Hey, sustainable/local/organic food proponents: Stuff it, because poor people are starving in Africa and Asia, and your hoity-toity philosophy ain’t helping anything. That’s the really, really crude distillation of a thought-provoking story in Foreign Policy on fighting hunger in the developing world. The thesis of Robert Paarlberg’s article: “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.”

Paarlberg, in working to make his point, paints food advocates with a broad brush; advocating passionately for more farmers’ markets and stricter domestic organic standards, for example, doesn’t necessarily reflect a demand that the same solutions be applied in Africa or South Asia. As with many aggressively contrarian works of opinion, an ax to grind results in statements of dubious breadth and focus. A lot of the story seems to be beating up on a straw man who would demand that Congolese peasants entirely give up on modernization regardless of the human cost.

A number of the points Paarlberg raises are worth consideration, however. He observes that the Mayo Clinic has failed to see health gains resulting from eating organic produce, and that “less than 1 percent of American cropland is under certified organic production. If the other 99 percent were to switch to organic and had to fertilize crops without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that would require a lot more composted animal manure. To supply enough organic fertilizer, the U.S. cattle population would have to increase roughly fivefold.”

Over the course of the piece, Paarlberg wrestles intelligently with the many views on the “Green Revolution,” points out some interesting advances in precision farming, and highlights the feel-good side of the industrial food system, namely better production, better distribution, and fewer food-borne illness and contamination problems. (He’s also happy to concede that the cheap, thoroughly distributed, generally safe food we’re eating is often terrible from a nutritional perspective.)

In many regards, Paarlberg’s story is a squarely aimed broadside directed at the “farm and eat like our great-grandparents” crowd. Much of it may be debatable, but the data and claims are challenging and at times enlightening. It’s food for thought worth chewing.

Image source: Flickr member TheBusyBrain under Creative Commons

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