Food Fight

According to Robert Paarlberg, organic agriculture is an "elite preoccupation," a "trendy cause" for "purist" circles ("Attention Whole Foods Shoppers," May/June 2010). Sure, sidling up to a Whole Foods in your Lexus SUV and spending $24.99 on artisanal fromage may be the trappings of a privileged foodie, but there's an SUV-sized difference between obsessing about the texture of your goat cheese and arguing for a more sustainable food system.

For a start, Paarlberg doesn't get what it means to be organic. "Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals," he writes, "so their food is de facto organic." But organic farming isn't just about not using chemicals -- it's about doing much more. Organic farmers improve output less by applying purchased products and more by tapping a sophisticated understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds through techniques that include double-dug beds, intercropping, composting, manures, cover crops, crop sequencing, and natural pest control. It could be aptly dubbed "knowledge-intensive" farming.

In contrast, Paarlberg calls biotech and industrial agriculture "science-intensive." But these practices would in fact more appropriately be called water-intensive, chemical-intensive, and fossil-fuel-intensive. All would require external inputs to boost productivity. Industrial agriculture gobbles up much of the 70 percent of the planet's freshwater resources diverted to farming, for example. It relies on petroleum-based chemicals for pest and weed control and requires massive amounts of synthetic fertilizer.

In fact, in 2007, we used 13 million tons of synthetic fertilizer, five times the amount used in 1960. Crop yields, by comparison, grew only half that fast. And it's hardly a harmless increase: Nitrogen fertilizers are the single biggest cause of global-warming gases from U.S. agriculture and a major cause of air and water pollution.

The diminishing returns from industrial agriculture are just one reason why organic agriculture comes out ahead in all comprehensive comparative studies.

Anna Lappé
Author, Diet for a Hot Planet
Brooklyn, N.Y.


Robert Paarlberg is gravely misguided to dismiss rapid population growth as a food-security issue. The 1 billion people who suffer from chronic hunger worldwide would surely argue otherwise.

Paarlberg acknowledges the late Norman Borlaug's successes with the Green Revolution, yet he chooses to omit Borlaug's strong support for family-planning programs to address population issues. From 1971 to 1999, Borlaug was a member of Population Action International's board. Unlike Paarlberg, he understood that family-planning decisions directly affect food security in developing countries.

Although improved yields would be welcome, achieving food security will undoubtedly be more difficult if population growth rates are not addressed. The simplest way to do this is to meet the needs of the 215 million women in developing countries who lack access to modern contraception.

Perhaps next time Paarlberg, an advisor to the CEO of biotech giant Monsanto, should take integrated policy responses to hunger around the world more seriously before advocating for biotechnology. Even Monsanto recognizes it will be difficult to increase agricultural yields sufficiently to keep pace with projected global population growth.

Jeffrey Locke
Legislative Policy Analyst
Population Action International
Washington, D.C.

Robert Paarlberg replies:

If Anna Lappé is correct about the higher productivity of organic farming, why are organic products so much more expensive, and why is this farming method used on only 4 percent of agricultural land in Europe? Farmers know -- apparently better than she does -- that nitrogen fertilizer (banned under organic farming regulations) lowers labor costs and boosts yields. The idea to reject nitrogen fertilizer came not from a farmer, or an agricultural scientist, or even an environmentalist. It came from a 19th-century Austrian mystic philosopher named Rudolf Steiner who also believed in human reincarnation and the lost city of Atlantis.

Lappé says organic production depends on "a sophisticated understanding of biological systems," but it actually depends on excessive land use (because yields are lower) and on burdensome investments of human labor needed to do all the hand-weeding, double-digging, and composting. This can be a labor of love for weekend gardeners in rich countries, but for poor farmers in Africa it is a tyranny of toil.

Lappé's assertions about energy use in modern farming are badly out of date and deceptive. High fuel prices in the 1970s drove U.S. farming away from energy-intensive methods. While grain yields have continued to increase, fertilizer use per acre has been declining since the 1980s. Lappé tries to conceal this by offering a comparison between rates of increase in fertilizer use versus yield. She hopes readers will forget that a high rate of increase from a low base produces less actual growth than a lower rate of increase from a high base.

