditional farmers over the past 10,000 years. A growing corps of organic farmers and gardeners are producing increasing amounts of healthy, nutritious foods without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, genetically engineered seeds, or animal drugs. At the same time, these 21st Century organic stewards of the land are consuming far less (50% or more) fossil fuels and water. Study after study has demonstrated that organic small farms in the developing world out-produce chemical and genetically engineered farms by a factor of two to one; while in the industrialized nations, sustainable organic yields are comparable in “normal” weather to industrial farms; but far superior (up to 50-70% higher) in times of drought or torrential rain, the types of extreme weather that have become the “new norm.” In other words, not only can organic farming feed the world, but it is in fact the only way that we are going to be able to feed the world in this 21st Century era of energy, water, and climate crisis.
The burning question then becomes how do we build up a stronger Movement that can promote and scale up organic, local and regional-based systems of food and farming (while complimentary green Movements do the same in the energy, housing, and transportation sectors)? How can we, as quickly as possible, build up a critical mass of organic farms, gardens, seed banks, farm schools, and distribution networks in all the local regions of North America and world? We don’t have room in this essay to go into all the details, but here are a few things that millions of us are already starting to do, that are moving us forward and preparing us for survival in the likely eventuality of economic collapse.
(1) Step-up public education and consciousness-raising. We have now crossed a major threshold of raising public awareness: the majority of Americans say they prefer organic food, for a variety of health, environmental, and ethical reasons. After forty years of public education and campaigning, organic foods and products are the fastest growing items in America’s grocery carts. Thirty million households, comprising 75 million people, are now buying organic foods and other products on a regular basis. Fifty-six percent of U.S. consumers say they prefer organic foods, citing a wide variety of reasons that we and the Organic Movement have taught them. Millions of young people and urban residents are starting to learn organic farming and gardening techniques.
(2) Step-up the campaign against industrial agriculture and genetic engineering. The more we educate people about the hazards of chemical and energy-intensive food and farming and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the greater the demand for organic foods and products, and the greater the number of new organic farmers, young organic farm apprentices, and urban organic gardeners (now 12 million-strong). The Achilles heel or weakest link of industrial agriculture is truthful labeling: consumers right to know. If toxic pesticides, chemicals and genetically engineered ingredients are labeled, consumers will not buy them, retailers will not sell them, and farmers will not grow them. Even though Washington has fallen under the control of Monsanto and corporate agribusiness, we can still change public policies at the state and local level, with grassroots-powered ballot initiatives and state legislation. Even though we live in Monsanto Nation, we can still bring down Goliath.
(3) Link up with other Movements, local to global. Reducing global poverty, eliminating war and stabilizing the climate go hand-in-hand. The best way to reduce global rural poverty and conflict and eliminate war is through land reform and sustainable organic farming practices. With land reform and technical assistance, millions of organic farms in the Global South can develop and prosper, helping the world’s poorest people, especially women, to produce far more food with less or no fossil fuel or chemical inputs. This organic revolution will enable several billion peasants and rural villagers to rise up from poverty and reduce the unsustainable population growth that accompanies abject poverty. At the same time, one of the best ways to reduce fossil fuel use and naturally sequester climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases is to change our current land use practices, to go organic. For 10,000 years indigenous people and traditional farmers fed the world with organic farming and animal husbandry practices. By converting the world’s 12 billion acres of farmland and pasture land back to organic soil management we will be creating, instead of destroying, soil fertility, as well as restoring the soil food web’s amazing ability to permanently sequester enormous amounts of climate destabilizing CO2 through increased plant photosynthesis. With organic soil management spreading across the world’s 12 billion acres of farmland and pastureland, and a global mobilization to replant the 10 billion acres of forest that industry and agribusiness have destroyed, we can literally reverse global warming, bringing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 back down to a safe level of 350 parts per million from the current dangerous level of 390 ppm.
The hour is late, but there is still time to prepare ourselves and our communities before the economy collapses. Educate yourself and get active. Start to make preparations for an end to “business as usual.” Step up your efforts. Help link the issues and different constituencies in the body politic. Don’t panic. Go organic.
Ronnie Cummins is the National Director of the Organic Consumers Association.