Can Local and Organic Feed the World?

An article in Foreign Policy suggests that the current enthusiasm for locally grown organic food is simply another consumer choice made possible by western affluence.

From Whole Foods recyclable cloth bags to Michelle Obama’s organic White House garden, modern eco-foodies are full of good intentions. We want to save the planet. Help local farmers. Fight climate change — and childhood obesity, too. But though it’s certainly a good thing to be thinking about global welfare while chopping our certified organic onions, the hope that we can help others by changing our shopping and eating habits is being wildly oversold to Western consumers. Food has become an elite preoccupation in the West, ironically, just as the most effective ways to address hunger in poor countries have fallen out of fashion.

In fact, the places in the world that are necessarily committed to local and organic (those that cannot afford to transport foods over long distances or purchase chemical fertilizers and pesticides) are the poorest and hungriest parts of the earth.

In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

So the challenge to those who champion the development of sustainable local food cultures is clear: Could a less industrialized food production system feed seven billion people? If the answer is “yes”, what would have to change in agriculture, and culture more generally, to make that happen? What would be the benefits? The costs?

36 comments on this post.
  1. Russell Arben Fox:

    I’ve never like “organic”–even before I read Michael Pollan, I considered much of the whole organic food culture misbegotten, if not an outright scam. The linking of “organic” with “sustainable” and “local” does a disservice to those who take seriously the virtues and benefits of developing local food and farming economies, if only becomes it makes them a target of attacks like this, attacks which only address a small portion of what truly populist farmers try to accomplish.

  2. Kevin R. Laughlin:

    How is organic more sustainable than modern farming methods? It erodes soil at a faster rate, takes more nutrients from it, yields less and is much more labor intensive. If anything, it’s less sustainable.

    To me, there seems little difference between the two (save the much smaller size of ‘organic’ produce) and little reason to pay $3 or an organic bell pepper when I can get a run-of-the-mill one for $.99.

    There’s also the paradox that in the U.S. ‘organic’ farms consist of about %1 (give or take) of our current agricultural production while almost every grocery store I’ve been to has large and growing ‘organic’ sections. If only 1% goes to organic production, whence comes this abundance of ‘organic’ products?

    I agree that the industrialization of food is troubling, but I don’t think you’re going to get there by removing pesticides and tractors from the equation. The focus needs to be on family farms and against the centralization of capital and production that is beginning to take place in the agricultural sector. I do agree that ‘organic’ seems to be a bit of a fad and a marketing ploy which plays into America’s growing food insecurity.

  3. Daniel:

    I feel this critique leaves out some important facts.
    A. There are other pressing difficulties associated with farming in Africa far above and beyond the ideal situation for a truly sustainable local market, such as land distribution, population distribution, warfare, negative effects of capitalism, etc.
    B. As previously stated, “organic” is separate from localism, though often lumped together. It is, in my opinion, a fad, and a proper target for this criticism. The two are not intertwined of necessity, a distinction that ought to be made.
    C. I don’t believe the solution to Africa’s woes lies in globalized capitalist markets. We need only look at China to see that gearing food production toward greatest yield for export does not necessarily mean improved quality
    of life.

    In light of the above I can’t help but think that the author is targeting the fad of “organic food-ism” that has attempted to absorb the entire food-localist movement, albeit with good intentions. It’s a good reminder to accept these new “converts”, but they shouldn’t be elected “pope” the next day.

    Daniel

  4. Abbey:

    My first reaction is that Africa’s poverty and hunger is being vastly oversimplified here. Blame local and organic food? What about political turmoil, land disputes, drought, and little to no education about farming and cultivation? Just because they are poor doesn’t mean that everything they do is wrong.

    Also to Kevin: try going to a downscale supermarket in your area – there is likely no organic section whatsoever. That 1% finds it’s way to the grocery stores where it will fetch the highest price.

  5. Jason Peters:

    A few of remarks ere I return to the joyous labor of marking freshmen essays:

    1. “Organic,” by now, is an unreliable word. Marketing alters the meaning of every word it touches. I reckon we should banish “organic” from the tongue for a generation or so. (I favor doing the same to the word “conservative.”)

    2. But–sorry, Mr. Laughlin–it’s clear that the small-scale labor-intensive farming methods of, say, the Amish are more sustainable than the large-scale methods of industrial farming. Such Amish farmers as David Klein, for example, understand that the means of production must preserve and improve the sources of production. Industrial farming, while interested in the means, has been pretty much content to destroy the sources. Hence the destruction of the sources. This is a matter of record.

