And why shouldn't developing countries strive to be the world's breadbasket? Again, there may be transport costs in flying fresh produce from southern Africa to Europe or the United States, but you save all of the heating, lighting, and construction costs associated with hothouse produce grown in the gloom of a European or North American winter. It is good news that Gambia managed to increase its fruit and vegetable exports to the European Union by 25 percent over the past 10 years -- to 123,000 tons. We shouldn't be kicking the legs out from under such efforts in a misguided attempt to build an Arcadia under glass.
And the environmental benefits of organic in terms of lower energy costs and less pollution? Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, estimated that we would need 5 billion to 6 billion additional cows to produce enough natural fertilizer to sustain our current crop production -- which, of course, would increase the demand for forage crops and thus the need for agricultural land. Meanwhile, weed-killing herbicides allow for no-till farming. When you don't plough, you don't erode topsoil nearly as much -- so it doesn't end up being washed into rivers, leaving behind a dust bowl.
Whether organic is as efficient as conventional farming -- in terms of land yield, energy, or labor productivity -- depends on the place and the crop. But even organic sympathizers report that the average land yield in the industrial world is about 8 percent lower on organic farms than on conventional ones. And it only takes a trip to the local supermarket to understand there's a considerable price premium to be paid. Organic milk costs as much as twice the regular kind, for example. The practices of industrial-scale U.S. producers like Stonyfield Farm, which dries organic milk from those energy-efficient New Zealand producers into powder in order to ship it to its plant in Londonderry, New Hampshire, where it's turned into yogurt, keep organic dairy prices climbing even higher.
That lower agricultural efficiency really matters. Because what we definitely know is that, compared with the unsubstantiated health risks of GM or the illusive health benefits of organic crops, there are undoubtedly health risks to not having enough -- or enough variety -- to eat. There are still as many as 1 billion people worldwide who are malnourished; and many are living on around a dollar a day. The best way to help poor people eat well is to make healthy food cost less. But the more agricultural land we divert into lower-efficiency organic production, the higher the price of all food will climb. On test farms, organic production has been shown to be at least as efficient as conventional farming -- and considerably more productive than the average efficiency seen on farms in the developing world. But until that's widely replicated outside agricultural research stations, organic is no friend to the world's poorest consumers.
And all this misguided, parochial Luddism is having a real effect on the ability of producers in low-income countries to climb out of poverty in an environmentally sustainable manner. Most of the world's poorest people are farmers. Many live in water-stressed environments on fragile land. Herbicides and GM crops may be an important part of the story when it comes to raising their productivity. But 15 years after GM crops were first planted commercially, Kenya, South Africa, and Burkina Faso are the only sub-Saharan African countries that have authorized the planting of any GM crops. That's partly because European aid agencies have funded consultants to design regulatory systems based on the restrictive model adopted in Europe. And European NGOs have also threatened African governments that their agricultural exports to Europe would suffer from significantly reduced demand if they were planted even in the vicinity of GM crops.
So how should you eat as a responsible global citizen? Consume less meat and oppose Western farm-subsidy programs -- especially if they focus on livestock. Campaign against U.S. biofuel programs, which divert corn into grossly inefficient energy production. Embrace further testing and analysis of GM crops. Encourage public funding of research and intellectual property laws that ensure that poor farmers are not priced out of the potential benefits of GM seeds. Spend only on organic food that is as energy- and land-efficient as conventional production. And be a smart consumer: Local produce grown out of season and meat raised on imported feed isn't friendly to you, the environment, or the developing world.