The author was the keynote speaker at the 1999 annual ecological farming conference in Monterey, CA. These papers are excellent primers on the challenges we face in agriculture.
"But we have to feed the world . . ."
--A North Dakota farmer
"Why are American farmers investing so heavily in
expanding ag export markets, when the richest, most
valuable market in the history of mankind---and the
market the rest of the world's farmers want access to
through upcoming free trade talks---is right here in
the US? Can both strategies be right? Simultaneously?
In this paper we provide an analysis of the role of agriculture in the global
economy, using sustainability as the measure. We argue that as a first
priority we should begin rethinking our food system in terms of local, self-
reliant, value-added, value-retaining foodsheds, that supply a region's food
needs, instead of relying totally on industrial production factories designed
to supply raw materials to the global market, leaving local communities to
import all of their food needs. International trade would be based on surplus
production, not vital production, making local communities self-reliant, and
therefore truly "free" to trade. Finally, we offer a few strategies for
beginning the journey toward this new food system.
I. The Global Economy: Myths and Realities
Herman Daly, the well known former World Bank economist, is fond of quoting
John Maynard Keynes (one of the founders of the World Bank) with respect to
I sympathize therefore, with those who would minimize, rather
than those who would maximize, economic entanglement
between nations. Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel---
these are the things which should of their nature be
international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and
conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national.
These words have taken on a special significance in our time. In the current
climate of economic deregulation (sometimes called neo-liberalism) the
prevalent notion among economists is that the evolution of a global economy is
inevitable, necessary and highly preferable. But it is important to remember
that not all economists share this judgment and that that judgment is not
based on scientific certainty. Indeed, critics like David Kortan argue that it
is based on "ideological extremism". (Mander and Goldsmith, 1996)
Economic neo-liberalism, which has crafted the intellectual justification for
a global economy, is based on a belief system. It is a "story" that describes
one way of organizing our economic lives. It is not the only story available
to us, however. And, of course, it is not the only economic future we can
Economic liberalism's story is similar in many respects to the economic belief
system of Karl Marx. Marx also believed that it was economics that determined
history. He believed that the economic system inherent in capitalism would
inevitably cause capitalism's demise. Most economists today contend that it
was a flawed belief.
Economic neo-liberalism's belief is similarly flawed. The problem with
theories of economic inevitability (like those of Marx and neo-liberalism) is
that they are based on assumptions that are hardly self-evident. For example,
neo-liberalism's assumption that individuals always act in their own rational
financial self-interest cannot be substantiated from human experience. If
that assumption were true, no one would affiliate with a religious
organization that requires sacrifice. No one would have children. There
would be few great works of art. And there would certainly be even fewer
The reason it is important to recognize these false assumptions is that it is
only when we entertain the possibility that the current predominantly held
views regarding the global economy are not inevitable, and that economics is
not the only determining factor that shapes human society, that we can begin
to think critically and creatively about the economic welfare of our
communities and choose alternative futures.
It is also important to recognize that taking a stand against the development
of a global economy does not necessarily mean that one is anti-trade or
"protectionist", or that one has a callous disregard for the world's hungry
International and inter-tribal trade is as old as human history. In the last
half century archaeologists have found evidence of international trade among
ancient societies that was much more extensive than historians had previously
believed possible. For example, archaeologists in North Dakota recently
discovered that a particular type of flint rock that lent itself especially
well for making spear and arrow heads, can only be found in North Dakota. Yet
spears and arrow heads made from this flint can be found all over North and
South America. Indians living in what is now North Dakota traded them. They
apparently also extensively traded food stuffs. But the interesting thing
about the trade policies of these indigenous people is that they insisted on
meeting the needs of the village first. Trade was based on surplus
We contend that these ancient trade policies were wise. Accordingly, while we
support international trade, we question whether our local economies ought to
be made dependent on, or victims of, a global economy which seeks to fit all
cultures and communities into a one-size-fits-all economic system. We
question the wisdom of forcing all cultures and countries, each of which have
emerged out of different histories and different economic situations, into one
economic straight jacket.
Could it be, for example, that Russia, now suffering from one of its most
severe depressions, needs a Roosevelt-styled 'new deal" economy, instead of
the Herbert Hoover-style free market economy that the G-7 nations are trying
to impose on it? The global community needs a diversity of economic systems,
not a single homogenized one.
In particular, we question the wisdom of a homogenized economic system where
food and agriculture are concerned. We believe that in the case of food and
agriculture it is particularly important (as it was among ancient societies
that practiced international trade) to "feed the village first".
Feeding the village first is a concept which suggests that local community
economies are healthiest when they are as self-reliant as possible, especially
where food and agriculture are concerned. Self reliant communities are
healthiest because they are free to pursue their own course, shaped by
cultural norms which evolved in those communities to maintain the local public
good. For this reason it is also important to maintain a diversity of
cultures, as these ancient societies did. Each local culture must be free to
evolve so that it can protect the unique ecology and public good of each local
The global economy, by contrast, makes local communities vulnerable to the
economic health and well-being of distant communities and of "owners" over
which they have little influence.
