Food MythBusters — Do we really need industrial agriculture to feed the world?

8 11 2012

Last week we explored the arguments being used against sustainable agricultural practices being able to feel the world – and that only more of the “green revolution” concepts will do.  The biggest players in the food industry—from pesticide pushers to fertilizer makers to food processors and manufacturers—spend billions of dollars every year not selling food, but selling the idea that we need their products to feed the world.  Food MythBusters is dedicated to  leading the fight against the corporate control of our food system and showing a way to a world where we all have just good food – they want to change the common preconceptions we have about food.

Founder Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, educator, and a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund. Named one of TIME magazine’s “Eco” Who’s Who, Anna’s most recent book is Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It.

Food MythBusters first film is designed to address the common belief that sustainable agriculture cannot feel the world.

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Feed the world, or protect the planet?

31 10 2012

Did you know that July 11, 1987 was the very first “World Population Day”? [1]   World Population Day was designed  “to track world population and bring light to population growth trends and issues related to it”.  That year, the world’s population was 5 billion – a result of about 200,000 years of population growth – and 24 years later, we had added 2 billion more.  Now 150 babies are being born every minute and the United Nations forecasts world population to reach 9 billion people by 2050.

I think you can easily google all the nightmare scenarios that this crushing population burden can have on our lives.  One question which continues to be very controversial is how we’re going to feed 9 billion people, when today nearly 1 billion people don’t have enough food to eat. The United Nations warns that food production needs to increase by 70% in order to feed the world in 2050. [2] But with agricultural land dwindling while more than 1 billion people go to bed hungry, how could we possible feed the whole world population in 2050?

Since the 1950’s, we’ve been able to increase food production significantly through the “magic” of the “Green Revolution”, which increased yields through the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, expansion of irrigation,  and genetic engineering.  The Green Revolution is a known quantity, and big chemical companies have lots at stake in ensuring that it continues down the same ol’ path of more agrochemicals and genetically modified crops, even though the world is different now.    Farmers continue to use a lot of chemicals, because there is no coast assigned to environmental externalities, and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned, according to Matt Liebman, an agronomy professor at Iowa State Univeristy. [3]

But in the world of the 21st Century,  growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, demand outstrips production and food prices soar. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer maintains in Eating Fossil Fuels, modern intensive agriculture – as developed through the Green Revolution – is unsustainable and has not been the panacea some hoped it would be. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has augmented soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even (largely due to increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overtaxed cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to even greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products:

  • More hydrocarbon-based fertilizers must be applied,
  • along with more pesticides;
  • irrigation water requires more energy to pump;
  • and fossil fuels are used to process polluted water – a vicious cycle.

The data on yields, fertilizer and pesticide use (not to mention human health problems) supports these allegations. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield” sums it up nicely. (click here).

This food crisis has produced contradictory accounts of the problem and different ways of solving it.  One group is concerned mainly about feeding the world’s growing population. It argues that high and volatile prices will make the job harder and that more needs to be done to boost supplies through the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries. For this group, the Green Revolution was a stunning success and needs to be followed by a second one now.

The other group argues that modern agriculture produces food that is tasteless, nutritionally inadequate and environmentally disastrous. It thinks the Green Revolution has been a failure, or at least that it has done more environmental damage and brought fewer benefits than anyone expected. An influential book espousing this view, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, starts by asking: “What should we have for dinner?” By contrast, those worried about food supplies wonder: “Will there be anything for dinner?” The second group often proposes the tenants of organic agriculture as a way out of this crisis.

There is much skepticism and sometimes even outright opposition to sustainable agriculture. The popular belief is that switching to organic agriculture will almost certainly result in lower production, which couldn’t possibly be a way to feed 9 billion people.  Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, sums up this view nicely by saying that going organic would require more land, and though not bad, per se, it is not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.[4] And The Economist, in a special report on “feeding the World”, said “Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.”[5]

Why am I obsessing about agriculture?  Agriculture and food production are the base of life and the economy and have multiple functions in creating healthy societies. It is at the center of addressing challenges like hunger and poverty, climate change and environment, women’s wellbeing and community health, income and employment. We certainly need to look beyond black/white, either/or options and find creative solutions to this crisis.

Agroecology is one of many terms people use to describe one approach to farming – others being sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, low-external input agriculture or people-centered agriculture.  Agroecology is: farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.” It applies ecology to the design of farming systems; uses a whole-systems approach to farming and food systems; and links ecology, culture, economics and society to create healthy environments, food production and communities.[6]  And agroecology  works (please see reports in the footnotes section below)[7]:

  • More food is produced.
  • Fewer inputs are required – meaning reduced expenses.
  • Soil fertility is improved.
  • Rainfall is captured and managed better.
  • Pests are managed better.
  • Greater income is generated.
  • Farming systems are diversified and produce synergistic benefits.
  • Farms and communities are more resilient to climate change and shocks such as hurricanes, droughts and food or fertilizer price spikes.
  • Carbon is sequestered in soils rich in organic matter and the integration of trees into farming systems.
  • And farmers and their organizations use their skills, knowledge and creativity to learn and manage the process. These women and men are the innovators and leaders creating healthy farming systems for their communities and countries.

In March, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food , Olivier de Schutter, presented a new report, “Agro-ecology and the right to food”, which was based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature. The report demonstrates that agroecology, if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments. …To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says.

Now Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, states that “it’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, profitably, with far fewer chemicals. …Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use – if it wants to”.[8]   He cites a study published by Iowa State University, in which researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer. The longer rotations produced no downside at all – yields of corn and soy were better, nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides were reduced by up to 88%, and toxins in groundwater was reduced 200-fold – while profits didn’t decline by a single cent.  There was an increase in labor costs (but remember profits were stable), so “it’s a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons.”[9]

Mr. Bittman goes on to say :

No one expects Iowa corn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsantoabout agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

I think this study is a good example of agroecology principles.  Mr. Bittman goes on to say:

When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming — more thoughtful and less reflexive — requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Can you argue that less synthetic chemical use would not be a good thing?  This is big business, and naturally the food system will need big investors to effect any changes.  But some are waking up.  One investor who sees the need for change is Jeremy Grantham,  chief investment strategist for Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co, LLC, who says:  “The U.S.D.A., the big ag schools, colleges, land grants, universities — they’re all behind standard farming, which is: sterilize the soil. Kill it dead, [then] put on fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer and water, and then beat the bugs back again with massive doses of insecticide and pesticide.” (At one point in the conversation, he said that most supporters of industrial agriculture, who tell “deliberate lies over and over again,” could have been taught everything they know by Goebbels.)  “I think a portfolio of farms that are doing state-of-the-art farming over a 20-, 30-year horizon will be the best investment money can buy.”[10]


[1] Adwell, Mandy, “World Population Day…2011”, The 9 Billion, http://www.the9billion.com/2011/07/12/world-population-day-well-reach-7-billion-by-october-2011/

[2] Vidal, John, “Food Shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warns scientists”, The Guardian, August 26, 2012.

[3] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012

[7]

[8] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bittman, Mark, “A Banker Bets on Organic Farming”, New York Times, August 28, 2012





Agroecology and the Green Revolution

30 06 2011

The promise of the Green Revolution was that it would end hunger through the magic of chemicals and genetic engineering.   The reasoning goes like this:  the miracle seeds of the Green Revolution increase grain yields;    higher yields mean more income for poor farmers, helping them to climb out of poverty, and more food means less hunger.  Dealing with the  root causes of poverty that contribute to hunger takes a very long time – but people are starving now.  So we must do what we can now  –  and that’s usually to increase production. The Green Revolution buys the time Third World countries desperately need to deal with the underlying social causes of poverty and to cut birth rates.

Today, though, growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, demand outstrips production; food prices soar. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer maintains in Eating Fossil Fuels, modern intensive agriculture – as developed through the Green Revolution –  is unsustainable and has not been the panacea some hoped it would be. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has augmented soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even (largely due to increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overtaxed cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to even greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products. More hydrocarbon-based fertilizers must be applied, along with more pesticides; irrigation water requires more energy to pump; and fossil fuels are used to process polluted water.  And the data on yields, and fertilizer and pesticide use (not to mention human health problems)  supports these allegations.  A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield” sums it up nicely. (click here).

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,  says the Achilles heel of current green revolution methods is a dependence on fossil fuels.  “The only way you can have one farmer feed 140 Americans is with monocultures. And monocultures need lots of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and lots of fossil-fuel-based pesticides,” Pollan says. “That only works in an era of cheap fossil fuels, and that era is coming to an end. Moving anyone to a dependence on fossil fuels seems the height of irresponsibility.”

So is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world’s food crisis?  As Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, describes it:  the good news is that feeding the world in 2050 is completely possible; the bad news is that there isn’t a lot of money to be made by doing so.[1]

It has become clear that agriculture has to shrink its environmental footprint – to do more with less.  The world’s growing demand for agricultural production must be met not by bringing more land into production, with more gallons of water, or with more intensive use of inputs that impact the environment, but by being better stewards of existing resources through the use of technological innovation combined with policy reforms to ensure proper incentives are in place.[2]

A massive study (published in 2009)  called the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”  concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world’s 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness.  As the report states:  “business as usual is no longer an option”.[3]

Dr. Peter Rosset, former Director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy and an internationally renowned expert on food security, has this to say about the Green Revolution:

      In the final analysis, if the history of the Green Revolution has taught
      us one thing, it is that increased food production can-and often does-go
     hand in hand with greater hunger. If the very basis of staying
     competitive in farming is buying expensive inputs, then wealthier farmers
     will inexorably win out over the poor, who are unlikely to find adequate
     employment to compensate for the loss of farming livelihoods. Hunger is
     not caused by a shortage of food, and cannot be eliminated by producing
     more.

    This is why we must be skeptical when Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, and
     other chemical-cum-biotechnology companies tell us that genetic
     engineering will boost crop yields and feed the hungry. The technologies
     they push have dubious benefits and well-documented risks, and the second
     Green Revolution they promise is no more likely to end hunger than the
     first.

    Far too many people do not have access to the food that is already
     available because of deep and growing inequality. If agriculture can play
     any role in alleviating hunger, it will only be to the extent that the
     bias toward wealthier and larger farmers is reversed through pro-poor
     alternatives like land reform and sustainable agriculture, which reduce
     inequality and make small farmers the center of an economically vibrant
     rural economy.

We began this series a few weeks ago with statements from several people who said that organic agriculture cannot feed the world.  Yet increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts  are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm.  This new way of looking at agriculture is called agroecology, which is simply the application of ecological principles to the production of food, fuel and pharmaceuticals.   The term is not associated with any one type of farming (i.e., organic, conventional or intensive) or management practices, but rather recognizes that there is no one formula for success.  Agroecology is concerned with optimizing yields while minimizing negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of modern technologies.

In March, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food , Olivier de Schutter, presented a new report, “Agro-ecology and the right to food”,  which was based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature.  The report demonstrates that agroecology,  if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.  “To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available,” says De Schutter.  “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments. …To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says. “Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.”

The report calls for investment in extension services, storage facilities, and rural infrastructure like roads, electricity, and communication technologies, to help provide smallholders with access to markets, agricultural research and development, and education. Additionally, it notes the importance of providing farmers with credit and insurance against weather-related risks.

De Sheutter goes on to say: “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations.” Instead, the report says the solution lies with smallholder farmers. Agro-ecology, according to De Sheutter, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.”

The majority of the world’s hungry are smallholder farmers, capable of growing food but currently not growing enough food to feed their families each year. A net global increase in food production alone will not guarantee the end of hunger (as the poor cannot access food even when it is available), but an increase in productivity for poor farmers will make a dent in global hunger. Potentially, gains in productivity by smallholder farmers will provide an income to farmers as well, if they grow a surplus of food that they can sell.

As an example of how this process works, the UN report suggests that “rather than treating smallholder farmers as beneficiaries of aid, they should be seen as experts with knowledge that is complementary to formalized expertise”. For example, in Kenya, researchers and farmers developed a successful “push-pull” strategy to control pests in corn, and using town meetings, national radio broadcasts, and farmer field schools, spread the system to over 10,000 households.

The push-pull method involves pushing pests away from corn by interplanting corn with an insect repelling crop called Desmodium (which can be fed to livestock), while pulling the pests toward small nearby plots of Napier grass, “a plant that excretes a sticky gum which both attracts and traps pests.” In addition to controlling pests, this system produces livestock fodder, thus doubling corn yields and milk production at the same time. And it improves the soil to boot![4]

Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks.  If you read the  story by Justin Gillis in the New York Times on May 5, which discusses the effects climate change is having on crop yields, this can only be a good thing.

Significantly, the UN report mentions that past efforts to combat hunger focused mostly on cereals such as wheat and rice which, while important, do not provide a wide enough range of nutrients to prevent malnutrition. Thus, the biodiversity in agroecological farming systems provide much needed nutrients. “For example,” the report says, “it has been estimated that indigenous fruits contribute on average about 42 percent of the natural food-basket that rural households rely on in southern Africa. This is not only an important source of vitamins and other micronutrients, but it also may be critical for sustenance during lean seasons.” Indeed, in agroecological farming systems around the world, plants a conventional American farm might consider weeds are eaten as food or used in traditional herbal medicine.

States and donors have a key role to play here. Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.  The flood-tolerant rice mentioned above was created from an old strain grown in a small area of India, but decades of work were required to improve it.  But even after it was shown that this new variety was able to survive floods for twice as long as older varieties, there was no money for distribution of the seeds to the farmers.    Indeed, the distribution was made possible only through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

American efforts to fight global hunger, to date, have focused more on crop breeding, particularly genetic engineering, and nitrogen fertilizer than agroecology. Whereas the new UN report notes that, “perhaps because [agroecological] practices cannot be rewarded by patents, the private sector has been largely absent from this line of research.”   The U.S. aggressively promotes public-private partnerships with corporations[5]  such as seed and chemical companies Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, and BASF; agribusiness companies Cargill, Bunge; and Archer Daniels Midland; processed food companies PepsiCo, Nestle, General Mills, Coca Cola, Unilever, and Kraft Foods; and the retail giant Wal-Mart.[6]

We need to look closely at all options since there is so much at stake.  To meet the challenges listed above, perhaps we need what Jon Foley calls a “resilient hybrid strategy”.   Foley, director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, puts it this way:

I think we need a new kind of agriculture – kind of a third agriculture, between the big agribusiness, commercial approach to agriculture, and the lessons from organic and local systems…. Can we take the best of both of these and invent a more sustainable, and scalable agriculture?[7]

The New York Times article pointed out the success of a new variety of rice seeds that survived recent floods in India  after being submerged for 10 days.  “It’s the best example in agriculture,” said Julia Bailey-Serres, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside. “The submergence-tolerant rice essentially sits and waits out the flood.” (8)

But this path raises many concerns – for example, genetically modified seeds are anathema to much of Europe and many environmentalists.   And so far, genetic breakthroughs such as engineering plants that can fix their own nitrogen or are resistant to drought “has proven a lot harder than they thought,” says Michael Pollan, who says the  major problem with GMO seeds is that they’re intellectual property.   He is calling for an open source code  (i.e., divorcing genetic modifications from intellectual property). De Sheutter sees promise in marker-assisted selection and participatory plant breeding, which “uses the strength of modern science, while at the same time putting farmers in the driver’s seat.”

So what can be done?


[2] 2010 GAP Report, Global Harvest Initiative, http://www.globalharvestinitiative.org

[3] Synthesis Report: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”, 2009

[6] Richardson, Jill, “Groundbreaking New UN Report on How to Feed the World’s Hungry:  Ditch Corporate-Controlled Agriculture”, March 13, 2011

[7] Revkin, Andrew, “A Hybrid Path to Feeding 9 Billion on a Still-Green Planet”, New York Times, March 3, 2011,

(8)  Gillis, Justin, “A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself”, New York Times, May 5, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/science/earth/05harvest.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp





Green Revolution part 2

22 06 2011


“It is well that thou givest bread to the hungry, better were it that none hungered and that thou haddest none to give.”
– St. Augustine

Last week we posted Josh Viertel’s article about the false premise that Deutsche Bank and Monsanto used in finding ways to feed the world’s burgeoning population and end hunger.  They focused on increasing crop yields:   Monsanto wants to use genetically modified crops and Deutsche Bank wants to invest in industrial agriculture in the Third World and shift the emphasis to commodity agriculture.

But Mr. Viertel says:

 Hunger is not a global production problem. It is a global justice problem. We need to increase global equity, not global yields. There may be profit to be made in exporting our high-tech, input-reliant, greenhouse-gas-emitting agricultural systems to the developing world. But let us not pretend it will solve global hunger or address climate change. After all, high-tech, input-reliant, commodity agricultural is a major cause of global hunger and climate change.

That’s a lot to swallow.  Let’s look at how today’s high tech agriculture can be considered a major cause of hunger, and then we’ll look at why hunger can be considered a global justice problem.

With regard to the oft repeated accusations that commodity agriculture has resulted in an increase in global hunger, I think  Sharon Astyk’s article in the online Energy Bulletin, (click here to read it)  is so important  that I’ve reproduced most of it below:

While the Green Revolution increased grain yields, it also cut back on other food sources. For example, among rice eating people, the pesticides required for the cultivation of the miracle rices produced in the 1960s killed fish and frogs that provided much of the protein in the diets of rice eating people, resulting in, as Margaret Visser points out in Much Depends on Dinner, “…the sadly ironic result that ‘more rice’ could mean ‘worse nutrition.’ The same can be said of the loss of vegetables often grown in and at the edges of rice paddies. The famous “golden rice” that was supposed to alleviate blindness due to Vitamin A deficiency, a common problem among poor people who have little but rice to eat, ignored the fact that one of the reasons for the decline in Vitamin A consumption was that nutritious vegetables and weeds traditionally grown or harvested with rice were no longer available.

The same is true of food grown in the US, in our very own breadbasket. As our corn and wheat and soybeans were produced by larger and larger farms, with more and more industrial equipment, we began to stop producing other, smaller crops that were less amenable to industrialization, but that made up a significant portion of people’s diets. For example, virtually every farm family in the US had a garden in the first half of the 20th century, and most of those gardens produced most or all of the family’s vegetables. Since we’re talking about a time when 1/3-1/5 of the US population lived on farms,  that is an enormous quantity of produce. The significance of gardens is easy to underestimate, but it would be an error to do so. During World War II, 40% of the nation’s produce was grown in house gardens. The figures were higher in Britain during the same period. In the late 1990s, a study done by the Louisiana Extension service suggested that the average house vegetable garden produced $350 worth of produce. Food produced in gardens was a significant part of our dietary picture not so very long ago, and much of it was lost to industrial agriculture, either directly, in the consolidation of family farms, or indirectly, through agricultural subsidies that made purchased food often nearly as cheap as growing your own, and even social policies that encouraged suburbs to become places of lawns, not vegetable gardens.

House gardens in rural areas, urban centers, and suburbs are another casualty of the Green Revolution – the artificial cheapness of food, created by industrial, subsidized agriculture in the second half of the 20th century drove the house garden out of existence. We went from producing 40% of our produce to less than 3% in home garden over four decades. And it would be a mistake to see “produce” as watery vegetables like lettuce, and thus believe that few of our calories came from our gardens – among the vegetables lost were dense calorie crops like potatoes and sweet potatoes, which can substitute for grains in the diet.

Going back to what the Green Revolution, and its ugly step-child globalization did to the American farm family – the exhortation by Earl Butz (Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford) to “get big or get out” in the 1970s, and the systematic farm policies that favored large commodity growers and regional specialization cut back enormously on the quantity of food we produced. Small farmers in the 1940s might have raised corn or wheat as their central crop, but they also grew gardens, had an orchard, raised some pigs for sale and milked a house cow. The loss of all that food value, spread over millions of farm families, was a significant one. A farmer might have tapped his sugar maple trees and sold the syrup, and would probably have sold some eggs. He might also have sold a pig to a neighbor or had a calf butchered and shared the meat. The industrial commodity farmer rarely does these things, and in many cases, the area that permitted them – the woodlot, the barn, the chicken coop have been removed to allow unhindered access to more acres. In a bad crop year, a farmer might have planted a late crop of sunflowers for oil seed, lettuce or something else, which is also not calculated into our total consumption. In many cases a family member might also operate a small truck garden and sell produce locally – even children did this routinely.

All these are foods that were removed from the food stream, and this systematic deprivation over millions of households represents an enormous loss of total calories produced.

The economic pressure of farms to specialize also took its toll. Joan Dye Gussow, in This Organic Life documents that in the 1920s, Montana was self-sufficient for 75% of its produce, including fruit. Now Montana is one of the harshest climates in the US and has very little water, comparatively speaking, and yet this was possible in part because the economic pressure of big business had not yet persuaded small farmers that they couldn’t grow fruit effectively in Montana, but should leave it to Washington and Florida. None of us know how many calories were lost this way, but it is almost certainly an enormous quantity. And this systematic removal in the name of efficiency and specialization happened all over the world to one degree or another.

All this is particularly important because of the urgent distinction between yield and output. Dr. Peter Rosset, former Director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy and an internationally renowned expert on food security, has documented that industrial agriculture is, in fact, more efficient in terms of yield. ( That is, when five acres of soybeans and five thousand acres of soybeans are compared, you get more soybeans per acre by growing 5000 acres.)  But when you compare output – that is the total amount of food, fertility and fiber you get from small scale polyculture farms (that just means farms where you grow a bunch of different things, not a single commodity), the five acre farm comes out not just ahead, but vastly ahead in per acre output. It isn’t just that five acres are more productive in terms of total output, they are often hundreds of times more productive (Rosset, www.mindfully.org/Farm/Small-Farm-Benefits-Rosset.htm). Rosset’s figures are not in dispute, as Rosset points out here:

Surveying the data, we indeed find that small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms. This is now widely recognized by agricultural economists across the political spectrum, as the “inverse relationship between farm size and output”. Even leading development economists at the World Bank have come around to this view, to the point that they now accept that redistribution of land to small farmers would lead to greater overall productivity. (Note:  to read why Dr. Rosset sees small-farm agriculture as providing a productive, efficient and ecological vision for the future, click here.)

And the difference in total output rises further when you talk about garden models. A half acre garden is often tens or hundreds of times more productive than the same acreage in industrial agriculture. The displacement of house and farm gardens by industrial agriculture represents a dramatic loss in important food crops due to the Green Revolution. On a given acre of land, the Green Revolution might have increased rice or wheat yields by several times, but since the garden, henhouse and berry bushes that could have been on that acre would have been many times more productive in total than what was granted to us by fertilizers and hybridization, what we are experiencing is a net total loss, not a gain in many cases.

In the US, during most the last 50 years, we have had enormous grain surpluses, mostly of corn, and as Michael Pollan documents in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, industrial food production has been challenged to keep finding new ways to use our spare corn up. Processed foods are all sweetened with our extra corn, made of processed corn, or of meat from corn fed to livestock. And we have seen a rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease – all associated with high meat, low vegetables, processed food diets. We kept raising our yields, at the cost of our outputs, and our diets came to reflect that – we ate fewer kinds of vegetables and fruits, and fewer of them. To a large degree, what happened was that we gave up foods that we did need to be healthy and have good, varied, tasty diets, and replaced them with a couple of grain crops that we did not particularly need more of, and we harmed ourselves doing so.

I cannot find a single reliable number about how much food was lost to us, worldwide by the Green Revolution. It may never be possible for us to find out what we lost to industrial agriculture, and I will make no claims that I know precisely. If someone can locate such a number, I’d be fascinated. But there is no question that it was enough food to feed millions, maybe even billions of people. And we must, in our analysis of what the Green Revolution cost us, also recognize that we lost an uncertain, but enormous quantity of future food, mortgaging the future to overfeed the present.

As I said, I don’t know whether in the net the Green Revolution gave us more food or not. But it is absolutely clear that it did not give us the enormous increases in food that were claimed for it. And it may well be that all of us experienced a loss of nutritious food, or food value. It is manifestly the case that not only may we not need industrial agriculture to feed us, we may well be better off without it.

In looking at the second issue, global hunger as a social justice problem, we need to remember that in order for farmers to be successful during the Green Revolution, they required the optimal use of irrigation, intensive use of fertilizers, rich soil and proper pest control with chemical pesticides.  These prerequisites, coupled with the increased use of machinery, meant that many peasant farmers were simply too poor to afford the expensive irrigation equipment, the fertilizers and the inordinate amounts of pesticides required.  As a result, these peasant farmers and agricultural laborers were less able to afford the food which was being produced in ever-greater quantities.

These high-yielding varieties allowed the wealthy upper-class owners of farms to prosper, as they were the only group actually able to achieve the advertised high-yields. This eventually led to increased polarization and a widening of the social and economic gap between the lower and upper class of developing nations.

“Introducing any new agricultural technology into a social system stacked in favor of the rich and against the poor-without addressing the social questions of access to the technology’s benefits-will over time lead to an even greater concentration of the rewards from agriculture, as is happening in the United States.”[1]

Why can’t poor farmers compete:

  •  Many poor farmers were tenant farmers, with little money to buy the seeds and fertilizers required.  They couldn’t even begin to buy fertilizer and other inputs in volume; big growers can get discounts for large purchases.
  • Poor farmers can’t hold out for the best price for their crops, as can larger farmers whose circumstances are far less desperate.
  • In much of the world, water is the limiting factor in farming success, and irrigation is often out of the reach of the poor. The new high yielding varieties of seeds required reliable sources of water, which in most of the world meant irrigation.  Canal irrigation favors those near the top of the flow. Tubewells, often promoted by development agencies, favor the bigger operators, who can better afford the initial investment and have lower costs per unit.  As well as being expensive, in some cases where inappropriate schemes were used salinization became a problem.
  • In areas where there was an increase in mechanization there was an increase in unemployment as tractors displaced workers.  This lead to migration to the cities, causing urban problems.  Those farmers who tried to take on the new technologies became heavily in debt, leading to increased stress and in some instances suicide.
  • Credit is also critical. It is common for small farmers to depend on local moneylenders
    and pay interest rates several times as high as wealthier farmers. Government-subsidized credit overwhelmingly benefits the big farmers.
  • Most of all, the poor lack clout. They can’t command the subsidies and
    other government favors accruing to the rich.

When conducting agricultural research, scientists must consider the diverse, complex and risk-prone conditions under which small-scale farmers strive to produce. This inability by scientists to understand the ecology of farms in developing countries was clearly one of the key reasons behind the failure of the Green Revolution[2].

Furthermore, scientists and politicians must empower the small-scale farmers with the ability to influence and direct modern agricultural research, as they are the only people to know how to use and to manipulate their local environment most efficiently. All the textbooks and the laboratory research in the world cannot substitute first-hand knowledge and experience.

The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and most importantly, the hungry got hungrier:  The World Bank concluded in a 1986 study of world hunger that a rapid increase in food production does not necessarily result in food security – i.e., less hunger.  Current hunger can only be alleviated by “redistributing purchasing power and resources toward those who are undernourished,” the study said.  In a nutshell, they stated that if the poor don’t have the money to buy food, having more food available won’t help.

We’ve come to see that without a strategy for change that addresses the powerlessness of the poor, the tragic result will be more food and yet more hunger.

More next week…


[1] “Lessons from the Green Revolution”, Institute for Food & Development Policy, April 8, 2000, http://www.foodfirst.org/media/opeds/2000/4-greenrev.html

[2] Huyn, Frederick, “Green Revolution”, Environment, Sustainability & Health ACT, http://www.saharov.com/eshact/Research/GreenRevolution/tabid/124/Default.aspx





The Green Revolution

9 06 2011

Last week we promised to explore the Green Revolution.

The term “Green Revolution”  was coined in the 1960s to highlight a particularly striking breakthrough in yields, which is the traditional way to measure agricultural performance  – in tonnes per hectare, bushels per acre or whatever.  Farmers have been trying to improve yields by improving seeds through experimentation since the beginning of time – they’d keep seeds from the biggest, highest, most vigorous plants to sow the next spring.  These seeds are the product of thousands of years of experimental plant breeding by millions of farmers across the world. The crops that humanity has painstakingly bred (sometimes from wild plants) are the kernels of our civilization.

The Green Revolution is a term used to describe a tremendous boom in agricultural productivity based on high-yielding varieties (HYV’s)  of crops (beginning with wheat, but also including rice and corn) which were developed in the 1940’s.  With a big boost from the International Agricultural Research Centers created by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, the “miracle” seeds of high yielding varieties quickly spread around the world.  By the 1970s, the term “revolution” was well deserved, for the new seeds – accompanied by chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and, for the most part, irrigation – had replaced the traditional farming practices of millions of Third World farmers as well as those in the United States. [1]

Much of the reason why these “high yielding varieties” produced more than traditional varieties was that they were more responsive to petrochemical fertilizers. To produce their high yields, the new seeds required far more fertilizer than traditional varieties could absorb.   Fertilizer – inducing a demand for it, supplying it, teaching farmers to use it and putting it to work – is one key to the Green Revolution[2].  In fact, some people say the term “high-yielding varieties” is a misnomer, because it implies that the new seeds are high yielding of themselves. The distinguishing feature of the seeds, however, is that they are highly responsive to certain key inputs such as fertilizers and irrigation water. They say the term “high responsive varieties” is more appropriate.

Global Fertilizer use from 1975 - 1995

Global Fertilizer use from 1960 - 1995 FROM: http://lepo.it.da.ut.ee/~olli/eutr/html/htmlBook_4.html

There is yet another aspect of the Green Revolution which tied agriculture to the petrochemical industry:    by developing high yield varieties of crops, farmers chose to grow these seeds only – so  only a few species of (for example) rice were grown.  In India for example there were about 30,000 rice varieties prior to the Green Revolution, today there are around ten – all the most productive types. By having this homogeneity the crops were more prone to disease and pests because there were not enough varieties to fight them off.   In addition, because of their narrow genetic base, they’re inherently more susceptible to pests, so monocropping  provides a large and often permanent niche for pests, turning minor diseases into epidemics.   In order to protect these new varieties, more pesticides and insecticides were used, so pesticide use grew as well.  During 1970 – 1990, global pesticide use more than doubled, from 1.3 to 2.9 million tons per year[3].

Thus agriculture became inextricably tied to the petrochemical industry, because these new seeds wouldn’t grow well without petroleum-based fertilizers  – and they also required additional labor.  These inputs increased farmers costs:  the  high yields of IR-8 (a new rice seed) was four times as costly to grow as ordinary rice because of the fertilizers, pesticides and additional labor required.

Irrigation also played a large role in the Green Revolution.  It changed the areas where various crops can be grown:   For instance before the Green Revolution, agriculture was severely limited to areas with a significant amount of rainfall, but by using irrigation, water could be stored and sent to drier areas, putting more land into agricultural production – thus increasing nationwide crop yields.

The basis of the Green Revolution is the belief that technology increases output.  But while agricultural output increased dramatically as a result of the Green Revolution, the energy input to produce a crop increased even faster[4].   The Green Revolution has increased energy inputs in agriculture to levels around 50 times those of traditional agriculture[5]. To give you an idea of how energy intensive modern agriculture has become, to produce one kilogram of nitrogen for fertilizer requires the energy equivalent of 1.4 to 1.8 liters of diesel fuel.  This equates to the energy content of 15.3 billion liters of diesel fuel, or 96.2 million barrels.(6)

Yet the energy inputs have continued to increase without a corresponding increase in crop yields – so modern agriculture must continue to increase its energy expenditures simply to maintain current crop yields.  And what will we do when the oil runs out?

What has the Green Revolution accomplished?  Nobody denies it was a screaming success in terms of yields:  over  a twenty-year period between 1970 and 1990, average yields of corn, rice and wheat more than doubled; as a consequence there was an 11% increase (on average) in food per person because of these increased crop yields.[7]

Today, though, the miracle of the green revolution seems to be over:  Disturbingly, for the first time since the Green Revolutionm, crop yields are growing more slowly than population – in other words, growth in population and demand for food have both slowed down, but crop yields have slowed even more.  Between 1961 and 1990, wheat yields were growing by about 3% per year.  From 1990 to 2007, wheat yields grew by only 0.5%.   In Central Luzon, Philippines, rice yields grew steadily during the 1970s, peaked in the early 1980s, and have been dropping gradually ever since.  Long-term experiments conducted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in both Central Luzon and Laguna Province confirm these results. Similar patterns have now been observed for rice-wheat systems in India and Nepal[8].  In West Java, a  23 percent yield increase was virtually canceled by 65 and 69 percent  increases in fertilizers and pesticides respectively.[9]

In the Punjab, the crowning success of the Green Revolution, yield growth has essentially flattened since the mid-1990s. Over-irrigation has led to steep drops in the water table, now tapped by 1.3 million tube wells, while thousands of hectares of productive land have been lost to salinization and waterlogged soils. Forty years of intensive irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides have not been kind to the loamy gray fields of Punjab.  Nor, in some cases, to the people themselves:  so many people now take the train from the Malwa region in India to the cancer hospital in Bikaner that it’s now called the Cancer Express.[10]  Daniel Pepper, writing in US News and World Report , reported  on the toxic consequences of the Green Revolution among Indian farmers, to read it click here.

One additional aspect of the Green Revolution was brought to life in the blog by Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA, in which he states a false premise taken for fact by proponents of a new Green Revolution :

A year ago I sat in a room at the Earth Institute at Columbia surrounded by executives from big food companies. One of them, I believe from Unilever, clicked to a slide that read “The solution to global hunger is to turn malnutrition into a market opportunity.” The audience—global development practitioners and academics and other executives—nodded and dutifully wrote it down in their notebooks; I shuddered. The experience stayed with me and I haven’t gotten over it. Last month, I had a flashback.

On a Tuesday evening I sat in a room on the 44th floor of a building in the financial district of lower Manhattan with representatives from General Mills, Monsanto, Dean Foods, Deutsche Bank, and the Rainforest Alliance. We were there to speak to institutional investors—the hedge fund managers, bankers, and others who invest in big food companies—about sustainability and food. In particular, we were there to talk about how sustainability and hunger issues may give these companies both exposure to risk and access to opportunity.

It was not your average sustainable food panel discussion. Reflecting back on it, three things jump out at me. The first was a false premise that is taken for fact. The false premise:

Both Deutsche Bank and Monsanto made it clear that they are basing their business strategy on answering a simple question: How will we feed the world in 2050, when the population reaches over 9 billion and global warming puts massive strains on our resources?

The answer for Deutsche Bank:   increase yields by investing in industrial agriculture in the developing world, with an emphasis on technology;  put lots of capital into rural land to shift subsistence and local market agricultures to commodity export agriculture.

The answer for Monsanto:  increase yields by decreasing resource dependence using genetically modified crops.

Sounds good on paper, but Josh Viertel says it’s based on a false premise.  What is the false premise?  Tune in next week.


[1] “Lessons from the Green Revolution”, Food First, http://www.foodfirst.org/media/opeds/2000/4-greenrev.html

[4] Church, Norman, “Why our food is so dependent on oil”, Energy Bulletin, April 2005, http://www.energybulletin.net/node/5045

[5] Fenderson, Adam, “The Read Green Revolution”, New Matilda//Energy Bulletin, July 26, 2006

(6)  Pfeiffer, Dale Allen, “Eating Fossil Fuels”, from The Wilderness Publications, http://www.copvcia.com.

[7]  Ibid.

[8] Rosset, “Lessons From the Green Revolution, March/April 2000 http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/greenrevolution.pdf

[10] Bourne, Joel K. Jr., “The Global Food Crisis: The End of Plenty”, National Geographic,  June 2009.





A non organic future?

25 05 2011

According to the World Population Clock at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, the population of the world is now 6.92 billion people.  We’re supposed to reach 7 billion by the end of October of this year, according to the United Nations.  This is much faster than anyone had expected and represents an increase of one billion people in just 12 years[1].

Hania Zlotnik,  director of the population division in the UN department of economic and social affairs, says  “What is astounding is that the last two billion have been reached in record time… it’s not about how many people there are but where they are:  most of these people are being added in the poorest countries of the world.”  That means those countries least able to handle these new citizens, and they’re already the most vulnerable to famine.

Whether there is a reasonable chance of slowing the population growth rate is still being hotly debated, but all agree that these new numbers are causing shockwaves in many areas.   One area which is attracting lots of attention looks at how we’re going to feed all these people.  And because we’re proponents of using organically grown fibers (and organic agriculture in general), we think it’s important to investigate these arguments about the benefits of organic vs. conventional agriculture.

At the start of 2011, according to The Economist in a special report  about feeding the  world, “The 9 billion – people question“, the “fact that agriculture has experienced two big price spikes in under four years suggests that something serious is rattling the world’s food chain.”   World food prices have risen above the peak they reached in early 2008.  The food industry is in crisis – and certainly the era of cheap food is over.   There are mounting concerns that we cannot feed even the current population, let alone the 9 billion people expected by 2050.

According to The Economist:  The world looks to farmers to do more than just produce food. Agriculture is also central to reducing hunger (which is not quite the same thing) and provides many people’s main route out of poverty. Food is probably the biggest single influence on people’s health, though in radically different ways in poor countries than in rich ones, where the big problem now is obesity. Food is also one of the few pleasures available to the poorest.

In The Economist’s view (which is held by many scientists, food companies, plant breeders and international development agencies)  traditional and organic agriculture is a luxury of the rich.  They say that this type of farming could feed Europeans and Americans well.   But it cannot feed the world.

Central panel: The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch

Pedro Sanchez, Director and Senior Research Scholar at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, says  If you ask me point blank whether organic-based farming is better than conventional, my answer is no.  There are just too many of us, we just need too many nutrients.  And those nutrients come from plants that need nutrients that organic fertilizers can’t always provide.”

And Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, points out that  organic production tends to have somewhat lower yields compared to non-organics. He says going all organic would require a whole lot more land. Organic farming is, he says, a niche market. It’s not bad, per se, but it’s not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.

Needless to say, we’re interested in finding out more about this topic!  We’ll start our own series (feeding and clothing 9 billion!) next week – the subject is really complex and we will need several weeks to do it justice.