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October 4th, 2014

Interesting Times

BY Christian Ford

Something startling happened the other day in Rome.  The FAO — the arm of the UN devoted to combatting world hunger — hosted a two day symposium on “agroecology.”  In order for this to seem startling, it’s helpful to know two things.  First that the FAO, for all its good institutional intentions, has always been a traditional and conservative advocate, a friend to business-as-usual.  The second is that agroecology is inherently opposed to industrial agriculture.  When hidebound governmental institutions start talking like radicals, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

Professor Hilal Elver, the new United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, is following in the revolutionary steps of her predecessor, Olivier de Schutter by pounding home the message that if we want to feed everyone, we’re not going to do it the way we’ve been doing it for the last 60 years, with maximum application of mechanization and chemicals.  This statement comes just as the assumption of what it means to “feed the world” changes.

Almost simultaneous with FAO’s symposium, the UN’s population division, in concert with demographers from several universities, published a paper.  What they’re projecting is that global population — instead of leveling off in the second half of this century as expected — will continue to grow beyond the year 2100.  They even float the incomprehensible number of 11 billion.

How to respond?  Well, de Schutter and Elver’s molotov thought-cocktails are these: that when you tally up the true and total cost, in resources, in soil depletion, in water depletion, in petrochemicals (for both machines and fertilizers and pest-and herbicides, in carbon pollution) it becomes achingly clear that the only thing that the Green Revolution and industrial agriculture has done is to delay, and worsen, the reckoning.  Industrial Ag isn’t going to feed the world because with every passing year, it destroys the resources it depends on to feed whomever it does feed. What’s worse, Industrial Ag has already proven fatally flawed in a different way — it isn’t interested in feeding everyone.

Right now, one billion people go hungry and another billion suffer from “hidden hunger,” the deficiency of micronutrients in their diet.  At the same time, we throw away one-third of the food we produce every year and the people that are well fed are too well-fed; America is the fattest society in history.

So the (current) problem isn’t that we aren’t growing enough food.  It’s that we aren’t properly distributing the food we do grow.  But de Schutter and Elver are only half thinking about the present when they’re talking about agroecology.  They’re really talking about the future and the 60% more food that’s projected to be necessary and that’s what to keep in mind when listening to the kinds of things that Prof Elver is saying, such as:

  • “Resource scarcity, increased population, decreasing land availability and accessibility, emerging water scarcity, and soil degradation require us to re-think how best to use our resources for future generations.”
  • “Modern agriculture, which began in the 1950s, is more resource intensive, very fossil fuel dependent, using fertilizers, and based on massive production. This policy has to change.”
  • “Empirical and scientific evidence shows that small farmers feed the world… 70% of food we consume globally comes from small farmers.”
  • “Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness. This must change. Governments must support small farmers.”

And then there’s my favorite, an exhortation to governments to change their fundamental mindset and support small farmers over industrial food operations, a transition to what she calls “agricultural democracy.”

Agroecology, for all the wonkiness of it’s moniker, is a radical departure from business as usual.  It’s a fusion of data-based and research oriented agro-science with what is most honestly described as “peasant agriculture.”  Now peasants, you may have noticed, don’t get a lot of respect for their cleverness.  But I suspect that’s an industrial age’s bias talking; when you consider how few resources the average peasant has in anything, it’s obvious that a dumb peasant is a dead peasant.

Peasant agriculture is highly adapted to place (because peasants can’t buy new land and move on), sustainable (because peasants can’t afford groceries if their harvest fails), low-input (because peasants can’t afford to buy fertilizer and seeds) and organic (because, you guessed it, peasants don’t have cash for weed and bug killer.)  In some places, this means barely eking out a living.  But in other places, it means people have developed ways of reliably feeding their communities — in what are sometimes extraordinarily harsh conditions — for hundreds of years.  Argoecology uses these particularly successful examples as its springboard, researching the reasons for their success and endurance and finding ways to both increase production and create a replicable practices which can be used in analogous environments.

There are two more thoughts embedded in agroecology that are worth teasing out.  One is that this is a way of growing food which — inherently — is protective of the place where the food is grown.  The other, and the more radical, is that agroecology understands that peasant/place/practice only works when it is nestled within supportive socio-political institutions.  In other words, you must have a functional local community in order for that local community to feed itself.