Herman Daly has reminded us that trade is only free when we are free not to
trade. (Daly, 1996) What Daly recognizes is that when the economy of a local
community or region is dependent on distant communities to supply its needs
and buy its raw materials, then its own economy becomes extremely vulnerable
to economic forces over which it has no control. The effect of the collapse of
the Asian and Russian economies on Northern Plains farmers in the United
States in recent months has clearly demonstrated that phenomenon.
We can, for example, see this principle at work as we watch the agricultural
economy of North Dakota collapse. The globalization and industrialization of
agriculture has reduced farmers in North Dakota to raw materials suppliers of
a few specialized commodities---primarily wheat and beef cattle. That means
that almost no local resources are devoted to producing locally needed value
added products for local consumption. That, in turn, means that we export all
of our cheap raw materials and import all of our needed, expensive value-added
products. This drains both, the wealth of the region's income, and the wealth
potential of the region's raw materials out of our local communities. Such an
economy is reminiscent of colonial economies.
Of course the proponents of economic neo-liberalism will argue that while all
this may be true, it is still to the overall economic advantage of local
communities to be part of a global economy so we can avail ourselves of the
benefits of "comparative advantage".
The theory of comparative advantage was first espoused by David Ricardo, one
of the great classical economists. To put it simply, the theory of
comparative advantage suggests that each country (or region) should produce
what it can produce most efficiently and import those things that others can
produce more efficiently. And no trade barriers should be erected to
"protect" the less efficient local production systems. This is the classical
argument advocated by free trade proponents.
But as Daly points out, Ricardo's theory was based on a very specific set of
assumptions, including the expectation that capital would remain "immobile
between nations." Daly argues that since capital is now no longer rooted in
local communities, Ricardo, were he alive today, "would not support a policy
of free trade." Given the fact that capital today is controlled primarily by
transnational corporations (TNC's) who are not held accountable to any local
community, we no longer accrue the benefits of comparative advantage to the
communities in which we live. Most of the benefits accrue to shareholders of
TNC's who generally live in distant communities.
Consequently, Daly suggests that we need to ascertain whether or not trade is
really mutually beneficial before we engage in it. We should determine
whether or not "the gains from international trade and specialization are not
canceled by the immediate disadvantages: higher transportation costs,
increased dependence on distant supplies and markets, and a reduced range of
choice of ways for citizens to make a living." We should also determine
whether or not trade will cause a deterioration of natural eco-systems,
destroy local natural resources or reduce quality of life before we trade.
But proponents of economic neo-liberalism will argue that even if these
negative consequences occur, the globalization of agriculture is still
necessary to feed an expanding human population. We have to feed the world!
That assumption is based on at least three flawed propositions. First is the
assumption that people are hungry because we are short of food---that farmers
are unable to produce enough. That assertion is totally false and repeatedly
proven to be so. (Kirschenmann, 1997, Lappe` and Collins, 1986)
Second is the assumption that we can solve the population explosion problem
simply by intensifying food production, especially the production of cereal
grains. But ecologists have raised disturbing questions about that
proposition. They argue that such intensification itself creates serious
obstacles to meeting those goals. The obstacles include:
*the destruction of the very genetic resources needed to develop
*the degradation of the very ecosystem services needed to increase
*the environmental and human health consequences of
intensive agricultural practices;
*the extreme climactic changes that accompany global
warming which will likely jeopardize food production capacity.
(Daily, et. al., 1998, Baskin, 1997)
Third, is the assumption that the only way to produce enough food for future
human population growth is by intensifying our mass production of a few
specialized commodities with new technologies. But we know from several
thousand years of observation that small-scale, labor-intensive, local food
production systems, wherein local people have access to production resources,
are by far the most productive.
For example, under the ecological management of the Anasazi Indians, a small
region near Dolores, Colorado in the desert Southwest, supported a population
of over 100,000 citizens around 1,000 AD. That same region today supports
less than 15,000. The Anasazi raised dryland corn that produced an average 40
bushels per acre. Today with all the modern technologies at our disposal,
farmers can only obtain 14 bushels per acre average dryland corn production in
that same region. (Anazasi Museum, Dolores, Co)
Once and for all we should acknowledge that hunger is caused by social
inequity and the lack of access to food producing resources, not lack of
production. As E.F Schumacher pointed out so eloquently 25 years ago, what we
need to keep the world fed is not mass production, but production by the
masses. (Schumacher, 1973) What Schumacher understood all too well, was the
fact that when small, local farmers are pushed off the land (as Mexican
farmers will be en mass in the next decade, due largely to free trade
policies (Brandon and Franklin, 1998) the land gets concentrated in the hands
of large land owners, and then the land gets used to mass produce commodities
for export, rather than feeding local populations. And that usually creates
surpluses of raw materials which end up putting farmers all over the world out
of business. That exacerbates, rather than solves the problem of "feeding the
II. Industrial Agriculture and Unsustainable trends.
The global food system is fed by an increasingly industrialized agriculture
which cannot be sustained. Industrial agriculture is based on three
principles: specialization, standardization and centralization. These
principles grew out of the factory model of industrialization. This factory
model has proven very efficient in the production of many manufactured goods.
