From Grist: An interview with author Sarah Elton, Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, explores the sustainability question in food production. Can organic really feed the world?Elton wants a food system that allows us to do more than just feed ourselves: She wants agriculture that will allow people and the environment to thrive. In reporting Consumed, she traveled around the world, talking to farmers and scientists, to get a sense of what might really work.
SE: I wrote this book because I wanted to be able to answer this very question — with confidence. I kept meeting people who would ask me, as a journalist who covers food and the environment, whether the big, efficient food production of the industrial system was in fact more sustainable. And what I found when I dug into the issue was that there are a lot of myths about industrial food production that overshadow its known problems.
When you look at the facts, the status quo is just not sustainable. The way we produce food today drains ground water aquifers. It pollutes surface water, ground water, and oceans with chemical and fertilizer runoff. Over the last 100 years, it has diminished biodiversity dramatically. And the food system today is deeply reliant on fossil fuels — while also producing so many greenhouse gas emissions (think industrial livestock production that is responsible for 14-18 percent of emissions — estimates vary).
A system like this simply cannot be called sustainable if it is destroying the very things — like clean water, healthy soil, biodiversity — it needs to keep producing food for our kids and their grandkids. Not to mention worsening climate change.
What’s the alternative? Agriculture that nurtures biodiversity from the bees to the seeds to the nematodes in the soil, conserves water, manages nutrients in fertilizer responsibly, that sequesters carbon. When I traveled around the world researching this book, I found that these signposts of sustainability were more likely to be found on small farms, practicing sustainable — organic — agriculture. Also, if you look at the science, organic soils are more able to sequester carbon as well as more resilient to the extreme weather events that scientists say will become increasingly common with climate change.
Farmers who practice this kind of agriculture were typically part of this global sustainable food movement that I write about in the book. And what was really interesting to see was that people who were farming in this way tended to be improving their fortunes — not getting poorer or hungrier. So this is true sustainability when it stretches from environmental sustainability to economic sustainability for farmers.