Groundbreaking New UN Report on How to Feed the World's Hungry: Ditch Corporate-Controlled Agriculture
There are a billion hungry people in the world and that number could rise as food insecurity increases along with population growth, economic fallout and environmental crises. But a roadmap to defeating hunger exists, if we can follow the course -- and that course involves ditching corporate-controlled, chemical-intensive farming.
"To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. And today's scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production in regions where the hungry live," says Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Agroecology is more or less what many Americans would simply call "organic agriculture," although important nuances separate the two terms.
Used successfully by peasant farmers worldwide, agroecology applies ecology to agriculture in order to optimize long-term food production, requiring few purchased inputs and increasing soil quality, carbon sequestration and biodiversity over time. Agroecology also values traditional and indigenous farming methods, studying the scientific principals underpinning them instead of merely seeking to replace them with new technologies. As such, agroecology is grounded in local (material, cultural and intellectual) resources.
A new report, presented today before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, makes several important points along with its recommendation of agroecology. For example, it says, "We won't solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations." Instead, it says the solution lies with smallholder farmers. The majority of the world's hungry are smallholder farmers, capable of growing food but currently not growing enough food to feed their families each year. A net global increase in food production alone will not guarantee the end of hunger (as the poor cannot access food even when it is available), an increase in productivity for poor farmers will make a dent in global hunger. Potentially, gains in productivity by smallholder farmers will provide an income to farmers as well, if they grow a surplus of food that they can sell.
With its potential to double crop yields, as the report notes, agroecology could help ensure smallholder farmers have enough to eat and perhaps provide a surplus to sell as well. The report calls for investment in extension services, storage facilities, and rural infrastructure like roads, electricity, and communication technologies, to help provide smallholders with access to markets, agricultural research and development, and education. Additionally, it notes the importance of providing farmers with credit and insurance against weather-related risks.
In the past, efforts to help the hungry involved developing high yielding seeds and providing them along with industrial inputs to farmers in poor countries. However, in poor countries, smallholder farmers who often live on less than $1 or $2 per day, cannot afford industrial inputs like hybrid or genetically engineered seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation. Many work each year to make sure their crops go far enough to feed their families, with little left over to sell. And for those who live far from roads and cities, there might not be a market to sell to anyway.
Agroecology requires replacing chemical inputs with knowledge, often disseminated by farmers who work together with scientists and aid organizations to teach their fellow farmers. "Rather than treating smallholder farmers as beneficiaries of aid, they should be seen as experts with knowledge that is complementary to formalized expertise," the report notes. For example, in Kenya, researchers and farmers developed a successful "push-pull" strategy to control pests in corn, and using town meetings, national radio broadcasts, and farmer field schools, spread the system to over 10,000 households.
The push-pull method involves pushing pests away from corn by interplanting corn with an insect repelling crop called Desmodium (which can be fed to livestock), while pulling the pests toward small nearby plots of Napier grass, "a plant that excretes a sticky gum which both attracts and traps pests." In addition to controlling pests, this system produces livestock fodder, thus doubling corn yields and milk production at the same time. And it improves the soil to boot!
Significantly, the report mentions that past efforts to combat hunger focused mostly on cereals such as wheat and rice which, while important, do not provide a wide enough range of nutrients to prevent malnutrition. Thus, the biodiversity in agroecological farming systems provide much needed nutrients. "For example," the report says, "it has been estimated that indigenous fruits contribute on average about 42 percent of the natural food-basket that rural households rely on in southern Africa. This is not only an important source of vitamins and other micronutrients, but it also may be critical for sustenance during lean seasons." Indeed, in agroecological farming systems around the world, plants a conventional American farm might consider weeds are eaten as food or used in traditional herbal medicine.
De Schutter does not dismiss the U.S. government's preferred strategies of crop breeding and fertilizers as potentially helpful in the fight against hunger, but warns of caution in using them. Crop breeding, he notes, can be complementary to agroecology. Perhaps referring to efforts to develop drought-resistant maize, the report says, "Agroecology is more overarching [than crop breeding] as it supports building drought-resistant agricultural systems (including soils, plants, agrobiodiversity, etc.), not just drought-resistant plants."
When asked to provide more detail about crop breeding, De Schutter responded that "most [agroecologists] are very careful with some of these [crop breeding] technologies, particularly genetic engineering." He noted that genetically engineered crops not only carry environmental risks, but are also "associated with unsustainable farming practices and with a worrying concentration of the seed industry." In contrast, he sees promise in marker-assisted selection and participatory plant breeding, which "uses the strength of modern science, while at the same time putting farmers in the driver's seat."
De Schutter also highlights the risks of using nitrogen fertilizer, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, saying that, "the use of fertilizers [in Africa] could increase a bit without major environmental damages." He sees many reasons why agroecology is a better choice than nitrogen fertilizer, pointing out that, "many agroecological methods simply outperform mineral fertilizers: they result in similar levels of return on investments if you measure only productivity, but they create systems that are more resilient to climate change, some of them produce additional fodder for animals (nitrogen-fixing trees for instance), or fruit (thus vitamins)."
He adds that agroecological gains can be achieved with local resources, "while fertilizers need to be imported. This is not a minor issue for the balance of payment of countries! A country could thus use its foreign exchange to build modern industries and create jobs rather than buying fertilizers." However, when an urgent situation of hunger needs to be addressed, nitrogen fertilizers should not be dismissed if they can, in fact, provide the best outcome in a short-term emergency situation.
The report also warns of the harmful impact of allowing volatile prices and dumping of subsidized commodities in poor countries. Dumping occurs when a country that subsidizes its farmers (like the U.S.) promotes overproduction and causes prices to fall very low. When the excess, cheap commodities are exported to poor countries that have no trade barriers, local farmers cannot compete on price. De Schutter notes, "While not the single cause, the lowering of import tariffs in poor countries and the inability of these countries to support their small farmers" were major causes of "massive rural poverty, rural flight, and widespread hunger." He adds, "I believe that it is vital for poor countries to be allowed to protect their farming sector and to be helped in supporting this sector."
Will the United States heed De Schutter's advice, adopting a development approach that embraces agroecology and seeks trade agreements that are more fair to poor countries? Recently history does not inspire much hope. De Schutter is not the first to recognize the potential of agroecology. In 2008, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report also concluded that agroecology offered farmers a powerful means to increase production on smallholder farms, and thus decrease hunger in the world. Both De Schutter and the IAASTD report seek more than just food production from agriculture; they see agroecology as a way to improve rural livelihoods, mitigate climate change and provide resilience in the face of climate extremes.
However, the United States was one of only three countries that failed to approve the IAASTD report, due to its critiques of unregulated trade and biotechnology. American efforts to fight global hunger, to date, have focused more on crop breeding, particularly genetic engineering, and nitrogen fertilizer than agroecology. Whereas the new UN report notes that, "perhaps because [agroecological] practices cannot be rewarded by patents, the private sector has been largely absent from this line of research," the U.S. aggressively promotes public-private partnerships with corporations such as seed and chemical companies Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, and BASF; agribusiness companies Cargill, Bunge; and Archer Daniels Midland; processed food companies PepsiCo, Nestle, General Mills, Coca Cola, Unilever, and Kraft Foods; and the retail giant Wal-Mart.
The entire report on agroecology is available on the Web site of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Americans who are interested in seeing the U.S. follow the path outlined by De Schutter in this report should contact USAID and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Additionally, contact your members of Congress as well as the U.S. Trade Representative and the president if you wish to comment on American trade policy.