How Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World

Witnessing a Shift in the Worldview of Agriculture

[By HEATHER GRAY and K. RASHID NURI]

Recent research indicates that organic farming can feed the world, and is actually making a significant difference everywhere. In the United States and Europe, universities are reporting that organically produced food will address the problems of hunger and poverty facing the world’s growing population. This is not a surprising finding for organic farmers and advocates of organic agricultural production. The American worldview of agriculture is, in fact, making a radical shift.

In 1990 sociologists Curtis Beus and Riley Dunlap wrote a fascinating description of paradigms in agriculture in an article entitled “Conventional versus Alternative Agriculture: The Paradigmatic Roots of the Debate”. The authors define conventional agriculture in the 20th century as: "Capital-intensive, large-scale, highly mechanized agriculture with monocultures of crops and extensive use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, with intensive animal husbandry".

They go on to say that the “discussion of conventional agriculture as presented in this paper will include the agri business suppliers of farm inputs and the marketers of farm output. This is done because of the integral interdependence between the production sector and the supply and marketing sectors of modern agribusiness”. It is often referred to as industrial agriculture.

In describing dominant worldviews, reference has to be made to physicist Thomas Kuhn. In 1970 his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” Kuhn describes how science inquiry changes overtime. When change is eminent he says that those holding the dominant worldview in science will cling to and fight for their dominant position. Kuhn’s analysis has subsequently been adapted to understanding changes in worldviews whether in science or in society overall. In agriculture, the struggle of conventional versus alternative worldviews is right out of Kuhn and the differences have been so acute that even discourse between the various parties has often been impossible.

In general, the American dominant social paradigm, the authors say, is described as the “most fundamental and pervasive worldview”. It is a “belief in progress, growth and prosperity, faith in science and technology, commitment to a laissez faire economy and private property rights, and a view of nature as something that must be subdued and made useful”. All of the above concepts became part of the paradigm of corporate/conventional agriculture described above. It has also been aligned with corporate America, Congress, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the executive branch. All of them have had controlling factions that have held this view and as a result the subsequent farm policies have been devastating in the United States and around the world.

As a result of these conventional practices we’ve witnessed the loss of family farmers throughout the world, degradation of topsoil, pollution of water tables and fresh water generally and ocean dead zones from chemical pollution and run-offs, lack of important diversity in agriculture and intense mono-crop production, less nutritious food, loss of family farmers and rural jobs, poorer health of consumers due to ingestion of chemicals in food, in the water and in the air. The list goes on and on.

In the 1970’s the environmental movement took hold with a new paradigm that challenged the dominant paradigm of conventional agriculture above. Rachel Carson’s influential “Silent Spring” (1963), for one, described the devastation of chemicals and huge agriculture ventures. Her critique began to take hold on the American psyche that set the stage for an intense battle of views in agriculture circles. The core values of the new movement challenged the prevailing views of “economic growth and domination of nature, the free market economy, hierarchical political structure, centralized social organization, large scale technological development, and the legitimacy of scientific knowledge as the basis for social decision making” (Beus and Dunlap). From this an alternative view of agriculture began to take shape.

Beus and Dunlap define alternative agriculture as follows:“At the heart of any definition of alternative agriculture is an em phasis on organic or near-organic practices. Essentially, all alternative agriculturalists favor significantly reduced use of synthetic farm chem icals. Most alternative agriculturalists, however, see their goals as much broader than merely reducing agricultural chemical use. Ad ditionally, alternative agriculturalists advocate smaller farm units and technology, reduced energy use, greater farm and regional self-suf ficiency, minimally processed foodstuffs, conservation of finite re sources, and more direct sales to consumers. This is not an exhaustive list, nor does it completely define alternative agriculture, but it does illustrate some of the fundamental differences between alternative and conventional agriculture.”

After reviewing the writings and actions of leading proponents of conventional agriculture and alternative agriculture, Beus and Dunlap identify six “dimensions” of the competing paradigms and they are: “1) centralization vs. decentralization, 2) dependence vs. independence, 3) competition vs. community, 4) dom ination of nature vs. harmony with nature, 5) specialization vs. diversity, and 6) exploitation vs. restraint.”

