PART 1 OF 3: CAN ORGANIC AGRICULTURE FEED THE WORLD?
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The issue of food security is increasingly being addressed as implementation of
the World Food Summit Plan of Action gets under way. Pertinent to the
discussion is the subject of food production and farming systems. The
3-part article delineates a number of issues and raises questions about current
policies and practices.
Fred Kirschenmann, Ph.D., is a biodynamic farmer and President of Kirschenmann
Family Farms Inc., Windsor, North Dakota, USA. He is particularly interested
in agroecology and the development of ecological farming systems. He holds a
Ph.D. in historical theology from the University of Chicago, and is also
interested in the social evolution of our ecologically-based production ethic.
His farm has been featured in a film about the use and misuse of technology
on the American farm by Miranda Smith, "My Father's Garden." It has won
numerous US national and international film festival awards. This article was
prepared for a speech given at the University of Guelph in early 1997.
Apologies for cross listings. Please advise if you do not wish to receive
future (infrequent) postings. Thank you. ***
Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World? ...And is That the Right Question?
by Frederick Kirschenmann
In 1978 Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman and political economist,
treatise entitled Essay on the Principle of Population that reverted the
attention, for the first time, on the "problem" of human population growth.
argued that population growth was bound to outstrip food production since
human population world geometrically while the food supply could, at best, only
grow arithmetically. Malthus' powerful thesis has been the basis for
numerous social doctrines ever since-everything from "survival of the fittest"
to the "green revolution".
The question, " Can organic agriculture feed the world?" is posed against that
backdrop. What the question is asking is this-can organic farming methods keep
up the pace of producing enough food to feed an ever expanding human population,
or will its methods of production reduce yields and therefore hasten the
the massive famines envisioned by Malthus?
The question usually raises a moral issue as well as a technical one. In
in praise of Norman Borlaug, published in the January, 1997 issue of the
Monthly magazine, Gregg Easterbrook blames all those who oppose green revolution
agriculture for the starvation of people in Africa. Borlaug was, of
agronomist who developed the high-yielding grain varieties (and the input
intensive technologies required to produce those yields) ushering in the new
era of industrial agriculture. (Easterbrook, 1997) The moral implication of
Easterbrook's essay is clear. Those who oppose high-input agriculture will
have starving millions on their conscience.
Description of the Problem
Posed this way the food/population issue appears to be a simple matter of
producing enough food and inventing the technologies capable of producing it.
I want to argue that production in not the problem. The problem is the
of humans relative to the millions of other species with whom we co-evolved.
It is this imbalance that disrupts the biotic community and causes the
of the delicate ecological relationships that have evolved over billions of
And it is that disruption and deterioration which threatens the food supply of
the human species.
And the reason we need to consider an alternative to industrial agriculture is
that industrial agriculture is contributing, dramatically, to this ecological
disruption and deterioration. So while the Green Revolution may have enjoyed
success in increasing the yields of a few crop varieties for the short
term, it is,
in fact, threatening the ability of future generations to feed themselves.
In other words, the question, "Can organic agriculture feed the world?" is a
much more complex question than is often implied. This is not simply a question
of whether or not the technologies used to farm organically can out-perform the
technologies to farm industrially. The question is, how do we regain and
the evolutionary stability of the various ecological neighborhoods in which we
humans live. Apart from such stabilization we will lose the "ecosystem
(Eldredge, 1995) that provide not just our food but all of the life-sustaining
elements that make human life possible on this planet. And the "agriculture"
question (inside that larger question) is: What kind of agriculture can
and maintain that evolutionary stability?
In the provocative little book, Dominion Can Nature and Culture Co-exist? The
evolutionary biologist, Niles Eldredge, gives us some examples of our utter
dependence on these complex ecological relationships. Insects, which humans
generally hold in low regard, (we'd love expunge many of them from the face
of the earth altogether) are so important, says Eldredge, that "humanity
probably could not last for more than a few months" without them. (1995:162)
Most of us would probably support a proposal to eradicate termites from the
face of the earth. But Eldredge reminds us that termites, because of their
symbiotic relationship with spirochete bacteria are one of the few creatures
on the planet that can digest cellulose. Consequently, we humans are
dependent on termites for a huge portion of the recycling of the world's
biotic material. "No recycling, no ongoing life."(1995:163)
Put another way, without termites you can forget about the problem of
producing enough food. There wouldn't be any humans, or much of any other
kind of life as we know it, to feed!