    3. The way to know something about small-scale methods is actually to engage in some. Experience, it turns out, is indifferent to opinion. I’d recommend Eliot Coleman to anyone who wants to get his mind around how productive small-scale local agriculture really is.

    4. There are some places that simply aren’t going to produce much food. Whether we’ll be able to move food into those places indefinitely is more than a good question. It’s a serious problem.

  6. Christopher Harrison:

    Kevin R. Laughlin said: “I agree that the industrialization of food is troubling, but I don’t think you’re going to get there by removing pesticides and tractors from the equation. The focus needs to be on family farms and against the centralization of capital and production that is beginning to take place in the agricultural sector.”

    Beginning to take place? I think that in many areas it already has taken full root. However, other than that, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.

    Personally, I prefer being able to buy my food directly from a local farmer — or grow it myself. The key to reversing the centralization of agriculture seems, to me, to cut out the middlemen of the operation (grocery chains, food processing companies, patented seed producers, etc.), as well as being willing to eat things in season more (no strawberries outside of June, for instance). Part of this also means being willing to pay a little more for our food, since it is being sold to us without the benefits of massive government subsidy which the industrialized producers enjoy. Of course, we’ve also seen the share of our income that goes toward food get cut in half over the past 40-50 years, so it’s not like we’re doing anything revolutionary by being willing to pay a little more. Plus, if we deal directly with our local farmers, we might actually generate a slightly more tight-knit community in the process….

  7. Artie:

    “So the challenge to those who champion the development of sustainable local food cultures is clear: Could a less industrialized food production system feed seven billion people?”

    That challenge is equally applicable to those who champion corporate, industrialized fossil-fueled food – can an industry compltely dependent on imported oil feed seven billion people? the answer is a big NO. If corporate food cannot feed the population we have now – and we do have hungry people on this planet – why should we expect local, organic food to step in and eradicate food shortages?

    It is a shame that the idea of local and organic food has been co-opted by the affluent, but other equally legitimate processes have been coopted in much the same way. Take religion, for instance. None of that mitigates the fact that industrial food is 100% dependent upon cheap, imported oil for its production and transportation and the future of that oil supply is anything but clear.

    All food was once organic. It will be that way again. ILocal and organic might not support 7 billion people, but that is not the fault of organic agriculture. That’s the fault of exceeding limits.

  8. Mark T. Mitchell:

    Good points, Artie. But now given that we have seven billion mouths to feed, what is the right way to proceed?

  9. Nathan:

    Mark asks if local and organic can feed the world. The comments seem focused on the veracity/authenticity of claims by certain parties of being organic and sustainable. Certainly a discussion of value.

    But my first reaction to the title, before I even read the article was on the “feed the world” part. For some weird reason, the mere suggestion seems Wilsonian, and maybe that is where I recoil.

    Who’s responsibility is it to “feed the world”? Where does this idea come from? What do we mean by this? This concept seems as much a part of western “affluence” as anything else discussed here. And given the data points available since the industrialization of agriculture took root, it seems that western hubris is in no short supply either.

    What else could explain such optimism in the face of abject failure? History is replete with examples of the failure of any grand plan to solve the worlds greatest ills. Local farming didn’t feed the world when it was the only method around. Modern industrial agrobusiness has failed to do so as well. It may beat famine, drought, and hungry no-see-ums, but it hasn’t trumped corruption, greed and the power lust of corporations, dictators and their Federal/WTO/UN pimps.

    I’m short on constructive alternatives, I’ll admit. So count me a crusty critic. But a sanity check on the jurisdiction of our egos may be in order.

  10. Artie:

    I wish I had a simple answer, Mark. I don’t think the answer to feeding seven billion lies in persuading the benighted of rural Africa and Port Royal to give up organic farming because Madison Avenue and elitist foodies have trivialized it. I do think we must consider that a system of agriculture based on a precarious supply of cheap oil simply cannot feed all 7 billion (and those to come) in the style that most Americans enjoy today.

    Nature has its way of enforcing limits. If there’s an alternative to organic farming in a world where the oil supply is problematic, I don’t hear anyone else making a plausible case for it.

  11. Kevin R. Laughlin:

    On what record? It is on the record that farming organically (even conventionally) leeches the soil of phosphorus and potassium (even while rotating crops). The only difference is that conventional farming returns those nutrients to the soil via fertilization (through a combination of manure and chemical fertilizers). This added to the fact that organic farm yields are on average 20% less than conventional yields to begin with (up to 40% for potatoes) in good, healthy soil will inevitably lead to increasingly diminishing returns. Again, sustainable? Maybe for small, isolated societies like the Amish whose population only feeds its own community of hundreds (in a given area) and largely ignores the surrounding society. The Amish are also much (and I cannot stress that more) less densely peopled in their areas of settlement and influence.

    That having been said, with the increased encumbrance of obtaining organic certification as well as putting more unqualified (read: people who are not farmers) people in charge of and deciding the fate of our food supply. Organic farming is all well and good for the Amish and small, niche, affluent markets but it is not going to feed a growing and hungry world.

    Why would a farmer already burdened with how much money he is going to make begin using farming methods that will earn him 20% less than if he were to keep doing what he is already doing? He wouldn’t. If organic were the best, most practical means of food production you see farmers switching to it in droves (well there aren’t that many farmers left, in small crowds of people on average aged 50+). It is none of these things. It is the politicization of food by the affluent who are usually (and increasingly so) far removed from any rational notion of food production.

    You’ve also mischaracterized my statements. At no point in my comment did I endorse industrialized (so-called ‘factory’) farms. In fact, I more or less stated I abhorred them. Nor am I against a more localized food sources. I believe I made statements in favor of locally based family farmers. Fertilizers and pesticides are good things when they’re used conscientiously and in harmony with sound soil conservation techniques. At this point saying we should all go back to farming like the Amish is like saying the U.S. Marines should adopt a broadsword as their general issue infantry weapon.

  12. M.Z.:

    Moving food to market is a different problem than sustainability. The Whiskey Rebellion was about moving food to market. The Ohio Valley didn’t lack in production capacity. It was barely being scratched. But the ability to get the corn to market without consuming it in transport was a problem. Corn whiskey helped solve that problem.

    Historically, the greater problem has always been preservation. Fresh! Fresh! Fresh! is good, but it isn’t the diet that allowed our population boom. If you want to be more sustainable, drink more warm beer.

    As to whether the solution lies in large or smaller farms, I think this asks the wrong question. From a macro view, there isn’t much of a difference. Certain crops lend themselves better to one over the other. Cereals will never be economical on small farms as full time work. Anyone farming 500 acres of cereals today is in fact engaged in part time work. We aren’t going to feed everyone in our country, let alone the world, without cereals though.

  13. Artie:

    “At this point saying we should all go back to farming like the Amish is like saying the U.S. Marines should adopt a broadsword as their general issue infantry weapon.”

    That’s a tad hyperbolic. I don’t recall anyone saying all or part of us “should” go back to farming like the Amish. Some of us are speculating that a future without cheap imported oil would force us – at least those of us who want to continue eating – to procure food that did not require oil to plant, fertilize, harvest and transport it thousands of miles.

    To your credit, a broadsword would be of more use than a Bradley Fighting Vehicle with no fuel.

  14. Steve:

    A lot of smart things have been said above about a very difficult (and, as Nathan points out, loaded) question. Another interesting issue in comparing traditional agriculture with industrial agriculture is how we measure productivity. Industrial agriculture measures productivity in the terms of cash crop production per acre. Traditional agriculture, which often relies on mixed crops and intercropping, will always lag far behind in this measure. But if you measure productivity in terms of total food and fodder per acre, traditional agriculture can actually out-produce industrial monocultures. In addition to this, it maintains more biodiversity, making it less prone to disease and more resistant to drought. This is the case, at least, made by Indian scientist-activist Vandana Shiva.

  15. Kevin R. Laughlin:

    Hyperbole aside, that was what I had insinuated from an earlier response to my first comment.

    I could venture that you’re just as guilty of embellishment as I in that you also make your postulation on the assumption that Peak Oil (whose proponents have made their careers on apocalyptic predictions) is A: whole-heartedly sound in its hypotheses and B: an inevitability. I cannot speak with any degree of authority on Peak Oil, I’m not geologist or petrol-chemical engineer. Though, I must admit, it’s a tad too millennial for my taste. Additionally, I believe it is somewhat dismissive of human ingenuity and maliciously self-defeatist in scope. Is that to say Peak Oil (in one manifestation or another) is nonsense? No, but it isn’t etched in marble either.

  16. Peter B. Nelson:

    There’s organic, and then there’s organic. Almost all American farming in the 1920′s and 1930′s was done without tractors and without petrochemical fertilizers or herbicides or pesticides. And yet, with their primitive tools our forefathers caused deforestation, erosion and soil-depletion culminating in the dust-bowl. Today peasant farmers in Brazil slash-and-burn acres of the Amazonian rain forest, depleting the soil and moving on every few years. These techniques are pre-industrial but certainly not “organic” in any meaningful sense of the word.

