Today I was listening to audio of a panel discussion entitled Fast Food World: Perils and Promises of the Global Food Chain. Below is a rough transcription of an astute question from an audience member along with answers from three of the participants.

Q: Do you think that we have changed the carrying capacity of the earth through fossil fuels to the extent that we could not support the current population with organic agriculture free of synthetic fertilizers?

Michael Pollan: That is a very hard and scary question. When I’ve done research on nitrogen fertilizer, which in a way is the key 20th century invention driving the whole industrialization of food, is the fact that we’ve learned how to turn fossil fuel into food for our plants. I learned that there are 2 billion people on this planet whose very substance is nitrogen that came from those fertilizers. So whether we can undo that is a real question. That is the limiting factor in so much agriculture and therefore in so much population is this limitation on the nitrogen in our soil–and we’ve exceeded that artificially. Now there is a margin, Wes Jackson says there is a kind of margin of error because we’re feeding so much food to animals. If we truly went to organic and could eliminate all the fertility we are giving to our cattle, it might help. I don’t think it is at all clear that going to organic agriculture as we know it could support a population of 8 billion.

Wendell Berry: Well, the first thing to say in reply to that question, is we don’t know. We’re probably going to find out. (Nervous audience laughter) But, to talk about this dependence on industrial agriculture that we now have is, once we understand it, is to propose that we become dependent on a form of agriculture that is ultimately going to starve everybody. So, whether we can feed everybody for a while with this kind of farming is just a quibble. We’ve got to hope that we have some kind of a margin for change. If the government decided to change right now to a more conservative kind of agriculture we couldn’t do it in this country very fast because we don’t have the people to do it, we don’t have the knowledge, we don’t have the skill, we don’t have the local cultures that can sustain this kind of work. We had these cultures half a century ago, this would have been a much more thinkable thing than it is now. But you can’t simply pull the farmers you need out of the labor pool as you would for factory work or other industrial work. To have good farming, you have to have people who know how to do it, and we just don’t have them, and we’re not saving the ones we have. (Polite Applause for the older gentleman)

Vandana Shiva: I don’t know the farms in Iowa, I’ve never been there, I’ve never seen them. But I have studied the green revolution in India, which is the introduction of fossil fuel inputs, whether as nitrogen as fertilizer or as mechanization. And in fact that’s what started me off on spending my time and life on food issues, because at the end of studying the violence in Punjab in the 80’s, it became very clear that we hadn’t produced more food on the land in Punjab. We had produced more rice and wheat. But we had produced more rice and wheat by getting rid of all the oilseed, all the pulses, all the greens that were also part of food, but they were never taken into account in the food basket. The fact that the calculations have always been done with respect to the monocultures of five globally traded commodities and then generating the artificial surpluses in those commodities, does not mean more food is being grown per unit resource use. I believe less food is being grown per unit resource use, and the units of resource use are land, biodiversity, and water. We’re actually using ten times more water to grow the same amount of food. So we’re mining the planet for water, just to dissolve the extra chemicals. The plants don’t need that excess water, the chemicals need it. And I also know, beyond a point, you can’t keep pumping synthetic fertilizers into the soil and have the plant keep taking it up, because what helps the plants take up nutrients is the living organisms in the soil. So chemicals have no direct relationships with the plants. The fact that we extrapolate, very conveniently, to say this much more additions of nutrients–in Punjab, the productivity and yield is declining totally because now the soils are saturated with synthetic fertilizers which have killed the original creators of fertility. We need to move from monoculture calculations to biodiversity calculations, and I think in terms of biodiversity, ecological farms using biodiversity–not just monoculture organic farms (I think those will stay impoverished)–but biodiverse farms using land, water, and biodiversity efficiently and having biodiversity not just as an input but as an output, that output is much higher than any industrial farm can produce. And that I think is a biological fact. (Louder Applause)

Original poster notes:
The third answer differs significantly from the first two. Shiva sidesteps the dilemma altogether by asserting that the green revolution of synthetically fertilizing monocultures never actually increased real productivity when compared with organic polyculture.

Futher discussion: