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Don’t Feed the World

feed-the-worldFeed the world narratives portray industrial agriculture engineering “food security understood in terms of delivering sufficient net calories at the global level” (IPES, 54). It sounds reasonable and respectable, doesn’t it? But locking into this narrative as a solution to current and anticipated world hunger is not just inadequate; it’s dangerous.

Justifications for the continued application of industrial agriculture in the wake of its amply documented environmental and human costs always lead with population scare tactics: 8 billion people by 2024? 10 billion by 2056!? There are starving people in the world today! How can there be enough food for more people in the near future??? We need superseeds now!

But the logic soon breaks down. The numbers don’t justify desperate measures in the present: we have more than enough food in the world now to feed everyone. And as for the future: the practices that support, for example, genetically engineered seeds, weaken and diminish the resources necessary to grow those seeds. Big Ag is making an absurd argument: using the excuse of future preparedness to justify present actions that will ultimately make the long-term unattainable. It’s their best solution because it’s their only solution.

There are alternatives. Ones that will actually strengthen our future food security. Here are some modest suggestions on how to keep the world fed:

  1. Get a grip on climate change
  2. Build resilience; create sustainable ecosystems
  3. Diversify crops and people
  4. Decentralize: support local farms to build local food security

Here’s how our current system fails to do that.

  1. More climate change

Industrial food systems are a huge contributor to a warming climate which brings both drought and flooding, making it more difficult for industrial and traditional farms to succeed. Current food systems contribute nearly a third of the human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That includes the carbon output from the production of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides; transportation of cash crops around the world; deforestation; cattle farts …. What it does not include is industrial agriculture’s devitalizing of the planet’s soil, dramatically diminishing its ability to act as a carbon sink. Healthy soil can do a lot to counteract numerous carbon-producing activities, while weak soil is more victim than hero.

  1. Diminished resilience

Without the most basic resources – soil and water – no population will survive for long. Without arable land, we can’t grow food. Topsoil has diminished so severely that the UN FAO has predicted that if degradation continues unabated, we will be out of productive topsoil in 60 years. This is more urgent than population growth because it renders us literally incapable of feeding ourselves.

And you probably know that the tools of industrial agriculture pollute water, cause collateral damage to pollinators and other living things, and keep farmers on a chemical treadmill – as plants and insects evolve to withstand synthetics, the formulas must get stronger, causing both more destruction and more indestructible weeds & bugs. The current path leads down one of two roads: either these additives become totally ineffective, or they become so potent that they work too well, killing keystone species and threatening the stability entire ecosystems.

  1. Standardizing of crops (and their keepers)

The unchecked dissemination of GM and other corporate-owned seed supplants the genetic diversity on the planet – the surest way to cause devastating blights, making monocultures a direct threat to the populous.

Throughout agricultural history, indigenous farmers have cultivated resilient species to insure against climatological or biological threats. They may know what intercroppings deter certain pests, or what weed-fighting perennials to cultivate. An oft-ignored side effect of our obsession with chemical and lab-crafted solutions is the loss of indigenous knowledge. Industrial ag forcibly overrides indigenous farmer knowledge by rendering the practices upon which that knowledge is based and applied obsolete, so, like the heritage seeds themselves, their skills and expertise are lost to future generations who will need them when the herbicides and pesticides stop working.

  1. Centralized production and distribution

The proposed Bayer-Monsanto merger is only the latest in decades of agribusiness consolidation which centralize control of food production, processing, and distribution.

When people cannot grow or locally access a variety of foods, they are forced to rely on staples which rarely contain the micronutrients sufficient to ensure normal biological functioning. Two billion people are afflicted with micronutrient deficiencies. Some companies have spent a lot of money and their scientists have spent a lot of time diligently trying to enhance particular crops with necessary vitamins, but what happens when that one crop fails? Wouldn’t it be better to spend our collective resources in helping these communities grow the variety they need to keep themselves healthy, instead of putting all their eggs in one basket?

It is hard to be resilient when you cannot be self-reliant. Regions that rely on imports are more vulnerable to conflict, corruption, and climate. There is nothing inherently wrong with engineering plants to produce more food, but at what cost? Is a little more wheat worth soil degradation, dependence on synthetic additives, the loss of crop variety and farmer wisdom and landrace crops? Is it worth diminished health? The greater the dissemination and variety of food production, the less vulnerable people are worldwide.

Industrial agriculture not only cannot deliver the food that the people of this planet need, it is actively destructive to the systems and resources that would allow them to grow it themselves.

 

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