I share Jeffrey Locke's embrace of both crop science and family planning, and in my article I should have made clear that I was only rejecting the crude Malthusian view that Africa's troubles come from population growth alone. As for modern biotechnology, I don't get the complaint, because my FP article never mentioned genetically engineered crops.


Man Without a Plan

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Aaron David Miller's cri de coeur is its silence about the future ("The False Religion of Mideast Peace," May/June 2010). The situation is not static, and if there is no peace process, there will be no two-state solution. As two former Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, have warned, if there is no two-state solution, then Israel will be an apartheid state and it will face growing international censure and an internal struggle for Palestinian political rights. When that happens, Olmert noted in 2007, "the state of Israel is finished."

Reading Miller's essay, I could not help but think of Britain. The British did a masterful job of screwing things up in Palestine between 1919 and 1947, and then they decided the whole business was "too hard" and washed their hands of the matter. Miller is understandably unhappy with the track record of U.S. peacemaking efforts, and he is in effect throwing up his hands as well. I can understand his reaction and even sympathize with his feelings, but it's not going to make things any better. In fact, the situation is likely to get worse, and history will judge the United States harshly for its contribution to that. Advising President Barack Obama to stand aside now is irresponsible because the United States is a central player in this conflict so long as the "special relationship" continues. Standing aside now also guarantees a worse outcome for all concerned.

So here's the question I'd really like Miller to address: If it becomes clear that "two states for two peoples" is no longer an option, what exactly does he think U.S. policy should be?

Stephen M. Walt
Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University
Contributing editor, Foreign Policy
Cambridge, Mass.


Aaron David Miller's piece is as typically passionate and insightful as many of his other contributions, and as a fellow negotiator and a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, I share much of his frustration.

But though I don't envisage comprehensive peace with the present set of players in the region, I believe in the possibility of peace between Arabs and Israelis and in the commitment to its pursuit.

Regrettably, I don't see permanent-status negotiations starting and concluding successfully in the near future. However, in the absence of any real possibility for progress, it is imperative to consolidate our gains and preserve the fundamentals that govern the peace process. As such, I would suggest that the U.N. Security Council adopt two resolutions as soon as possible.

The first resolution would be short and straightforward, emphasizing that Arab-Israeli peace is a strategic international goal and that Israeli building in East Jerusalem is illegitimate and rejected by the international community.

The second resolution would recognize the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, and as a consequence preserve the possibility of a two-state solution for future negotiations. On that basis it would further allow the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel the arrangements that might bring the realization of peace.

Needless to say, these suggestions would not solve the conflict, but they do preserve the fundamentals and prevent the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from becoming irresolvable.

Nabil Fahmy
Dean, School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
American University in Cairo
Cairo, Egypt

Aaron David Miller replies:

Stephen Walt and Nabil Fahmy lament the absence of a compelling "how can we fix it" section in my article. Having spent the past 20 years or so looking for those fixes unsuccessfully, I understand their frustration.

But that's precisely the reason I wrote the piece. Official Washington lives in an in-box. Doing before thinking is of course never a good idea; in fact, it's how the United States gets itself into trouble. I've lost count of the number of "next steps in the peace process" memos I wrote even when I knew that there were no next steps that would work.

It's quintessentially American to want to fix things and make them better. An unresolved Arab-Israeli problem or a world without a peace process and hope for a negotiated solution isn't a good thing, though I'd argue we've been in such a world for the last 10 years or so.

My piece wasn't designed to try to create a solution where there is none. I've been down that road too many times. Instead, the piece was written as a cautionary tale designed to get people to think before they act.

So what to do? Plunge ahead anyway with the big-bang solution on the assumption that trying and failing is better than not trying at all? Or try to make some headway where you can: identify one issue, like borders, where the gaps are the narrowest, and if your approach is successful, you can address both settlements and security; build Palestinian institutions; get the Israelis to ease up on checkpoints; and expand the Palestinian security presence into the West Bank?

It's not sexy. But it's a lot smarter than what I suspect might be coming: yet another U.S. plan or policy statement on the big issues that will raise expectations and hopes without the capacity to actually succeed. We all remember what happened after the Camp David talks fell apart in 2000: a decade of chaos and stagnation. Another failure by overreaching could well bury the peace process for good.