"Sustainable" Agriculture Ain't—Robert Paarlberg on Organic Ag Myths


hungry african kids

Wellesley political scientist Robert Paarlberg has a superb article over at Foreign Policy pointing out that  "organic, local, and slow—is not recipe for saving the world's hungry millions." Here's just a taste:

In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that "sustainable food" in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn't work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we've developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.


Go here for Reason's 2008 interview with Paarlberg discussing his book, And here for his insightful Foreign Policy article, "Attention Whole Food Shoppers."


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  1. But I’m not starving so why should I give a shit?

    1. I only eat organic local food and I’m not starving. Obviously the brown people are doing it wrong.

      1. It’s true, they are doing it wrong. The right way to be agriculturally successful is to apply for US farm subsidies, then sell your produce globally at a rate that undercuts local growers.

  2. WTF?

    Isn’t the hunger problem in africa largely political?

    1. Zimbabwe comes to mind.

    2. While politics certainly plays a huge role, issues with crop yields can make things far worse. And when countries like Zimbabwe ban GMO’s (and subsequently refuse American aid as a result), food science and politics become one and the same.

      1. Zimbabwe doesn’t need GMOs, it needs Western capitalist nations to stop interfering in its land-redistribution scheme. All the most productive land has been held by white farmers for generations, who export most of the produce for the sake of profit.

        That said, I don’t necessarily think Mugabe is a good guy, like most US supported dictators, he spends too much money buying weapons and paying off supporters.

        1. From wikipedia

          Zimbabwe: Efforts at land reform in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe moved, after 15 years, in the 1990s, from a “willing seller, willing buyer” approach to the “fast track” land reform program. This was accelerated by “popular seizure” led by machete gangs of “war veterans” associated with the ruling party. Many parcels of land came under the control of people close to the government, as is the case throughout Africa. The several forms of forcible change in management caused a severe drop in production and other economic disruptions. In addition, the human rights violations and bad press led Britain, the European Union, the United States, and other Western allies to impose sanctions on the Zimbabwean government. All this has caused the collapse of the economy[citation needed]. The results have been disastrous and have resulted in widespread food shortages and large scale refugee flight.

          Yeah, what they needed to do was DO IT FASTER…

          Where do you get the Organic Crack you smoke, by the way?

        2. “who export most of the produce for the sake of profit”

          Oh, well then, that’s different then. Mass starvation, kleptocratic government, and human rights abominations are all totally worth it, so long as nobody makes a profit. Especially not those farmers who’ve been successfully growing a surplus of food for generations. Cocky white bastards.

          1. It’s the combination of “mass starvation” with “growing surplus food” that’s the problem. Is there enough food in Zimbabwe or not? If people only buy locally, then farmers must sell locally, then food sells at a locally affordable rate. It’s not locally grown organic food that’s unsustainable, it’s having a global food economy combined with drastic economic differences between countries that’s unsustainable.

  3. This post smells like troll bait.

    1. could we get 500+? I’d say the writers were seeing who could outdo one another for most posts, but this one is uncredited.

      1. No way. Not enough about chemtrails. Or vaccines.

        1. I guess not

  4. While I can’t stand the food elite, the argument that Africa is starving because of organic techniques is weak.

    1. Why? It’s an apt analogy in response to the anti-GMO freak show.

    2. Ray Pew: How about the converse? Africa is starving because of lack of access to modern agricultural techniques.

      In any case, please read the Paarlberg article before you decide.

      1. idiotic

        1. naivete

          1. If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-simplify our view of the political realities in Africa. And that means learning to appreciate the fact that it is not beneficial to corrupt leadership to have well-fed populace. With food, people would have time on their hands. It is amazing how one can think, when they are not starving! In other words, the graft artists would not be capable of shopping in Paris. Do you know how fucking expensive Ave. Montaigne & Avenue des Champs-Elys?es are?

      2. Ron: the problem with this argument is that other things can affect production that are not due simply to lack of cutting edge technology. Russia suffered serious agricultural problems under Stalinism. Venezuala is currently having to import coffee after years of being one of the largest exporters. Neither of these are related to technology.

