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Poor Farmers: Grow Organic, Grow Wealthy?
Alex Steffen, 8 Mar 05

We've been discussing food quite a bit around here recently: Zaid's been posting his excellent Postcards from the Global Food System; Emily wrote of Theresa Marquez's ideas for urban food-consciousness and "Earth Dinners" ("a feast where you can say where each and every thing on the table comes from") and how "The revolution will take place with rare varieties of deli meats, sausages and burgers" (which I have to say is a line we're pround to have published); I've written about a tale of two tomatoes and why the farms of the future will resemble prairies. I could go on.

(...and I do, in the extended entry below. Read on.)

We don't all agree on the right solutions, or even entirely on what the nature of the problem is, but I think we'd all agree that food -- and more specifically, the global food system -- is an absolutely critical point of leverage in our relationship to the planet, and to each other. We have gigantic challenges before us. I'm not sure we can meet them without learning to farm in better ways.

Here's more, ahem, food for thought: a study by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, Organic Agriculture: A Way Out of Poverty for Small Farmers:

Farmers in developing countries who switch to organic agriculture achieve higher earnings and a better standard of living, according to a series of studies conducted in China, India and six Latin American countries...

Increased incomes are one key incentive for small farmers to start producing organic products. In Costa Rica, for example, organic cacao producers received 150 percent more for their product than conventional producers in 2001.

But better prices are not the only reason for changing production methods. According to the research conducted by IFAD, organic farming reduces the health risks posed by costly chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and benefits the environment with improved soil management.

Organic farming also offers more employment opportunities precisely because it is more labor intensive.

Question: can we imagine a system which combines the advantages of organic farming with the productivity gains of 21st Century agricultural innovations?

Thanks to Suhit for the link.

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Alex, isn't your question at least somewhat self-contradictory? i.e.: one of the advantages of organic farming cited is its labor intensive nature, which is exactly what the productivity gains of our current agricultural system rallied against. I guess the question to pose back to you is what is your measure of productivity? Per-acre yeilds on Organic farms? Aggregate global organic food output? Or, organic yeild per labourer?

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 8 Mar 05

Two great posts, Alex. I think that walking and farming are linked together in a beautiful vision for the future.

What we're working on here is a concept called "Wiwaldi", which starts with real estate, transportation, and food & health as a core focus and seeks to design things such that our daily needs can be met within walking distance (hence the name "Wiwaldi").

That can be the starting basis for gradually phasing cars out to the periphery of a defined walking distance area, which for most people can be five minutes in every direction, or roughly 3 city blocks. It ends up being a 18 square block area or 1/8 of a square mile.

Streets could then be converted into green space to be used for growing things, or as recreation space, etc.

This would work well with things like carsharing and on-the-fly local ridesharing, as well as connecting with existing transit corridors along arterials. Then, this would eventually be a template onto which subsurface personal rapid transit could be grafted.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 8 Mar 05

A good point, Rod. Depends if Peak Oil (and Natural Gas) happens; if so, the price of oil and fertilizer will go through the roof - organic might look advantageous then even in conventional economic terms...

-- John

Posted by: John Norris on 8 Mar 05

Isn't the labour-intensive aspect of organic farming a partial solution to all the jobless people in 2nd and 3rd world countries? With the higher revenue, instead of paying for chemicals you pay for more workers.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 8 Mar 05

John, not to nitpick, but I don't think that the question is "if" peak oil will happen but rather "when".

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 8 Mar 05

The only reason organic food has higher farm gate prices is that it is a premium market for the moment. This is not a model for world agriculture. Everyone can't pay premium prices, and even worse the more that enter the market the lower the prices will drop.

Posted by: joma on 8 Mar 05

Bring together Joma and Mikhail's comments, and you've got a pretty bad combination - more people working to make less money. i.e.:

1. Organic farm's higher returns are based on their niche market positioning.
2. Organic farms are more labour intensive than factory farms, meaning more people are employeed to produce a unit of organic yeild.

Subsequent Events:
Organic market grows in supply and demand, resulting in downward price pressure.

Returns at organic farms drop. This is exacerbated by the need to pay more labourers; either the labourer makes less and less money over time, or the farm itself eventually becomes insolvent.

