When President Obama announced a new program during the recent G8 summit to help bolster food and agriculture in developing nations through corporate “pledges,” I was most struck by his choice of partners in the effort. A Reuters report on the announcement read:
The initiative includes a new partnership with agribusiness giants such as DuPont, Monsanto and Cargill, along with smaller companies, including almost 20 from Africa, which will commit some $3 billion for projects to help farmers in the developing world build local markets and improve productivity.
Those three companies are the good food movement’s equivalent of the law firm Dewey, Cheatem & Howe — not the folks it wants to see put in charge of anything, much less “feeding the world.” These companies believe that exporting western-style industrial agriculture to the developing world (Africa in particular) is key to ensuring enough food for a growing population. And they maintain this position despite the growing evidence that industrial agriculture can’t solve the problem.
As a recent report in the journal Nature on the best way forward for agriculture explained, current models suggest that industrial ag just won’t cut it:
… conventional approaches to intensive agriculture, especially the unbridled use of irrigation and fertilizers, have been major causes of environmental degradation. Closing yield gaps without environmental degradation will require new approaches, including reforming conventional agriculture and adopting lessons from organic systems and precision agriculture.
Unfortunately, this “unbridled use of irrigation and fertilizers” is the form of agriculture that Monsanto, DuPont, and Cargill know best.
So I was concerned when I ran across this new study, which found that to date, human-caused groundwater depletion is a greater contributor to sea-level rise than climate change. The U.K. Guardian explains:
Trillions of tonnes of water have been pumped up from deep underground reservoirs in every part of the world and then channeled into fields and pipes to keep communities fed and watered. The water then flows into the oceans, but far more quickly than the ancient aquifers are replenished by rains. The global tide would be rising even more quickly but for the fact that man-made reservoirs have, until now, held back the flow by storing huge amounts of water on land.
“The water being taken from deep wells is geologically old – there is no replenishment and so it is a one-way transfer into the ocean,” said sea level expert professor Robert Nicholls, at the University of Southampton. “In the long run, I would still be more concerned about the impact of climate change, but this work shows that even if we stabilize the climate, we might still get sea level rise due to how we use water.”
How does this water study relate to the G8 agriculture initiative? Well, drilling into deep and ancient aquifers using techniques borrowed from oil production is currently a favored technique for improving agricultural productivity in the developing world. And the new G8 program appears designed to do much more of it.
As the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy noted in a post on its blog, these “tube wells” have already been said to cause “an environmental disaster” in Asia. An Agence France-Presse report from several years back noted that:
In the case of India, smallholder farmers have driven 21 million tube wells into their fields and the number is increasing by a million wells per year.
“Nobody knows where the tube wells are or who owns them. There is no way anyone can control what happens to them,” Tushaar Shah, head of the International Water Management Institute’s groundwater station, based in Gujarat, said.
“When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India.”
Half of the country’s traditional hand-dug wells have already run dry, as have millions of shallower tube wells, causing some despairing farmers to commit suicide, he said.
In China’s north plain, that country’s breadbasket, 30 cubic kilometers (1.059 trillion cubic feet) more water are being extracted each year by farmers than are being replaced by the rain, New Scientist said.
Groundwater is used to produce 40 percent of the country’s grain.
In June, the state paper China Daily admitted that the nation “may be plunged into a water crisis” by 2030 when its population is scheduled to peak at 1.6 billion.
It just seems that regardless of the evidence that practices like these cause destruction, the U.S. insists on continuing a form of ecological arbitrage which offers short-term gains in productivity that won’t be paid for until long after those who’ve enjoyed them are gone.
Ironically, one of the main motivations behind the G8 plan is that we, the richest nations in the history of the planet, are feeling — as the Reuters report declared in its headline — “cash-strapped” at the moment.
As I see it, the best way to feed billions of people is not through more industrial agriculture, but rather through the expanded application of agroecological techniques — meaning working with the land, rather than against it. If a crop requires drilling into ancient aquifers for irrigation, it’s probably not a crop that’s suited for the region in question. And of course, agroecology also calls for minimal inputs of fertilizer and pesticides and no GMOs. I’m not the only one who believes this; the U.N.’s “Save and grow” program for developing world farmers is itself based on agroecology.
All of which is to say that the quest for corporate sponsorship for agriculture in the developing world is misguided. Supporting sustainable efforts in developing nations isn’t about who can write the biggest check. It’s about a willingness to spend our money in different ways. But before that can happen, the G8 governments must accept that the risks from expanding the industrial approach to agriculture — such as the idea that irrigation can contribute to sea-level rise — are real and planetary in scale.