Timothy J. LaSalle is CEO of the Rodale Institute, a 60-year-old non-profit organization dedicated to researching sustainable farming and educating farmers and consumers about the food we eat. He will be contributing posts to TreeHugger as a guest blogger on an ongoing basis.
There is no question that a perfect storm of factors — from rising oil prices to the growing climatic impact of global warming — are creating a silent tsunami of global hunger. There is also no question that the world's most vulnerable disproportionately live in Africa where food aid has failed to keep ahead of the hunger curve.But the answer to this issue lies in the new "Post-Modern Green Revolution" not in the historic "Green Revolution" approach where yields are artificially increased by importing the practices of genetically engineered seeds and petroleum-based fertilizer. Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel prize-winner and the grandfather of the Green Revolution has been credited with saving tens millions of people around the world from starvation through his agrarian research which fed more people using fewer acres of farmland. And his methods did save many in South America and Asia.
But today's carbon-depleted and environmentally damaged world is very different than the post World War II environment that found new peacetime uses for chemicals. Today we know more and we need to feed the world's growing population in a way that does not compromise the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil that nourishes us.
While many have been fed through advances in modern agriculture that increases yields with petroleum-based fertilizer and toxic chemical pesticides, many have been harmed. In a recent report the World Bank said that overuse of chemical pesticides in developing countries contributes to costly health problems and questioned whether the risks of using pesticides outweighed the benefits. Additionally, excessive use of nitrogenous fertilizer has a significant negative impact on global warming, due to agriculture's contribution of non-carbon dioxide emissions. Chemical fertilizer use for the past 50 years has produced a huge greenhouse gas burden through its manufacturing, transport and routine escape into the atmosphere from agricultural fields. Additionally chemical runoff has polluted our waterways.
There is a better way. Rodale Institute has proved (explanation by downloadable PDF file here) that organic agricultural methods can remove about 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air each year and store it in an acre of farmland. If all 434 million acres of American cropland was converted to these practices, it would be the equivalent of eliminating 217 million cars from the road, or a car for every two acres of farmland.
Our studies, which are the longest-running side-by-side studies of conventional and organic farming in the nation, also show that the organic approach does not compromise yield — in fact in drought years it increases it since more carbon in the soil allows it to hold more water. In wet years, the additional organic matter in the soil wicks water away from plant roots, limiting erosion and keeping plants in place.
Organic, regenerative farming is a site-specific approach that can affordably be adapted to any location. Most importantly, it helps people feed themselves with the materials that they already have, without hooking them on an increasingly expensive dependency on chemical inputs and high-cost seeds that are bred to only work with synthetic herbicides and pesticides. This holds farmers hostage to patented varieties at prices that continually rise — a practice that hurts all farmers, but especially those in developing countries where such hikes can mean the difference between a subsistence crop and starvation.
Changing the way we farm may be the single biggest action that the world can take to address global warming — and to help the world's most vulnerable end the cycle of aid dependency and hunger. Most importantly, it can be done without new technology or expensive investments.
More on how to stop global warming
How to Stop Global Warming with CRAGs
How Can We Stop Global Warming From Getting Worse?
Image credit::Rural Northern Ireland, Organic Grain Crop