Bottom line: Returning to rice paddy agriculture doesn't seem to be sustainable, unless governments step in with price controls (downward limited) or subsidies.

Perhaps Alex is asking if there is an opportunity to create a system of intensive, mechanized, high-yeild factory-style organic farming - i.e.: high-productivity organics.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 8 Mar 05

Robotic farming anyone?

Posted by: wintermane on 8 Mar 05

(Sorry for the essay, the soul of wit eludes me.)

> Question: can we imagine a system which combines the advantages of organic farming with the productivity gains of 21st Century agricultural innovations?

Of course we can! As has been noted, the economics of organics is a bubble, so this should be considered a temporary advantage; but organics carry long-term advantages in terms of resource use and environmental sustainability.

Organic is not just chemical-free, it is a entirely different system of agriculture than industrial. Ignorance of this distinction has driven many of the studies and therefore the ‘data’ on yield differences between organic and industrial agriculture. (see also comment on ‘postcards’ #2)

Advances in technology that can benefit organic systems include hi-tech greenhouses, efficient irrigation systems, yes: robotics, hybrid and GMO seeds (which are neither unequivocally good nor bad), bio-fuels for machinery and more…

The blending of these technologies with environmentally positive organic systems forms the template for the 21st century farm.

One thing remains: as in all industries, one of the most significant things we must do for a greener future is bring food production and consumption back into geographical proximity. There is usable land in and around cities; urban agriculture (including the metropolitan fringe) holds great promise for the future.
In an urban network, farmers can share seed, resources, tools and ideas, closing cycles of energy and ‘waste‘ that industrial farms hemorrhage. These networks function much the same as rural communities used to function. Urban farms also have access to vast consumer markets, meaning their profits can rise (via direct-marketing), they can easily take advantage of niche markets, and some of the pitfalls of organic foods like spoilage and labor are avoided.
A small farm can still be chemical, but a mega-farm cannot be organic.

Small, highly efficient urban and suburban farms with diverse crops and animals, sharing resources with other farmers; an abundance of locally grown organic food; this will be world changing.

Most of the world now lives in the city: bring the food to them.

Posted by: Justus on 8 Mar 05

p.s. Joseph -

Liked your comment, it elucidates very well the tenants of good urban design.
I find it hard to reconcile with ‘cars will dominate transportation forever’…
A change of perspective? Or were you playing Devil’s Advocate? Or just annoyed with my bikeophilia?

Posted by: Justus on 8 Mar 05

Jose Bove spoke tonight about Sustainable Agricultural and Civil disobedience at MIT to a packed auditorium. For those not familiar with Monsieur Bove he is notorius for leading a community dismantling of a McDonalds outlet in S. France and other acts of civil disobedience such as the destruction of GMO crops in French field tests and camping under the Eiffel tower. These sometimes comical publicity stunts are efforts to raise awareness and public support for farmers and opposition to many of the supposed 'benefits of trade' of the WTO agriculture negotiations.

He tackled the question of GMO's very well, pointing out that GMO's are marketed as a technological improvement for the world but that we don't as yet know enough to bear that out. Also current GMO's are not being advocated by neutral scientists but instead by large monopolistic companies like Monsanto who have little to gain from reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides as they claim, but lots to gain from patented seeds and terminator seeds that cannot be used for more than one harvest.

Posted by: Ian Finlayson on 8 Mar 05

I find it hard to reconcile with ‘cars will dominate transportation forever’. A change of perspective? Or were you playing Devil’s Advocate? Or just annoyed with my bikeophilia?

I don't think I ever said "cars will dominate transportation forever". But that doesn't mean I believe mass transit and bikes will replace them.

I believe it will be a combination of walking and automated personal transit which is subsurface and can serve both local and long-distance travel (which I simply call "pod"). In the interim, I think we'll see more development of things like carsharing and walkable design which gradually erodes the necessity of automobiles.

I love to bicycle, but it's just not suitable for many people and many situations. It's still a form of mechanized movement and therefore unnatural. To me, we rehumanize by connecting with our natural way of movement (walking), but will forever want to explore the wide world, so we'll always need a way to get around the planet quickly as well.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 8 Mar 05

There was an article here on worldchanging about an Australian biological farming project and studies suggest that without understanding the relationships between organisms we cannot hope to maximise certain plants production. Does anyone know of any more of this kind of investigation? Aldo Leopold mentioned the difference microfauna made to tobacco production a very long time ago and increasing our understanding of it still looks like a good bet to me!

