We will tell our grand-children how it was all a pipe dream. We will have to explain to our overweight, diabetic, and toxin-infused grand-children how organic agriculture was not the answer to our ills. The organic revolution will eventually turn out to be a flop, a dead end on the road to a healthy society. Population levels have reached the level where there are too many of us to feed primarily through organic agriculture with the limited land and labor available. Couple the physical limitations with the lack of political and social will and our dietary future is assured to be a bleak and industrial one.

The development of industrial agriculture was not a freak occurrence detached from the world around it. It developed alongside the increase in our population: it was a necessary event. The agricultural methods of the past - less advanced versions of the organic agriculture practiced today - could no longer hope to keep up with the boom in population during the industrial revolution. As urban density exploded the agricultural realm had to make use of the chemical and mechanical discoveries of the time to provide for the massive explosion in workers and families.

The attempt to steer our agricultural infrastructure back to organic methods, albeit more advanced and productive methods, does not have a strong basis in reality. Our population has grown ever upwards and with it the need to grow increasing amounts of food, but not through the use of agricultural systems that cannot cope. Just as the industrial revolution and its population boom required a switch to industrial farming our current boom requires either more industrial farming or a more advanced form of it, not a reversion to methods that produce less.

It is an unfortunate possibility that organic agriculture cannot hope to produce on the same levels as industrial agriculture. Granted, organic farming has been shown to produce up to 95% as much as conventional farming(Organic Farming Research Foundation) but this is under the assumption of continuous proper management. Such an assumption seems faulty given people's tendency, even farmers, to take shortcuts especially given that federal rules allow the use of pesticides as a “last resort.”(Organic Farming Research Foundation) Organic and industrial farming are entirely different methods meant for entirely different population levels. And just as they are meant for different population levels they require very different amounts of land.

Due to industrial agriculture's reliance on monocultures and synthetic fertilizer it is typically able to obtain a greater amount of food from a similar amount of land devoted to organic agriculture. This inability to provide as much with so little physical space is organic's crux and the insurmountable obstacle to becoming the main method of farming.

This limit on physical space causes a domino effect on prices which is hard, if not impossible, to prevent in our type of economy.

The increased need for naturally arable land that organic agriculture requires causes a swell in farmland prices as more people attempt to move into the, now, lucrative market. As land prices increase farmers must increase the prices of their organic wares in order to repay the inflated loans they had to take out and to cover the more expensive means of production("Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?"). The already high prices of organic food turn it from a simply expensive commodity to a luxury affordable to few. Inevitably as prices go up fewer people are able to afford this type of food and thus purchase less of it. This decrease in purchasing forces organic farmers to increase their prices even more in order to make up for lower sales which then perpetuates the cycle.

That cycle says nothing of those who were already unable to get their hands on organic food. Cost-prohibitive food becomes economically forbidden food. The move towards an organic-centric food supply presupposes that aspects of industrial agriculture niche still exists if only to feed those who cannot afford land-extensive organic food or to transport food to large population centers that are away from farms("Eating Better Than Organic" 2).

This increase in land use also as a factor when it comes to the workforce. There are two potential labor side-effects of relying on primarily on an organic infrastructure.

An increase in land used necessitates the need for a greater workforce to cultivate that land and perform all the necessary logistics. It has become common practice to rely on migrant workers to make up for the shortage of indigenous labor, something that has caused friction both politically and economically. If this practice were to continue in a organic-centric system then it would have to be drastically expanded to meet the growing need for farmhands.

This increased use of non-indigenous workers may potentially have an adverse effect on the local economies due to money not staying entirely within the domestic system. Less local workers being employed means less money is available to them to purchase the food the migrant workers are helping to grow. This lack of money forces them back into the industrial fold and forces farmers to either raise their prices or return to using industrial practices.

If, however, farmers decide to forgo the use of migrant workers and rely on local workers then a different set of problems arise. Unlike migrant workers, local workers will demand a much higher pay which will push up the prices of food as workers are able to demand more of the supply. The increase in demand will quickly outstrip supply with our population levels which in turn requires greater cultivation of land. As mentioned earlier, this increased use of land leads to higher prices and eventual privation.

