Not directly related to my original post, but inspired by further rumination on the subject.
One of the most common critiques heard by advocates of sustainable agriculture is that good farming practices simply won’t scale – “we have to feed the world,” people will say, as if we’re actually doing that, “and organic farming just won’t do that.” Well. It may be perfectly true that our current “organic” farming practices won’t scale – Bittman acknowledges that – but from my perspective the truth is much closer to a riff on the old pseudo-Chesterton aphorism: “Sustainable agriculture has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
The problem with the critique of sustainable farming on the basis of scale is that it assumes our only options are 1) industrial agriculture; and 2) a neo-Romantic return to premodern farming techniques. But that’s not at all the case. The agricultural practices advocated by anti-Romantic environmentalists like Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry are emphatically not a simple return to older techniques, even if Berry makes no bones about his view that older communities were healthier than our own. For these thinkers, there is no golden age of farming practices, no ideal primitive techniques. Old farming practices were often nearly as environmentally pernicious as new ones, but without the scale they could not be as destructive. That doesn’t mean we want to return to them. Instead, we need to find new practices that can be both sustainable and scalable. Jackson’s Land Institute is doing good work on this, and critics of organic farming should look into his work before casually dismissing the possibility that sustainable practices could scale.