Organic Farming Niche Market or Viable Alternative

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The pioneers of organic farming considered organics the preferred direction for the whole of agriculture to take. It is likely that most contemporary proponents still hold that view. While recent growth in the organic industry is definitely encouraging, much of the impetus is tied to its growth as a niche market, not as a serious shift in the direction of mainstream agriculture. Unfortunately, a likely reason for the newfound "tolerance" of organic agriculture in many land grant universities and other formerly hostile environs is its perception as a niche market opportunity only. As such, it is not a serious threat to the status quo.

Is it practical and responsible to promote organic agriculture as the dominant approach to farming in the future? While some are quick to answer, "Yes!", most are buffaloed by the nagging question, "Can organic agriculture feed the world?" Questions about the productivity and the prospects of widespread starvation have long been an effective tactic for stonewalling serious discussion of organics. While it is not the purpose of this publication to settle such a compelling issue, there are a few points that can and should be made regarding the "starving billions" scenario.

  • Critics warn that, were organic farming to be adopted on a wider scale, per-acre agricultural productivity would decline sharply; that meeting food needs would necessitate the plowing of even more erodible hillsides and the draining of more wetlands. Such scenarios are often based on pre-chemical era yield data that ignore the advancements of modern organic farming. Contemporary research on organic systems — as limited as it is — indicates that the per-acre productivity of organic and conventional systems is not vastly different. (39) Other scenarios are sometimes based on the perceived need for vast quantities of grain — particularly corn. (40) Since overproduction of grain has led to prices below costs of production for several years, this is a questionable basis for argument. It also ignores the fact that most of the grain produced is fed to livestock and that many livestock species can eat forage instead. Ruminant livestock — cattle and sheep especially — are designed by nature to thrive on forage and can even be finished for market on pasture.
  • The paucity of good research on the productivity of organic systems also spotlights the lack of practical research for organic producers. That organic farms are as productive as they appear to be is remarkable in light of minimal research and extension support for many decades. It has often been argued that, had comparable resources been put into organic research, its widespread feasibility would be unquestionable. This assertion is well-supported by the development, in recent years, of a number of alternative, organically acceptable pesticides, that are certain to expand organic production of many crops in regions where it had previously been near impossible on a commercial basis.
  • Increasing agricultural production alone does not alleviate hunger. The amount of grain produced in the world in 1999 could, by itself, sustain 8 billion people - 2 billion more than our current population. (39) Total food production is estimated to provide each human being with at least 3500 calories per day.(41) The issue of hunger, it appears, is not so much a lack of food, but lack of entitlement to food. People are shocked to learn that while many Ban-gladeshees starved during the 1974 floods, roughly 4 million tons of rice produced in that country were stacked in warehouses for want of buyers. The people were simply too poor to buy it.(42) They are surprised to learn that Ireland exported grain during the Irish potato famine while 1 million of its citizens died and even more emigrated; that India regularly exports food and animal feed despite an estimated 200 million in starvation. (39) Those lacking the ready cash to buy food or the resources to produce it themselves seem destined for hunger no matter what miracles agricultural technology provides. The world's nations will need to deal with issues of equity and democracy first, if hunger is ever to be effectively addressed.
  • No agriculture can continue to feed a growing population if it depletes or fouls its resource base. The path undertaken by conventional agriculture is ultimately a dead end in this regard, though there is an almost mystical faith that genetic engineering and other complex technologies will always triumph. Agriculture needs to be sustainable. Therefore, those who promote organic agriculture as a true alternative are well advised to do their part in ensuring that certification and regulation does not create a "compliance agriculture" in which sustainability becomes little more than an afterthought.

In certified organic production, however, field buffers have an added purpose in reducing crop contamination from chemicals used on adjacent land. Most agencies require a minimum 25-foot buffer along "uncontrolled" borders where there is a hazard of chemical use. Wider borders may be required where hazards are great — for instance, where adjacent farms have synthetic pesticides applied by aircraft.

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