Is organic farming really an illusion?


At odds with the common belief that the future of agriculture lies with organic, local and slow production, Professor Robert Paarlberg is convinced that food insecurity would be even worse if it weren’t for industrialised farming, and that we are certainly not going to feed 9 billion humans with solutions he feels have already failed. But this opinion is open to significant debate, and Paarlberg has found a handful of opponents.


In May 2010, Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College and associate at Harvard University, published in » Foreign Policy » an article entitled: “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers”. It was recently translated and featured in French magazine « Books », with a much more explicit title: “La grande illusion du bio” (“The Grand Illusion of Organic Food”). In the piece, Robert Paarlberg sets out one simple idea: according to him, organic agriculture is not going to feed the world and protect the environment completely, or, at the very least, it is far from being the ideal solution that Whole Food shoppers are looking for. As a matter of fact, Paarlberg takes the exact opposite view to that developed in Coline Serreau’s film, which we reviewed last week. Consequently, we thought it would be interesting to dig a bit deeper into some of his arguments, and compare them with what we know and what we read elsewhere.


The “trendy cause” of sustainability


“Food may be today’s cause célèbre, but in the pampered West, that means trendy causes like making food ‘sustainable’ – in other words, organic, local, and slow. Appealing as that might sound, it is the wrong recipe for helping those who need it the most.” To support this rather strong statement, Paarlberg’s argument develops around a series of “illusions” which he undermines. First, he explains that sustainable agriculture is already dominant in Africa, where there are no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and that it obviously does not work, with “average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.” To him, this is proof enough that, even with the best of intentions, advocacy against agricultural modernisation and foreign aid is misguided. « Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. »Anne Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet, responded in the columns of Foreign Policy that

Paarlberg doesn’t get what it means to be organic. Organic farming isn’t just about not using chemicals. Organic farmers improve output by tapping a sophisticated understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds through techniques that include double-dug beds, intercropping, composting, manures, cover crops, crop sequencing, and natural pest control. It could be aptly dubbed ‘knowledge-intensive’ farming.

The techniques she evokes were also expounded by Coline Serreau in her movie Local Solutions to a Global Disaster – one of the farmers she met even claimed his yield was greater than that of his neighbour who used chemicals. On the specific subject of productivity, it seems that contrasting “truths” exist. While the FAO explains in its FAQ that it would be possible to feed the world thanks to chemical-free agriculture, Paarlberg thus wonders why “organic products are so much more expensive, and why this farming method is used on only 4 per cent of agricultural land in Europe.” To him, because of the yield issue, to switch to an all-organic system it would be necessary to expand arable land in proportions that would actually severely damage the environment because forests would have to be cut down, for instance.


Are farmers better or worse off?


Paarlberg also refutes the idea that the Green Revolution (a movement that started in the late 1960s which generalised the use of hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and the modernisation of infrastructures) has been very damaging to the poor farmers of the world:

India, for instance, doubled its wheat production between 1964 and 1970 and was able to terminate all dependence on international food aid by 1975. Its rural poverty rate fell from 60 per cent to just 27 per cent today.

Once again, this position contrasts with that of the interviewees in Coline Serreau’s film, notably Vandana Shiva who explained that suicide rates are soaring among Indian farmers – not specifically because they are poor, but often because they are have debts with fertiliser and pesticide manufacturers, not to mention the frequent scandals over diseases induced by the intensive use of chemicals. In other words, farmers may have come out of poverty but that does not mean that they are always able to do their jobs in conditions that are satisfactory for their health, financial independence and empowerment. The question is: what would have happened without the Green Revolution? Would they be out of poverty and independent? Would they still be suffering low incomes and insecurity? This question is of course impossible to answer, but as Lappé stresses, it is important to say that organic farming as we know it today represents a major evolution from what agriculture was before. It requires techniques and expertise that have not always been so developed – and which could maybe only ever have emerged in a post-modern world looking to reinvent its ways.

Finally, Paarlberg accuses the craze over organic farming of having reinforced Southern countries’ dependency on the North. “When agricultural modernization went out of fashion among elites in the developed world beginning in the 1980s, he writes, development assistance to farming in poor countries collapsed. Per capita food production in Africa was declining during the 1980s and 1990s and the number of hungry people on the continent was doubling, but the U.S. response was to withdraw development assistance and simply ship more food aid to Africa. Food aid doesn’t help farmers become more productive — and it can create long-term dependency.” This sounds like the wrong answer to a legitimate question. Instead of withdrawing assistance because the way things are done meets with disapproval, it would be far more constructive to try to change the way things are done. Many people are already trying to do this. But replacing a situation with a worse one does not necessarily mean that the first one was even good to begin with. It the end, everything still comes down to one question, the one question that really is at the core of Paarlberg’s article and the ensuing debate: is organic farming as capable as industrialised agriculture of feeding the world? It seems that not everyone agrees on the subject yet. But the urgency induced by climate change and persistent food insecurity must keep us looking for answers, constantly searching harder and harder.

Photo © Shutterstock / branislavpudar

One Response to Is organic farming really an illusion?

  1. Pego Rice says:

    The « Green Revolution » was simply an acceleration of commoditization of Indian crops, something that had already been happening in colonial India for centuries. There are several famine studies that point up this basic fact that in the last 3-4 centuries great famines were happening in regions that had actually grown PLENTY of food, but that this food was promptly shipped away from the people who needed them, to the people who could afford them. This was done whether they would want or need to buy all that was shipped or not, often leaving much to rot wherever that produce was shipped. (while the Irish, Indians and Russians all died on the lands that had grown it) Prior to independence that commoditization was enforced and famines were beyond massive, killing millions, as people could neither grow their own crops, nor afford to buy the crops they had helped to raise. After independence, local farmers were free to feed their own families first, before growing and selling commodity crops for the industrial commodities markets, by itself that meant that the great famines of the last few colonial centuries were over, even if it was a continuation of an exploitative system by other means.

    The new, mono-crop, GMO and trademarked crops are a slide back toward those dark times of enforced commodity cropping, basically share-cropping where the multinationals like Monsanto take their share first. Between this new system, which is destroying family farms yet again, with these farmers desperately struggling to pay for the seeds and the specialized equipment and inputs, while killing off both the soils and the older system of using inter-cropping to protect companion crops. With that old traditional inter-cropping system in subsistence farms no one crop will be grown in great measures, which isn’t such a great need in localized economies who need diverse produce, not too much of one thing. Inter-cropping IS used for internationally shipped crops like vanilla and pepper and however it is done, absolute lbs of produce is harvested, per acre and weather and pest variables that damage one crop will not effect all crops, keeping a resilience in these farms that doesn’t exist where damaged soils and monocropping are so vulnerable to hardening weather, and which help worsen local weather phenomena.

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