Feed the world with resource-minded agriculture

Fifty years ago this month President John F. Kennedy spoke of ending world hunger, yet the situation remains dire. Something approaching a billion people are hungry, a number that’s been fairly stable for more than 50 years, although it has declined as a percentage of the total population.

“Feeding the world” might as well be a marketing slogan for Big Ag, a euphemism for “Let’s ramp up sales,” as if producing more cars would guarantee that everyone had one. But if it worked that way, surely the rate of hunger in the United States would not be the highest of any developed nation, a rate closer to that of Indonesia than of Britain.

The world has long produced enough calories, around 2,700 per day per human, more than enough to meet the United Nations projection of a population of 9 billion in 2050, up from the current 7 billion. There are hungry people not because food is lacking, but because not all of those calories go to feed humans (a third go to feed animals, nearly 5 percent are used to produce biofuels, and as much as a third is wasted, all along the food chain).

The current system is neither environmentally nor economically sustainable, dependent as it is on fossil fuels and routinely resulting in environmental damage. It’s geared to letting the half of the planet with money eat well while everyone else scrambles to eat as cheaply as possible. Paradoxically, as increasing numbers of people can afford to eat well, food for the poor will become scarcer, because demand for animal products will surge, and they require more resources like grain to produce. A global population growth of less than 30 percent is projected to double the demand for animal products. But there is not the land, water or fertilizer – let alone the health-care funding – for the world to consume Western levels of meat.

If we want to ensure that poor people eat and also do a better job than “modern” farming does at preserving the earth’s health and productivity, we must stop assuming that the industrial model of food production and its accompanying disease-producing diet is both inevitable and desirable. I have dozens of friends and colleagues who say things like, “I hate industrial ag, but how will we feed the poor?”

Let’s at last recognize that there are two food systems, one industrial and one of small landholders, or peasants, if you prefer. The peasant system is not only here for good, it’s arguably more efficient than the industrial model. According to the ETC Group, a research and advocacy organization based in Ottawa, Ontario, the industrial food chain uses 70 percent of agricultural resources to provide 30 percent of the world’s food, whereas what ETC calls “the peasant food web” produces the remaining 70 percent using only 30 percent of the resources.

Yes, it is true that high-yielding varieties of any major commercial monoculture crop will produce more per acre than peasant-bred varieties of the same crop. But by diversifying crops, mixing plants and animals, planting trees – which provide not only fruit but shelter for birds, shade, fertility through nutrient recycling, and more – small landholders can produce more food (and more kinds of food). They will use fewer resources and have lower transportation costs (which means a lower carbon footprint), while providing greater food security, maintaining greater biodiversity, and even better withstanding the effects of climate change. (Not only that: Their techniques have been demonstrated to be effective on larger-scale farms, even in the Corn Belt of the United States.) And all of this without the level of subsidies and other support that industrial agriculture has received in the last half-century, and despite the efforts of Big Ag to become even more dominant.

In fact, if you define “productivity” not as pounds per acre but as the number of people fed per that same area, you find that the United States ranks behind both China and India (and indeed the world average), and roughly the same as Bangladesh, because so much of what we grow goes to animals and biofuels. (Regardless of how food is produced, delivered and consumed, waste remains at about one-third.) Thus, as the ETC’s research director, Kathy Jo Wetter, says, “It would be lunacy to hold that the current production paradigm based on multinational agribusiness is the only credible starting point for achieving food security.” This is especially true given all of its downsides.

As Raj Patel, a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, puts it, “The playing field has been tilted against peasants for centuries, and they’ve still managed to feed more people than industrial agriculture. With the right kinds of agroecological training and the freedom to shape the food system on fair terms, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be able to feed themselves, and others as well.”

Yet obviously not all poor people feed themselves well, because they lack the essentials: land, water, energy and nutrients. Often that’s a result of cruel dictatorship (North Korea) or war, displacement and strife (the Horn of Africa, Haiti and many other places), or drought or other calamities. But it can also be an intentional and direct result of land and food speculation and land and water grabs, which make it impossible for peasants to remain in their home villages. (Governments of many developing countries may also act as agents for industrial agriculture, seeing peasant farming as “inefficient.”)

The result is forced flight to cities, where peasants become poorly paid laborers, enter the cash market for (increasingly mass produced) food, and eat worse. They’re no longer “peasants,” at this point, but more akin to the working poor of the United States, who also often cannot afford to eat well, though not to the point of starvation. It’s a formula for making not only hunger but obesity: remove the ability to produce food, then remove the ability to pay for food, or replace it with only one choice: bad food.

We might begin by ditching the narrow focus on yields. As Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, says, “It’s not ‘grow, baby, grow,’” which seem to be ebbing naturally as land quality deteriorates and chemicals become less effective, despite high-tech “advances” like genetically engineered crops. Better to ask not how much food is produced, but how it’s produced.

We also need to see more investment in researching the benefits of traditional farming, which, because its benefits in profiting multinationals or international trade are limited, has never received investment on the same scale as corporate agriculture.

Instead, the money and energy (of all kinds) focused on boosting supply cannot be overstated. If equal resources were put into reducing waste, questioning the value of animal products, reducing overconsumption (where “waste” becomes “waist”), actively promoting saner, less energy-consuming alternatives, and granting that peasants have the right to farm their traditional landholdings, we could not only ensure that people could feed themselves but also reduce agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gases, chronic disease and energy depletion.

Mark Bittman writes (mostly) about food for The New York Times Opinion pages, and is The Times’ Magazine lead food columnist. He is the author of Food Matters, which explores the crucial connections among food, health and the environment, and How To Cook Everything. His website is markbittman.com. © 2013 New York Times News Service.

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