With the arrival of 2009, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes nearly a billion people a day go hungry worldwide. While India supplies Switzerland with 80 percent of its wheat, 350 million Indians are food-insecure. Rice prices have nearly tripled since early 2007 because, according to the International Rice Research Institute, rice-growing land is being lost to industrialization, urbanization, and shifts to grain crops for animal feed.
Yet, according to FAO statistics, world food supplies have kept pace with population growth. There is enough food to adequately feed everyone. Clearly, root causes of the food crisis lie in politics, problems with food distribution, poverty, and a failure of the industrial food system to deliver its promises.
Dr. Bob Watson, chief scientist for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the U.K., places the blame for the food price spikes on several factors: grain being shifted to animal feed, drought, increased use of grains for biofuels and speculation in food crops. While proponents assert that industrial agriculture is the only hope to end the food crisis, it appears that industrial agriculture is causing the food crisis.
A study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development found, that as industrial farming practices are adopted in countries like India, small farmers and landless peasants are forced off the land. Hundreds of vegetables and weeds that were part of the traditional diet are wiped out by mono-cultures and herbicides used on the Genetically Modified crops. Thus, as Margaret Visser tells us, more rice and wheat produced in India really means less food and less nutrition.
In 1995 Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro addressed the Society of Environmental Journalists stating, “The commercial industrial technologies (the Green Revolution) that are used in agriculture today to feed the world … are not inherently sustainable.” Even Shapiro, was admitting the Green Revolution would fail. As George Kent notes in The Political Economy of Hunger, “the benefits of Green Revolution yields went into the mouths of rich world denizens, in the form of meat and processed foods.”
IAASTD concluded that small-scale farmers in diverse ecosystems should be the focus of efforts to get better quality food in the right places. Farmers need better access to knowledge, technology and credit, but was biotechnology ‘the technology’? Watson told the U.K. Daily Mail, “Are transgenics the simple answer to hunger and poverty? I would argue, no.”
Study after study indicates small-scale, integrated organic/low input sustainable production can produce more food, of higher nutritional value locally, where it is needed.
A 15-year study at the Rodale Institute showed similar yields for conventionally raised vs. organic corn and soy, with soil fertility being consistently higher in the organic systems.
The Broadbalk study in the U.K., ongoing for over 150 years, shows higher yields in integrated organic systems over conventional systems with soil fertility remarkably in the organic system.
In This Organic Life, Joan Dye Gussow notes that prior to World War II, even with its harsh climate, Montana produced 70 percent of its own food, including fruit, sustainably, organically on small farms.
The advantage of integrated organic and sustainable systems is even more apparent in the Global South where most farms are an acre or less. While “yield” per acre can be higher on large conventional farms, “total output” per acre, the sum of everything the farmer produces, is according to Peter Rosset in The Ecologist, far higher on small farms. More food, more nutrition, more animal feed.
Gardeners are familiar with the Three Sisters — corn, beans, and squash — three food crops that thrive together. This system of intercropping, has long been practiced by small scale indigenous farmers. Integrating livestock, manure, and crop rotation makes the system even more productive in terms of food per acre.
According to Rosset, economists at the World Bank realize that redistribution of land to small farmers would promote greater food production, yet due to corporate and political pressure, the industrial farming model is promoted as the standard that will “feed the world.” Helena Norberg-Hodge notes that the industrial food system became dominated by the “need for corporate profits, not the need to feed the global population.”
Industrial farming has been an abysmal failure at feeding the world. The best hope, according to the IAASTD report, long-term research and countless generations of indigenous farmers, lies with “small scale farmers in diverse eco-systems.”
As for the U.S., we need sensible food policy: less grain for animals, more home and community gardens, farmer-owned grain reserves, energy policy that does not use food for fuel, and an end to food price speculation. That is a “change we can believe in.”