We could feed the world with low-input agriculture. But will we?
In January of 2007, Aaron Newton, my friend and co-author of A Nation of Farmers came to Albany for four days of intense work on our book. We barely ate, slept or left the house, since we knew it would be the only chance the two of us had to hash everything out. Perhaps the single most intense moment for me, at least, was the conversation Aaron and I had about the central chapter of the book - the one that answered the question "Can we actually feed the 9+ billion people expected to live on this planet without lots of fossil fueled inputs?" This was the question answered by Tuesday's release of the UN Special Report on the Right to Food, to much public discussion.
The report is a good one, and an important one. Among other things, it is perhaps the first major report in UN history to take peak oil seriously - it is mostly implicit, rather than explicit, whereas climate change is an explicit driver, but the report presumes that we cannot go on using fossil fuels in agriculture as we have been.
When Aaron and I set out to answer the "can low input agriculture on small farms using people power feed us...since it will have to? question, the conventional wisdom was no, but there were contrary studies to consider. We knew both that fossil energies were bound to decline, leaving gaps, but also that small scale, human powered agriculture had potentials that were underappreciated. We didn't know the answer, and were determined not to prejudge it - to be emotionally and intellectually prepared to write that hunger and death were a likely consequence of all our best efforts. We spent the next months reading, researching and writing, and came out in 2008, at the height of the food crisis, with a very simple answer. Yes, the evidence is overwhelming that we can feed the world in a purely technical sense. We wrote:
t is a commonplace to assume that organic agriculture yields less tahn conventional agriculture and that we would have to endure enormous losses in yield were we to give up chemical inputs. The yield increases of the Green Revolution are commonly articulated in isolation, without discussion of organic yields. To determine how important the Green Revolution was, then, we need to go through the outputs of the Green Revolution and ask whether increased agricultural yields actually depend on using Green Revolution techniques. If, for example, agricultural yields depended on mechanization, we would expect mechanized agriculture to consistently out-yield hand labor. If they depend upon chemical inputs, we would expect organic agriculture to be heavily outyielded by conventional industrial agriculture. And if they depend on plant breeding, we would expect older varieties to be universally outyielded by newer ones.
These were the questions we set out to answer, and we found the same thing that the UN report also found - that these things were not, in fact, true, or not uniformly true.
In fact there was ample evidence that small farm yields were in many cases higher per acre, and that the lowered cost of agriculture inputs often meant more food security for the world's farmer even when their yields were slightly lower. Even more importantly, organic agricultural yields might have been slightly lower on the average in many cases, but they were better in years of extreme weather, suggesting that organic agriculture was more likely to endure climate change better.
We found that wider application of techniques like SSRI in rice fields and integrated polycultures - precisely the same things being lauded by the UN Report, could match projected yields for best outcomes of chemical agriculture. We followed the research of Peter Rosset and Jules Pretty and others who have done international studies showing the increased productivity of small scale, human powered, low input agriculture. We tracked the UN's own observation that in the 1990s, 2 billion people were being fed entirely by organic, low input agriculture - simply because they couldn't afford chemical inputs - usually on marginal land that they'd been pushed onto by industrial production. We asked the question - what could those two billion do with better land access and more justice?
Exactly like the UN report, we found that we had been focusing on the wrong things - despite the best intentions in the world, many millions of dollars spent on breeding GMO crops for conditions in Africa would have been better spent simply bringing the best farming techniques, better basic seed stock and better land access to Africa. The emphasis on pushing hard for small percentage increases in grain production in the global north - in countries that already had higher production than they could possibly need, did not, in fact, 'feed the world" but resulted in more corn and soy surpluses mostly going into livestock and meat for developed world consumption. We'd have done better to reduce specialization and encourage farmers in the Global South to grow the food they needed to eat.
The information was out there, and of course, much of it was extremely old. In 1986, for example, the UN FAO was forced to admit by researches that where you grow the food matters - that increasing the world's total food stocks doesn't result in reduced world hunger. This research has been going on for decades, but it was reassuring and fascinating to see the entire body of it laid out in front of me, just as it is good and valuable to have the UN report validate and publicize the literature review and analysis Aaron and I did four years ago. Hopefully a lot more people will read this than read _A Nation of Farmers_ ;-). Perhaps we can begin to discard the old saws about organic agriculture condemning us all to starvation.
This is not all the truth that ever was - if the world population does not stabilize around 9 billion, or in any number of climate and other disastrous scenarios, we could fail to produce enough food to feed the world. That, however, is not an inevitable outcome - if we were determined enough to ensure human well being long enough to stabilize the population and have it begin to decline overall, we could expect not to see the kind of massive starvation that many people have anticipated as a consequence of peak oil and climate change, and that is good news indeed.
As the newspapers trumpet this bit of news, however, it is useful to meditate on the second part of Aaron's and my conclusion, which is partly evident in the UN report, but less explicit - not just whether it is technically feasible to feed 9 billion people, but more importantly, will we? This is the $64 billion dollar question, isn't it? Because we presently produce enough food to feed every man, woman and child in the world about twice as many calories as their bodies require. In 2008, when our book came out and the number of the world's hungry skyrocketed to above 1 billion people, we had record harvests. Yes, there were floods and fires that year, but the the aggregate remained - there was more food than had ever been produced on earth before - and we still had one out of every 6.7 people going hungry.
The question is simply one of equity - as the UN report observes as one of its central premises:
To achieve this, however, pouring money into agriculture will not be sufficient; what is most important is to take steps that facilitate the transition towards a low-carbon, resource-preserving type of agriculture that benefits the poorest farmers. This will not happen by chance. It can only happen by design, through strategies and programmes backed by strong political will, and informed by a right-to-food approach.
Unless we are as a world committed to the idea of food justice, we will not mend this issue, no matter how we improve yields. Unless those of us who have them put our world's resources in the right places (Remember those promises industrial nations made for food aid and agricultural support during the food crisis in 2008...billions pledged, yadda, yadda? Nope, they never paid up.) Unless we are prepared in the interest of equity to give up some of our consumption of meat and biofuels, it won't happen. You can double yields, or triple or quadruple them (ok, you probably can't, but I'm being rhetorical) - it doesn't matter how much food there is, it matters how we distribute and share it.
That is a much bigger project even that conversion to small farms and agro-ecology. That requires that we care about other people enough to make changes and sacrifices, that we take the right to food seriously. That could happen - it is possible that we could become a world people that does care about others like that. There is precedent - Aaron and I talk about the campaign in the US to go back on food rationing due to the starvation in Europe and Asia that followed World War II. Overwhelmingly American actually supported rationing their own food to feed the hungry in Europe - and more than a third of them would have rationed their own food to feed the starving Japanese, our worst enemies. We are not incapable of that kind of change. But it is a big project.
Aaron and I wrote about that too - we began our chapter quoting Mark Twain, who said "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It is what you know for sure that just ain't so." That, I think is the story of our food future, and so we wrote that what frustrated us most was the fact that what many people are sure they know reinforces the status quo, renders it natural and inevitable, when it is not:
We concluded, in the end, that the greatest barriers to feeding the world had less to do with agriculture and more to do with politics than anything else, as is always the case. Now the UN confirms what we have argued - we could do it. But in order to do so, we must place food justice at the center of our worldview. Will we do this? Perhaps not. But I do not acknowledge that it is impossible, simply because that erases the responsibility to work your damnedest to make it so. And since my children will live in this world, and other people's children who they love as I love mine will live in it, I cannot think of a more useful thing to do in the world than to try.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.