        Africa is so politically screwed up, I just feel that pointing at it’s farming techniques is myopic. Can we say that having modern agricultural techniques would solve their problems? I am not convinced.

        1. Fire Amen’s ass and you write the next one.

  5. Calling on Patriot Henry and Organic Girl… to teh intertubes Batman!

    1. They’re currently having natural sex man….

  6. If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming.

    “Organic farming zealotry. We got ours. So fuck you, Africa.”

    1. Yup.

      Nothing quite like a farmer that produces half as much for twice as much telling me that his path is the way to go.

      Hate the kool-aid drinkers (or should I say, “organically sweetened, fruit flavored beverage made from water that was filtered from a free flowing non-dammed stream” drinkers?)

      1. Filtered???? You goddamn fascist. You’ll drink deer urine and like it!

        1. Only if it’s been blessed by a Tibetan shaman…

          1. A local Tibetan shaman. No shipping allowed.

  7. We should send the obese kids over here to the starving kids over there. The obese kids that can outrun the starving kids will lose a bunch of fat, and the ones that can’t…will feed the starving kids.

    *dusts hands off*

    Problems solved.

    1. A nation-wide child-exchange program would accomplish the same goals with ~90% less cannibalism.

      1. Americans are so repressed. What’s wrong with being eaten?

        1. It was great for me but not so much for my “guests”. Till I got to the pokey that is….

    2. Your screen name is apropos. Kudos.

  8. Telling people who are starving that they need to have “organic farming”. That is just sick.

  9. Its now about how they farm its what they are told to grow, Africa on the whole is not too friendly to crops like wheat or corn, They are better off growing the native stuff, that produces larger yeilds. Also rampet starvation seems more of a problem in the arid parts as opposed to jungle. The Azande are a large tribe that live in eastern DRC and western Sudan, they are not starving and have the same farming tech that they have had for thousands of years. Slash and Burn, then move when the ground no longer produces, then you can come back to that plot you left and it will replenish itself. Africa has more problems socially, wars between tribes and foreign influences. There is a nice documentry called Darwins Folly i think that would desplay the foreign influences. Lake Victoria, is loaded with Nile Perch, which would feed all of that region, Yet they end up on European dinner plates.

    1. Also if they had a healthy economy, they could grow cash crops and buy their own food from other places. Also, food aide fucks up the economy by driving the price of food down and screwing the farmers.

      1. They already grow cash crops, until the soil health is totally wrecked from growing the same thing all the time. And most of those cash crops are monocultures, which cause sudden crop failures.

        They need to grow local food crops in nitrogen fixing rotations.

  10. Neither here nor there, but I noticed the last 2 articles on H&R dont have bylines. Meaning, I assume this is Ronald Bailey, but HOW CAN I BE SURE?

    Plus, I needs my disclosures… please

  11. Killing off undesirables is not just an unintentional consequence of “sustainable agriculture”, it is a tenent of progressivism as practiced and preached by the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, Adolph Hitler, Joe Stalin, Fidel Castro, Che,
    Hugo Chavez, Chairman Mao, and all the greenies who espouse population control.

    1. Oddly enough, killing off undesirables has also been a feature of the Green Revolution, too. Do you think authoritarian third world governments paid those peasant farmers just compensation for their lands, before turning them over to giant agribusinesses and their cronies? Not quite!

  12. Alice Waters is a genocidal maniac.

  13. Organic food. Good for you? Sure. The ONLY means to fix world hunger? Laughable.

    But what I find a bit well, stupid, is the downright demonization of organic food because a few zealots support it. Some people need some perspective.

    The argument that organic is more expensive ups a red herring as, in ways we might all imagine, organic food and food production is regulated in ways that “conventional” food can’t even dream of. It isn’t more expensive, “just because”, but because of the same exact reasons most overpriced things are too expensive. Government meddling.

    1. But what I find a bit well, stupid, is the downright demonization of organic food because a few zealots support it. Some people need some perspective.

      Bailey has whatever perspective he’s paid to have. He’s a shill.

