Winners and Losers in Agroecology

Earlier this week, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food released a report stating that agroecology – basically, sustainable agriculture – can double global food production over the next decade. Specifically, agroecology can raise production in the poor, food-deficit countries that most need additional crops. The techniques, which include using plants and beneficial animals in place of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, can be easily adopted by smallholder farmers. And these farmers’ additional earnings will in turn support local sellers and service providers, who don’t tend to benefit as much when large estates earn more.

Agroecology will leave farmers better able to withstand the impacts of climate change. Studies have found that agroecologically farmed plots retain more topsoil in floods and allow crops to better withstand drought. Having a diversity of crops mitigates the risk of invasion from new pests and disease that will result from climate disruption. And agroecology is much less reliant on fossil-fuel inputs, which means less of a contribution to climate change as well as being better positioned for a future in which less oil is available.

In her post about the UN report, Sharon Astyk at Casaubon’s Book praises it for presuming “that we cannot go on using fossil fuels in agriculture as we have been.” Sharon actually researched this issue with Aaron Newton for their book A Nation of Farmers (published in 2008), and they came to the same conclusion about the ability of low-input agriculture to feed the world. But she raises another, equally important question:

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 UN report offers recommendations, including the following:

Agroecological practices require the supply of public goods such as extension services, storage facilities, rural infrastructure (roads, electricity, information and communication technologies) and therefore access to regional and local markets, access to credit and insurance against weather-related risks, agricultural research and development, education, and support to farmer’s organizations and cooperatives. While this requires funding, the investment can be significantly more sustainable than the provision of private goods, such as fertilizers or pesticides that farmers can only afford so long as they are subsidized.

The UN makes a compelling case that countries will benefit over the long term if they invest in promoting agroecology. The problem is that many countries already have policies that promote chemical-intensive farming, and those policies have created beneficiaries with a strong interest in preserving them.

Here in the US, the federal government devoted $74 billion to corn subsidies between 1995 and 2009, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidey Database. That’s more than twice as much as the next-most-subsidized crop, wheat, got during the same period. The farmers who get those subsidies are buying seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and equipment from other companies. The subsidies help bring down the price of corn, which is important to producers of ethanol, grain-fed livestock, and goods containing high-fructose corn syrup. All of these direct and indirect beneficiaries, not to mention members of Congress from the Corn Belt, can be counted on to fight to preserve corn subsidies.

Sharon points out that if we’re going to feed the world, we have to “place food justice at the center of our worldview.” I fully agree that we should commit to food justice – and we also to have to acknowledge that pursuing it will mean upsetting some of the winners in today’s unsustainable food production system.

Comments

  1. #1 John Beall
    April 2, 2011

    GWU ’77
    In the estimate that we could double the world production of food by intensive use of agroecology, does that take into account the continued use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides by the countries already using them? Like India, Russia, China, USA, etc. Or is it assumed they also would move to agroecology.
    Issac Asimov once wrote an article where he calculated that eventually, we wouldn’t have enough nitrogen fixing ablity to feed the world without artificially enhancing it. I don’t remember the number but 10 billion sounds right.
    Of course the problem isn’t the ability to feed the people, as Liz Borkowski points out, its the will to feed the people, but also the problem of to many people.

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