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I Read Reports So You Don’t Have To

It is so gratifying when a global commission validates the stuff you’ve been saying for years. IPES food – the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, which is … well, just that – put out a report this month, FROM UNIFORMITY TO DIVERSITYlisting whys and recommending hows of shifting from industrial monoculture to a diversified, agroecological/ regenerative based food system. It is engrossing reading for a food nerd like me, but since I don’t expect this level of excitement from everyone, I’m offering some highlights.

First, confirmation of those things you already know about the horrors of industrial agriculture (and if you didn’t know – welcome!) broken down into MSP’s triple-bottom line categories:

Ecologic

  • Pesticides lead to pesticide resistance leads to pesticide intensification (repeat)
  • Herbicides lead to herbicide resistance leads to herbicide intensification (repeat)
  • Soil erosion
  • Current food system creates 19-29% of all anthropogenic Greenhouse Gases
  • Loss of wild biodiversity & pollinators

Economic

  • Any positive results from industrial agriculture happen predominantly on large farms
  • Those positive results are fed by government subsidies
  • Agriculture and the food system are economically sustained by slaves and exploited labor
  • Specialized monocultures leave farmers vulnerable to price shocks

Social

  • Food exports benefit wealthy consumers in wealthy countries
  • Lack of dietary diversity most everywhere else
  • Cash crop production pushes diverse farming off the land
  • Pesticides have serious and long-term health effects
  • Antibiotic overuse and resistance is a global threat to health

If you haven’t read it, it’s new to you:

The theory that industrialization brings progress and benefits to society at large is pretty much indefensible in agriculture. Farm workers and small farmers “relieved of” their work tend to be pushed toward low-wage factory labor, emigration, or unemployment. 60% of child labor happens in agriculture, and that is not just family farms. The shift to highly mechanized systems keeps farmers caught on a treadmill of debt and intensive farming, while their soil crumbles under the pressure. Meanwhile, the removal of the human element from agriculture portends a loss in farmer knowledge that we will desperately need once we either decide to, or the synthetic additives stop working and we are forced to, find solutions within nature rather than in opposition to it. Shifts to large farms also globally shift the control of food from women to men, eroding another font of knowledge and disempowering groups whose greatest strength may lie in food. A focus on cash crops in poorer countries neglects the nutritional needs of the citizens and makes it impossible for local food networks to adequately feed the community.

Land degradation worldwide, largely due to agriculture, is at 20%. One. Fifth. Agribusinesses propose that we address this crisis by intensifying the amount of food produced on less land. It sounds reasonable, right? But, no:

  1. Intensive, monoculture farming continues to degrade the land that is used, so any benefits would be temporary.
  2. The land they leave “untouched” could actually be repaired by widespread diversified farming.
  3. What they’re growing isn’t necessarily “food.”

Monoculture farming also erodes genetic diversity. This doesn’t just make food boring, it makes it fragile. The less variety we have, the less resilient we are to inevitable climate changes, new pests, and new diseases. So agribusiness efforts to increase food production will ultimately make food production impossible. Or,

… in other words, modern agriculture is failing to sustain the people and resources on which it relies, and has come to represent an existential threat to itself. (9)

There are over 7,000 plants used for food on this planet, but 50% of all human plant food intake is rice, maize, or wheat. And much of that is through our manufactured obsession with processed foods. Overweight and obesity now make up the biggest increases in mortality in low and middle income countries, while the lack of diversity means we suffer from a dearth of micronutrients worldwide. It’s especially frustrating because these are fixable problems.

The report goes on to make excellent observations about the agribusiness funding of R&D that tips the scales in their favor; the need for better measuring tools in order to more clearly demonstrate the advantages of agroecological farm systems; the political influence that keeps the current system in place despite ample evidence of its social, economic, and ecological destruction; and the inherent unsustainability of industrial ag and the entire conventional food system, necessitating

the emergence of what are essentially new food systems with new infrastructures and new sets of power relations, implying the coexistence of two more or less distinct systems for some time to come. (7)

That sounds oddly familiar….

We and our partners are already practicing diversified, regenerative farming, but the implementation of policy changes recommended by the IPES (pages 65-75 for more details) would dramatically clear the industrially superweeded path we’ve been bushwhacking to create a resilient, healthy, ethical food system.

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