“Can Industrial Agriculture Feed The World?”
By Marcie Barnes
Tom Philpott is the cofounder of Maverick Farms, a center for sustainable food education in Valle Crucis, North Carolina. He was formerly a columnist and editor for the online environmental site Grist and his work on food politics has appeared in Newsweek, Gastronomica, and the Guardian. He currently writes about Food and Ag for Mother Jones.
Typically the argument is framed around “can organic feed the world” and the conventional answer. can chemical-intensive, geographically concentrated/patented seeds feed the world?
This kind of agriculture is promoted by the US government, foundations like the Gates Foundation, etc. People who promote it are so certain of it’s promise they are “cooking up” a new “green revolution” to feed Africa.
If a region can grow something relatively easily, it should focus on that thing, which is why corn and soy production are concentrated on in the US, and 80-90% of vegetables are grown in California.
This is focus on comparative advantage / geographical concentration. A few big (genetically modified) seed companies dominiate the market in order to move product – seed, fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides, etc. These practices strip the soil of nutrients. Plant breeding is adapting and some will not thrive without the chemicals. There has been an eruption of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Push on carb-heavy crops to feed people and creation of policies to “feed the world”. Push to grow corn, soy, rice, wheat in geographic centers. US is epicenter of Industrial Ag. What have we achieved? 14.5% of American households are food insecure. Over 16 million children live in food insecurity. In NC – a leading Ag state – 15.7% of households are food insecure. Even in boon years, millions and millions of people and children face food insecurity.
16% of corn grown is burned for fuel as Ethanol. The “stuffed and starved problem” – we have based our food system on corn and soy, most food is iterations of corn and soy which result in health problems like diabetes.
Study from EWG found that we are losing soil to erosion much faster than it can be created. It takes thousands of years to replace an inch of topsoil. We are squandering an incredible resource. Agro-chemicals, by the tons. are flowing to Gulf of Mexico to create giant dead zone that wipes out marine life. We are sacrificing an ecosystem for unsustainable low quality food. Also destroying the clean seafood which is healthy for us.
When you wash fields with irrigation year after year, the salts are killing some of the most productive farm land. The material base for industrial farming, fertilizers, are isolated and synthisized nitrogen by using natural gases in feedstock. The price of natural gas has spiked, the productivity of (3 or 4) natural gas companies, so they moved to other countries (mostly Trinidad and Tobago) so we’re now importing 70% of natural gas. Now they are running out. What happens next?
Hydro-fracked natural gas is available in US, but causes all manner of ecological problems. Is almost as climate-change causing as coal. China has already switched to coal, but it is one of the dirtiest energy sources in terms of climate change, putting mercury into environment, etc.
We only have a 30 year store at best of phosphorus, which creates a radioactive byproduct when mined. We’re not feeding our own people enough, making them sick with empty calories, and destroying our ecosystem at the same time.
“The green revolution” epicenters are now some of the most undernourished nations. They may be doing well economically, but not doing well at feeding their citizens. India has drawn down their water table to the point that they import food from elsewhere.
The premise that organic ag is less productive than industrial is a lie. Fertilizer is produced by recycling = composting, animal waste, etc.
Multi-decade studies (Rodale Institute, for one) showed organic produces roughly equal yields with less energy input and builds organic matter in soil, which is critical.
Our US policymakers and chemical manufacturers are still beating their drums but evidence points to the need to create sustainable methods.
ISTAAD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) study sponsored by UN and world banks found that business as usual is not going to work. Criticized finding answers in GM seeds, brought up patent issues. Endorsed new vision of agriculture. The US, Canada & Australia pulled out during the Bush administration. No attention in US press, but Tom wrote about it.
Another FAO report with similar findings was published, also ignored by press, read Tom’s post here.
If we don’t cut down on greenhouse gases, there will be climate change, and it will be disastrous, scientists say.
I’m not saying if you buy my product I’m going to solve all your problems (as an agrochemical executive would). There are no easy solutions to this problem. The power of the agri-business lobby to buy the political power to walk away unscathed and maintain the status quo. This is the challenge of young folks in this room – to fight that and change that.
One of the biggest lies of all is that organic food is a luxury that can only feed the rich – a fantastic marketing job.
Eric Schlosser – Fast Food Nation author – as quoted from a recent essay:
“Pesticides are poisons. They have been carefully designed to kill insects, weeds, funguses, and rodents. But they can also kill human beings. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that every year, 10,000 to 20,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning on the job — and that’s a conservative estimate. Farm workers, their children, and the rural communities where they live are routinely exposed to these toxic chemicals. And what are the potential, long-term harms of the pesticides now being sprayed on our crops? Brain damage, lung damage, cancers of the breast, colon, lung, pancreas, and kidney, birth defects, sterility, and other ailments.”
People who work with these pesticides are getting sick.
” A food system based on poverty and exploitation will never be sustainable”.