    Nor is it “organic” to preserve the Eastern forests by growing wheat on the Western short grass prairie, if doing so requires exploiting an aquifer to the point it will run dry in a mere 25 years.

    Dr. Peter is right on, as usual, let’s abandon the overused and abused term “organic” and be more specific what we mean.

    On a practical note, you might be surprised how capable people can be at growing food for themselves. Chickens and pigs and horses and cows were once commonly raised in cities. And its easy to find estimates that historically an acre of potatoes could feed a family of six, or even four times that.

  17. Mark Perkins:

    A few thoughts from one who is not a farmer nor an expert on food (psst, that’s me).

    Daniel makes some very good points. Starvation and malnutrition have little to do with iron-clad limits of food production. Anarchy and greed, rather than acres and soil, are generally at the heart of such problems. Thus Artie’s assertion that our earth cannot sustain seven billion people even with the full force of technology is misdirected. Saying that the reason people starve is that there is not enough food is sort of like saying that the reason people asphyxiate in a fire is that there isn’t enough oxygen. Well, sure, that is the immediate cause, but simply introducing more food or more oxygen into the equation will not fix anything.

    I will say that a complete rejection of non-organic food would not be wise or humane. Something like the doctrine of competing harms is at work here. In the long term a system of chemical-soaked, international factory farms is far from ideal, but at the moment the alleviation of human suffering demands gradual (and regional) solutions rather than revolutionary idealism.

    Mr. Laughlin implies that organic farmers don’t use tractors or technology, which is not at all true. It means (whether the label is applied correctly or not) only that chemicals and unnatural, artificially modified elements are kept out of the growing process as best as possible. It does not mean that modern technology is entirely rejected. There is at least an implied skepticism about the limits of technology in organic farming.

    Mr. Laughlin, you make hefty claims about what fertilizers do and do not do in comparison with organic farming. I would submit that you know less than you think you do–not because of ignorance, but simply because of epistemological limits. All the powers of science notwithstanding, we collectively know less than we think we do. After thousands of years of agriculture, we have a decent handle on the long-term effects of “organic” farming. But how long has mutant corn existed? Less than a century. When I am told that ingesting countless tons of mutant corn or dumping untold numbers of chemicals into my food has no or negligible effect on my health and the health of the soil, I am skeptical. Scientists may say there are no discernible differences, but I question their powers of discernment. I’m not entirely dismissive of human ingenuity, but I am familiar with human frailty and, again, the limitations of what we can know and what we can do.

  18. Kevin R. Laughlin:

    Mr. Perkins,

    I agree with your argument about the limits of science. I concede that we have been using chemicals in agriculture for a far shorter them than we haven’t and as such should be skeptical. Perhaps I misspoke (miswrote?) or didn’t properly characterize my arguments regarding the use of technology in organic agriculture. I was not saying that organic agriculture rejects tractors or the use of other mechanical implements, or at least, I didn’t intend to. My use of an Amish analogy was in reaction to Mr. Peter’s reference to an Amish farmer. I wanted to say that any notion of Amish farming or animal powered production isn’t valid for the reasons I’ve already stated above.

  19. Rob G:

    ~~The linking of “organic” with “sustainable” and “local” does a disservice to those who take seriously the virtues and benefits of developing local food and farming economies, if only because it makes them a target of attacks like this~~

    Well said, Russell. Among the majority of the so-called New Agrarians that I’ve read, you don’t hear so much about the “organic” thing — it’s a bit of a sideline. The emphasis is more on such things as soil health, limitation of erosion, local sustainability, etc. If all these things can be achieved in a purely organic way, that’s great. But it doesn’t seem to me to be a necessity, strictly speaking, for achieving those goals, especially when the concept itself is so inexact.

  20. Artie:

    “Thus Artie’s assertion that our earth cannot sustain seven billion people even with the full force of technology is misdirected.”

    Just to be clear, I was observing that there are people all over the globe dying of hunger and malnutrition as we speak, despite whatever force technology is bringing to bear on the problem. It could be argued that hunger today is a political problem, and not a shortcoming of technology. But I find Mark’s assertion that “simply introducing more food…into the equation will not fix anything” strangely illogical. Wouldn’t more food, organic or otherwise, provide at least a partial fix for those who are starving or malnourished?

    I concede that “organic” is poorly defined and understood, even by those who trumpet its virtues the loudest. Generally speaking, organic produce is grown without the use of fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides synthesized from oil or natural gas, just as it was for all those centuries before the first oil well was drilled just 150 years ago.

