Organic... now is that really better?

As the organic sector grows, more attacks occur from the side of the industrial lobby, claiming that organic "can't feed the world" or questioning it's safety or reliability. Advocates of the industry, usually from the post-war generation, glorify the rewards of intensive farming, genetic modification and agro-chemicals. Meanwhile hipsters around the world are opting for organic food and "growing your own food" is a huge trend. What are the facts, what does science say, and what's behind this generation gap?

The core question

The basic question many people ask themselves is this: "Now ... Is organic really better or isn't it?" There are many sides to that question. You can look at it from the perspective of science, or ethically, or more practically as a farmer, consumer or cook. In this FAQ we will go into a number of these perspectives.

Most top chefs prefer to work with organic products

Practically speaking

We see that most top-chefs and tv-cooks like Jamie Oliver prefer to work with organic products. Farmers who convert to organic farming, often experiene an improvement in their work situation, especially when they were accustomed to using a lot of agro-chemicals. You rarely see these farmers going back the agro-chemical approach. Managers of estates and national parks also usually prefer organic tenant famers. And most consumers would also prefer organic food to non-organic food, seeing the higher price as the main obstacle. Of course, nearly every consumer who starts a little vegetable garden these days, chooses the non-chemical approach.

Theoretically speaking

Newspaper seem to love publishing headlines like "Organic can not feed the world". Frequently these opinions are voiced by scientists. The reasoning will go something like this: "We need to feed more people in the future, so we need to produce more. In order to produce more, we must farm more intensively and use more biotechnology."

This line of reasoning is less logical than it sounds. Should "we" really feed the "world", shouldn't the world rather feed itself? Is hunger really a matter of production, or is it a matter of conflict and bad government? Does intensive farming really yield a higher production in the long run, if you count in the externalities?

We can safely restate the argument as follows:

"In the future more people worldwide must be able to feed themselves. Therefore we should take good care of the main source of our food: the earth's living ecosystems, especially the soil. Therefore we must produce organically."

For more insight and scientific arguments, see the other FAQ questions.

The generation gap

The vision of the postwar "green revolution" generation often clashes with the vision of the younger generation, who often see sustainability as a primary demand in any production process. The postwar generation often glorifies science and technology, while the younger generation puts the ecosystem and "doing-it-yourself" central in their thinking. A collision of paradigms can be seen here. The Dutch environmental philosopher Matthijs Schouten speaks of two conflicting "basic attitudes", which he characterizes as "the ruler" and "the participant".

"The ruler"

The basic attitude of the ruler is to see himself as the master of creation, using his intelligence to enforce his will onto nature. This basic attitude characterizes the postwar North-West-European generation. Amongst the ruins of WWII, all focus was on increasing production. Technology and science where optimistically seen as the solution to all scarcity. Nature & culture were temporarily put on hold. During this era, historical city quarters in the whole of Europe were torn down to make place for shopping centres and highways. The countryside in a country like the Netherland was turned upside down to modernize agriculture with the use of huge amounts of agro-chemicals,  fossil fuel and machines. One of the results was a huge jump in food production. The other, more destructive consequences only became visible later, and can still be seen today.

"The participant"

The basic attitude of the "participant" is to see himself as a integral part of nature, instead of opposing nature. This attitude appeals to most people today and certainly to the younger generation. It's built on the view that ecosystems are closely interlinked and that in the evolution of life, cooperation and symbiosis is at least as important as "the strugle for survival". In biological science Lynn Margulis made great advances in this field. In the 1960s and 1970s, these fresh insights gave a new impulse to organic (biodynamic) agriculture, which started in the 1920s as a tiny splinter movement. Organic agriculture gradually developed, and a new attitude toward the planet grew: the idea that humans are part of the ecosystem and can act to maintain and even enrich it. This basic attitude has a strong appeal to the younger generations.

Going from ruler to participant

In 1962 Rachel Carson published the book "Silent Spring", which showed that the damaging effects of pesticides reach thousand of kilometers away and far into the future. People started to notice the falling numbers of butterflies and salamanders. As a reaction, a call for protection of nature was heard: people started to isolate nature by building fences around it. This "solution" illustrates the old basic attitude: men and nature are placed opposite each other. In the meantime, the agro-chemical approach continued undisturbed.This segregation of the natural and the cultural domain persist untill today and the destructive consequences can be seen all around. Many ecosystems are falling apart and Wester society is plagued by obesity, diabetes and psychiatric disease. The new generation however realises that all ecosystems are interlinked. An organisation like the Slow Food Youth Movement tries to go back to the basics of life. Science and corporate life however are still dominated by the generation of the "ruler". As the older generation makes place for the younger, the "participant" will gain more ground.

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