This is not the only potential path, though. The increased need for labor creates a vacuum that swallows up all potential hands. Eventually the supply of labor will exceed the demand for it. When this happens workers will have no choice but to compete amongst themselves for what jobs they can get, often by working for less than the competition. By working for less they are compromising their ability to purchase the food they are growing, which in turn promotes industrial agriculture and a rise in the price organic food. Couple this with the fact that organic workers make wages similar to that of workers on industrial farms(Grist) and their ability to buy more expensive organic food is hindered. Eventually the increase in organic agriculture makes for a prime environment to a return to industrial practices.

Capitalist economics makes it impossible to avoid the aforementioned problems of price and availability. To avoid the problems would require the heavy hand of regulation and social engineering that capitalism cannot function under. Without such regulation the natural boom and bust cycles of capitalism threaten to derail any feasible system of widespread organic agriculture. Capitalist economics also assure that any surplus organic food that isn't readily eaten will be sold to those who will return the most profit, not to those who need it. It may well be impossible to assure a stable and adequate supply of food for the entire population when so many factors are out of our control and when one action can have so many economic reverberations.

Economic obstacles are not the only hurdles society faces on its trek to healthy and abundant food. The greatest obstacle is society itself due to the culture that abundant industrial food has created and nurtured.

The emphasis that our culture has placed on low cost and ease of appropriation is serving to stymie the development of organic agriculture as a viable alternative to industrial agriculture. The inherent high cost of organic food is incompatible with our notion that all food should be cheap and available year-round, the hallmarks of industrial monoculture agriculture. We as a whole may not be ready for such a fundamental transition so long as we lack the collective will to change the way we think and what we believe.

It is not only the social establishment that is resistive to change but also the political establishment. The status-quo has become a powerful motivator to maintain agriculture the way it is. It is far simpler and safer to maintain a system that is already benefiting the political powers that be than to engineer and support an entirely new system that may not be able to fund political campaigns as well. Couple this financial incentive with the need to satisfy constituents who primarily want access to cheap food and there is little political will left to force beneficial change.

While organic agriculture is a worthwhile goal the realities of our world simply do not allow such a system to survive long. The vacillating economic fortunes of people and the economy conspire to make organic food either more accessible and drive up its price or they conspire to make it less accessible and drive up its price. Organic agriculture has no realistic hope of weathering the storm of capitalist laws and political servility while still being able to provide a decent diet for our ever increasing population. Unless something can be done to limit population growth and economic laws industrial agriculture will always have a place in our world out of necessity.






Works Cited




"Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?" World Watch Magazine May 2006: n. pag. Worldwatch Institute. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4060>.


Cloud, John. "Eating Better Than Organic." Time Magazine 2 Mar. 2007: 2. Time Magazine Health. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1595245-2,00.html>.







Mark, Jason. "Workers on organic farms are treated as poorly as their conventional counterparts." Grist. Grist Magazine, 2 Aug. 2006. Web. 17 Mar. 2012. <http://grist.org/food/mark/>.







Organic Farming Research Foundation. "About Organic." Organic Farming Research Foundation. Web. 17 Mar. 2012. <http://ofrf.org/resources/organicfaqs.html>.

 


Comments

06/16/2012 12:36

First off, thank you for taking the time to write this piece.

Second, I think some of your arguments are flawed. One of them being that population growth requires modern agriculture practices such as pesticide use. The truth is that it is not world population that forces such practices but the distribution of resources.

To say that population necessitates the corporate model of agriculture ignores the corporate bottom line and the political gains from alliances between big agro and politicians. But you do mention that the current system does not allow for a move to organic farming and this is very true.

Also, I'd like to point out that a majority of what is grown in the USA is for cattle feed and fillers for our processed foods. The USA subsidizes beef and milk because the USDA is mostly ran by big agro who has ownership in these areas. This causes a whole other issue with distribution of accurate information on what a healthy diet actually is.