However, many business leaders are now questioning these principles because
they largely fail to calculate the importance of the human factor in
production. They also increasingly recognize that since these principles tend
to externalize social and environmental costs, they put much of society, and
sometimes even the industry at risk. When hamburger gets contaminated with E
coli in a huge centralized beef packing plant, for example, the losses and
liabilities connected with the recall of millions of pounds of hamburger, as
well as the number of people at risk, is far greater than if a similar
contamination were to occur in a locally owned, diversified butcher shop.
More important for agriculture, however, is our failure to recognize that
farms are not factories and that the effort to impose these three principles
on farms has created an agriculture that is headed for collapse. These
principles create huge monocultures that have numerous adverse effects. They
make farmers vulnerable to the economic fortunes of a very narrow band of
commodities. Farmers who have specialized in the production of hogs or wheat,
for example, are currently being forced out of business due to the record low
prices of those commodities. Farmers who have diversified farms, on the other
hand, have also diversified their risks.
These industrial principles also impose a system of agronomic practices that
dramatically increase costs and destroy the habitat of many species that are
critical to efficient production. Our monocultures, for example have largely
destroyed the habitat of indigenous pollinators, and have placed imported
pollinators (like European honeybees) at great risk. The fact that one out of
every three mouthfuls of food that we all eat is dependent on pollinators
(Buchmann and Nabhan, 1996) requires us to ask what impact industrial farming
practices actually have on our ability to keep the world fed.
The three principles of industrial agriculture are also largely responsible
for farmers' increased production costs. A recent University of Minnesota
Plant Diversity Task Force concluded that our vast monocrop systems in the Red
River Valley have now revved up disease and pest cycles to such an extent that
there is no way the research community can keep up with resistance
technologies to stay ahead of the curve---no matter how much money we allocate
Given the ever increasing need for inputs to support this system of
agriculture, ND Extension Service calculated that it now costs North Dakota
farmers $117 an acre to produce wheat. Most county-wide average wheat yields
in North Dakota run below 30 bushel an acre. That means farmers need to
consistently get at least $4 per bushel just to break even on their input
costs. But given global-wide surplus production in 1998 prices hovered at
$2.50 per bushel. So farmers find it impossible to generate the cash to repay
loans or purchase inputs for the next crop cycle.
Furthermore, standardization is based on the assumption that the environment
is predictable and controllable. It assumes that one can take an isolated
phenomenon (like corn borer pressure) and apply a standard therapy, like an
insecticide or Bt seed corn. But every high school biology student knows that
nature is complex and always evolving, and that therefore nature's response to
applied technologies will vary from place to place and year to year.
Accordingly, standardization is fundamentally contrary to nature's
But perhaps the greatest fallacy of industrial agriculture is the assumption
that one can abstract a few agronomic principles and then develop standardized
farming techniques to be applied universally. From experiments with hybrid
seeds, for example, we concluded that hybrid seeds were superior in all places
under all circumstances. In point of fact hybrid seeds are only superior
when soil, climate and synthetic inputs are optimized. As one farmer put
it---"you buy expensive seed and fertilizer and if you don't get rain, its
like throwing money into the wind."
Since farming is an activity that takes place in living, local ecosystems, it
simply makes more sense to craft farming systems that continually adapt to the
local ecologies in which the farm is located. Ironically such adaptation
suggests principles that are diametrically opposed to the three industrial
principles. Ecological farming requires that we employ the principles of
diversity, variability and integration, rather than the principles of
specialization, standardization and centralization.
If we managed our farms by these ecological principles they would look very
different from the industrial farms that now dominate the landscape. Instead
of huge wheat farms and cattle ranches in North Dakota, for example, we would
have more moderate-sized diversified farms which grow five or more crops and
have two or more animal species. The crop and livestock systems would be fully
integrated. The waste from the cropping systems would be fed to the livestock
and the wastes from the livestock would be used to fertilize the crops. In
some locations crops and livestock would both be rotated through the system.
In other locations, due to the ecology of the land, livestock would be grazed
on native prairie and crops would be grown in the "niches" of the prairie
landscape. In all cases the diversity would keep diseases in check and
provide for natural habitat that would harbor the species that help control
The central operating principle of such a system would be "to manage nature so
that she doesn't have to be managed." (Eisenberg, 1998) In other words a farm
would be a production system in which nature's own ecosystem services would
provide the majority of the fertility and pest and disease control that
A few USDA scientists are now actively promoting this kind of alternative
agriculture. They argue that the "therapeutic" interventionist strategies of
industrial agriculture, wherein the prevailing pest control strategy has been
to kill pest organisms with toxic chemicals, has created a classic treadmill.
The solution becomes the problem. That treadmill has actually increased crop
losses due to pests. On a world basis crop losses due to insects, weeds and
disease were 34.9% in 1965 and rose to 42.1% in 1988-1990.
These same USDA scientists argue that the more recent substitution of new
classes of chemicals and the technologies of molecular biology has not changed
the problem since these new technologies still conform to the same paradigm.
