How to feed the world

Nick Snelgar is right to be concerned about the scientist he heard on Radio 4 claiming that without manufactured Nitrogen fertiliser, one third of the world’s population would go hungry, and that ‘someone would have to decide which third’ would have to starve.  Nic calls this a ‘savage sound jab’, but in reality it is meaningless, unscientific and absurd.  We already produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, but nearly a billion people are hungry or starving.  Are those people that the scientist on Radio 4 who supports the current system chose to starve?  Or was it other supporters of our current food system, like the National Farmers’ Union or the UK Government?

How many people are starving, and who is starving, is mainly governed by politics and economics, and has nothing to do with how much milk is or is not produced on Nick’s dairy farm.  Nor does it have anything to do with how much food we produce in the UK, nor whether we use manufactured Nitrogen fertiliser or Nitrogen fixed by legumes to fuel UK farming.

At the Soil Association’s annual Conference held on March 2 in London, we launched a briefing paper on feeding the world.  Unlike the scientist’s disingenuous sound bites about who chooses which third of the world’s population to starve, our briefing makes clear that enabling people to feed themselves, which is what needs to happen, is a complex problem with multi-faceted solutions.  These don’t make good sound bites, but they make for truthful analysis.  The briefing, ‘Feeding the future – how organic farming can help feed the world’ will be available free on our website

We are also planning to publish a substantial report on the use, costs and benefits of manufactured Nitrogen compared to Nitrogen fixed by legumes and the sun’s energy.  That report will be presented to a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology on 24 April, by the Soil Association’s Director of Innovation, Dr Tom Macmillan.  We will be revealing new scientific information about the negative impacts of manufactured Nitrogen, which go well beyond the well-known problems of massive greenhouse gas emissions during manufacture and application, and (critical for farmers) the unbreakable link between the price of manufactured Nitrogen, and the price of increasingly scarce and costly fossil fuels.

In the meantime, can organic farming help the world to feed itself?  This question has been answered in the affirmative by numerous UN farming and development agencies, by IAASTD, by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Agricultural Research’s Foresight Report, and many others, so it won’t surprise you to learn that the Soil Association agrees with the prevailing international scientific consensus.  As well as changing our farming system, we will need to eat differently, feed our livestock differently, and waste much less food.

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