    Right now, the US imports more than half of it oil, the same oil used to fertilize and transport agricultural products. A substantial percentage of this imported oil comes from the Persian Gulf area, where the US military has a more or less permanent gig protecting the flow of oil. As we speak, millions of gallons of oil are fouling the Gulf of Mexico despite (or because of) the forces of technology. Oil is still expensive despite the crippled economy. Some claim we are at or past peak oil. But regardless of how much oil remains in the earth to be extracted, getting that oil out of the ground and into hands of American farmers and truckers becomes a more difficult and expensive task with each passing day.

    For me, this is the most compelling case for moving, even if slowly and incrementally, toward food production that is smaller, more local and organic – it uses less of this highly problematic oil. And this finite planet will run out of oil eventually. Why not make the transition to feeding the planet without oil a gradual process? Or do we have to wake up one morning to find there’s nothing on the shelves of the grocery store because there’s no fertilizer or fuel for trucks and tractors?

  21. Mark Perkins:

    Mr. Laughlin,

    Thanks for the clarification. I missed that you were referring to the Amish specifically.

    Artie,

    If you could get the food directly to the suffering people, yes, that would be best. And because some of the food *does* get there I think international aid is a good thing. But let me take my oxygen/food metaphor a step further (and risk having it collapse into incomprehensibility). People usually die in fires because they asphyxiate, not because they burn. So if you could get more oxygen to the people in the fire, you would certainly provide a temporary stopgap. The larger effect of introducing oxygen, though, would be to increase the size and fury of the fire. Essentially you would be deepening the crisis. Similarly, when you can get food to the people actually suffering, you can save lives. However, simply introducing food into a corrupt system merely exacerbates the crisis (the classic example being Mogadishu, 1993). And while it may alleviate some suffering, on the whole its effect may be minimal at best and disastrous at worst.

    Of course, the metaphor only goes so far because the fire is practically half of a continent, and the victims are in the millions and hundreds of millions. So international aid can do and does much good. However, its success is essentially dependent on some very skilled tightrope walking avoiding a number of potential catastrophes. Massive subsidies could turn half the continent into a massive Native American reservation, an impoverished group with no native industry, markets, or agriculture dependent entirely on outside aid for survival. Then you have the global capitalists hoping that McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and the like will save the continent (or, failing that, enrich said capitalists).

    The basic point stands, I believe, that the lack of food is, at least generally speaking, not do to the insufficiency of the earth to produce enough food for seven billion–the problem isn’t a matter of insufficient or inefficient farming.

  22. Artie:

    Mark,

    Your metaphor is definitely not up to the task at hand. Here’s another – it’s widely known that the “non-negotiable” US lifestyle requires more fossil fuel per capita than any other country, by factors of 10 or more in some instances. Put another way, if everyone on earth lived like Americans, we’d need 6 planet Earths. Again, I stress that the hunger and nutrition problems in Africa are in large part political, and not strictly a matter of resource availability or the efficiency of African farming methods.

    We’ll never eliminate the politics, so how best to feed all 7 billion? There is a finite supply of oil, and extracting and distributing that oil becomes more problematic by the day. It doesn’t matter how much more efficient oil-based agriculture is if you don’t have a dependable, equitable supply of oil.

    Unless some new technology comes along to power the trucks and tractors and produce the fertilizers and pesticides without oil, I see no more reliable way to enable today’s disenfranchised populations or the future’s oil-less population to feed itself than to pass along the time-honored principles of organic agriculture.

  23. Marchmaine:

    There’s just all sorts of wrong in this thread.

    America (and much of the industrialized West) have the agricultural system they designed. That is, our Agriculture is not the most efficient, not the best, not the healthiest and not a system created by “free market” principles.

    It is a system that is designed according to the following principles:
    1. Cheap Petroleum Input
    2. Extreme reliance on High Inputs (petroleum based fertilizers)
    3. High output of select (subsidized) crops
    4. Low Labor inputs

    This system is “sustainable” as long as the above assumptions hold true; but the goal of this system is to produce exportable “products” that the US uses to influence foreign affairs (hence origin of the silly article quoted above).

    The article gives away the game in the last paragraph:
    “If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe.”

    There is no correlation between US industrial food policy and fighting Hunger… the fact that they mention safety is purely a gratuitous talking point to fool you suburbanites who are afraid of dirt.

    The five federally subsidized “foods” are:
    1. Corn
    2. Wheat
    3. Rice
    4. Soy Beans
    5. Cotton

    All of these products are extremely well suited to Agri-Warfare in that they store well, ship well, process well, and give the illusion of food.

    These foods are to hunger what pretty assistants are to a Magician.

    We who are at least passing acquainted with the land know that the above system will achieve its goals.