From this perspective it is clear that what is often posed as the
problem can more accurately be described as a population/ecology problem.
In other words the real problem with the unprecedented increase in human
population is that it has led to the disruption and deterioration of the
functioning of earth's biotic community, and that is what threatens our
future---not lack of production.
The Ecology /Food /Population Connection
It is the disruption and deterioration of our ecological neighborhoods that
impair the resource base from which humans obtain their food and therefore
threatens their future food supply. And when the technologies we use to
increase the production of a few species of crops and livestock accelerate this
disruption and deterioration, we only hasten the time when food shortages
become inevitable. In short, we are on a downward spiral of an ever
increasing population and an ever decreasing capacity to produce food---
our powerful technologies notwithstanding.
Accordingly, if we are to survive we need to simultaneously reduce the
growth of the human species and transform agriculture so that it enhances
rather than further deteriorates the ecological neighborhoods in which we farm.
Reducing the numbers of the human species is, of course, a formidable task,
given its current rate of growth. Before agriculture was invented , about
10,000 years ago, the total human population on the planet had reached an
estimated 10 million people over its entire evolutionary history. After
agriculture was invented the human population jumped from 10 million to
approximately 50 million in just 3000 years. Thereafter the human
population doubled at an ever increasing rate. In the pre-Christian era
(from 3000-1400 BC) it took 1600 years for the human population to
double (from 50 million to 100 million). The most recent doubling
(1960-1996) took just 36 years (from 3 billion to 6 billion)!
(See Appendix I)
Not surprisingly, the disruption of the natural functioning of biotic
communities has increased along with population. But population growth
itself, up to now, is not the major cause. The disruptions are caused by
the way an increasing number of us relate to the rest of nature and how
we feed ourselves from it. What is happening to honey bees, and therefore
to all of the food crops that are dependent on pollinators, serves as a
reminder of what happens when agriculture concentrates on producing huge
quantities of a few specialized crops at the expense of balanced biodiversity
(as the industrial farming system does). For the past five years the United
States has seen the worst declines in honeybees in its history. Many states
have seen bee kills as high as 85 and 90 percent.
The immediate cause of the bee kills is, of course the varroa mite. But the
mite may not have been much of a problem had it not been for the industrial
system of agriculture which provided the environment in which it could do
its damage. In a brief, penetrating article Derrick Jensen describes the
"The collapse was inevitable anyway. In February the hills surrounding
Modesto, California roll with white-blossomed almond trees. Although
monocropped miles of almond flowers may be beautiful they're as unnatural
as Frankenstein's monster; the staggering number of blooms to be pollinated
grossly overmatches the capacity of wild pollinators like bumblebees, moths,
wasps and beetles to set fruit causing almond ranchers to pay distant
beekeepers up to $35 per hive to bring in bees for four-week bloom.
Almonds aren't the only crop needing pollination. Apples, cherries, pears,
raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, cucumbers watermelons---each
of these densely packed crops requires similarly densely packed beehives
to set fruit. The strengths that have made modern bee-keeping the foundation
upon which the agricultural infrastructure rests are precisely the weaknesses
that have made bee-keeping, and modern agribusiness, vulnerable to
something tiny as the mite." (Jensen 1996)
In other words, it is precisely the achievements of industrial agriculture---
the productivity of a few specialized crops---that caused the ecological
imbalance which now threatens the productivity of those same crops.
Jensen's analysis of the honeybee destruction helps us to see that if we
are truly interested in feeding the world, then we have to face up to a
host of complicated questions that are not often part of the "feeding
the world" debate.
Even the debate currently taking place between Lester Brown, the World
Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, is oversimplifying
the issue. Their debate hinges primarily on whether or not future technologies
will be able to continue to increase the production gain. The World Bank and
the FAO argue that such technologies are on the horizon, Lester Brown argues
that they probably aren't. But posing the question this way implies, again,
that the issue can be reduced to our capacity to produce more grain through
technology. (Brown, 1996) Many others believe the problem is much
The Manifold Dimensions of the Problem
* The weather factor.
