Good News About Food

The Road To Resilience


With warmer weather and the sounds of Spring birds, my mind goes to growing food.  I recently read a great article in the Jan 12 addition of  Common Dreams (online news service) by Frances Moore Lappé called “Farming for a Small Planet.”  Lappé writes, “People yearn for alternatives to industrial agriculture, but they are worried. They see large-scale operations relying on corporate-supplied chemical inputs as the only high-productivity farming model. Another approach might be kinder to the environment and less risky for consumers, but, they assume, it would not be up to the task of providing all the food needed by our still-growing global population.

The very good news is that there is enough food to feed the entire world even after a large portion is syphoned off for animal feed and fuel use!  Also, per capita food production has continued to increase despite rapid population growth.  More good news is that 84% of that food is produced by small, low-input traditional farms, and they do it on only 12% of the cultivated land!

Just because there is enough food, don’t assume that everybody is being fed.  In fact, 800 million people suffer from lack of food.  A significant portion of the food distribution system is dictated by agribiz and the food goes to those that can pay the going price.  This was the case in the1845 potato famine in Ireland, when a plentiful harvest of grain was exported from Ireland to those that could pay for it, while the Irish themselves starved by the thousands.

For the last 60 years, the developed world has promoted industrial agriculture.  It was the result of bringing modern science and technology to bear on modernizing agriculture.  Artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and genetically improved seed varieties dramatically increased yields.  New farm machinery made it possible for one farmer on a very large farm to produce a twenty times more food than on a more traditionally sized farm.  This was the so-called “Green Revolution” that was expected to feed the world.

Over the years, many unforeseen problems arose.  More and more artificial fertilizers are required as the soils decline in fertility, the same for herbicides and pesticides as the weeds and pests become resistant.  The excess chemicals and the soils, as well, run off into rivers and streams, as does manure from large feedlots.  Huge corporations developed to supply seed and chemicals and to market huge lots of food commodities around the globe.  Today, six corporations provide over 90% of the food in the US.  A problem not considered a problem 60 years ago is that the carbon footprint of industrial agriculture is second only to transportation, and when you consider the transport, processing, and packaging that is required to make agroindustry work, it could be our largest single carbon emitter.  Through the entire process, 40% of the food is wasted.  As small farms consolidate into large farms, rural areas became depopulated and thousands of small towns are mostly boarded up.  Those that remain are largely impoverished.

Industrial Agriculture is still the favorite of the establishment.  They get the subsidies and the investment.  Such respected groups as the Gates Foundation still support it.  However, here is the good news:  the shine is wearing off.

Recent studies have shown that an ecological alternative to the industrial model could produce as much or more food than the industrial model . As Lappé writes, “In 2006, a seminal study in the Global South compared yields in 198 projects in 55 countries and found that ecologically attuned farming increased crop yields by an average of almost 80 percent. A 2007 University of Michigan global study concluded that organic farming could support the current human population, and expected increases without expanding farmed land. Then, in 2009, came a striking endorsement of ecological farming by fifty-nine governments and agencies, including the World Bank, in a report painstakingly prepared over four years by four hundred scientists urging support for ‘biological substitutes for industrial chemicals or fossil fuels.’”  This is music to my ears:  it is clear now that regenerative organic farming is a viable alternative, especially since it is already largely the current practice in the Global South.

The new emergent model, agroecology, is much more than organic agriculture.  It is relational to the people and the place in which it occurs.  Instead of focusing wealth in the hands of the few, it keeps it in local economies everywhere.  As a practice that produces food for the communities in which it is grown, it “addresses the powerlessness that is at the root of hunger.”  It has an inherent resilience that the concentrated monocropping of industrial agriculture can’t come close to matching.  Best of all, instead of depleting soil and emitting huge quantities of CO2, it regenerates soil, sequesters carbon, and restores health to the environment.

As good as this news is, we need to leaven it with reality.  Climate change will decrease the amount of arable land, but the greater yield and regenerative nature of agroecology should counteract that somewhat.   We will also have to dislodge the very powerful and wealthy special interests that are invested in industrial agriculture.  I hope that this certain knowledge that industrial agriculture is a dead end will help you to stand firm in demanding food be produced organically.