One of the prevailing views not referred to by Beus and Dunlap, however, is the belief among proponents of industrial agriculture that the world needs industrial agriculture if the world’s poor and hungry are to be fed. In fact, former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz under the Nixon administration once said, "We can go back to organic agriculture in this country if we must.... However, before we move in that direction, someone must decide which 50 million of our people will starve" (Beus and Dunlap).

The paradox is that there is already enough food to feed the world but people are still hungry – why is this? One of the many reasons for this is poverty, and industrial agriculture might be the culprit here as well as it focuses on quantity and is known to exacerbate poverty. Antithetical to industrial/conventional agriculture is locally owned sustainablefood production, job creation and an independent farming sector which are some of the hallmarks of the alternative agriculture model.

Conventional and alternative models of agriculture have been addressed in the debates and in competing farm policies in America and around the world. In fact, in 2006 and in 2007 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) met in Rome to discuss international food security and the paradoxes of industrial versus organic production and the findings were striking. The findings? The FAO stated “States should integrate organic agriculture objectives within national priorities”.

With the world’s population to reach 9 billion by 2050 the FAO has been trying look at how best to feed the world in an environmentally sound and sustainable way.

The FAO reported that while it dominates in the world’s food production "industrialized food systems have environmental and social costs that threaten food security, e.g., occupational deaths through pesticide poisoning, farmers' suicides due to debts, and loss of millions of jobs in rural areas." The FAO also expressed concern about the impact of industrial agriculture on vulnerable populations, the environment and climate change issues.

So what’s best for our communities? The FAO reported that organic production is one of the best routes toward food sovereignty. Through rural development and rural revitalization locally owned and controlled organically focused production creates jobs, is environmentally sound, has a fairer trade system, has fairer wages, it’s locally based emphasis helps people have more control over their own local resources, and is non-exploitive generally. Some of the other benefits of organic production are that because no chemicals are used there is more water security and less erosion as organic production prioritizes healthy and alive soil that helps to retain water. Importantly, organic production also helps to maintain plant diversity for generations to come.

In addition to all of the above, organically produced food can also produce enough food for the world!

In a 2007 report from the University of Michigan, it states, “Organic farming can feed the world”. The University researched the differences in performance between conventional and organically produced food. The press release begins by stating: “Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries, as low-intensive methods on the same land—according to new findings which refute the long-standing claim that organic farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed the global population.”

Ivette Perfecto, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, and one the study's principal investigators said "the University of Michigan found that in developed countries, yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms. In developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods.” She said further “the idea that people would go hungry if farming went organic is ‘ridiculous’”.

The press release stated further that: "We were struck by how much food the organic farmers would produce," Perfecto said. The researchers set about compiling data from published literature to investigate the two chief objections to organic farming: low yields and lack of organically acceptable nitrogen sources.

Their findings refute those key arguments, Perfecto said, and confirm that organic farming is less environmentally harmful yet can potentially produce more than enough food. This is especially good news for developing countries, where it’s sometimes impossible to deliver food from outside, so farmers must supply their own. Yields in developing countries could increase dramatically by switching to organic farming, Perfecto said.”

Other research in Europe and others in the United States have concurred with the University of Michigan findings. (See the Worldwatch Institute’s “Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?”).

Moving toward organic and sustainable agriculture production throughout the world is not really an alternative but is, in fact, a necessity for us all. All the data is now in place showing that there has been a shift toward a natural, organic and sustainable agriculture model in communities throughout the world, including here in the United States, which is also being implemented. It needs to continue.

The dominant worldview in agriculture is also changing and what has been referred to as alternative is now becoming the dominant view in most countries. We are also witnessing this worldview shift in agriculture circles here in the United States. On the implementation side, organic production needs to replace industrial/conventional practices everywhere. Let’s do it.

Heather Gray is the producer of "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been involved in agriculture advocacy and communications for 20 years in the United States and internationally. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

is an organic urban farmer and agricultural educator in Atlanta, Georgia. He brings forty years of experience to this work. Rashid has lived and worked in over 30 countries around the world. He has managed public, private and community-based food and agriculture businesses. Rashid served four years as a Senior USDA Executive in the Clinton administration. He is a graduate of Harvard College, where he studied Political Science, and has a M.S. in Plant and Soil Science from the University of Massachusetts. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His website is http://www.trulylivingwell.com/

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