Yes, Organic Farming Will Kill Us All

Chris Newman
Jan 12, 2017 · 7 min read

I told a story a little while ago and received an interesting comment; here’s most of it:

Local food, organic food, “real” food produces less per unit of land farmed without a demonstrable improvement in nourishment. Do you really want to have to expand the amount of land in cultivation to feed the earth? Wholesale going “local” means having more limited diets. As long as this is limited to zealots and those who want to be accepted by their organic friends, and for whom the amount of their income spent on food is negligible, that’s great. It’s a lifestyle expense. But if you want to feed the prisons, the hospitals, the schools, and do it on a budget, this is an awful, awful approach.

He’s right, but just kinda.

Where he’s right: Organic farming, as it’s commonly imagined and implemented, does have higher costs, lower yields, and more resource requirements because of the lower yields. That’s because organic farming is little more than conventional farming with all the tools taken away. It’s a well-intended but insane way to farm, and it will kill us all if we decide this is the way to “fix” agriculture.

However.

His response includes a number of assumptions, of which I will point out a few to discuss:

  1. He presumes the Organic Shahada: There is no Organic but Organic, and the USDA is his prophet. Or less controversially: Local = Real = Organic = Sustainable = Organic = Real = Local
  2. Methods for producing economically viable yields don’t exist outside of conventional, non-organic agriculture
  3. Going Local means more limited diets without improvements in quality
  4. “Budget” food produced by conventional agriculture reflect their real costs

Let’s address these in reverse order.

Food from Conventional Farms is Cheap

Limited Diets and No Health Improvements

But this probably isn’t what the commenter is referring to. Rather, he’s likely referring to the fact that you won’t be able to enjoy orange juice or coffee or bananas or coconut water if you don’t live in places where those things grow. He’s also likely referencing new(ish) research that proves organic food isn’t necessarily nutritionally superior to conventional. The first part makes the assumption that OJ and coffee wouldn’t be replaced by anything else, and the second part a.) supposes that conventional and organic foods must travel on the same supply chain, and b.) ignores the other finding of that same research — eating food close to the date and location of harvest carries stunning health benefits.

Only Conventional Agriculture Produces Viable Yields

And they’re absolutely correct.

Because they’re assuming it’s a good idea to grow a corn field.

People like me who are driven to feed the world sustainably (and not just admonishing people to give up their iPhones so they can pay $4/lb for Cherokee purple tomatoes) are obsessed with a permaculture concept called multistory agriculture. In this system, large monocrop fields — which produce high yields of a single crop — are replaced in temperate regions with silvopasture — which produces a high yield across multiple crops, including animal protein, in the same space. There are a couple of standout examples of farms meeting or exceeding the yields of conventional field agriculture; the foundation on whose board I sit is reorienting its entire mission around creating the world’s largest food forest as a model for public land management and high-yielding sustainable foodscapes in non-traditional spaces. The foundation is also sponsoring technical innovations to disrupt overly-centralized, vertically-integrated food distribution systems that drive inequities in access to wholesome food.

I’m not claiming these techniques and technologies are mature and ready to compete with conventional agriculture today — and that’s the entire point of the original article: we need to pour our energy into developing these concepts instead of doubling down on a mining system posing as agriculture.

Local = Real = Organic = Sustainable = Organic = Real = Local

Large fields of staple crops or CAFO operations filled with miserable overbred animals are the only way to realistically produce food, and there are only two ways to do it: with engineering, or without.

This argument denies the possibilities presented by permaculture*, and rejects the notion that innovation can occur outside the reductive factory model that feeds the world today, but will starve the world in a century.

It’s an argument that insists all solutions lie in engineered seeds, precision agriculture, drones, miracle crops (pulses, y’all!), simplification, and automation. But it doesn’t address the risks of global soil deterioration. Or dependence on dwindling supplies of petrochemicals. Or pest resistance and antibiotic resistance, and the risk they introduce to a food supply that relies on a small and shrinking number of staple crops. It pretends that vanishing institutional knowledge of growing food isn’t a problem; we should be TERRIFIED that fewer than 1 in 100 Americans actually knows how to grow enough food to feed a family or more. And it says nothing of the geopolitical upheaval that awaits when it’s not just the developing world dealing with systemic food insecurity.

This is a permaculture farm in Austria (yes, the forested part). It produces as much food as any conventional farm in the world.

There are a lot of problems to address when it comes to sustainability. But the difference between proposing solutions and implementing them is the difference between campaigning and governing. It’s easy to demand reductions in population growth, global adoption of vegetarian diets, or the proliferation of permaculture farms if, after so doing, you just drop the mic and excuse yourself from the hard part: designing a solution to make it happen and mitigate — or absorb — the consequences.

In designing and implementing our ideas, there’s a real chance that we’ll be wrong, or look foolish, or otherwise open ourselves up to ridicule, derision, or accusations of “selling out” if we have the unmitigated gall to alter course on the basis of evidence**. But, with the lives of every human being on Earth at stake, there’s little time for vanity; I’m looking forward to looking very, very stupid for at long as I’m lucky enough to be alive.

*A movement which often suffers from a frustrating lack of conscientious ambition and pragmatism.

* Also see: “Science.”

Chris Newman is a farmer in central Virginia, and can run real fast and jump real high. Visit our farm on Instagram and Twitter at @sylvanaquafarms. Please click the green heart button so my wife will think I’m cool. Like what I write? Your support here gives me more time to do it.

NewCo Shift

Covering the biggest shift in business and society since the industrial revolution

Chris Newman

Written by

Working toward a sustainable future with Sylvanaqua Farms, the Accokeek Foundation, and GreenMaven. Support it all here: https://www.patreon.com/farmermang

NewCo Shift

Covering the biggest shift in business and society since the industrial revolution

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade