Can The U.S. Go Organic Without Going Vegetarian?

by David Sudarsky

America's explosive interest in organic farming as the means to a sustainable, natural, healthy system of food production has already begun to change the face of agriculture. But if we are to continue along this promising path, a substantial reduction in the consumption of animal products will become a necessity. Currently, there are countless meat eaters who are comfortable advocates of organic farming, but I will venture to say that none of them has thought deeply about the problems with such a position.

Let's begin with the fact that organic agriculture, while much better for the Earth, inherently is a lower-yield endeavor than "conventional" agriculture. Due to crop rotation and the absence of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers, organic farmers produce far less food per acre, per year, than the conventional growers that push fields beyond their natural limits, leading to topsoil erosion and, in many cases, water pollution. Now add the fact that the major U.S. grain and legume crops are fed mostly to farm animals (Durning & Brough, Worldwatch Paper 103, July 1991). That's right, such massive monocultures exist largely to support America's indulgence in meat and other animal products. Put simply, organic farming just cannot produce the crop yields necessary to support America's meat- and dairy-laden dietary habits.

It is naive to support organic farming while regularly consuming animal products for other reasons as well. Many people deem it most important to purchase organic fruits and vegetables, yet such produce comprises only a few percent of the crops grown in this country. So buying organic produce while continuing to eat meat is unlikely to result in significant environmental progress, and those who consume organic produce for health reasons must be unaware that animal products typically contain far more pesticide residues than conventional fruits and vegetables. How about organic animal products? Organic crop farming cannot support conventional meat and dairy production, nor can it support the production of organic animal products. Substituting organic animal products for conventional ones, without a drastic reduction in consumption, clearly is not a reasonable large-scale plan.

I would like to end with a quick comment about genetically modified foods. This industry attempts to frame their aspirations time and time again in a deceptive bifurcation: "Either you're for genetically modified foods, or you're for the use of pesticides." (Since, in many cases, genetically modified crops require less pesticides or result in a larger yield with the same level of pesticide use.) I hope the facts that I have outlined above can convince you that we are not hopelessly determined to choose between chemical pesticides and genetically modified foods. Lower-yield, sustainable organic farming can provide for our future when combined with a transformation toward vegetarianism.

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