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Rising Food Prices: What Should be Done?

Pamela C. Ronald is a Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of California, Davis and the co-author with her husband Raoul Adamchak of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food which argues that a judicious blend of two important strands of agriculture–genetic engineering and organic farming–is key to helping feed the world’s growing population in an ecologically balanced manner. In the post below Ronald responds to an editorial by Paul Krugman.

“Most Americans take food for granted”, reports the New York Times in an editorial last week. I would add that we also take abundant water, vast expanses of wilderness and clean air for granted. The price of oil, global warming and skyrocketing food prices are changing the way we think about land. It is about time. Have we forgotten that land and its resources are precious? Have we forgotten how to be good stewards?

In an editorial this week in the NYT, Paul Krugman places part of the blame on biofuels: “We need to push back against biofuels that turns out to have been a terrible mistake.” But this conclusion is premature and overly simplistic.

Whether biofuels offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced. If we destroy rainforests and grasslands to plant food crop–based biofuels, then Kurgman is right. This is a bad idea. Such an approach would release 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels. (Fargione et al, science 2008).

In contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on degraded and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials (so called cellulosic biomass) incurs little or no carbon debt and can offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages. Research on cellulosic biofuels have only just begun and there are tremendous opportunities. For example, plant biologists are working towards developing new and more productive non-food crops that can be grown on marginal lands. If we triple the yield of biomass we can use 1/3 less land. If we use the most ecologically responsible farming practices available (e.g. organic farming) to produce this new crop biomass, we can reduce the environmental impacts.

Nathanael Greene in an interview with Ira Flatow on Science Friday today said we need new innovations and we need to use them smartly. That is what should be done.

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