(Lewis, et. al. 1997)
III. Strategies for Developing Sustainable Local Communities.
In his thoughtful book Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Larry Rasmussen suggests
that we should stop talking about sustainable development and start thinking
about sustainable communities. The global economy will not help us here.
Building sustainable communities, as Rasmussen argues, requires an ethic.
What kind of production ethic do we need to develop sustainable communities?
Rasmussen points out that "the scientific discovery of the twentieth century"
is the fact that the earth is a community. As Thomas Berry put it, the earth
is a "community of subjects", not "a collection of objects". (Berry and
Swimme, 1992) And the earth community is not a single, homogenized global
ecosystem, but a complex array of many diverse, interconnected local
ecosystems. (Eldridge, 1995)
This scientific discovery suggests that if we want to live on the earth in a
sustainable way we have to begin to understand the "place" of the earth
community in which we live, and learn how to interact with that place to
preserve it as a healthy local community. And that place includes all the
species with which we co-evolved. It follows that if we want food and farming
systems that sustain local communities we really do have to "consult the
genius of the place" as Alexander Pope advised us some years ago.
Accordingly, local community life shaped by a culture that is rooted in the
wisdom inherent in each local ecology, is the core requirement of
sustainability. Living and farming in accordance with those principles must
be the cornerstone of our new production ethic. Developing such an ecological
consciousness as the proper context for farming, is the new challenge facing
This new ecological consciousness is beginning to penetrate the fields of
medicine, nutrition, forestry, and fishing, as people in all walks of life are
recognizing that the human species is not insulated from the rest of earth
community. It is that new consciousness that will shape the ecological farming
What are some of the strategies we need to implement to effect the transition
from an industrial/global to an ecological/local food and farming system?
First, it means recognizing that changing from a global economy to sustainable
communities, will require that we rethink the whole food and farming system.
Simply getting farmers to rethink their farming systems, or to "go organic",
Today's farms are part and parcel of the global, industrialized economic
system. The global market only demands a very narrow band of commodities.
Just fifteen plant species are used to produce 90% of the calories consumed on
this planet. (Soule, et.al., 1990) In the grain sector the market is largely
limited to corn, wheat soybeans and rice. 80% of the 220 million acres
planted to annual crops in the US are devoted to corn, soybeans and wheat.
Consequently there are no markets for the diversified crops that must be grown
on ecologically managed farms. That, in turn, insures that without changing
the entire food system the market will continue to force farmers into
monoculture production, producing cheap raw materials for the global economy.
So we need alternative marketing systems as well as alternative farming
systems. As a first priority we need to begin rethinking our food system in
terms of local, self-sufficient, value-added and value-retained foodsheds that
supply all of a region's food needs. Most food processing and packing
operations must be locally owned, retaining the value that is added by such
processing in local communities.
This would be a clear alternative to the industrial production factories
designed to supply cheap raw materials to the global market, which forces
producing communities to import all of their local food needs, and to export
the value of their locally produced raw materials. International trade would
be based on surplus production. In other words, it would be a marketing system
that feeds the village first and truly makes local communities "free" to
Admittedly, changing our whole food system will be a mammoth undertaking and
we will not accomplish it in the next few months. But the new system is, in
fact, already being developed so we also don't have to start from scratch.
Direct marketing schemes and locally owned value-added processing enterprises
of various kinds are already in place and many of them are very successful.
But to expand these ventures, many of them small and largely isolated, into a
comprehensive food system alternative, will require a systems dynamic approach
that begins to systematize this sustainable alternative to the industrial food
system. We will need to inaugurate new initiatives in education, public
policy and market reform.
Following is a beginning list of things we can do:
1. Initiate dialogs throughout farm communities that help farmers to
understand that recurring farm crises are not due to low prices, unfair trade
practices, timid export promotion, deficient safety nets, insufficient
research or inadequate technologies. Economic farm crises are, in fact,
inherent in the global economic system which operates on the principles of
cheap labor, cheap raw materials, and externalized risk. So as long as
farmers are suppliers of raw materials of a few specialized commodities,
requiring intensive inputs that put farmers on treadmills, and force them to
absorb most of the risk involved in producing those commodities, they will
never be economically empowered. That is the first lesson every farmer has to
2. Land Grant University systems need to begin helping farmers to understand
the ecological neighborhoods in which they farm, and then provide assistance
in developing natural systems farming technologies that mirror those
ecologies. In the Northern Plains that means learning to understand the
complexity of prairie ecologies, breeding seeds that produce food plants which
thrive in such ecologies, and creating habitats that produce symbiotic
relationships between native species and farming systems.
3. Develop media exposure that helps international communities to recognize
that "feeding the world" is not a solution to the chronic problems of hunger
and homelessness. We must create media scenarios that show practical
alternatives to ADM's "supermarket to the world". Those scenarios would
represent individuals and governments working together to eliminate hunger by
promoting local cultural norms that bring human populations in line with
other earth species in each ecological neighborhood. (Norberg-Hodge, 1991)
Those efforts would include the education of women in every community.