    2. Hear, Hear. It should be obvious that organic farming is not going to feed the world, but that doesn’t mean no one should do it or appreciate its potential benefits. At the very least, it is a useful experiment to see what aspects of modern farming are really necessary to produce well. There definitely are problems related to overuse of fertilizer and other toxic chemicals in farming and rational people should be open to all ideas of how to feed the world without fucking things up too much.

    3. Organic food. Good for you? Sure.

      I’m not, actually.

      1. Organic food contain more nutrition value and organic farming enhance the production.
        Methods of Modern Farming

    4. There is precisely zero scientific evidence that organic food is healthier for you than non-organic food.

      It’s a ridiculous farking sham that stupid rich Americans perpetuated to make them feel like they were doing their part to save farmers and the environment. Once people actually studied the difference they found that from a chemical composition standpoint there was absolutely no advantage to organic food.

      Then factor in the reality that organic farming is WAYYYY more labor intensive, uses more fossil fuels to grow, has the nasty problem of the occasional e coli crop infection (organic spinach killed people), gets far less yield on twice the amount of land, and costs more than non-organic food.

      Stupid farking hippies.

      Check this article out for some farming reality.

      The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals

    5. Chris|4.29.10 @ 4:58PM|#

      It isn’t more expensive, “just because”, but because of the same exact reasons most overpriced things are too expensive. Government meddling.

      Not entirely true. Organic-certified producers actually have far less regulatory scrutiny compared to peers, in some cases. Look up that story about the rat/cockroach-infested organic food producer… will try and find it.



  16. Organic food. Good for you? Sure.

    O Rly? Please indicate a single scientific study which has shown organic to be any healthier than non-organic.

    1. Epi: there isnt any. At least the last time I checked. There are a few assorted studies that examined single-nutrient / single product comparisons in organic vs non-organic produce. (e.g. antioxidants in grapes, lycopene in tomatoes)
      But the results are basically meaningless – meaning, 5% increase of a single nutrient is less than the natural variance within the population. Even with large sample sizes they couldnt get into the ‘statistically significant’ zone. Then, when you compare the trade-offs that occur when switching to organic, any benefit vanishes. Like, yes, more anti-oxidants, but – whoops – much less skin, which makes it highly susceptible to infestation. (just making this up for example purposes)

      I interviewed the head of the Organic Trade Association (at the time, Katherine DeMatteo), and asked directly what studies showed benefits and what products specifically, and she flatly stated: “We dont/cant make any claims that Organic is healthier. We wont until there’s much more data.” I was like, OK, but how about one study? ONE EXAMPLE. She said none were conclusive. And they’ve done studies for DECADES now. The OTA was sponsoring at least half a dozen research projects at the time.

      Even if they can claim there’s more vitamin A (or whatever) in something organic, my feeling is that they’re not going to bother funding much more research, because so far its produced zero results, and the public already *implicitly* believes organic is healthier, so why rock the boat and actually prove it? It would just open up the topic to debate and empower critics.

  17. Modern farming is expensive. A farmer needs title to his land to use as collateral for loans to buy seed, chemicals and equipment.

    Land titles and loans imply a functioning government and banking system. Two things that are more scarce in Africa than an ample food supply.

    African farmers didn’t choose to use organic methods over modern ones, organic/primitive methods are the only choice they have.

    the argument that Africa is starving because of organic techniques is weak.

    I agree that the argument presented is poorly worded. The Wellesly guy is saying that there is already large scale organic farming going on in Africa and the crop yeilds are pitiful. In order to feed an ever increasing global population, we must use modern methods.

    1. Oh yeah, it’s expensive. That’s why we should provide them with free farm equipment and seed loans, so they can produce their own food locally (not so much the chemicals though!).

      But to hell with the titles and loans. Africa’s culture is naturally more communal, and they should preserve their indigenous heritage by maintaining the communal, collective farming practices.

      If they get all capitalistic and stuff, then the farmers will start competing to out-harvest eachother, and there will be pressure to start using GMOs and pestisides and chemical fertilizer so they can compete. But if the community is incharge, then they can set food production quotas so the farmers don’t feel such social pressure. That way the environment can be preserved and a hoarmonious social structure where everyone gets their fair share of food is protected.

