Can Local and Organic Feed the World?

By Mark T. Mitchell for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

An article in Foreign Policy suggests that the current enthusiasm for locally grown organic food is simply another consumer choice made possible by western affluence.

From Whole Foods recyclable cloth bags to Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden, modern eco-foodies are full of good intentions. We want to save the planet. Help local farmers. Fight climate change — and childhood obesity, too. But though it’s certainly a good thing to be thinking about global welfare while chopping our certified organic onions, the hope that we can help others by changing our shopping and eating habits is being wildly oversold to Western consumers. Food 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.

In fact, the places in the world that are necessarily committed to local and organic (those that cannot afford to transport foods over long distances or purchase chemical fertilizers and pesticides) are the poorest and hungriest parts of the earth.

In 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.

So the challenge to those who champion the development of sustainable local food cultures is clear: Could a less industrialized food production system feed seven billion people? If the answer is “yes”, what would have to change in agriculture, and culture more generally, to make that happen? What would be the benefits? The costs?

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