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Go Organic, Eat The Poor?

There’s a heated debate at The Economist over this charticle that claims organic farming is bad for the poor.

According to the author’s fuzzy logic, organic farming produces fewer crops yields than conventional methods, thus demanding that more farmland be put under cultivation. As the share of farmland devoted to high-premium organic crops increases--the rise is most notable in Europe--global food prices will be pushed up, and the world’s poorest will bear the brunt of the suffering, the argument goes.

There are many reasons why this logic is flawed. First of all, it’s still highly contested as to whether organic farming actually produces less food. Recent studies at the University of Michigan and Cornell show the contrary: organic farming yields equal or greater yields, in addition to environmental benefits that help making farming of any sort more sustainable in the long run.

Secondly, organic farming serves a niche market in the U.S. and Europe. The cabal of organic argula-eaters over here isn’t responsible for the skyrocketing cost of rice in Manila; food prices have escalated across the board, for reasons that have little to do with the rise of organics in the world’s richest grocery aisles. The countries that have made the biggest switch to organic farming--Switzerland, Austria, Finland, and Denmark-- have never fed the world’s poor, and they aren’t suddenly diminishing the global supply of cheap crops by going organic.

If anything, the rise of organic farming in the industrialized world can help point us to ways to increase global food production, push down prices, and feed poor nations. It’s a model for a more energy-efficient, less toxic form of farming that can, at its best, improve crop yields for farmers in poor countries as well as rich ones. At the same time, it’s only one among many alternative farming practices that a food-strapped country should be considering. As the U.S. News & World Report recently explained, fixing the current food crisis doesn’t necessarily mean that farming will go greener: genetically-modified crops will also have a place at the table.

--Suzy Khimm