The stubborn industrial ag myth
Debunking the stubborn myth that only industrial ag can ‘feed the world’Tom Philpott
The conventional wisdom is wrong -- or, at the very least, much more contested than its champions let on. The Economist insisted that international development agencies had embraced Big Ag as the solution to the globe's food problem, but that simply isn't true.
Indeed, for years now, a steady stream of reports has emerged from the development agencies calling for new directions. In 2008, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the U.N. Environment Program issued a paper [PDF] called "Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa." It reads like a direct refutation of The Economist's claims. The report concludes:
Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage. Furthermore, evidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously ... Organic and near-organic agricultural methods and technologies are ideally suited for many poor, marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa, as they require minimal or no external inputs, use locally and naturally available materials to produce high-quality products, and encourage a whole systemic approach to farming that is more diverse and resistant to stress.
That same year, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report [PDF] that echoed those conclusions. Entitled "Mitigating Climate Change, Providing Food Security and Self-Reliance for Rural Livelihoods," the report points to the Tigray area of Ethiopia, "previously known as one of the most degraded Regions of Ethiopia." There, more than 20,000 farming families saw yields of major cereals and pulses nearly double "using ecological agricultural practices such as composting, water and soil conservation activities, agroforestry, and crop diversification" -- even as "the use of chemical fertilizers ... steadily decreased." The phaseout of synthetic and mined fertilizers was key, because "most poor farmers, particularly in degraded lands and in market-marginalized areas, are not able to afford external inputs," the report states.
Perhaps even more crucially, the FAO researchers found that "ecological agriculture" could "assist farmers in adapting to climate change" by making farm fields more resilient to stress. So why isn't eco-agriculture catching on? The report cites a bevy of obstacles, none of them technological:
[L]ack of policy support at local, national, regional and international levels, resource and capacity constraints, and a lack of awareness and inadequate information, training and research on ecological agriculture at all levels.
At a conference in 2009, the FAO once again bluntly contradicted the conventional wisdom. "In the name of intensification in many places around the world, farmers over-ploughed, over-fertilized, over-irrigated, over-applied pesticides," Shivaji Pandey, director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, declared. "But in so doing we also affected all aspects of the soil, water, land, biodiversity and the services provided by an intact ecosystem. That began to bring yield growth rates down."
In place of industrial methods, Pandey called for "conservation agriculture," which he described as a "farming system that does not use regular ploughing and tillage but promotes permanent soil cover and diversified crop rotation to ensure optimal soil health and productivity."
Then there's the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Under the auspices of the United Nations, World Bank, World Health Organization, and other institutions, the IAASTD gathered 400 scientists and development experts from dozens of nations to assess the very problems examined by The Economist. A three-year project, it has been called the IPCC of agriculture.
Its conclusion [PDF]: agroecological practices -- including the very organic-farming techniques scorned by The Economist -- are at least as important as agrichemicals and biotechnology in terms of "feeding the world" in the decades to come. As for the alleged panacea of genetically modified seeds, the IAASTD was so unenthusiastic about GMOs that Croplife International, the trade group for the globe's dominant GMO/agrichemical purveyors, angrily pulled out [PDF] of participation shortly before its release -- as, disgracefully, did the U.S. and Canadian governments in solidarity.