    We question the goals.

    That is the nexus between “organic” and the upper-middle-class. It is becoming increasingly clear that the USDA does not guarantee Safety, nor health, nor quality… it guarantees quantity alone. But because it can only “use” certain foods for a global agenda, over-all productivity of the land and the health of the nation are sacrificed.

    I’m also surprised the the crowd here falls for the backwards argument that under-developed countries suffer privation owing to non-industrial agriculture. It has been well documented ever since “Small is Beautiful” that the introduction of centralized industry (incommensurate with the intermediate technology levels supportable by the population) are what destroy the rural/city balance and wreak havoc on the population (via massive unsustainable increase) while destroying the agricultural base on which the society was once stable.

    So, as any first-year Philosophy of Science student could tell you: your results are always a product of the system you wish to test. If you are testing the production of Corn, Wheat, Soy and Rice… then the system passes.

    If you are testing for reducing hunger, increasing food calories per acre, improving population health, and reducing the costs associated with industrial agriculture owing to the epidemic increase of industrial diseases (heart disease, exotic cancers, diabetes, etc.) – then the industrial system fails _on it’s own internal data_ (i.e. the only criteria McIntyre allows for a successful rebuttal of a rival ideological claim).

    In short: the current policy does not fight hunger-it makes it worse, it does not fight poverty-it makes it worse, it does not improve the quality of the crops-it makes it worse… but as long as oil is cheap and the US has excess dollars to waste on subsidizing starch, it is certainly sustainable.

  24. Mark Perkins:

    Artie,

    I’m pretty sure we are agreeing but talking past each other. I think I misread your statement about the limits of technology and then started artfully shadow-boxing.

    If the oil supply is finite (and is it possible even to deny that it is finite?) and if there is no guarantee that all the nifty alternative/renewable sources of energy can replace oil (and only unthinking believers in Progress and Science could possibly believe that such an unprecedented thing is guaranteed), then, yes, the most viable option is to wean ourselves off oil, which requires living with significantly more modest means. I remain quite the avid consumer, and I have become fairly well-acquainted with the demands of growing food naturally in the past year, and the prospect of reduced consumption frightens me. I feel almost like Linda from Brave New World.

  25. Len:

    A rich discussion. I think we’d all appreciate some sources cited from Kevin Laughlin’s first comment about soil erosion rates etc. Thank you!

  26. Steve:

    That is a good post, Marchmaine. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  27. Jason Fayen:

    It appears to me that the label “organic” as it is popularly used is a somewhat inaccurate synonym for what in simpler times was described as good stewardship. To practice good stewardship requires one to work within a natural systems limits, and strive to increase it’s health and natural capital. I would submit that the issue of limits is the critical element in this discussion. The profligate application of incredible energy- the same stuff that is flooding the Gulf- has allowed us to greatly exceed all conceivable natural limits and perhaps a few heretofore undreamed of. To my mind the question of being able to continue to feed the multitudinous masses with the use of industrial agriculture will be answered conclusively by the limits of available inputs, not by philosophical argument. Whether or not one chooses to believe that oil depletion is imminent or distant seems rather immaterial when one examines the broad outlines of petroleum availability- it is finite. While I don’t expect non-exploitative forms of agriculture- small scale farms practicing good stewardship for example- to be able to “feed the world”, they will in fact be able to continue to feed some of the world in the face of acute shortages of oil for one- or water for another. And furthermore, as much of the most important knowledge necessary to farm well in cyclical harmony with a particular place is learned through experience rather than taught I feel that the more people involved in re-learning that knowledge now the better.

  28. John Médaille:

    Some random observations.

    The joke about the “efficient” factory farm is that it always seems to rely on high subsidies, or monopoly prices, or both.

    As for feeding the world, this is not an agricultural problem; there is more than enough food to make everybody fat. The problem comes in distribution. The places without enough food are the same with low wages. Notice how that works?

    Technology can work with or against nature. If technology is taken as a war against nature, there is always the possibility that it will win.

    It is impossible to compare the “efficiency” of one method against another by merely comparing the prices, if the costs of one of the methods is externalized. Prices that do not reflect actual costs means that proper decisions cannot be made. Take away the corn subsidies and half the crap we eat (which traces in one way or the other to corn) becomes too expensive. Suddenly, organic, with its higher unit costs looks like a bargain.

    As for Africa (and many other places), forget foreign aid, etc., what they mainly need is a fair price for their products. There is a reason why Dutch butter is cheaper in the Nairobi market than Kenyan butter: one is subsidized (directly and indirectly) and one is not.

