False dichotomy The choice is not either full-blown modern technology or subsistence organic
Recently we were asked to take part in a symposium at the Entomological Society of America annual meeting titled: “Feeding future generations: Expanding a global science to answer a global challenge.” The focus of that challenge was to identify ways to feed nine billion people in 2050.
We preface this synopsis by noting that it appears to us that the multinational biotech seed and chemical companies have responded to this challenge by positioning their products as the primary solution. Not incidentally, they are also using this challenge as a justification for pressing the case for the extension of their intellectual property rights through trade negotiations.
It appears to us that much of the discussion about feeding nine billion people by 2050 has been captured by these firms by setting up a false dichotomy.
On the one side, we have what might be called the current mechanized agricultural model. Its goal is to bring the latest technologies (read GMOs and agricultural chemicals) to bear on solving this problem. It is argued that through the use of patented products and technologies, U.S. farmers can boost their production to help meet the increased demand for food.
Similarly farmers in developing nations can use these same patented technologies and products to boost their crop production. But in order to make them available, the agribusiness firms need to make sure that their intellectual property is protected. So they offer free use of products like a GMO cassava to a country’s farmers in exchange for their setting up U.S.-style intellectual property rights and regulatory agencies in their country. The vision is to remould subsistence farmers into entrepreneurial, export-oriented producers.
On the other side, they offer organic production, essentially viewing it as a post-industrial philosophical reaction to the mechanization of agriculture. They go on to characterize organic production as offering lower yields and increased labour requirements as a result of higher weed and insect pressure.
By positing organics as the only alternative to the full use of their products, they hope to quash any challenge to their vision. They also ignore a lot of other actions that could be helpful in meeting the challenge of feeding two billion additional people by 2050.
One needed action is to reduce post-harvest loss, which can be as much as a quarter to a third of the crop. To do this, low-input storage technologies need to be identified that use resources available to farm households and can be maintained over the long haul by the poorest of the poor.
Returning to a theme that we have touched on before in this column, we need long-term funding for conventional breeding programs that will produce public varieties of “lost crops”: teff, various sorghums, amaranth, fonio, African rice, millets and pulses. Many of these crops currently yield about one tonne per hectare. Research plots have identified landraces of these crops that can yield triple or quadruple that. A conventional breeding program could breed these high-yielding characteristics back into the local varieties that would be acceptable to local households.
Intercropping can increase total food output from a given plot of land through techniques like succession planting. While intercropping would be a problem for farmers using diesel tractors, it is more common among farmers who depend upon hand labour.
As a recent Iowa State study showed, three- and four-year rotations that include crops and livestock can reduce the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides. In some cases the task will be to help subsistence farmers recover traditional rotations that used local crops and crop varieties.
We cannot underestimate the importance of the issue of soil and water management. We need to pay attention to soil biotics and soil structure. Doing so could decrease water run-off, increase water infiltration, and improve nutrient availability to the plants.
None of this is difficult. The science is relatively easy. What it takes is the political will to fund programs in these areas. In saying this we are not arguing that the role of mechanized agriculture in the global North does not play a role in meeting this goal; it does. But there is more to it than that.
Oh! and we almost forgot our most important point.
The real challenge in feeding all nine billion people in 2050 is not production; it is distribution.
Remember 1998-2001? The price of corn was $1.85 a bushel and we had 800 million hungry people in the world. But because they lacked purchasing power, 800 million people went to bed hungry while U.S. producers were told that the low prices were caused by their “overproduction.”
The first step in meeting this challenge is to enable the farmers who are among the poorest of the poor to produce their own food using sustainable technologies that are within their resource base.