In his provocative study, The Genesis Strategy, world-renowned climatologist
Stephen Schneider demonstrated that both increased crop yields and low
variability are due at least as much to weather as to technology.
I suppose most any farmer could have told him that.
Because weather is such a significant factor in our capacity to produce high
yields Schneider argues that if we want to keep the world fed, we need to
implement the strategy of the Biblical Joseph who urged Egypt to store
part of the abundance of the seven good years, to assure themselves food for
the seven bad years.
But pointing out the wisdom of grain storage to see us through periods of
weather related disasters is only a small part of Schneider's conclusion.
He points out how small changes in atmospheric conditions can cause major
changes in weather patterns. That should remind us how important it is for
us to use farming practices that do not contribute to the destabilization of
delicately balanced atmospheric conditions. We know that global warming
may radically disrupt global weather patterns and cause dramatic increases
in severe weather changes and an increase in violent storms. And those
changes can dramatically change our ability to produce food.
Insurance companies world wide have taken note of the increased insurance
losses due to weather-related natural disasters since 1980. In the entire
decade of the 1980's insurers paid only $17 billion for all weather-
related natural disasters. By the end of the first half of the decade of the
1990's insurers had already paid out $57 billion for such damages. No
wonder insurance companies now often stand shoulder-to-shoulder with
environmentalists lobbying for legislation that has the potential to
reduce climate change. (Flavin, 1997;10) Farmers and food-related
industries might do well to follow their example.
In this regard ecological farming practices, which seek to mirror and
maintain the ecological neighborhoods in which they exist, are much less
likely to contribute to climate change than industrial agriculture, which
often seeks to alter natural ecological neighborhoods for the sake of short
term yield increases of a few specialized crops. To the extent that organic
agriculture remains true to its ecological roots, it may therefore do a
better job of feeding the world.
* It's Not Just About Grain.
60% of the world's population today depends on fish and seafood for
40% of its annual protein. (Hewitt and Smith, 1995) According to
some reports "insects provide the major source of protein to roughly
60% of the worlds population." (Spindler and Schultz, 1995, 65).
These, and other vital food sources are often ignored in the feeding the
In fact there is a tendency to equate grain yields with food production.
Easterbrook, for example, credits Norman Borlaug with saving "more
lives than any other person whoever lived" because Borlaug increased
grain yields of a few crops two and three-fold. (Eastbrook, 1997)
But it is well known that the very technologies that accomplished the
increased grain yields have seriously damaged seafood ecologies. So an
important question has to be asked. Do we really increase food production
when we increase wheat and rice yields at the expense of seafood?
According to a National Public radio report broadcast in July and August,
1994, The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)---one of the
premier research centers of the Green Revolution---announced that the
increased rice yields may not have improved the quality of life in the
developing world as much as was previously claimed. (National Public
Based on studies that the Institute itself conducted, Ken Fisher, the
Institute's deputy director, announced that "year's of teaching were,
in effect, wrong." The Institute came to this conclusion not only because
pests had become resistant to pesticides and because insecticides destroyed
natural predators creating new pest problems, but also because they
discovered that the costs of increased health problems of farming using
the pesticides caused them to "lose more money from getting sick than the
chemicals save by killing bugs in the field."
Furthermore, there were serious doubts as to whether or not the Green
Revolution methods actually produced more food. While using the Green
Revolution technologies doubled and in some instances tripled rice yields,
those same technologies killed the fish which had previously been raised
in the rice paddies, and the fruit trees which had previously produced fruit
on the periphery of the rice paddies. Consequently it is questionable whether
or not the new technologies actually produced more food for people despite
the increased rice yields. As a result of these findings the UN Food and
Agriculture Organization set up farm schools" to teach the same farmers
that IRRI taught to use the Green Revolution practices, to use ecological
These findings question whether the industrial paradigm of agriculture
(which believes that the way to feed the world is by reinventing nature to
increase grain production) is indeed the way to feed the world. The question
is especially pertinent since much of the increased grain production goes into
alcohol and animal feed, and is not used to feed humans at all.
End of part 1 of 3
Linda L. Elswick
World Sustainable Agriculture Association, 2025 I Street, NW#512, WDC, 20006
Web Site: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/wsaa