Those scenarios must include practical strategies for making adequate
nutrients available to all people. Those strategies would include, but not be
*more efficient animal agriculture, cutting grain-based diets for ruminants
at least in half, thereby making more nutrients available for humans;
*restoration and preservation of seafood ecologies. (While cereal production
accounts for 50% of the energy intake of the world's poor, 60% of the world's
population depends on seafood for 40% of its protein)
* international debt restructuring that would allow developing nations to use
local production resources to feed local populations, and
*restoration of soil quality throughout the world to preserve and increase
the yield potential of appropriate new technologies. It is now generally
agreed that the reason crop yields have leveled off or declined despite new
technologies is that declining soil quality prevents the yield potential of
such technologies from being realized. (National Research Council, 1993)
4. Reconnect eaters with the ecological cycles of food production. No one
should be considered properly educated without having first hand knowledge of
where food comes from and how to produce and prepare it. Such knowledge
should be considered as "basic" as reading, writing and math. Everyone should
grow at least some of what they eat, regardless of where they live.
1. Gradually reduce the public subsidies that support industrial agriculture
and shift part of those subsidies to programs that would help farmers
transition to ecologically sound farming systems. In 1997 the Dutch Institute
for Research on Public Expenditure prepared a report for the Rio+5 Forum which
revealed that "subsidies from the public purse" in just four sectors (water,
energy, road transportation and agriculture) amounted to $700 billion
annually, more than the entire international expenditure for arms. They noted,
further, that of the $335 billion in annual agricultural transfers, only 20%
actually ended up as "additional farm income" (Renske van Staveren, INTERNET:
It is precisely the subsidies in these four areas that enable industrial
agriculture to survive and largely contribute to the unlevel playing field on
which local ecological farming systems must compete. If a small portion of
these subsidies were redirected toward research to develop natural systems
pest management, nutrient cycling systems, the reintegration of crop/livestock
systems, and the development of locally-owned food processing enterprises and
direct marketing, it could dramatically expand sound, locally based ecological
farming systems that would benefit farmers, local communities and the
2. Encourage state and local governments to establish tax policies which
require that a percentage of local food needs purchased with public money be
purchased from local farmers. If local governments required that 25% of the
food purchased for prisons, state universities, county and state hospitals,
and school lunch programs (all purchased with public funds) must be purchased
from local farmers, it would create a substantial market for locally produced
foods. Such local purchases would create an infrastructure for local
production that the private sector could build on to create substantial
markets for locally produced food.
3. International policies should be established through the United Nations
that would focus on empowering the masses to produce their own food, rather
than relying on trans-national corporations to mass produce a few commodities
to feed the world. The TNC strategy jeopardizes food security, pushes small,
local farmers off the land, and appropriates food producing resources for
profit- making, and for debt reduction in developing countries. As Martin
Kimani, a leading agriculturist from Kenya puts it, it leads farmers to
"producing food they didn't eat, and eating food they didn't produce."
Simultaneously it overproduces the few commodities for which there are
markets, forcing independent farmers all over the world out of business. This
process concentrates food production resources in the hands of a very few
people, jeopardizing global food security.
4. Firmly enforce anti-trust laws and enact appropriate economic and social
regulations (Castle, 1998) in the food and agriculture arena to insure free
and open markets for farmers. The unprecedented mergers and buyouts in the
food and agriculture industry are not designed to insure greater efficiency
and lower costs for consumers. They are designed to concentrate economic
power which will ultimately harm the interests of both producers and
consumers, and surely will not feed the world.
5. Begin a comprehensive review of international energy policies and develop
plans for an energy efficient food system in the post-petroleum era. Some oil
industry analysts now predict that the world has about one decade of cheap oil
left. (Campbell and Laherre`re, 1998) By the year 2010 we will begin to see
oil prices rise dramatically. We need to establish policies now, that will
prepare for that future to insure a continued supply of affordable food to all
people on the planet. And that means food and farming systems that are much
less petroleum dependent than the industrial farming systems of today.
1. Encourage public/private partnerships to develop direct marketing systems,
local entrepreneurship, and locally owned, value-added, value-retained food
processing operations. North Dakota's public/private partnership arrangement,
which has developed numerous locally owned value-added processing cooperatives
and companies, could be expanded and used as a model for other regions. The
North Dakota experience demonstrates that such partnerships don't necessarily
require public subsidies since the increased tax revenues from such newly
created locally owned enterprises often return the public's investment with
2. Study the evolution of Farmers Markets, CSA's and other direct marketing
institutions, and use them as models to explore additional direct marketing
opportunities. There are numerous opportunities to develop direct marketing
arrangements in various components of the farming sector. Mobile meat
processing units, for example, could dramatically increase the direct sale of
locally produced meat products.
3. Explore the possibility of establishing commodity "pools" (or other
collective bargaining strategies) to give farmers additional bargaining power
in negotiating fair prices of the raw materials they continue to produce.
Such collective bargaining strategies would serve to help keep farmers on the
farm while we transition to a local, community agriculture future.
4. Exploit the weaknesses of large firms as a means of insuring the
sustainability of smaller, locally owned enterprises. Large industrialized
operations do not possess the flexibility to adapt rapidly to changing market
demands or the diversity to meet the quality requirements of market niches.
