A couple of months ago, I raised the question, can industrial agriculture feed the world?
I was being intentionally provocative. For decades, policymakers have treated low-input, diversified agriculture — “organic” in the sense described by the great British agriculture scholar Sir Albert Howard — as a kind of hippy indulgence. Sure, it’s nice to grow food without poison, but you can’t feed the world that way.
To feed the globe’s teeming masses, you need loads of mined and fossil-fuel synthesized fertilizers, pesticides by the tons, patent-protected genetically modified seeds, heroic irrigation projects, gargantuan, petroleum-fueled “combine” machines, etc.
But as I wrote in the earlier post, evidence is mounting that organic agriculture is just as productive as chemical-based.
Moreover, even before the recent spike in global food prices, some 800 million people lacked access to food worldwide. Industrial agriculture excels at cranking out calories, but its productive capacity tends to be hyper-consolidated in hands of a few corporations and a relatively small group of landowners. The people who most need the food it generates can’t always get their hands on it. Vaunted for its efficiency, industrial ag generates massive amounts of wasted food, even as hundreds of millions go without enough.
And now, the system has come under severe strain. Global grain stocks are at all-time lows, prices are escalating, and hunger riots are erupting in Egypt, Cameroon, Haiti, and Burkina Faso — and could well spread, the FAO warns.
Here’s how the FAO diagnoses the crisis:
A combination of factors, including reduced production due to climate change, historically low levels of stocks, higher consumption of meat and dairy products in emerging economies, increased demand for biofuels production, and the higher cost of energy and transport have led to surges in food prices.
What’s being described here is a full-on crisis in industrial ag. And I don’t think the reflexive official response — more industrial ag — will work this time. The above-linked FAO document talks about finding ways to get more “inputs” to smallholder farmers in the global south.
But prices for fertilizers, GM seeds, and insecticides are all escalating, rising even faster than food prices. Just as urban dwellers in the global south are being priced out of food markets, farmers in the global south are being priced out of ag-input markets.
Moreover, the use of these inputs — particularly synthetic nitrogen fertilizer — contributes massively to climate change, degrades water, blots out sea life, etc.
Under these circumstances, yet another push to consolidate industrial agriculture in the global south seems imbecilic. The time has come for global institutions like the FAO to take low-input, intensive organic agriculture — intellectually rooted in smallholder farming styles in India — seriously as a response to the crisis in industrial agriculture.
The FAO is holding a conference on “World Food Security: The Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy” in Rome on June 3-5. In typical top-down fashion, it’s billed as a “high-level” summit for “heads of state and government to discuss the pressing challenges facing global food security and to adopt required actions to deal with the situation.”
I hope these esteemed figures don’t turn it into a yet another group-grope for the agrichemical industry, designed to turn smallholder farmers into commodity producers for a global market. Rather, they should be figuring out how to leverage the knowledge and expertise of their smallholders — with a focus on region-appropriate technologies — with the goal of rebuilding local and regional food systems.