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 9 Mar 05


Regarding more info on microfauna and relationships between plants, I believve that an organisation called Sunseed, have been working on simple ways that small-scale farmers and gardeners can increase beneficial mychoriza in cultivated soil. I read an article a while back that was reporting some pretty impressive benefits in yields and general plant health. Haven't got round to tryin their methods myself, but details can be found at:


Posted by: Sami Grover on 9 Mar 05

Thank you, Sami, for bring the conversation back to the soil foodweb, the particular soil foodwebs. What we are finding is that both organic and industrial modes make the same mistake in adding stuff, be it OMRI certified or not. They put all the chemistry in and lack the biology to hold it there and it all runs into the water. We must mend and create the soil foodwebs we all live in. Well-made composts and compost teas, actively aerated are the keys. Elaine Ingham's CDs ( are simply the best in articulating what this takes. We need to get every damned one of us to consider this from the ground up. We need to disintermediate our food and have a great time doing it. Corporations and communes make the same mistakes, 18 to 20 boom and bust cycles our race has endured. We need to get cows out there to stop desertification. We need to stop leaking our mineral cycle into the water, fix the poop loop and feed those microbs. The mycorrhizae are not for all plants but they all love varieties of things to eat, like us.

Recovering from addiction to additives and refinements crosses all tribal, sexual, religious orientation. The body ecology is just as important to get the most out of what we do eat. Eat those cultured veggies. Kefir that milk. Let's boogie.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 9 Mar 05

The above comments by Rod are true in some contexts. However, previous agricultural and economic models were based on an abundance of natural resources and a small population of humans. The opposite is now true, there are too many people on the earth and the limiting factor to production is a shortage of natural resources. Therefore, a return to more labor intensive farming and other industries is inevitable. Organic farming is one of the first steps. Although it may be more expensive, there is less financial risk as the price of oil, pesticides, and fertilizer grows higher. One good turn creates another and the people who work on these farms, no matter what part of the world they are from, are healthier as the earth is healthier. This is a cycle of good things, instead of the old cycle of more machines, laying off more people, more fertilizers, more chemicals, more disease etc. Positive feedback cycles as I tried to describe are proof to me that we can overcome the world's problems.

For more information, read my favorite book: Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins

Posted by: Philip M. Jonat on 9 Mar 05

I owned and operated a small organic farm in middle Tennessee in the late 70s. I used french intensive gardening and hydroponics. I made my own compost and compost teas. I recycled everything (almost). I used natural predators and plants as repellants to keep insects at bay. I used no pesticides, no fertilizers. My farm was too small to need a tractor. You can't use a tractor with French intensive gardening anyway. I switched from "staples" like corn, tomotoes, etc. to vegetables that were imported from abroad like Chinese vegetables. I also grew herbs (no, not THAT herb). My yields were 7-8 times that of a row crop style farm next door.

The fact that an organic farm takes "more labor" is irrelevent. If the farm is properly run the yields will be much higher. Expenses are MUCH lower. No tractor to make payments on. No fuel to buy. No fertilizer to buy. No pesticides to buy. The one caveat is that you have to REALLY know your business. You have to know how to make compost. You have to know why you need compost. You have to know how to use plants and predators as insect repellent. You have to know how to use minerals. You have to keep rainwater from making "rivlets" in your garden. This all takes a great deal of research and planning and effort. But, if you are dedicated it is 10 times more effective than row cropping if you count the increased yield plus the avoidance of high costs of petrochemical products like fertilizer and pesticides.

Does the "average" farmer in the third world have the expertise to be an organic farmer with the sophistication that I describe above? I don't know.

I am a firm believer that what is good environmental policy is also good business and the real job of environmentalists is to partner with businesses to show them how this is the case in practical ways. The giant agribusiness row crop farms would be much better off economically to switch to French intensive gardening and go all organic. Perhaps it is just matter of education or lack of information as to why they don't.

I think that market pressures plus the just plain economic sense that it makes will cause a switch from row cropping to organic farming.

Just my two cents.

Posted by: Steve on 16 Mar 05



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