Can Industrial Agriculture Feed the World?: 2002 Lecture to the Collegiate Farm Bureau

Collegiate Farm Bureau

Colorado State University

Annual Ag Week Lecture

Can Industrial Agriculture Feed the World?

16.April 2002

Good evening. I’m really happy that the Collegiate Farm Bureau asked me to speak and be part of this lecture series. And I am very excited that there is interest in questioning and debating mainstream industrial agriculture.

What I want to do tonight is to review the major premises that drive today’s industrial agriculture and share with you some of the critical viewpoints and alternatives being proposed to challenge it.

I’m going to start by summarizing the premises of industrial agriculture and then i’m going to go back through and present the critiques and alternatives.

The most important premise that drives industrial agriculture is the claim that agricultural scientific research and development are devoted to “feeding the world” and have provided important steps forward which address hunger in the third world and elsewhere. This industrial system rests on the economic idea of comparative advantage which encourages nations, regions, and localities to export what they are good at producing and import what they need. In order to export as much as possible, they should monocrop which means grow fields that contain only a single product and they should use the latest recommendations of modern, western technology, high yielding seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, machines, and biotechnology. The third world is hungry because its production systems are inefficient and backwards.

Ok, now i’m going to work backwards through these claims and provide some critiques and alternatives that have been proposed.

1. the third world is hungry because its production systems are inefficient.

Agriculture is tens of thousands of years old. What happened during those tens of thousands of years was science, in which farmers observed, experimented, hypothesized, intervened, and perfected cropping systems, hybrids, and management practices best suited to their specific area, to local needs, and to long term cycles of drought and flood. In China, this meant hundreds of years of farming on tiny terraces cut into the hillside. In India it meant a multicrop system that early British agronomists praised as impossible to improve upon. In Sri Lanka it meant the development of several hundred varieties of rice used in various circumstances. Some did better in drought, some were nutritionally better for pregnant women, providing different flavours and resistance to pests. High altitude varieties were developed which enabled people to survive year round in places with very short growing seasons. Corn was cultivated which could be planted 14” deep so as to find the water and grow in places with only a few inches of annual rainfall. Water sharing systems were developed that enabled farmers to distribute and share the water fairly. Families’ plantings were staggered to make sure that the whole community could work together to get each harvest done in time. Extremely sophisticated systems of working with the whole ecosystem enabled farmers to allow shrimp and fish in rice paddies from which they were able to harvest not only rice, but also some vegetables and protein.

What began occurring during the era of European colonialism in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, was that people were driven off the most fertile land and that land was used to monocrop desired products for the use of the first world and the people were forced to use more marginal lands for their own subsistence. The independence revolutions of the colonized nations enabled them to implement land reform, but in many cases the pattern of land distribution did not change much. Almost every country of the world today produces enough food to feed its population. There is no production problem. The problem is that this food is being exported. Ethiopia exported food every day during the famine.

So the problem of third world hunger is not an agronomic problem, it is a political problem which is about the control of the land. It’s not about total production, it’s about what is produced and who can afford to buy those things. If luxury crops are produced, local people who are poor and hungry will not be able to buy them. It’s really important to understand that need is not the same thing as demand. Hunger, is only demand if you are hungry and you have money. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how hungry you are, demand will be generated by those who can pay for it and supply will cater to those people. So currently, in terms of production in Africa, Europeans are able to generate demand for beef for dog food that is greater than the demand generated by Africans who are actually facing hunger. So where does the food go? European dogs.

Now why does that continue? This morning I gave a guest lecture and a guy in the class said “well if I was the president of one of those countries i’d just do it the way i want to”. Now why is it that even when Aristide was president of Haiti and Mandela was president of South Africa, that they were not able to address poverty and inequality in those countries? It’s because the countries are locked in to a global system which they describe as “re-colonization”. And this takes the form of international debt. What debt means for third world countries is that they must liquidate their national economies to try to pay the debt. They must devote more and more of their forests, their fisheries, their most fertile land, their labour to exporting goods to earn foreign exhange to pay the debt. And so they cannot afford to implement land reform, they cannot afford to feed themselves. And on top of this it is worth pointing out that the sweatshop jobs provided by the generous American companies like Nike do not pay enough for people to actually meet their most basic nutritional needs, let alone to educate their children and move up in the world.

2. now even if the problem is land distribution, wouldn’t modern technology help the third world produce even more?

This is known in the third world as “west is best” which they find pretty arrogant.

Modern agricultural technology has a great deal of problems in the third world and i’m not going to get into all of them, i’m just going to hit the major ones. First, modern technology depends on standardization and centralization of decision-making. What is most efficient in a laboratory at CSU is promoted in the third world where conditions are often quite different. What farmers do, which is quite extraordinary, is that they watch their land year after year, even across several generations and they know specifically how it works, where the problems are, how exactly their soil drains, all the little quirks. So imposing a rigid system of mechanization and chemicalization on that land might not be higher-yielding than what they were doing before. Now the system is rigid because you cannot take a so-called “high yielding variety” and introduce it into a traditional system. They would not be higher yielding in that context. They are high yielding only in response to chemical fertilizers and increased water. They may be more vulnerable to pests, so they will only yield more highly if pesticides are used. And they reduce the total out put of a field which used to produce not only x amount of grain, but also fishes, vegetables which are called weeds in the new system, material for construction of houses, fertilizer from the green manure, fodder to feed to animals, and habitat for pest predators. Sadly, the straw from the high yielding varieties cannot be eaten by farm animals and does not work for house construction.

Who is familiar with multi-cropping? That is so sad because it is such a basic and useful way of farming. Multicropping and intercropping plants many different plants in the same field. These plants often have relationships with each other, so beans can climb up the corn stalk, and squashes and yams can provide ground cover and shade out the weeds. Some of the plants attract pest predators which eat the pests on nearby vulnerable plants. Others deter pests from their neighbors with a smell. Some fix nitrogen for their neighbors which use it. Together, they provide a mix of green manure which fertilizes the field and prevents erosion. Those which are perennial trees and bushes block the wind, reduce evaporation, and, again, prevent erosion. Intercropped farms are much more resistant to drought and massive pest invasions because while some crops may not make it, others will. They provide a complete nutritional mix right in one place, so the farmer is not dependent on being able to sell his monocrop before he can buy what he needs. Since plants use different parts of the vertical space, there can be several different kinds of crops planted in each square foot, living in layers, just like in a forest. This is traditional farming which is found all over the world and which is highly productive.

Let’s examine a modern tractor and compare it with a traditional tractor. The modern tractor requires the farmer to take a loan and pay for it. It must be supplied with fuel from off the farm. It requires expensive parts that must be shipped from far away. It pollutes the air. It compacts the soil. And it is dangerous to children and other small living creatures which get in its way. The traditional tractor, an oxen, can be fueled right on the farm with plant material that people don’t eat. Its hooves do not compact the soil. Its illnesses can be treated by a local doctor. Its poop provides nice fertilizer instead of pollution. It is much more gentle to the small creatures which might come near it. It provides milk. Its poop also provides the major source of heating and cooking fuel in some areas. It is much more pleasant to use because the farmer has a relationship with it. And finally, it provides absolutely free baby tractors so the farmer does not need to take on a big debt for a new one.

The most important part of the modern system which is a problem for small farmers is debt. They may be given free samples at first, but once they use a pesticide they will kill all the natural predators of the pests and they will shortly be hooked on chemical solutions. Likewise with chemical fertilizers which make an artificially large yield the first year while weakening the soil over time. But once the farmer is hooked on “inputs” he must start taking a loan just to put in his crop whereas before he did not use anything that came from off the farm. Farmers here in the US and around the world are losing their lands because they cannot make enough to pay their loans for all the fancy technology. They have accepted the specialized production methods and they are dependent on the world market price for one crop. If that price falls, they are in a terrible situation, they may be overproducing but they are unable to make a transition to different products. And for this reason hundreds of family farms in the US go out of business every day and thousands of third world farmers lose control of their lands, which are gobbled up by local elites and used to run cattle, or turned into plantations to grow luxury vegetables or even Dole organics so that we can have organic tomatoes year round.

3. big farms are more efficient than small farms

This is a total myth. And recent studies have shown quite conclusively that the smallest farms, which use intensive multicrop systems produce 200-1000 times more than the larger farms per acre. And it holds true all over the world that the smallest farms in any country produce more efficiently than the larger farms. Large farms are only efficient when they are evaluated in a narrow economic system. If you take all inputs and outputs into consideration, they are less efficient. Even within the narrow system of accounting, studies have shown that most of the gains in efficiency are captured by farms with annual output of just $45K and there are no more efficiency gains to be made above an output of $133K. You can continue to make more profit for each additional acre, but you do not become more efficient.

Large, specialized systems, particularly those which rely on expensive, specialized equipment, are very vulnerable for a number of reasons. And factory animal farming is a great example of this. Farmers have invested in specialized buildings that can only be used for one purpose. They are only efficient to run at full capacity, so farmers cannot adjust to periodic crises of overproduction. The kind of efficiency that the most modern farms use is very brittle, it is not flexible. It is very expensive to run and the investment is only efficient if everything works perfectly and at full throttle. Once production drops below a certain point, the cost of inputs per output skyrockets and the farmer will be in bad shape. This system combined with a very tightly controlled market, in which just a few companies buy farm products put farmers in a very tight space. Farm prices as a percentage of consumer food price have steadily dropped from 47 percent in the 1950s to 21% now, much less for grain. Farm gate prices have hardly gone up this century while farmers are having to spend more and more on inputs which they believe is the only way to go.

It’s really shocking that at the land grant schools there has not been a major moral crisis and reevaluation of what is being taught given the rate of failure of small farms. Unlike the liberal arts, the agricultural college at CSU was established to serve the farmers in this state and is doing very little to challenge the conditions which are leading to their demise. I was part of a project in which we did interviews with a lot of farmers and they said “why doesn’t CSU buy potatoes and apples from Colorado farmers”. They think it’s a total outrage that CSU isn’t actually committed to them.

Now some of the interesting things that are happening in response to these recognitions is that the United Nations Development Programme is starting to pay attention to the fact that incredible amounts of food are being grown in cities. On rooftops, in community gardens, even on porches and window ledges. This kind of tiny farming takes food out of the global commodity market and provides much more secure access to food. I was just in New York City and i visited some community gardens, and they are just amazing. Some people have analyzed that there are 1000 acres available in Manhattan which could be used to grow food and this would also provided a lot of needed jobs. Community gardens are really good because they help the elders who know a lot about growing food, and immigrants, to use their knowledge and work with youth. And they provide a community space.

You may think that “organics” is like a yuppie health-obsessed craziness, but the front lines of the organic revolution right now are in urban communities of color where people are saying “Even though we are poor, we have a right to safe and nutritious food. The grocery stores won’t provide that, so we are going to build our own food system.” That’s the Community Food Security movement, which is bringing farmers markets back into low income urban neighborhood, building community gardens, and creating direct relationships between farmers and consumers. And in Latin America even more exciting things are happening which is that urban workers are forming these large groups and literally occupying the land that is owned by the large landowners and building their own subsistence farms. They have provided already small forms for about half a million people.

Now the most important examples of the possibilities of non-industrial production systems is the case of Cuba. Cuba had a very westernized agricultural system, and they got their inputs (agrochemicals and fossil fuels and tractors) from Russia. Well when the USSR fell and the US was still making an embargo on Cuba, they couldn’t get these inputs and so they had to transition in the late 1980s, rather suddenly, to a totally organic system. They had to get the grandfathers to come out in the fields and teach the young people how to drive an ox. They built these laboratories to breed wasps and other pest predators to control pests. And they did it. It is a huge success. An entire country is feeding all its people on organic food. It works.

4. export-based economies and comparative advantage are the best ways to get food to where it needs to go

The idea of comparative advantage has been enshrined in “free trade agreements” such as NAFTA and the WTO and the new FTAA which will extend NAFTA to all of Latin America. But unfortunately it’s not working. Since the passage of NAFTA, poverty in Mexico has gotten much worse. 8 million middle class people have fallen into poverty and 25% of the population is now below the United Nations line of “extreme poverty” which means you are not earning enough to meet your nutritional needs, or in other words, you are slowly starving to death.

So it’s not working. Specifically looking at agriculture, several things have happened. One is that the free trade agreements force countries to cancel their land reform laws. Second, free trade requires that protective tariffs be cancelled. This means that in Mexico, where there are millions of small corn farmers which used to be protected with tariffs to make sure no other country could sell corn there for cheaper, now have to compete with US corn which is highly subsidized and in fact is sold abroad below the price of production. So when we see photos of Mexicans standing in line for jobs at the Nike factory we need to ask what were they doing before?

Also, traditional capitalist free trade theory said that comparative advantage would only work if labor was free to cross borders as well as goods so that no country’s production advantage would be the result of exploited labor. It had to be a real advantage of climate or expertise or something like that. Right now there’s a big problem with Mexican tomatoes which are undercutting the prices of US winter tomatoes grown in Florida. There is no climate advantage. The only advantage is that Mexican farmworkers are cheaper in Mexico, but it is having the effect of making it very hard for the US farmers to survive.

