The industrial agriculture “feed the world” myth — Local Food Northland
This is the World Organic News for the week ending 31st of July 2017.
Jon Moore reporting!
This week we are focusing on post from the blog Local Food Northland entitled The industrial agriculture “feed the world” myth. The myth discussed in this video and written presentation is the “We need industrial agriculture to feed the world now and into the future.”
This myth is prevalent, usually unchallenged and wrong. It is supported in the US by The Alliance to Feed the Future. I’ve put a link in the show notes. It worth a look just to check the members page. Here we find such health food producers as the National Frozen Pizza Institute, the Association for Dressings and Sauces, Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States, The Fertilizer Institute, Grocery Manufacturers Association, International Association of Color Manufacturers, National Confectioners Association and Shelf-Stable Food Processors Association to name a few from the list of members. You can see a certain pattern in these members. They are not localised, wholefood types. Shelf-Stable Food Processors Association are not in existence to breed better tasting, longer shelf life tomatoes as much as they are developing better chemical preservatives to maintain the look but not necessarily the health properties of food, certainly not wholefoods. They were originally formed in 1923 as the National Meat Canners Association. There is a list of their aims and the fourth aim is:
to inform the trade and public of the advantages of processed food product usage;
Given the history of excessive salt, fat and sugar useage in the processed food sector, these might not be the best source of information on the best way to feed the world.
So, let’s look the system of production The Alliance to Feed the Future is advocating for. It is the industrial, Henry Ford inspired, ways of doing things. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Ford system is great for producing widgets and turning employees into robots but food production involves far more living things. A carrot seed is not pig iron.
To begin at the beginning: Seeds. In the industrial system seeds are highly interbred to produce hybrid types with certain characteristics. These characteristics are chosen to create a level of uniformity suitable to industrial processes. I’ll cover alternative methods and choices later but stay with me on this journey.
These seeds are sold on a one use only basis. Collecting a portion of this year’s crop to replant next year is not an option for at least three reasons. One: as hybrids they will not continue to grow true to type each year as the founding cultivars will exhibit their growth patterns over the years. This will result in very uneven growth rates, maturation rates and so on, Two: quite often and increasingly, these seeds are design to be infertile in the next generation. This is especially so with vegetable seeds. A friend saved the seeds from a halloween pumpkin so I could regrow them for her the next season. All of the flowers were male and therefore incapable of forming fruits. And lastly Three: producers are being forced to sign agreements as part of the conditions of seed purchase which prohibits them from seed saving and re-sowing.
Now that the farmer has these seeds in their soil, it turns out they are designed to grow with application of chemical fertilisers and water and set times. It just so happens that many of the seed sellers also sell fertilisers. Happy coincidence.
To obtain the greatest possible yield to cover the costs of these one off seeds, the necessary fertiliser and any pesticides to save their investment, monocultures are not only encouraged but probably essential to obtain a return.
Monocultures are the growing on one cultivar of one crop in one continuous paddock. The downsides of this are: a huge banquet has been laid for insects, herbivores and diseases which specialise in that crop. The one crop takes a particular set of nutrients from the soil. When the same crop is grown over and over on the same piece of land, more chemical fertilisers are required to obtain the same yield. Chemical fertilisers have been shown to kill off soil biota, leading to the need for more fertilisers and the loss of topsoil. A win/win for the fertiliser manufacturers but a growing spiral of increasing costs for the farmer.
End podcast sidebar.
The end effect of everyone growing the same crop, producing an identical output is commodification. If there is nothing to distinguish the end product of one farm from that of another then the product can and will be treated as a commodity. That being so, it traded on markets globally and the producer becomes a price taker not a price setter. In effect the farmer buys all his inputs at retail prices and sells at wholesale. This is not a recipe for sustainability. As a result, in the USA, the number of farmers has fallen to such an extent that the occupation “Farmer” is no longer counted in the census.
The other effect of this commodification of food is the processed food sector. For a more in depth look at that effect check out the 2007 film “King Corn”. As ever, there is a link in the show notes.
There are more unpleasant side effects of industrial ag but I’ll leave those for you to see in the video in the post from Local Food Northland.
Is there an alternative way to feed the world that does not destroy land, force farmers in debt cycles, produces healthy food and will feed the world?
I’ll glad you asked, Yes, of course there is. The system is sustainable, smallholder agriculture. It is currently producing 70% of world agricultural output. Let that sink in. Despite the huge subsidies involved in the US Farm Bills each year, industrial agriculture produces just 30% of the world’s food. If you’ve watched King Corn you will know most of that heads into processed foods which I would argue is directly linked to the obesity epidemic in the developed world and the rise in Type 2 diabetes as well. I could go on and have in the past but i’ll let it sit there for now.
The thing with regenerative or sustainable or conservation agriculture or Permaculture or biodynamic is these systems do not have the lobbyists poking the governments of the world to ensure their voices are heard. They tend to attract hands on, let’s just do the job types who are less inclined to force their snouts into the trough pulled by the gravy train of pork barrelers in the seats of government around the globe. Mixed metaphors aside, the only way to stop the industrialised juggernaut from wreaking more havoc upon the biosphere is get political.
That sustainable methods produce more per acre that monocultures, that they produce far less waste, that they grow soil and sequester carbon and that smallholders already produce 70% of the world’s food just doesn’t matter when the Empire is feeding the political process through lobbyists and donations. We need to get organised, we need to out compete The Alliance to Feed the Future with guerrilla campaigns to let our representatives know we’ve had enough of the misinformation, the corporate welfare, the debt enslavement of farmers and corruption of our food systems.
There is a cross roads approaching, if it is not already here. The earth, the soils are renewable, are re-growable, we can reverse the damage done to it, to those who tend it and those who consume her bounties but we need to act now. We probably needed to act yesterday but today is good enough. Hassle your local representatives, don’t let them get away with business as usual, plant some herb seeds, an apple tree or keep some chooks but do something. If ten percent of us, as the late Bill Mollison once said, moved from consumption to local production, we could change the world for the better. I would add to that and more quickly than we realise!
And on that happy note we will end this week’s episode.
If you’ve liked what you heard, please tell everyone you know any way you can! I’d also really appreciate a review on iTunes. This may or may not help others to find us but it gives this podcaster an enormous thrill! Thanks in advance!
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Thank you for listening and I'll be back in a week.
The industrial agriculture “feed the world” myth — Local Food Northland
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