Feeding the world?
Jules Pretty examines the myths and realities of sustainable farming's
Statements of fact
Ever since we started farming some 10,000 years ago, there has been a constant struggle to make sure that enough food is produced to feed everyone. This challenge has become ever more acute in the last half of this century. Even though we can put people on the moon, we simply cannot find a way to feed the world's population And the problem will get worse before it gets better. This much is agreed, but what we do about it is highly contested. Let's start with some facts. The world population is now 5.9 billion people. It is still increasing, and will eventually stabilise somewhere between 8 and 11 billion. Most of this growth will occur in the poorer countries of the world. Today, a seventh of all the world's people are hungry, 800 million of them. A quarter of these are children.
Food production will have to increase, otherwise we could be faced with crises of epic proportions. But it is not a simple problem. We actually produce enough food in the world to feed everyone with a nutritious and adequate diet now - on average 350 kg of cereal per person. A good deal of cereal is turned into meat, milk and other animal products which in energy terms is inefficient. This reduces the total amount of food available. But a more important factor is that most hungry people are poor and cannot afford to buy food. Poor farmers cannot afford expensive modern technologies that could increase their yields. What they need are readily available and cheap means to improve their farms.
And there are signs that a quiet revolution in the world food system is beginning to occur.
* some 223,000 farmers in southern Brazil using green manures and cover crops of legumes and livestock integration have doubled yields of maize and wheat to 4-5 tons/ha;
* some 45,000 farmers in Guatemala and Honduras have used regenerative technologies to triple maize yields to some 2-2.5 tons/ha and diversify their upland farms, which has led to local economic growth that has in turn encouraged re-migration back from the cities;
* more than 300,000 farmers in southern and western India farming in dryland conditions, and now using a range of water and soil management technologies, have tripled sorghum and millet yields to some 2-2.5 tons/hectare;
* some 200,000 farmers across Kenya who as part of various government and non-government soil and water conservation and sustainable agriculture programmes have more than doubled their maize yields to about 2.5 to 3.3 t/ha and substantially improved vegetable production through the dry seasons;
* 100,000 small coffee farmers in Mexico who have adopted fully organic production methods, and yet increased yields by half;
* a million wetland rice farmers in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam who have shifted to sustainable agriculture, where group-based farmer-field schools have enabled farmers to learn alternatives to pesticides whilst still increasing their yields by about 10%.
The myth makers
First, though, it's important to look at the myth makers who believe in the 'techno-fix' of genetic engineering as a solution to the looming crisis.
One of the biggest advocates for genetically engineered crops is the American company, Monsanto. Their public relations campaign, 'Let the Harvest Begin' (sic), states that Europeans should stop being selfish in refusing to accept GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) because that is "a luxury our hungry world cannot afford" They say that "agricultural biotechnology will play a major role in realising the hope we all share. Accepting this science can make a dramatic difference in millions of lives".
Also, advocates have not been slow to play the environmental card. But this is done in a remarkably naive way. It is a vital part of the public relations management to persuade citizens in the North to accept the GM technologies, yet it betrays a lack of understanding of developing country agricultural, economic and social systems. Michael Wilson of the Scottish Crops Research Institute said in 1997 - "to feed 10.8 billion people by 2050 will require us to convert 15 million square miles of virgin forest, wilderness and marginal land into agro-chemical dependent arable land. GM crops hold the most important key to solve future problems in feeding an extra five billion mouths over the next 50 years".
"We actually produce enough food in the world to feed everyone with a nutritious and adequate diet now"
To anyone who comes from developing countries or has worked in them, this is simply nonsense. Replying to a comment in late 1997 by a British scientist who said that "those who want it [GMOs] banned are undermining the position of starving people in Ethiopia", Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher of the Institute for Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa, said that "there are still hungry people in Ethiopia, but they are hungry because they have no money, no longer because there is no food to buy... we strongly resent the abuse of our poverty to sway the interests of the European public".
The huge number of people in severe poverty and hunger is a dreadful indictment of all of us. Something must be done.
But that something is not to say we must pursue a path of genetic modification and hang the consequences. I am perfectly open to be persuaded of the benefits of genetic modification - such as for novel treatment of cystic fibrosis or cancers - but not when the feeding the world myth is trundled out again and again.
Perhaps a cereal crop will be engineered to have bacteria in the roots that fix free nitrogen from the air. This would be a tremendous benefit for poor farmers. But unless this technology is cheap or freely available, it seems very unlikely that the people who need it most would ever have access. And what about the plans for 'terminator-technology'? These are seeds that die after one year so that farmers cannot save the seed and use it again. Will this really benefit the 2 billion people in developing countries currently relying on largely 'unimproved' agricultural systems?