      1. “Because it worked so well with the Kulaks”


        I’m sure the mass starvation was entirely ‘harmonious’.

  18. Whatever. The world’s problem isn’t food production it’s distribution. We produce more than enough food to feed everyone in Africa, even using organic methods.

    We have a massive food surplus. If only Westerners weren’t such greedy capitalist piggies and would redistribute the food to Africa it wouldn’t be a problem.

    But I do agree that food should be produced locally, whenever possible. It’s just right now with people starving, instead of sending them our surplus grain, we’re telling them to use monoculture cash crops and mad scientist inventions, which only benefit giant agro-chemical corporations, because they export food from poor countries to sell it to rich, fat, Americans.

    It’s not like we’re opposed to tractors or irrigation, which Africans don’t have. Just because they shouldn’t be using mutant frankenstein plants and poisonous chemicals doesn’t mean that have to use waterbufallo. They could use electric tractors or solar-powered farm machinery.

    We just need better threshing machines so we can plant several different crops in the same field and harvest them at different times.

    1. solar-powered farm machinery

      You are so adorably daft, I could just eat you up.

    2. You really don’t know anything about the real world, do you?

      Its like you were homeschooled by Wavy Gravy and Naomi Klein

      1. It breaks my heart to say this since Trollganic Girl is replying to one of my posts, but “Do not feed the troll”.

    3. I think I’m in love

    4. I think I’m in love

    5. Electric tractors? Solar powered farm machinery? Is this a joke? Because I’m laughing my ass off here.

  19. Thought I’d point out there is a companion piece to Paarlberg’s piece on FP; it’s called “Dont Panic, Go Organic”


    I haven’t read it yet, but I’m going to guess it’s flaws will be :

    1 – advocating processes that ignore the labor requirements of her definition of “Organic”, or the scaled up land-use requirement for increasing Organic production in the developing world.

    2 – ignores the point that providing natural (animal) fertilization around the world would probably require increasing bovine population fivefold, which in turn require much more feed supply, and in turn increase greenhouse gas emission dramatically. Basically, not possible, and not desirable.

    3 – ignores the point that neither health nor environmental benefits would be gained, but costs would increase.

    We’ll see

  20. assholes need to stop telling starving people what they shouldn’t eat. organic farming is bullshit and anyone that has tried growing both ways knows that organic farming requires more work for inferior results.

  21. Let me get this straight, Mr. Bailey and Mr. Paarlberg, for the collective good, I should sacrifice my own personal health or at least put it secondary to agribusiness? Your article suggest I blindly hand over my body to the chemicals and genetically modified food product in the interest of furthering global agricultural agendas. Food freedom for all!

  22. Paarlberg seems to be confusing “primitive” with “de facto organic.” And he explicitly equates organic or non-industrial with “pre-industrial,” assuming that there is only one possible linear track of development. That neglects the very real fact that the organic methods of people like Rodale and Bromfeld, and especially the intensive raised-bed techniques of Jeavons, are as much of an advance on the techniques used by African peasants as the chemical/Green Revolution stuff he advocates.

    At least he acknowledged that unequal access to land and credit is an injustice, and that Green Revolution practices introduced into an unjust system will exacerbate the misery of some.

    When he cited Borlaug, I expected a howler; and sure enough, it came. As if composted animal manure were the only alternative to nitrogen fertilizer! Apparently he’s never heard of nitrogen-fixing legumes. The whole point, once you get fertile soil built up, is to use closed-loop recycling to return all nutrients to it.

  23. Thanks for the very nice articles. As a student of agriculture I always search for new blog and article related to modern agriculture and farming to learn something new. And I like this blog very much. I look forward to visiting your site in the future!
    Methods of Modern Farming

  24. Sustainable living is growing in popularity every day, with good reason. In simple terms, “sustainable living” refers to living a life where you take advantage of as few resources as possible and remain comfortable while doing so. This type of lifestyle benefits future generations tremendously. Why? These individuals will generally have to deal with a lesser amount of environmental damage, overall.

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