Such weaknesses create market opportunities that smaller, innovative, local
farmers and food processing enterprises can exploit. (Castle, 1998)
These strategies are not simply schemes to "save the family farm" or to
"preserve our agrarian lifestyle" or to provide "safe, wholesome food" to
well-to-do middle class Americans, important as those goals may be. The
question which this transition from a global to a local food system seeks to
address is one that was eloquently raised by Harold Breimyer and Wallace Barr.
The question facing us all is
. . whether some version of a dispersed farm
production and marketing organization is to prevail
or whether the control of U.S [and world] farm
production and marketing will be concentrated in a
relatively small number of large firms.
(Breimyer and Barr, 1972)
The answer to that question has grave implications for every citizen of the
Clearly the suggestions proposed in this position paper are a very meager
beginning to getting us on the path to a transition from a global food system
to one that feeds the village first. And it invites a dialog on these
important issues among everyone invested in international food systems
designed to keep the human species fed, while enhancing the ecological
neighborhood that we share with the rest of earth's species.
As we engage in that process it might be well to be guided by some over-
arching principles. We think that the late Stanley James Hallett, minister
and renowned national community organizer gave us three principles that might
serve us well on our journey. Hallett suggested that when it comes to human
systems that are suppose to serve people
The other bit of wisdom that we might put into our saddle bags as we go down
this path of reorganizing our food system comes to us from Rick Welsh, policy
analyst with the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. We
must understand, he writes,
that the structure of agriculture in this or any other country is not an
evolutional or inevitable process, but a socially constructed arrangement of
institutions, rules and relationships. The organization of agriculture today
has resulted solely from decisions made by people, and can be altered and
reorganized if enough people wish to alter or reorganize it. (Welsh, 1997)
We believe enough people do!
The prospect of a very rapidly expanding human population is now regularly
being used as a justification for intensifying industrial agriculture.
Symptomatic of this propaganda are the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)
advertisements on National Public Radio and Television. ADM, we are reminded
ad nauseam, is the "supermarket to the world".
That "supermarket", we are told, is working hard to dramatically increase
yields and turn farmers' grain commodities into many value added products to
feed a world of expanding human population. At the same time, the ads claim,
the "supermarket" is saving wildlife and wilderness. In one particularly
hyperbolic sequence David Brinkley explains how ADM is making all this happen
while the video presents us with fields of the "supermarket's" abundant
harvests contrasted with the meager yields of water buffalo agriculture,
burning rain forests and marginal lands. The message is clear. Anything but
intensive, industrial agriculture would consign millions to starvation and
make it necessary to plow up our remaining wilderness and rain forests to grow
Biotechnology companies have been particularly aggressive in using this
food/land scare to justify their introduction of genetically engineered
technologies into the environment. The agriculture they are developing, they
maintain, is the only way to "feed the world" and simultaneously save the
environment. In a 1996 statement, for example, representatives of Ceregen,
the agricultural biotechnology unit of Monsanto, made the rationale explicit.
By the middle of the 21st century, the world's population will
have doubled. How can the earth and its already strained
resources sustain these additional billions without going
ecologically bankrupt? Ceregen's answer: smarter, genetically
engineered crops---crops that require less pesticide, use less
water, yield more bushels per acre and pack more nutrition.
(quoted in Lappe' and Britt, 1998)
Some private foundations have also gotten on this bandwagon. Gordon Conway,
president of the Rockefeller Foundation, in a new book, The Doubly Green
Revolution, proposes a three-pronged approach for feeding the world: (a)
genetic engineering of new crops to improve resistance to pests and tolerance
to drought, salinity and poor soils, (b) better farm management techniques as
alternatives to pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, and (c) reliance on
special knowledge of farmers who are the innovators and experimenters.
Conway seems to be oblivious to the fact that the "special knowledge of
farmers" in developing countries is largely at odds with the high tech world
of genetic engineering. Martin Kimani, one of Kenya's leading agriculturists
observes that genetic engineering "would undermine tried and tested methods
currently used by small-scale farmers in countries like Kenya." Kimani argues
that genetic technologies will produce many of the same results for third
world farmers that Green Revolution technologies caused. He points out that
farmers gained little from the Green Revolution technology and sacrificed
their "household-level food production". (INTERNET:firstname.lastname@example.org).
What Kimani understands is that there is a direct link between a healthy
biodiversity and a productive agriculture, and that both green revolution and
gene revolution technologies dramatically erode the biodiversity of local
ecosystems. Lori Ann Thrupp points out that industrial agriculture has
destroyed the biodiversity of agroecosystems at all levels; genetic resources,
livestock, insects, habitats and soil organisms. As she points out, this
destroys the local knowledge about diversity and farming. (Thrupp, 1997)
Furthermore, the genetic uniformity fostered by transgenic crops threatens the
diverse seed stock which is the foundation of the resilient food systems
developed by those farmers.
Additionally, since high tech companies seem determined to introduce the
"terminator technology" which will sterilize second generation seeds, it puts
this technology even more squarely in conflict with the "innovation and
experimentation" of the world's farmers. Preserving the genetic diversity of
food crops through saving and exchanging seeds has been the fund from which
resilient productivity has been developed by innovative farmers.
