In 1942, most farmers were "organic" by default. Agrichemicals were not widely available until the late 1940s, born out of World War II military technology. Today, organic farming is a choice—a chosen philosophy of life as much as a method of production. True organic farming is based on nature's principles of production—on farming in harmony with the earth rather than in an attempt to conquer it. Integrated, diverse farming systems, often including crops and livestock, are designed to capture solar energy, recycle waste, and regenerate the natural productivity of the soil.
True organic farmers also believe in treating workers fairly and in cooperating rather than competing. Healthy foods, a healthy environment, caring communities, and a strong society are the natural rewards of pursuing an organic philosophy.
By contrast, chemical farmers of today rely on an industrial philosophy, which attempts to dominate nature and exploits people to achieve economic and productive efficiency. Agrichemicals are but one of many tools used to facilitate industrialization—to make production more predictable and controllable. Chemical pollution and contamination are among the many unintended consequences of an industrial food system. Industrialization also has led to larger farms and fewer farmers, and consequently, to the decline of family farms and the decay of rural communities. An industrial agriculture, quite simply, is not sustainable.
If agriculture, and thus humanity, is to be sustainable, farming systems of the future must be not only technically organic but also philosophically organic. Sometime within the next 60 years, we may well begin running out of the fossil fuels and minerals necessary for today's chemically dependent farming.
Sometime within the next 60 years, destruction of biological life in the soil, loss of genetic diversity, or some rogue genetically modified organism may well trigger a collapse in agricultural productivity.
Sometime within the next 60 years, industrial food production globally may well be controlled by a handful of giant multinational corporations. And there may be twice as many people to feed.
At most, we have a 60-year window of opportunity to transform our food system to a sustainable organic model. The current industrialization of organics is not the answer. Sustainable organics must be ecologically sound and socially just; it must be economically viable. Industrial organics cannot be.
Regardless of what the critics say, we can feed the world with sustainable organics. Many organic farmers today produce just as much food per acre as do their chemically dependent neighbors. Admittedly, sustainable farming requires a more intimate understanding of nature and a greater commitment to caring for land and people. And it may require more farmers—but why not?
In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted global starvation. Malthusians claimed food production could not possibly keep pace with population growth. Obviously, they were wrong. Those today who claim we cannot feed the world with a sustainable, organic food system are the "new Malthusians"—and still just as wrong.
John Ikerd, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Agricultural & Applied Economics at the University of Missouri in Columbia, is a national expert on sustainable agriculture.
This article originally appeared in Organic Gardening, Vol. 49, No. 5 (September/October 2002), p43