Monday, August 3, 2009

Counterpoint: SMALL Farmers Can Feed the World

John Ikerd, for refuge west

The fundamental problem with the recent Wall Street Journal piece is that it focuses only on the narrow, short run effects of his scientific specialty -- crop genetics -- while ignoring its long run economic and social consequences.

First the hunger problem exists not because of a lack of food, or inherent ability to produce food, but because of a lack of economic opportunity among those who are hungry. The market economy, which Borlaug exalts, provides food in relation to peoples' ability to pay, not in relation to their needs.

People are hungry because they are poor and Borlaug's proposed solutions to hunger only contribute to their continuing poverty. That's why there are more hungry people in India today than before his Green Revolution, even thought India has become a net "exporter" of grain. The few farmers who can afford the high-tech seed, fertilizers, and pesticides are producing grain for more profitably export markets, while depriving the poor of the land needed to feed their own families.

I just talked with a young Indian agricultural writer who was describing the massive farmer suicide problem in India, a direct consequence of Green Revolution cropping technologies which have deprived India's small farmers of the ability to feed their families. I recently served on the review committee for PhD student at an Indian university which documented rising levels of malnutrition in India which is highest in areas where Green Revolution technologies are most common.

Borlaug conveniently ignores the indisputable fact that genetic engineering gives giant multinational agribusiness corporations control over food production and these corporations are in business to make money for their stockholders, not to ensure that the poor people of the world, and thus the hungry, are able to feed themselves.

Even more important, corporate competition, by depressing domestic food prices, forces poor farmers off the land they use to produce for food for their families. Poor farmers need some amount of cash income, which they traditionally have received from selling their meager crop surpluses. The devaluation of their surpluses deprives them of the cash income they need to survive on their farms. This forces them into the cities where they are unable to find employment that will allow them to feed their families -- even though domestic food prices are lower. Borlaug conveniently ignores the complexities of life in the largely rural subsistence societies. He just assumes that if more food is produced there will be less hunger. His own Green Revolution has proven him wrong.

So what about the ability of people to feed themselves with organic or other sustainable farming systems and with more local and regional food systems. First, a sustainable agriculture is not an alternative, it is an absolute necessity for the future. The one thing we know for sure is that we can't feed a growing population with a fossil energy dependent, environmentally degrading food system in an increasingly polluted world that is running out of fossil energy.

The synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides upon which Borlaug's high-tech production systems depend all rely heavily on fossil energy and all pollute the environment and degrade the natural productive capacity of the land. The corporations that support Borlaug's work aren't interested in developing farming systems that reduce the dependence of society on fossil energy or chemical inputs. In fact, they do everything they can to discourage the development of such systems, because depend on selling commercial inputs to make profits. Borlaug focuses only on short run productivity, not on long run sustainability.

In addition, our current global food system is largely a consequence of cheap fossil energy. As fossil energy becomes more scarce and more costly, our food systems, as well as all other segments of our economy, are going to be more local and regional by economic necessity.

Finally, there are a host of studies that indicate that farmers can produce as much or even more per acre using organic and other sustainable farming practices; it's just takes more innovative, creative, knowledgeable, caring farmers. Sustainable farming is more management intensive because sustainable farming requires that farmers understand nature and work with nature, rather than use chemicals and machines to conquer nature. So what's wrong with having more farmers? The corporations don't want more sustainable farmers because sustainable farming shifts farming profits from corporate stockholders to farmers.

If you don't think that local, organic food systems can feed masses of people check out Riverford Organics website They serve 50,000 customers each week with local foods. Sustainable local foods system are not about going back to the past, as Borlaug claims, they are about moving forward to address the realities of the future.

If we were really serious about addressing problem of hunger we could helping farmers everywhere develop sustainable farming systems to feed themselves and to provide wholesome, affordable foods for people in their own local and regional markets. Unfortunately, there is more profit for corporations and more wealth and fame for scientists in the extractive and exploitative practices of a corporate, global, industrial agriculture.

John I.
John Ikerd
5121 S. Brock Rodgers Rd.
Columbia, MO 65201
phone: 573-874-0408

Author of: "Sustainable Capitalism"
Kumarian Press
"A Return to Common Sense"
R. T. Edwards
"Small Farms are Real Farms"
Acres USA
and "Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture"
University of Nebraska Press

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