Conway also seems to ignore the fact that genetically engineering crops for
tolerance to drought, salinity and poor soils, will distract attention from
the need to alter the farming systems that caused those conditions. Such
therapeutic interventions, as opposed to whole systems changes, would likely
put farmers on yet another treadmill, since it only deals with the symptoms
and not the cause.
Nevertheless, the "feed the world" rhetoric is having an enormous impact on
our food and agriculture system. It has put farmers in the industrial world
on a treadmill, constantly purchasing new technologies to increase the yields
of a few commodities destined for the global market. The increased yields
produce surpluses that reduce prices, forcing farmers to increase their size
and reach for another round of technologies to compensate for the lost income
of low prices. Meanwhile, farmers in both developed and developing countries
are forced off the land, leading to farming systems that increasingly produce
a few commodities for export, rather than diverse food products that feed
local populations. Consequently, hunger goes unabated throughout the world
despite surplus production, leading to the now familiar cliche` "want in the
midst of abundance".
That paradox leads to some fundamental questions. How much of the
food/population scare is true? Is the analysis correct? If surplus production
is not keeping the world fed today, how will further intensification of the
same system feed the world tomorrow? And, more importantly, is high tech, more
intensive, industrial agriculture the answer to keeping the world fed? Let's
separate fact from fiction.
It is true that the world's human population has been doubling at a
dramatically increasing rate. The most recent doubling of the world human
population took just 36 years (1960-1996). Prior to that it took 60 years
(1900-1960) and prior to that it took 200 years (1700-1900). Using that trend
it would appear that Monsanto's projections might even be conservative. But
trends are always deceptive. Trends assume that everything that drives the
trend will stay the same. That is rarely the case. And with regard to human
population growth it is clearly not the case.
In this context it is important to remember that the history of evolution
suggests that when any population of species expands to a point where it is
out of balance with the rest of the species with which it evolved, it is
likely to "crash". While it is not obvious that the human species will
succumb to a similar evolutionary fate, it is also not obvious that it is
exempt. In fact given our therapeutic approach to health care (intervening
with technologies when we get ill, rather than attending to systems
improvements that make us more resilient and keep us healthy) we are ripe for
such a crash. The development of antibiotic resistant microbes at the same
time that our immune systems have become compromised, might be a major factor
in the evolution of such a crash.
These observations from nature's functioning suggest that the food/population
issue is part and parcel of a much more complex equation. Accordingly keeping
the world fed is an objective that is inseparable from a balanced population
of all species in an ecosystem. A healthy, diverse ecosystem, in turn, is
inseparable from a diverse set of healthy habitats that enable a diverse group
of interrelated species to thrive. And, it is precisely that healthy,
thriving, interrelated biological life which produces the ecosystem services
that are the foundation of any productive agriculture.
Secondly, the most recent trends indicate a slowing of human population
growth, particularly in some parts of the world. Given the more recent
trends, the United Nation's projections indicate that the human population
will reach 7.1 billion by the year 2030, up only 1.2 billion in the next 30
years---far from another doubling.
Even more important, however, is the fact that the problem of a dramatically
expanding human population cannot be neatly reduced to a problem of increasing
production. Even if we could produce enough food to feed a human population
that continues to double every 30 years by inventing new technologies, we
would rapidly create an environment that would ecologically and socially self
In fact ecologists are pointing out that our unrestrained intensified farming
systems are already causing eco-system damage that is undermining our
productive capacity. Soil degradation, ground water depletion, and the
impairment of other ecosystem services have already created "obstacles" to
increasing food production through new technologies. For example, attempting
to increase production through transgenic crops will be limited by the reduced
biodiversity from which that technology develops its "improved" cultivars. And
genetic engineering, by design, reduces biodiversity.
Dramatic increases in crop yields are also dependent on ideal weather
conditions. But many intensive farming practices contribute to global
climate changes that cause fluctuations in weather patterns, increasing
storms, thereby increasing crop losses. (Daily, et. al., 1998)
We have learned from the green Revolution, that technological interventions
never produce single results. Introducing a technology into an ecosystem with
which it did not evolve always brings with it unintended effects. Accordingly
we are always in danger of destroying the very ecosystem services on which
food production depends. Green Revolution technologies produced precisely
such effects in India and elsewhere. (Shiva, 1991)
Furthermore, even if we could reduce the food/population problem to one of
increasing yields with new technologies, increasing the yields of corn,
soybeans, wheat and rice (which most of the feed-the-world rhetoric presumes)
is hardly the way to increase protein availability for humans. Our greatest
protein gains for humans can be achieved by redirecting what we already
produce, not by inventing technologies to produce more.
Additional protein gains from the introduction of new technologies have been
very disappointing in recent years. This is probably due to the fact that
degradation of soil quality has seriously jeopardized the yield potential of
new technologies. (National Research Council, 1993) On the other hand we
could achieve major increases in protein availability for human consumption by
restructuring our productive capacity.
In our modern food system much of our capacity to feed the world is wasted by
feeding protein to animals that is consumable by humans. While it is true
that 50% of the energy intake that feeds the world's poor comes from cereals
(mostly rice), 80 to 90% of the corn and soybeans produced in the United
States is fed to animals. By some estimates only 2% of all crop production in
the state of Nebraska is destined for human food.