Biotechnology is not currently a necessary precondition for feeding the world. However, it is fair to say that improvements to farming will arise from genetic engineering if the research is public-funded and for the public good. Biotechnology is therefore unlikely to benefit the poor in the short term. These technologies are expensive to develop, estimated at $1 million per gene, and companies are expecting to recoup costs as well as make large profits on sales.
So who will feed all those people in developing countries? The answer
to this question is simple - farmers in those countries, using sustainable
methods of production.
Sustainable agriculture - the quiet revolution has started
Quietly, slowly and very significantly, sustainable agriculture is sweeping the farming systems of the world.
Put simply, sustainable agriculture is 'farming that makes the best use of nature's goods and service whilst not damaging the environment.' It does this by integrating natural processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soil regeneration and pest predators into food production processes. It minimises the use of non-renewable inputs (pesticides and fertilisers) that damage the environment or harm the health of farmers and consumers. And third, it makes better use of the knowledge and skills of farmers, so improving their self-reliance and capacities.
"We strongly resent the abuse of our poverty to sway the interests of the European public"
This sequence is very important. During this century, modern agriculture has seen external inputs of pesticides, inorganic fertiliser, animal feedstuffs, energy, and machinery become the primary means to increase food production. These external inputs, though, have substituted the free, natural control processes and resources. Pesticides have replaced biological, cultural and mechanical methods for controlling pests, weeds and diseases; inorganic fertilisers have substituted for livestock manures, composts. nitrogenfixing crops and fertile soils; and fossil fuels have substituted for locally-generated energy sources. What were once valued local resources have all too often become waste products.
The basic challenge for sustainable agriculture is to maximise the use of locally-available and renewable resources.
This sounds good - but does it work? Are there sufficient resources and opportunities to turn unproductive farms into surplus-producing ones?
Remarkably, the best evidence comes from those very countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America that are said to need most the 'modern' technologies produced by large companies. Where whole communities have been involved in the complete redesign of farming and other local economic activities, the sustainability dividend is very large. The regenerative technologies and practices are hugely beneficial for both farmers and rural environments. There is more natural capital from fewer external inputs. More food output from fewer fossil-fuel derived inputs.
The improvements are of two basic types. First, sustainable farming is taking root in the resource-poor areas, those that have remained largely untouched by modern technologies of the past 40 years. Here there is a two to threefold increase in food output
The second is occurring in the higher-input systems where the so-called 'Green Revolution' has already had an impact on food output, but where there are concerns that yield increases have slowed or stopped and where high use of pesticides causes damage to human health and environments. Here the dividend comes from a greatly reduced use of pesticides - they are replaced by natural predators, habitat redesign, multiple cropping and the like - whilst increasing yields by a small amount, typically 10%.
Recent evidence from 20 countries has found more than 2 million families farming sustainably on more than 4-5 million hectares.
This is no longer marginal. It cannot be ignored. What is remarkable
is not so much the numbers, but that most of this has happened in the past
5-10 years. Moreover, many of the improvements are occurring in remote
and resource-poor areas that had been assumed to be incapable of producing
The myths and beyond
Another cog in the myth makers' wheel is the expected response of industrialised countries to sustainable agriculture.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the former US Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, said we could move to more sustainable farming, but "before we move in that direction, someone must decide which fifty million of our people will starve. We simply cannot feed, even at subsistence levels, our 250 million Americans without a large production input of chemicals, antibiotics and growth hormones".
Again, this view is simply nonsense, as it once again ignores what is happening right now. In a study for my new book The Living Land, I looked at projects in seven industrialised countries of Europe and North America. Farmers are finding that they can cut their inputs of costly pesticides and fertilisers substantially, varying from 20-80%, and be financially better off. Yields do fall to begin with (by 10-15% typically), but there is compelling evidence that they soon rise and go on increasing. In the USA, for example, the top quarter sustainable agriculture farmers now have higher yields than conventional farmers, as well as a much lower negative impact on the environment.
The challenge is still massive. Sustainable farming can greatly improve
the productivity of the land. It has already done so for more than two
million families in the past five to ten years. Yet there is still a very
long way to go. And we need to inform our citizens about what is happening,
so that they can form fair judgements on the alternatives we may or may
not seek to promote in the name of 'feeding the world'.