Fred Kirschenmann, Ph.D., is a biodynamic farmer and President of Kirschenmann
Family Farms Inc., Windsor, North Dakota, USA. He is particularly interested
in agroecology and the development of ecological farming systems. He holds a
Ph.D. in historical theology from the University of Chicago, and is also
interested in the social evolution of our ecologically-based production ethic.
His farm has been featured in a film about the use and misuse of technology
on the American farm by Miranda Smith, "My Father's Garden." It has won
numerous US national and international film festival awards. This article was
prepared for a speech given at the University of Guelph in early 1997.
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Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World? ...And is That the Right Question?
by Frederick Kirschenmann
In 1978 Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman and political economist,
treatise entitled Essay on the Principle of Population that reverted the
attention, for the first time, on the "problem" of human population growth.
argued that population growth was bound to outstrip food production since
human population world geometrically while the food supply could, at best, only
grow arithmetically. Malthus' powerful thesis has been the basis for
numerous social doctrines ever since-everything from "survival of the fittest"
to the "green revolution".
The question, " Can organic agriculture feed the world?" is posed against that
backdrop. What the question is asking is this-can organic farming methods keep
up the pace of producing enough food to feed an ever expanding human population,
or will its methods of production reduce yields and therefore hasten the
the massive famines envisioned by Malthus?
The question usually raises a moral issue as well as a technical one. In
in praise of Norman Borlaug, published in the January, 1997 issue of the
Monthly magazine, Gregg Easterbrook blames all those who oppose green revolution
agriculture for the starvation of people in Africa. Borlaug was, of
agronomist who developed the high-yielding grain varieties (and the input
intensive technologies required to produce those yields) ushering in the new
era of industrial agriculture. (Easterbrook, 1997) The moral implication of
Easterbrook's essay is clear. Those who oppose high-input agriculture will
have starving millions on their conscience.
Description of the Problem
Posed this way the food/population issue appears to be a simple matter of
producing enough food and inventing the technologies capable of producing it.
I want to argue that production in not the problem. The problem is the
of humans relative to the millions of other species with whom we co-evolved.
It is this imbalance that disrupts the biotic community and causes the
of the delicate ecological relationships that have evolved over billions of
And it is that disruption and deterioration which threatens the food supply of
the human species.
And the reason we need to consider an alternative to industrial agriculture is
that industrial agriculture is contributing, dramatically, to this ecological
disruption and deterioration. So while the Green Revolution may have enjoyed
success in increasing the yields of a few crop varieties for the short
term, it is,
in fact, threatening the ability of future generations to feed themselves.
In other words, the question, "Can organic agriculture feed the world?" is a
much more complex question than is often implied. This is not simply a question
of whether or not the technologies used to farm organically can out-perform the
technologies to farm industrially. The question is, how do we regain and
the evolutionary stability of the various ecological neighborhoods in which we
humans live. Apart from such stabilization we will lose the "ecosystem
(Eldredge, 1995) that provide not just our food but all of the life-sustaining
elements that make human life possible on this planet. And the "agriculture"
question (inside that larger question) is: What kind of agriculture can
and maintain that evolutionary stability?
In the provocative little book, Dominion Can Nature and Culture Co-exist? The
evolutionary biologist, Niles Eldredge, gives us some examples of our utter
dependence on these complex ecological relationships. Insects, which humans
generally hold in low regard, (we'd love expunge many of them from the face
of the earth altogether) are so important, says Eldredge, that "humanity
probably could not last for more than a few months" without them. (1995:162)
Most of us would probably support a proposal to eradicate termites from the
face of the earth. But Eldredge reminds us that termites, because of their
symbiotic relationship with spirochete bacteria are one of the few creatures
on the planet that can digest cellulose. Consequently, we humans are
dependent on termites for a huge portion of the recycling of the world's
biotic material. "No recycling, no ongoing life."(1995:163)
Put another way, without termites you can forget about the problem of
producing enough food. There wouldn't be any humans, or much of any other
kind of life as we know it, to feed!