    The combination of NAFTA and subsidized American corn drove the Mexican farmer out of business. They also drove him North of the border. Or into the drug trade.

  29. Julien Peter Benney:

    There is some truth that “local” and “organic” is a fad. It is true that local food production on the steep and densely populated regions of Eurasia and the Americas is never going to be economically competitive.

    On the other hand, eliminating the vast farm subsidies of Europe and Asia would turn all or almost all food production onto the very old soils of Australia and Africa. Unlike the very fertile soils of Eurasia and the Americas, which have been formed in the past ten thousand or so years by glaciation, deposition, or volcanoes, the soils of Australia and most of Africa were formed in the Carboniferous during the previous Ice Age. Over the subsequent three hundred million years, they have been extremely deeply weathered and leached of the vast bulk of their soluble minerals. The result is that yields are much lower than elsewhere in the world, and that there are many risks associated with salinisation.

    In temperate Australia – at least before global warming devastated the climate over the past fourteen years, extremely economically efficient farming has been developed via the most modern mechanisation and efficient plant breeding. Farmers have made efforts to deal with the unique character of the soils through fertilisers, crop rotation and the use of trace elements, so that vast areas of flaw land can be farmed at very low cost.

    In Africa, by comparison, mechanisation is much more difficult due to the cost and the fact that farming systems are poorly adapted thereto. This is particularly true of systems in equatorial Africa, which are based on millet, maize, or root crops and would require different systems from those used for temperate crops on younger soils. However, if European and Asian farm subsidies were removed, Africa would take over with its flat terrain and (currently) low labour costs, enabling it to export crops to European markets in much larger quantities, with the result of higher revenues for its farmers if the problems of transportation can be solved. The question remains very open, though, as to whether soil degradation would be as bad as it has been in Australia. there is also the question of whether the free market could force temperate delicacies from the market via climate change in southern Australia and urbanisation of all remaining farmland in Europe and East Asia?

  30. Rob G:

    Great post, Marchmaine. Again, I’m no farmer, but what you write seems to be a good summary of the issue, based on a lot of the New Agrarian things I’ve read.

    “The article gives away the game in the last paragraph”

    Yep. I’ve spoken with any number of pro-business, “neocon” type of conservatives who’ve expressed some variation of that sentiment, and have done so as if it were a passage from Holy Writ or a mathematical theorem.

  31. Robin Datta:

    “Can Local and Organic Feed the World?”

    It did, from the beginning of Agriculture to the advent of Industrial Agriculture, and will again, after we are some distance down the far side from Hubbert’s Peak for the various fossil fuels. Those aspects of technologic know-how that would be still applicable in a deindustrial society will render the latter agricultural practices different from the original methods.

    But even so, the population supported by post-industrial agriculture will be much closer to that supported by original methods than to that supported by Industrial Agriculture. It is just the manifestation of the Collapse after Overshoot.

  32. Siarlys Jenkins:

    In the long run, SUSTAINABLE is essential to human survival. We can’t simply use up resources without replacing, restoring, or recycling them, not forever. That is particularly true if we are NOT going to limit population growth — the more people, the more necessary sustainable agriculture, industry, and patterns of real estate allocation will be.

    ORGANIC is merely a means to an end. To the extent that the methods defined as organic can produce more, or equal, quantities of food, or food with more nutrients, or lacking significant poisons, and/or can restore or sustain the resources necessary to produce another crop next year, it has utility.

    It is true, and a useful reference, that absent human intervention, there is a natural cycle in which animals excrete nutrients for plants, and plants produce nutrients for animals, ditto for the cycles of oxygen and carbon dioxide. That is why all life didn’t poison itself to extinction long before humans came along. Someone once pointed out that alcohol is urine to yeast, although humans view it quite differently. Human intervention can and should make use of such cycles. We ignore them at our peril.

    LOCAL needs some rational examination. It is foolish to ship apples from New Zealand to North America, while North American farmers ship apples to markets in Norway. What can be grown locally should be grown and consumed locally. Imports should consist of what we need, or want and can afford, that cannot be produced locally. Exports should consist of what we produce in larger quantities than we need or want, shipped to places that cannot produce it for themselves.

    Many complications quickly enter in. If I want fresh bell peppers in the winter in Wisconsin, they have to be shipped from Florida. If I want grapes out of season in the northern hemisphere, they may have to be shipped from Chile. If fuel and transportation costs are too high, perhaps I should do without such luxuries, and rely on canned or frozen for the winter.

  33. John Willson:

    Marchmaine is, on the whole, right. M.Z. should read about the Whiskey Rebellion more carefully. It was not about moving food to market, it was about people making whiskey to drink it, get drunk and stay drunk. Real farmers have their ways. It is interesting to read so many posts that admit to knowing nothing about what they then go on to talk about. Sort of like “I’ve never framed a wall or watched anybody do it, but I can tell you all about sustainable house building.” The problem with food growing, and agriculture in general, is the same as the problem with “health care” and most other things: too damn much central government. For which, unfortunately but predictably, farmers are largely responsible.

  34. Nora:

    Why can’t the two co-exist?

    It seems to me that if we decide to feed the entire planet corn and her biproducts from big agri-firms that we become vulnerable as a species to blight. Remember the potato famine in Ireland? How about the biggest famine in world history? Chairman Mao? We would do well to study the great famines in history to uncover the root cause of those events and gather a lesson learned for our pathway forward. In the case of the potato famine, not having enough biodiversity in the potato strains was a root cause that left the organism subject to blight. This could easily repeat in mass agribusiness as we see very very large harvests dependent on one genetic entity which if contaminated would effect the whole bunch. In the case of Chairman Mao, it was embellished reporting through the ranks of government that forced the farm workers to starve. The grains were stored that they produced, but predictably as with human nature. The vast majority of clerics overreported the production of their provinces to gain a kudo and attaboy from on high. So… we can be warry of a system that delivers all of our production to giant store houses controlled by beaurocrats. Oops, it seems we are in danger on both fronts.

    If we are all dependent on the same food source for survival, then when one thing goes wrong at that source level, the whole species will be effected. We used to have sayings about this when we survived in connection to food distribution. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” “One bad apple spoils the bunch.” Even in small farming, precaution is taken to prevent cross-contamination of the food supply. Very few of us are skilled enough to farm and grow and reseed and store food as needed for survival. If something big goes wrong with our food supply-chain we will perish entirely. If something happens to corn specifically…we would be in big trouble. This would likely be preceeded by a human barbeque fest as one of the few skills we actually have pertaining to food production. Meanwhile those folks in Africa who are so poor in our eyes will still know how to survive. Decades from that time the Quakers and Amish will be the only ones to survive.

    Too big to fail is too big. This saying rings truer and truer the more ways I look at it. We could subsidize all efforts to stratify or break up all monopolies or near monopolies and create more work as a result. The ROI on that would be excellent from the perspective of the IRS. We need to not be afraid to provide wages to workers as a part of the business model. If we support a percentage business model and legeslate a mandate that a minimum percentage of a businesses expenses be wages evolution of society and local organic farming would be very very very different.

  35. micah:

    i might be repeating something that was said already (only skimmed the comments). my thought after reading this article is that, on the whole, the local/organic food market in the US is largely a middle class luxury, because, too often, most americans treat it as such. they recoil in horror at the industrial food system (and rightly so), but too often your average american won’t connect the dots to the rest of their lifestyle. right now, it seems to me that “local” and “organic” are only catchphrases for most people. it’s sexy. people pay for sexy. hence, it’s treated as if it’s a middle class luxury. as long as local and organic are only catchphrases, and not representative of a deeper sentiment and critique, i think it will remain a middle class luxury for many people.

    this is not to say, however, that local and organic are necessarily expensive, and that industrial methods are the only reasonable way forward. i don’t find that to be true. my wife and i are not rich by any means. but we rarely darken the sliding doors of the local superstore (perhaps once every few months). while we don’t always buy organic or local, we strive to live our lives according to the values that “local” and “organic” are catchphrase stand-ins for. it takes planning and DIY willingness, and we don’t always succeed. but we do pretty good, i think. and we manage not to break the bank in the process.

  36. Joshua Lore:

    I fall into agreement, more or less, with what Micah has just said before me, and with that I have little doubt has been said similarly by others above.

    It’s an interesting point you make, Mark:

    In fact, the places in the world that are necessarily committed to local and organic (those that cannot afford to transport foods over long distances or purchase chemical fertilizers and pesticides) are the poorest and hungriest parts of the earth.

    I wonder if it’s true that a bunch of Dole bananas from Peru with the label “organic” on them come from a situation just like this? They are organic because the farmer growing them is de facto organic. And further still, I wonder if the extra profit this bunch of bananas makes for Dole is seen at all by our dear organic farmer friend in Peru? This is a rather naive question, but I’m curious how much organic labeling we see in the “smart-shoppers” section of our grocery stores is made possible by this sort of relationship to impoverished growers?

    This isn’t a rhetorical question, by the way. I would love to have a more informed person than myself fill in the nescient gaps for this not-so-smart consumer.

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