Should be doing other things (what else is new), but came across this off-hand semi-critique of a paper I co-wrote years ago, Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply (aka “Can organic agriculture feed the world? Yes.“) There have been numerous critiques of our paper, practically none of which (from my point of view) appropriately address the relevant matters of the political economy of hunger) and certainly there has been some extremely good science coming up with different (though not wholly incompatible) results.

But this, from Hunt and Lipton, is a bit of a strange statement:

Improved [low external input/organic farming] are advocated both on sustainability grounds and as the way to improve incomes for poor, remote farmers, especially in dry or high-risk environments. Can LEI accelerate farm growth and eliminate food shortages? Two African overviews from 2006–07 reported 60–100% yield gains from recommended LEI methods. If that is attainable, why are such cases the exception?

Why are these cases the exception if yield gains are attainable? Umm…  for some of the reasons that Hunt & Lipton subsequently identify, basically summed up as “Because these gains can only come about as the result of changes in the status quo social, political, and physical infrastructures and systems–kinda like any other possible source of gains.” Said another way, as I did (by quoting) in my debate with Robert Paarlberg:

Paraphrasing a message to the “COMFOOD” listserve by Dr. Richard Wilk, director of food studies at Indiana University:

“Paarlberg is right that better infrastructure—particularly roads, electricity and water systems—are urgently needed in poor rural areas. But then turning around and blaming this lack on organic supporters, rather than structural adjustment programs, corruption at all levels of government (including bilateral aid agreements), and the influence of those who think that bioengineered seeds will just themselves solve problems of hunger—this is not an honest approach.”

This is not exactly what Hunt and Lipton do, but asking “why, if organic can be better, are cases of organic actually being better all over the place so limited?” is like asking “why, if fertilizers can increase yields, are there still farmers with low yields? GOTCHA!” Hunt and Lipton point out “Grass-roots NGOs may be needed to supply new knowledge: is this hidden cost sustainable?” Perhaps, perhaps not…  but is the cost higher than the costs of “better infrastructure… [addressing] structural adjustment programs, corruption at all levels of government (including bilateral aid agreements)… [creating] bioengineered seeds”? Is the “hidden” cost higher than the real costs of continuing rural poverty and malnutrition and lack of sovereignty? (Note that neither we nor Jules Pretty & co., to whom they are also likely referring, ever said that all this would be free.)

I have immense respect for Michael Lipton, whether or not I (or others) agree with any given number or part of his analyses. So I wonder if, like one of the first entries on this blog, “As a general thought, when someone you generally think of as smart says something that strikes you as unbelievably stupid, it’s worth considering you may have missed the point”. So mayhaps I have. Still — it seems instead like a clear case of bizarre counterfactuals/obvious double standards.

Will a world with more (all?) agroecological agriculture have costs and necessary changes to get there? Yes. Will a world without agroecological agriculture have costs and changes to get there? Also yes. (Perhaps it’s something like that one about economists? “If that line were truly shorter, everyone would already be in it by now.”) It just seems to me like another case implicitly asking, “Well, how much better can we make things if we don’t change anything?”

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