Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?

So what is the answer to the question, "Can Organic Agriculture Feed the

* First, we should not delude ourselves into believing that the human
species can
continue to reproduce itself at anything like its present rate without dire
consequences.  The human species is part of an intricate biotic community and
therefore we have to maintain some kind of equilibrium within that community
if we are to survive with any kind of quality of life. Feeding itself from that
community is only one of a very complex set of problems which an overburdening
human population poses. Maintaining all of the ecological relationships between
diffusely co-evolved species will he absolutely essential to survival.

Therefore, if our population increases, we have to use less of our ecosystem
resources and services to restore and retain the health of the ecological
neighborhoods in which we live. From this perspective it becomes clear
that the only kind of  agriculture that can hope to keep the world fed is
an ecologically oriented agriculture that mirrors and maintains the
natural ecology in which it is practiced.

*  From Farm to Fork: Reorganizing the Food System

But organic agriculture, inserted into the current industrial food system
infrastructure, will fare no better at feeding the world than industrial
agriculture. The NGOs at the World Food Summit had it right-the only
kind of food system that can keep the world fed is a "farmer and community-
driven food security."  It is becoming increasingly clear that apart from
this kind of radical restructuring of the food system we will have little
success in keeping the world fed. Meeting maximum production goals of a
few crops and livestock in a few regions of the world, to be marketed into
the global economy, cannot keep the world fed.

Following the sentiment of the Bruntland report, many are now concluding
that the best way to achieve food security is through food locally produced
by local people with local control. This kind of food system restructuring
allows for the evolution of a people/food/land equilibrium based on
local culture.

There is substantial evidence to suggest that the best way to achieve such
people/food/land equilibrium is through local community-based agriculture,
tied to ecologically responsible local land use, rooted in local culture.
Helena Norberg-Hodge (1991) provides us with an intriguing example of
such a food system in her study of the Ladakh.  Despite very scarce resources
and extreme climates, the Ladakhi people, living in the desert highlands of
the Western Himalayas, are well nourished, usually healthy and free of
social and environmental stresses. (Kirschenmann, 1997)

The Ladakhi experience corroborates one of the principles for ending
hunger outlined by Francis Moore Lappe:  While slowing population growth
in itself cannot end hunger, the very changes necessary to end hunger-the
democratization of economic life, especially the empowerment of women-
are key to reducing birth rates so that the human population can come into
balance with the rest of the natural world. (Lappe and Collins, 1986)

We still don't know the capacity of a people in a local ecological neighborhood
to feed themselves, once they are empowered to properly use local resources
and sound ecological farming systems. Different ecological neighborhoods
would have different capacities, depending on local climate, land and sea-
based food resources, etc. Exporting surpluses from one foodshed to another
could, of course, always continue to be part of the new food system. But, the
first priority in the new food system would be food self-sufficiency in
every ecological neighborhood.

Furthermore, local food systems, tied to local ecological neighborhoods
would tend to create people/food/land equilibrium through local culture
as it has among the Ladakh. This vision of the restructuring of the global
food system may seem bizarre in our world of global markets and global
competitiveness. But the World Food Summit revealed that very different
views on the issue exist. While government and industry representatives
officially expressed the notion that global competitiveness and transnational
corporations were the answer to food security, 1200 NGOs saw them as the
cause of food insecurity.

It is interesting to note that regional foodshed concepts, until recently, were
largely endorsed only by grassroots groups and a few prophets in the
More recently the idea is being endorsed by the U.S. Congress in programs
like the Community Food Security Act and by researchers in land grant
universities  Jack Kloppenburg and his colleagues at the University of
Wisconsin recently published an article on "Coming Into the Foodshed"
(Kloppenburg, et. al., 1996) and concluded that regional foodsheds were
not only desirable but feasible. Bill Heffernan at the University of Missouri
has been suggesting for some time that farmers need to understand the
global food market, and then unhook from it.

Cornelia Flora at Iowa State University is now suggesting that food
systems should model themselves after the new economy rather than the
old industrial economy. The old economy was modeled after "Fordism"-
mass production of a uniform commodity at a low price-in other words
produce more wheat for less money. The new economy relies on the
production of differentiated products produced on a much smaller scale,
but designed to be innovative and flexible to meet the fast changing
demands of a discriminating consumer. (Flora, 1996) The post-Fordist
economy generally shortens supply lines and responds to local markets.
It doesn't attempt to compete in the global mass market. This localized,
site-specific concept of the economy can also be adapted to empowering
local people to feed themselves.

Furthermore, the idea of local foodsheds is catching on in many local
communities, especially among poor neighborhoods. USDA's Community
Food Security program revealed that throughout the United States hundreds
of communities are creating new food and farming markets. In many
instances organic farmers are linking with community organizations to
exchange food for labor, community gardens are linked with local school
systems to provide food for poor families and teach kids how to do organic
gardening, and local businesses work with non-profit organizations to
make food available in communities without grocery stores.

These fledgling enterprises, together with the growing Farmers Markets,
direct marketing arrangements and Community Supported Agriculture,
are all indications that the global industrial food system is not working
for a growing number of people. Accordingly new food systems, grounded
in local culture, sound local ecological management and local control,
are likely to make up an increasing portion of the food system of tomorrow
Making such fundamental shifts in the food system is, however, bound to
run into opposition. Since agriculture today is about power, powerful
interests will oppose these new initiatives, and, of course, they will
continue to claim that only their way can prevent world starvation.

A Final Observation

Empowering local people to feed themselves, together with the local
awareness that sound ecological farming is essential to feeding oneself
very far into the future, leads one inevitably to the conclusion that
farming is fundamentally about something other than "feeding the
world."  Perhaps Wendell Berry said it best:

Don't worry and fret about the crops. After you have done all you can
for them, let them stand in the weather on their own.

If the crop of any one year was all, a man would have to cut his
throat every time it hailed.

But the real products of any year's work are the farmer's mind
and the cropland itself.

If he raises a good crop at the cost of belittling himself and
diminishing the ground, he has gained nothing.  He will have to begin
over again the next spring, worse off than before.

Let him receive the season's increment into his mind.  Let him work
it into the soil.

The finest growth that farmland can produce is a careful farmer.

Make the human race a better head.  Make the world a better piece of ground.
(Berry, 1984)


Before agriculture (10,000 years ago the human population was a
small part of the earth's biological community-reaching only a total
of 10 million during its entire evolutionary history.


Thereafter the human population doubled at an ever increasing rate:

5000-3000 BC    2,000 yrs.      50 million
3000 - 1400 BC  1,600 yrs.    100 million
1400 - 0 BC     1,400 yrs.        200 million
0 - 1200 AD     1,200 yrs.       400 million
1200 - 1700     500 yrs.         800 million
1700 - 1900     200 yrs.           1.5 billion
1900 - 1960     60 yrs.                3 billion
1960 -1996      36 yrs.                6 billion


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Linda L. Elswick
Washington Office
World Sustainable Agriculture Association, 2025 I Street, NW#512, WDC, 20006
Phone: 202-293-2155
Fax: 202-293-2209
Email: wsaadc@igc.apc.org
Web Site:  http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/wsaa