Our Food, Our Future

Can organic farming feed the world? A noted scientist argues that it can—and must.

By Donella H. Meadows Ph.D.


Organic Farming can feed the worldIf we want to feed the world, we have to spray the countryside with poisonous chemicals. We have to splice fish genes into tomatoes, and bacteria into corn. We have to pour on chemical fertilizers. It's the only way. Organic methods are for backyard gardens, not for feeding billions. That's what you hear over and over, in the media, from politicians, from so-called experts. One of the loudest of those self-proclaimed experts is Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, a probusiness think tank funded by some of the world's largest agrichemical conglomerates. Avery says, over and over, things like this: "Widespread organic farming is simply not a viable option at this time. The first consequence of a global shift to organic farming would be the plowdown of at least 6 million square miles of wildlife habitat to make up for the lower yields of organic production."

Alarmist statements like this drive me crazy. They leap with suspicious speed to a conclusion no thinking person can readily embrace. They close off options that have not even been explored. They add up to a dictum so common it is developing a nickname: TINA, There Is No Alternative.

TINA statements seem designed to make us swallow just one course (to which, after all, There Is No Alternative). Often it is a course that thinking people question because, however profitable it might be to some, it imposes costs on others—to society, to the environment, to our future. Whenever I hear TINA, I start listening hard, seeking out evidence, and above all looking for alternatives.

When I listen to those who say we must intensify and bioengineer agriculture to feed the world, I notice that they are basing their arguments on three big assumptions: 1. It will take a lot more food to feed the world. 2. More-intensive industrial agriculture can produce a lot more food. 3. Organic farming cannot.

But when I look at the evidence, I find little support for any of those claims. In fact we already grow enough food to feed everyone; the excess simply is not distributed where it is needed. Industrial agriculture, far from being the salvation it promises, is actually undermining the resource base—healthy soil, clean water, and diversity of plants and animals—needed to sustain the world's growing human population in the long term. If anything can restore that resource base and at the same time eliminate hunger it is organic methods.