“Can Industrial Agriculture Feed The World?”

By Marcie Barnes

This is a live-blog post of Tom Philpott’s Keynote speech during Shared Tables – A Triangle, NC symposium on global and local food studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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.

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