The Wilson Quarterly

The $4 heirloom tomato is not going to save the world, writes Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food (2008). Organic farming, locally grown vegetables, and vertical pea patches won’t feed 6.7 billion people. Achieving truly sustainable farming will require more than merely sparing the herbicides and patronizing the local farmers’ market. The expensive agricultural techniques that have beguiled food activists may have passed their expiration ­dates.

Organic agriculture supplies less than three percent of America’s food, Roberts writes, and ramping up acreage free of synthetic fertilizers to a global level is a chimera. Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba, says that such an expansion would “require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming.”

Another greatest hit on the sus­tain­able farming activist checklist is the concept of local food. But most eaters now live in cities, far from the producers. ­Close-­in farmland either is economically prohibitive or requires farmers to concentrate on ­high-­mar­gin ­products—­heirloom toma­toes and mache spring to ­mind—­to survive. Moreover, rural communities can’t sustain themselves economically by selling locally. One farmer in Oregon can grow more pears on a few hundred acres than the entire state can eat in a season, according to ­Roberts.

Dickson Dispommier, a Columbia University professor and visionary champion of vertical farming, claims that a 30-story glass sky­scraper using nonsoil farming could produce enough food on a single city block to feed 50,000 people. But his farm would cost $200 million to build. Other seers are pro­moting more modest vertical schemes, such as Sky Vegetables, which would use grocery store roof­tops—for example, the four acres atop a typical Wal-Mart superstore.

But if sustainable food is to mean anything for more than the affluent few, long-distance transportation cannot be eliminated, Roberts argues. Parts of Asia and Africa are rapidly running out of water and arable land. And some things simply grow better in certain places.

The quest for the perfect sustainable system cannot be allowed to block the many pathways toward better food practice, Roberts says. Farmers who vastly reduce their use of synthetic fertilizer should not be treated as pariahs because they still use herbicides. The principle of reducing ­“food ­miles” might be advanced by curtailing fresh-rasp­berry airlifts from Mexico, but it shouldn’t be used to undermine the efficient bulk-delivery systems super­markets already have in place.

THE SOURCE: “Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008” by Paul Roberts, in Mother Jones, March–April ­2009.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Neeta Lind

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