The rap, of course, about small farmers and non-industrial agriculture has always been that it’s a lovely and romantic idea, but — dammit — we’ve got people to feed here and we can’t afford, in any sense of the word, mucking about with hobby farms.  But this is one of those instances where what the label says and what’s inside the box are not one in the same.  Industrial Agriculture did increase yields, but the goal was never to create an absolute greater amount of food per acre — rather, it was designed to produce more food per unit of labor.  It’s what’s brought us to where we are now in the US, with less than 1% of the population feeding the rest of us, our rural communities becoming ghost towns, and quarter-million dollar tractors replacing what used to farm families.

It’s a goal that makes sense when you look back on the history of farming in the US.  The shift to all machines and all chemicals came right after WWII, which came right after the ravages of the Depression, where the brutal, grinding struggle of smallholder farmers was immortalized in WPA photography.  I think those images haunted the imagination of the men — and they were all men — who built the food system that FAO is now ushering into hospice.  Look through the eyes of Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans and it’s hardly surprising that the architects of Industrial Ag over-corrected in their effort to redress the suffering.

But even from within the air-conditioned comfort of a GPS-guided harvester, the overcorrection is becoming obvious.  In an effort to save those devastated agricultural communities, they were simply made obsolete.  The impoverished tenant farmers of the Depression have become the indebted contract farmers of the present, only with no one to keep them company.  And in the absence of functional communities in the breadbasket of the US, the land is treated ever more as a disposable commodity.  Giant Industrial Ag has proved proficient at making a few companies rich, a lot of people fat, and pumping one quarter of all greenhouse gasses into the sky.   But feeding the world without wrecking it?  Not so much.

Still, when de Schutter and Elver declare that small farmers are the future that is going to feed the 10 billion plus, it’s difficult to see how.  And that sense is, more than anything, the real snake in the woodpile.  Our economic system thrives on the notion of scarcity and so that becomes the baseline.  But what if food is not, in fact, scarce?  What if all those hungry people are the result not of the difficulty of producing food, but of producing food the way we currently do it?  There’s a failure of imagination here, an inability to see that there is unexplored territory between the poles of industrial food and threadbare sharecroppers.

Charles Eisenstein points out the example of David Blume who, on rented land on the edge of Silicon Valley, operated a two-acre CSA that provided to 300-450 people for nine years.  Fusing permaculture principles with a little biointensive gardening, Blaine produced, dammit, over eight times what USDA claims is the maximum possible yield per square foot.  He did it without machines, on rented land that he didn’t really improve, on slopes too steep to build on and when he was done, he’d converted the dead clay soil he’d started with to soil you could bag and sell.  Oh, and he made money doing it, too, his little CSA ranking in the top 15% of California’s organic farms.

Blaine, like Eliot Coleman in Maine, seems like an anomaly, one of those people with a magical ability to do the impossible.  But both of them are in fact links to a past when the very sort of large-scale, local production by myriad small farmers which the Special Rapporteurs and now the FAO are calling for… was exactly how things were done.

In 1850, New York was a city of one million people, but it fed itself — from within a radius of seven miles.  Why seven miles?  Because if you went further than that, the feed for your cart horse ate into your profits.  By 1850, Paris, too, had a population of over one million, but with triple the density of New York.  Nevermind, the City of Light was producing its own fresh vegetables twelve months a year, without diesel trucking, global supply lines, synthetic fertilizer, total mechanization and GMO seeds.  The Market Gardeners of Paris, using one-sixth of the land area of the city, created a completely sustainable, highly productive and profitable form of agriculture that was the envy of everyone who saw it.

It can be done.  And it was done by people with infinitely fewer resources and a far cruder understanding than ourselves.  Of course, theirs was a world far from full, with the land’s riches almost entirely intact and the sky just beginning to warm.  They didn’t have seven billion looking for dinner as the aquifers dry out and the Dust Bowl dreams of making a comeback.  They did, however, have something very strongly that has grown weak in us — the ability to imagine that they could accomplish great things using nothing but their wits.


Farmer in His Field by Evgeni Zotov
Egyptian on His Mount by David Barbour
Crops in Their Tires by UUSC
Tractor in its Tomb by NOAA