(December 14, 2017)
At a United Nations environment meeting in Nairobi in 2013 about “feeding the world,” I got into an argument with several officials when I objected to the theme.
We don’t need to try to feed the world, I said. We need sustainable agriculture, instead.
It was not a popular opinion, despite the long-term disastrous consequences of the 1980s Green Revolution — rapid declines in productivity, soil fertility, arable land in production, and so on. The benefits of intensive agriculture had turned out to be short term, requiring chemical fertilizers, new crop varieties, pesticides and herbicides — all of which increased the costs of farming and required larger yields and higher returns to be sustainable.
When the bubble burst, some developing countries went from being net exporters to net importers of food, and became more food insecure almost overnight.
“Feeding the world” has become justification for continuing current industrial agricultural practices, despite the obviously bad ecological impacts of how we produce our food. In addition, we are essentially farming oil, given the greenhouse gases produced and the fossil fuels consumed in fertilizers, as well as in fuel for our tractors and trucks.
For a sustainable future, we need to choose sustainable agriculture over what I suggest should really be called “desperation agriculture.”
Desperation agriculture is more than industrial agriculture. It includes all those agricultural practices that place other values ahead of sustainability.
Subsistence agriculture can also be desperation agriculture — small-holder farmers trying to be sure they produce enough to feed their families, for now. It would include fishing, hunting — whatever is needed to produce enough food to survive. If this means burning rain forest to graze cattle, slash-and-burn becomes what we have to do. Tomorrow can take care of itself.
Many farmers using industrial farming practices have the same problem — costs are so high that cash crops are essential, every season, requiring fertilizer inputs to enable this constant production while making other more-sustainable practices (such as leaving land fallow) impractical.
Such practice also becomes desperation agriculture, with increasing debt loads that mean constantly being one harvest away from disaster, requiring jobs off the farm to cover the perpetual shortfall in family income. When the bank owns more than the farmer, long-term sustainable farming practices may be a luxury the farm-as-business can’t afford.
Salinity of the soil, soil depletion, vulnerability of mono-crops to pests and disease, water pollution from large-scale animal production — all these things are seen as inevitable, just the cost of doing business.
“Feeding the world” is therefore essentially an ideological stance, something that is used to perpetuate agricultural practices that are short-sighted, ecologically destructive, and that prefer short-term benefits for a few despite the long-term negative consequences for all.