The seeds for feed crops are created by Monsanto, as well as other conventional crops we buy cheaply at the market. The seeds of corn, soy, wheat (you name it) are engineered, GMO, to withstand pesticides that Monsanto also makes. In addition, the seeds are dead-end seeds - they cannot be saved from the next crop for the following year. This creates a dependency on Monsanto and ruins a small farm's ability to sustain.

Organic farming includes rotating crops, planting companion plants, smaller scale land use, selling locally at grower's markets, CSAs, and farm stands.

Another issue is certification costs for small farms. It's expensive to become certified organic. Some small farms are organically grown but are unable to become certified under one of the recognized certifications.

Yes, I agree that organic food purchase can be prohibitive. So, I grow some of my own food and do selective purchasing of items I know have a high rate of pesticide use or store pesticides more readily. Generally those foods that store a lot of water like lettuce, tomatoes, and strawberries have very high rates of pesticides. I also try not to buy things like corn because I know what Monsanto has done to those crops and small farms.

Worker's pay at all times should be a living wage and/or in exchange for food and services. It shouldn't matter if the workers are migrant or local in this matter. For example, if I work on a farm, I can choose to take part of my pay in money and part in a percentage of the crop possibly at wholesale price and at the most at farm stand price.

The first step is education. People should become aware of what local farms can provide them. Buy directly when possible. In the area I live in, I am lucky there are local farms and a grower's market.

Also, grow food in pots and wherever you can. Start with the foods you eat most of. Organic soil and seeds are a small investment for fresh food you can pick as you prepare a meal. There is nothing that beats the taste.

Another thing, we cannot think of organic farming as taking the place of modern big agro. It has to be on small scale, meeting local needs (kind of like how governments or local leaderships should be). Bartering or selling between communities who have a need for something they cannot grow because of the environment. We have to do away with feed lots and the obsession of eating so many animal products and boxed foods.

At this point, it cannot be done because the current system will not allow it. The problem is not how many people there are to feed. The problem is how many people are willing to do nothing while we are being led around like sheep and cattle.

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citizencommunist
06/16/2012 17:43

If our population wasn't as spread out(and massive) as it is now, especially over areas that don't have the land to physically support them with food, then I think you would be right that it's primarily a problem of distribution. But since large amounts of the population(I don't simply mean the population of the US) are far removed from arable and sustainable land then methods that prolong the shelf life of food, read modern farming practices, become a necessity. It's easy to say that we can all simply grow at least some of our own food but time and space isn't a luxury that many of us have to put towards homegrown food.

As for the government subsidies I also believe they have been a great contributor to our current issues. If I remember correctly, such subsidies began as a way to cushion farmers during times of depression and low prices but the program became changed so that farmers were simply paid for every quanta of food grown. This creates a horrible cycle as farmers rush to grow even more so that they can collect more subsidy money. But this rush to over-produce causes a drop in food prices which then causes farmers to create even more in order to maintain previous revenue levels. All this food has to go somewhere and, as is famously known with corn, is turned into HFCS or a host of other products so that the cycle may perpetuate itself and not fall apart.

Our high population and agricultural practices feed off each other, they need each other to survive and create an even bigger bubble that has to pop some day.

Also, organic producers only have to be certified if they produce in excess of $5,000 a year. Having a plethora of small farms and local growers would seem to circumvent the need for government certification because of the small scales involved. But I imagine this sort of system would cause havoc on our current system of distribution since it's tailored for large-scale production. Yet another example of why our current system(in its entirety: population, government, economic system, etc) is incapable of achieving what is necessary.

I like the idea of workers being paid with food/services as it is something I've fancied when it comes to society at large. But this would only work at smaller, more bottom-up farms since it would just cut into the revenue stream of corporations. And how much should workers be allowed to work for the food? At a certain point it becomes unsustainable for the employer to simply pay in food since he won't have enough left over to secure a profit with which to continue and expand his farm. Your idea is great so long as the farmer has no intention of expanding. Unless, of course, he secures a loan from the government which is underwritten by society ay large(something that communism advocates, by the way).

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