But the main problem with the idea of exporting stuff and using the money to buy what you need is that you’re dependent on the first world to continue buying and pay a decent price, or you can’t eat. And when global corporations control the global market and set prices, export-based economies are increasingly insecure. Also processed foods are designed to be flexible so that for example general mills designs sweetened cereal with the formulas so that if beet sugar is cheaper than cane sugar this month they can buy the cheaper one, and their purchasing decisions can put cane exporters in a precarious position.

5. the goal of industrial agriculture is to feed a hungry world

It is abundantly clear from the foregoing that agribusiness is in it for the money, not to feed the world. What the Green Revolution accomplished was creating dependency on first world corporations for inputs and indebting the third world to buy inputs to grow food, which they had been doing for thousands of years already. And biotech is the same.

There are three basic types of biotech. One is the type which makes some kind of improvement in the final product, such as increasing the shelf life of tomatoes or adding vitamin A to rice to prevent blindness in impoverished groups. Now there are some problems like those tomatoes taste bad or that you have to eat 8 kg of rice a day to get the vitamin A, but anyway, it’s this type of biotech which is used to convince consumers that it’s making great leaps forward for the benefit of people.

The second type has supposed agronomic benefit, and these are the biotech crops which have insectary properties, the plants produce their own pesticide or those which can withstand the direct application of a herbicide which will kill all the nearby weeds but won’t kill the crop. This reduces labor cost because you can just aerially spray the whole field. And these kinds of crops are supposed to have agronomic benefits because they reduce crop loss and supposedly they reduce the total amount of chemicals that need to be used.

The third kind of biotech crops are the terminator type. It’s really revealing to see that in the patent application for the terminator genetic process not a single agronomic, nutritional, or environmental benefit was cited. The justification for the benefit of this product was, literally “to prevent third world farmers from saving seed”, or in other words to force them to buy seeds every year from multinational corporations. And because of international outcry, Monsanto announced that it would not put terminator seeds on the market, there is some evidence that they are proceeding, but it doesn’t matter because they’ve got something even better which is traitor technology. Traitor technology enables them to turn on or off various traits of the plant, such as developing leaves, developing fruit, accepting pollination, leaving a viable seed, and so they can require at one or a number of points in the life cycle that a chemical must be sprayed in order to activate the trait of the plant. And of course, they sell the chemicals.

For this reason, it is the position of a majority of countries of the world, and they are all third world countries organized as the “Like Minded Group” that there should be “no patents on life”. This is the only way they see a possibility of constraining the dangers of biotechnology. They would allow for biotechnology research if it can be of benefit, but they disallow the patenting process because it brings in the possibility of profit into that research. And this proposal will be discussed at the Rio+10 summit in Johannesburg this summer as part of a larger Treaty for the Sharing of the Genetic Commons.

This is not a food system, it is a profit system. And it is justified by saying “it’s absolutely necessary to feed the world”. In fact what agribusiness does is it can justify any practice, no matter how destructive or unsafe, by saying that it is necessary in order to feed the world. And when European scientists confirm that the genetically engineered potatoes create an immune suppression effect very similar to AIDS, they are ridiculed as selfish people who don’t care about feeding the third world.

Biotech, hybrids, tractors, and chemicals are not necessary to feed the third world. Farmers around the world have already sufficient production systems. In accepting the western industrial model they are not improving their productivity, but they are becoming dangerously dependent on that system. We are looking at a food system where 2 companies control US beef, where a tobacco company controls a large portion of the processed food market, where one company profits from most of the grain trades. These companies invest money in the food system in order to make more money. They are not intrinsically interested in the quality or safety of food and they can withstand a lot of lawsuits. They are not interested in the health of the land. They are not interested in addressing hunger. Like any other corporation, they are organized to increase stockholder profits next quarter. That is their job. And the question is should we allow food to be part of the capitalist system? Is it appropriate to allow centralized corporations to make decisions about promoting a seed which could invade other species and make them inviable? Is it appropriate to allow a global corporation to decide who will eat and who will not?

At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, most of the world wanted to agree that food is a human right and also that it could not be used as a weapon. And the US agribusiness refused to agree to this, and pressured the US government delegation to vote against it.