Is organic sustainable?

Given several insightful responses to this post, I have corrected my misconception that organic = humanely raised. Most often it does not and I shouldn’t use the terms interchangeably.


The other day I had a very heated conversation with an individual who found the concept of eating humanely-raised animals hypocritical and stupid (I’m paraphrasing, as his choice of words was much more colorful and much less appropriate).  It was akin to another angry conversation with a chef at a German restaurant in San Jose, who furiously berated my choice to choose humanely-raised and just like the German chef, this individual had two basic points:

  1. Organic farming (i.e. humanely raised animals) can’t feed the world
  2. If you care so much about animals then don’t eat them, but if you’re going to kill them anyways, who cares how they lived

I strongly disagree on both!

On the first, there are numerous reports (such as this full United Nations report and many more great links in this piece by Mark Bittman) showing that not only the sustainable/organic agriculture can feed the world but that our current way of commercial farming cannot.  Of course, moving down the sustainable path will require significant changes to our agricultural infrastructure, government subsidies and most importantly alignment of our own perceptions and beliefs with the fact that the sustainable way can work.  Organic agriculture means better farm animal welfare, better health as our meat won’t be ridden with antibiotics and who knows what else, as well as more money going to the actual farmers rather than Big Ag. And frankly, if we continue reeking havoc on the environment with our current farming system, there won’t even be a planet to feed.

This argument ended with a huffy “who wrote these reports, probably some tree-hugging vegetarians. And I won’t believe them, even if I read them, which I’m not going to”.  Agree to disagree.

The second argument (mostly the latter part asserting that “if you’re going to kill them anyways, who cares how they lived”) is just plain stupid.  Last time I checked we are all going to die.  Yet, you don’t hear people going around saying that since all humans are going to die, our lives don’t matter. In fact, we spend most of our waking hours trying to improve our lives by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The fact that farm animals are going to eventually die (just like we are!) does not mean that their lives should be lived in pain.  And while I have uttermost respect for those who have chosen to give up meat altogether, I believe that it’s possible to care about animal welfare and to continue to eat meat (by choosing non-commercially farmed animals).
My opponent’s response to my question “since you’re going to die, do you want to live in pain?” was along the lines of “ummmm… that’s a dumb comparison. My life is different…. whatever”.

This conversation left me frustrated but also served as a good reminder that some will never embrace the future of sustainable agriculture. And I’m not sure if my time is well spent convincing them otherwise.  If any of you have had similar difficult conversation with non-believers, I’d love to hear your approach, your rebuttals  and whether you were successful in converting them.