Organically Grown Food: Billions and Billions Killed

It’s a simple matter to cruise the aisles of any grocery store and see the ever-growing shelf space devoted to organically grown foods. The increasing popularity of organically grown foods has something to do, one surmises, with the fear that we may be poisoning our environment and ourselves by using pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides. Why not? It seems rational on the surface. Look at what DDT does to bird eggs (ignore, for the moment, that DDT may have saved a billion lives). One could be forgiven for thinking that because X is bad for birds there is a pretty good chance that X is bad people. This, of course, is not completely specious reasoning, but it does ignore the larger picture. The larger picture involves taking the entire food supply into account, and when one does that one reaches one nearly inescapable conclusion: Organically grown food isn’t the answer, it’s part of the problem.

Another food controversy getting some play recently is genetically modified food. A contingent of the population is radically anti genetically modified food. They fear we are playing God with the precious food resources. Our messing about with the genome of, say, rice could have unintended consequences the anti science folks reason. It does no good to point out that nearly all the food we eat is genetically modified. Strawberries weren’t always big, plump and tasty fruits. Nope, strawberries were genetically modified over eons by farmers who selected the most desirable properties and propagated those particular strains. I assure you that the original DNA does not match the DNA of current sundae toppers, so like it or not: it’s genetically modified. But these folks will argue, it took a really long time, whereas now we can do it so quickly that we cannot safely predict the outcome. Science is generally a predictive endeavor but there is always something new to learn. Perhaps a small point can be chalked up in favor of the no frankenfood crowd. On the other hand we know exactly what will happen if we don’t start using frankenfood more aggressively and it’s not a pleasant scenario.

So what happens if we don’t use genetically modified food? What if we only eat organically grown food? Well, scads of folks crick right after an environmental nightmare. The problem is the amount of the planet that’s suitable for growing stuff. It has been estimated that if all the worlds’ farmland was devoted to organic farming we would be able to feed four billion people. It doesn’t take a great big spreadsheet to figure out that 6 billion (current population) is substantially greater than 4 billion, leaving 2 billion very hungry, very pissed off folks. Generally speaking people don’t like to starve to death so, predictably, more land would be turned into farmland and some species of animals would be hunted/fished/dehabitated to extinction thus ensuring the aforementioned environmental catastrophe ensues. Or we could find two billion folks and kill them. Of course killing two billion people would make all previous mass murderers seem very tame in comparison, but I suppose if you really want organically grown food then murdering two billion people isn’t a big deal.

Or maybe it doesn’t really matter at all. It is possible, neigh probable, that even with frankenfood and modern farming techniques running in full gear we still won’t be able to feed everyone. It turns out that most ecosystems run at full carrying capacity. Carrying capacity, you will remember from high school biology, is the maximum number of organisms and ecosystem can support. In this situation the ecosystem is earth and the organisms are humans. The theory is, proposed and mathematically illustrated by Malthus, that a species will always increase in numbers that outstrip available resources. Good thing too, it is this proclivity to exhaust the resources of any niche that is one of the driving forces of evolution. If this is the case for humans, and there is no reason to think it is not, then increasing or decreasing the amount of food produced doesn’t change the seemingly inevitable outcome, it only pushes the issue to the forefront as food production is decreased or staves off misery and famine if the food supply is increased. Either way the result is eventually the same, only the time frame changes.

The solution to the seemingly implacable dilemma is left as an exercise for the reader. But it is worth remembering that an undernourished denizen of Afghanistan doesn’t care if his rice is genetically modified, organically grown or messed with in any particular manner. That guy just wants something to eat. Pleasing as the thought may be, the hungry will probably never get a hoe and ten minutes alone with someone espousing the supposed benefits of organically grown food.

Chris Seibold


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