I’m halfway through The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley, an English science journalist. The book covers 200,000 years of human history, but this blog posting concerns just one chapter “The feeding of the nine billion”.
Have you chuckled at the apparent inconsistency of a neighbor who drives a 7,000 lb. pavement-melting SUV to Whole Foods and then buys organic produce? It turns out that there is no inconsistency. She is destroying the planet with her SUV and with her purchases of hard-to-grow organic food.
Ridley notes that with genetically engineered crops, synthetic fertilizers, and Roundup to control weeds, the trend of feeding ever more people with less land could be continued. The biggest obstacle to returning land to its wild state is organic farming. Currently we are using 38 percent of the Earth’s land for growing food or grazing animals; at 1961 levels of productivity we would need to be using 82 percent of the land.
Organic farmers won’t use genetically engineered crops, so they spend a lot more time and energy fighting pests. Organic farmers won’t use Roundup and other herbicides, so they plow the weeds under, which kills a lot of small animals and loosens the soil enough that it erodes (or sometimes they resort to flame-throwers). Organic farmers won’t use standard fertilizer, but only manure from cows, which means we’ll need a lot more cows running around.
Organic cotton is an especially hard-on-the-Earth product, according to Ridley. Standard industrial cotton has Bacillus thuringiensis (“bt”) genes mixed in and these kill pests, cutting the need for sprayed pesticides in half.
Who knew that “sustainable” would mean a polyester shirt and a bag of Fritos?
[Update: Just a few days after this posting, a German E. coli outbreak that killed 22 people has been blamed on organic bean sprouts (story).]