Food. What could be more important—and more basic—than feeding ourselves and our families? With millions going hungry in the United States every year and nearly one billion going hungry around the world, we as a society—and a species—have clearly not figured out this most fundamental of all tasks.
While the numbers of hungry people should be sobering to all of us: I have some good news: There is growing scientific consensus around the world about how to grow abundant food and grow it well and, at the same time, how to address the epidemic of hunger.
Study after study is showing the power of sustainable food systems.
I know “sustainable” is a word that gets tossed around a lot. So let me explain what I mean by it when it comes to food and farming.
All farmers need to figure out some basic things: how to build soil fertility—and, how to deal with water (get enough of it for their crops to grow, not too little and not too much). And, farmers need to figure out handle the undesirables, like the weeds and bugs they don’t want. There are different ways of achieving all this: the sustainable way is to build soil fertility from the farm itself, planting soil-nourishing crops and using manure responsibly and managing pests and weeds with beneficial insects and other techniques. The sustainable farm also uses water wisely and with all that healthy soil is more resilient during extremes of drought and flooding. One study found that during drought years, crops planted with organic methods produced thirty percent more than those treated with chemicals and synthetic fertilizer.
The evidence is showing that this sustainable way works: we can ensure a well-fed world by shifting away from agriculture dependent on fossil fuels, mined minerals, and lots of water—all of which will only get more costly as they run out.
We hear a lot that we need industrial agriculture—chemicals and chemical fertilizer—to grow enough food to feed the world, but that’s not what some of the world’s most esteemed global institutions, like the United Nations and the World Bank, have to say.
What we’re hearing is that the best way to fight hunger—and grow food abundantly—is to go for organic and ecological production methods and get people eating whole, real food again.
Importantly, these food systems deliver on yields and they’re techniques that are affordable: farmers can get most of their own fertility from the farm itself, not be dependent on fossil fuels with ever rising price tags.
Even better, these farming strategies are also turning out to be more “climate-friendly” farms, too. Sustainable farms use significantly less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases—all while promoting more ecological diversity.
A 2007 study by 400 scientists from around the world and endorsed by 59 governments, affirms that embracing sustainable farming practices is the most effective pathway to real food security.
But here’s the other thing to remember: ending hunger isn’t just about changing how we grow food, it’s realizing that we need to have a bigger conversation about the obstacles to ending hunger. For we’re already producing more than enough calories to make us all chubby: it’s just that much of the food itself isn’t going to those in need and that so many don’t have the power to buy or produce their own food.
It’s also that we’re growing a lot of stuff that isn’t even food, at least not what you and I eat directly. In the United States, 43 percent of all cropped acreage, and the most fertile share, goes to just two crops — corn and soy. Nearly half of all corn, the biggest crop, now goes to fuel. Much of the rest and 90 percent of soy meal, goes to livestock feed, greatly shrinking the capacity of the original ingredients to meet our nutritional needs.
So how do we address the roots of hunger? It starts with changing how we think about food: With realizing the potential of sustainable agriculture and the central role of farmers in providing us nourishment and protecting the environment all at the same time—and with ensuring that our farmland is dedicated to growing real food.
Yes, when I shop for food, I can put my dollars where my heart is but I can also organize with my communities, and with communities across the country, to be sure that our leaders know that we care about our farmers, we care about the land, and we care about feeding the future.
In Oakland, California, I’m Anna Lappé with the Small Planet Institute for AERO, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization.
AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit AERO online at a-e-r-o-m-t-dot-o-r-g.
This commentary originally aired on January 30, 2013 on Montana Public Radio.