The conversion of plant food to animal protein results in a loss of up to 8.5
pounds of plant protein for every pound of animal protein. (Lappe and Britt,
1998) So we could dramatically increase protein availability for humans by
feeding livestock forages, crop residues, and grain unfit for human
consumption, and grazing them on lands not suitable for crop production. Such
a feeding program would allow ruminant animals to convert protein into food
for humans that would otherwise be unavailable. We could best achieve these
objectives by reintegrating crop and livestock systems. The reintegration of
crops and livestock would make it possible to add value to crop wastes by
feeding them to livestock while making more efficient use of livestock waste
to improve soil organic matter which would further increase yield potential.
In assessing the food/population issue we must also consider the fact that our
intensive land based agriculture has been a major player in the deterioration
of seafood ecologies. 60% of the world's population depends on seafood for
40% of their annual protein consumption. (Hewitt and Smith, 1995) If we
degrade this important food source in order to increase corn and soybean
yields by a few bushel an acre (especially when 90% of these crops are fed to
livestock, not humans) are we really helping to feed the world?
Furthermore, the biotech companies who promise us that they will increase food
supplies with genetic engineering have no track record for doing so. To date,
none of the applications of genetic engineering have increased either yields
or nutritional value. Some studies, in fact, actually indicate yield losses.
But in our effort to separate fact from fiction, perhaps the most important
fact of all is that food shortages are not due to lack of production. Today
over 800 million people on this planet suffer from malnutrition and given
global crop surpluses one can hardly argue that this is due to a lack of
production. The problem of food shortages is one of social inequity, economic
disempowerment and unfairness, not lack of production. Simply producing more
corn and soybeans won't change that.
So if we are serious about keeping the world fed then it is critical that we
expand our understanding of the cause of hunger and how to alleviate it
Accordingly, the cause of global hunger would be well served if we stopped
talking about feeding the world, and started doing something about the complex
set of issues that would enable every citizen of planet earth to feed
themselves. Here are some of the things we could do.
1. Take steps to restructure or write off third world debt so that local land
resources in developing countries can be used to feed local populations,
rather than producing exotic foods and grains for export. Currently
developing nations are forced to use most of their land resources to generate
cash to pay foreign debt, instead of making it available to feed local
2. Phase out public subsidies for energy, water, road transportation and
industrial agriculture. Globally, such subsidies cost the public 700 billion
dollars annually, and it is precisely these subsidies that make it difficult
for locally owned, ecologically sound farming systems (which could feed local
populations around the world) to compete with intensive, industrial
agriculture. As these subsidies are phased out, a portion of them could be
used to research the development of infrastructures for local food markets,
locally-owned food processing plants, nutrient cycling systems and natural
pest management systems, all of which would sustain long-term food security.
3. Create market infrastructures that enhance local food security rather than
the global trade of a few agri-business commodities.
4. Develop public programs that encourage farmers to produce clean water,
clean air, improved biodiversity and healthy soil, in addition to nutritious
food for local communities. Such programs would enhance the ecosystem services
that could increase the yield potential of appropriate new technologies.
5. Develop global food storage systems that would insure adequate food
supplies in all parts of the world during periods of weather related
6. Initiate international land reforms and food production policies that
enable local farmers in all nations to gain access to agricultural lands for
local food production, and that encourage young entrepreneurs to enter farming
7. Initiate food and agriculture policies that recreate local infrastructures
(locally owned packing sheds, processing plants, butcheries, etc) that create
markets for locally produced food.
8. Diversify the food system to create demand for a greater diversity of crops
and livestock. A more diverse food system would increase biodiversity,
reinforce food security and reduce farmers' risks.
9. Restructure the food system to reduce food waste. A recent USDA study
estimated that at least twenty five percent of the food produced in the United
states goes to waste between production and end use. While "gleaning" programs
and other food charities may be useful to "stopgap" hunger, they do not help
to eliminate hunger. International food giveaways often put farmers in
resource poor countries out of business, further threatening local food
security. And charitable "feed the hungry" programs often prevent meaningful
structural changes that could empower people to feed themselves.
10. Create tax incentives and other public and market changes to reintegrate
crop and animal agriculture. Monocropping and animal concentration were
created in part through tax policies that favored such development. We now
need public policies that reverse that trend, encourage nutrient cycling, make
more efficient use of crop proteins, and improve conservation. Shifting the
food and agriculture system in this direction would create economic
efficiencies, solve environmental problems, and make production systems more
resilient, less dependent on inputs, and more risk averse.
11. Develop local, community ethical and cultural norms that reduce
conspicuous consumption in developed countries and create an international
ecological consciousness. Ultimately the food security of the human species
is dependent on the health of local ecosystems. An ethic that reduces the
impact of extravagant consumption on local ecosystems is crucial to the long-
term nourishment of the human species.
These are a few of the real obstacles to keeping the world fed. Anyone that
is not seriously addressing these issues would do us all a favor if they
stopped talking about "feeding the world"!