Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

Organic Agriculture: An Agrarian or Industrial Revolution?

Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

Organic Agriculture: An Agrarian or Industrial Revolution?

Article excerpt

The notion of industrialized agriculture has been a dominant theme in the applied economics literature. More recently, the debate has entered the realm of organic agriculture, with some suggesting that the organic sector has strayed from its agrarian roots. The terms "industrial" and "agrarian" are widely used, yet few have given precise definitions of what the terms mean. This paper puts forth testable hypotheses for agrarian and industrial agriculture. Then, using census data from the 2008 Organic Production Survey, we examine the evidence to assess whether the organic farm sector fits an agrarian or industrial model. Overall the evidence is mixed, yet suggests that the organic sector is less agrarian than expected.

Key Words: industrial agriculture, organic agriculture, agrarianism, Organic Production Survey

One way of viewing the production agriculture segment of the U.S. food system is as a continuum of operations (farms) that use a range of different production practices, with "organic" and "industrial" claiming opposite ends of the spectrum. Beyond the most obvious differences, such as those regarding use of pesticides and other chemicals, the production systems vary in other meaningful ways, including pasture access for livestock and use of genetically modified organisms. These differing practices arise from the underlying beliefs about farming, which separate the two systems. Organic producers raise crops by working in harmony, as much as possible, with the land and local conditions. The holistic attitude extends to organic livestock production as well, which has practices that accommodate animals' natural behavior. According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an organic system is "a production system that sustains the health of soil, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects" (IFOAM 2009). Industrial agriculture production, on the other hand, focuses on efficiency (Heady 1983). In order to minimize costs, industrial agriculture relies heavily on technology, and production is "capital intensive, substituting machinery and purchased inputs such as processed fertilizers for human or animal labor" (Barlett 1989, p. 253).

On both sides of the debate are advocates, journalists, and academics who have adopted normative stances on the question of organic versus industrial farming, suggesting that one food production technology is superior to the other. This tension between organic and industrial agriculture has existed much longer than most of us imagine. While precise dating is difficult, Europe in 1926 has been suggested as a starting location and point in time for the organic movement-decades before the widespread adoption of modern intensive farming methods (Conford 2001). The focus of the early organic movement was on soil quality- more specifically, on how the use of humus (compost) amends the soil, increasing its fertility (Conford 2001). Around the same time, concern about soil quality was on the minds of those involved in conventional agriculture as well, as the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936 linking soil conservation and farm policy in the United States illustrates.1 Even at this early time, fundamental differences are evident: the focus of the early pioneers of organic farming was on enhancing soil fertility, while the conventional sector was concerned with addressing soil erosion brought on by farming techniques (Conford 2001, Benedict 1953). These early views regarding soil quality are another clear signal of differences between the two approaches to farming. Over the course of the eight decades since 1926, these two perspectives on farming and soil sent organic and conventional agriculture in different directions.

Organic agriculture in the United States has grown in size since the early 1920s and has gained recognition as a legitimate sector, ultimately receiving its own place within the U. …

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