Food Fight, Conclusion

Seed Debate / by Maywa Montenegro /

What's the surest path to sustainable food security?Highly efficient farming that draws on the arsenal of modern technology? Diversified agriculture driven by the conservation of nature and culture?In their closing statements, our debaters remain steadfast in their opposing stances.

Food Fight: An Oxford-style debate on sustainable farming

What does “sustainable agriculture” truly mean—and what should it look like?

  Previous rounds:
  • Introduction: Two experts debate the causes of hunger and the meaning of “sustainable agriculture.”

  • Round 1: Opening statements in the food debate.

  • Round 2: Rebuttals in the food debate.

A Must-Read:
  • Both Sides Now [pdf]: Fallacies in the Genetic-Modification Wars, Implications for Developing Countries, and Anthropological Perspectives. By Glenn Davis Stone.

Greetings readers, and welcome to the final round in our Seed Debate: Food Fight. If you are just now joining the conversation, please visit the links at right for the prior rounds of discussion.

Even if you’ve been following along, let us briefly recap where we began. Exhausted by what we regard as the exceptionally low quality arguments on both sides of the debate about the sustainable agriculture—variously characterized as capital-intensive vs. low-input, organic vs. biotech-fortified, intensive vs. extensive, globalized vs. local—we invited ecologist M. Jahi Chappell and political scientist Robert Paarlberg to participate in an Oxford-style debate. To kick things off, Chappell proposed a two-part motion:

1) Hunger and food insecurity’s primary cause is rooted in poverty and lack of socioeconomic access to food, not insufficient food production or overpopulation; this is reflected in the history of the past several centuries and the present, and will likely continue to be true in the future.

2) Insofar as food production is an important aspect of food security, alternative agriculture (agroecology, organic, etc.) can provide sufficient food for the world now and into the future in a more sustainable manner than capital-intensive, industrial agriculture.

Political scientist Robert Paarlberg agreed with roughly one-quarter of Chappell’s motion: while granting that “hunger is indeed rooted in poverty,” he argued fiercely that “a majority of all hunger still comes from inadequate food production—because most of the world’s poor and hungry people are farmers.” As for the second part of Chappell’s motion, Paarlberg was much less charitable, “Europeans and Americans have an abundant food supply precisely because they have rejected organic dogmas. The one part of the world that comes closest to feeding itself organically is actually Africa, where farmers are too poor to purchase any synthetic fertilizers, and Africa is the worst-fed continent on earth.”

Throughout Rounds 1 and 2, Paarlberg and Chappell have been at loggerheads over the statistical evidence for arguments on either side: They have debated the merits of the Green Revolution, its impact on poverty and hunger levels in Asia, and the broad applicability of capital-intensive agriculture in poor, developing nations. To summarize, Paarlberg has mostly argued in favor of technology-intensive agriculture, going as far as to argue that elitist foodies in wealthy nations imperil Africa by spreading their anti-biotech sentiments. In Paarlberg’s opinion, to deny small-scale farmers the means—whether fertilizers, GPS mapping tools, or genetically engineered seeds—to boost production, is effectively to sentence them to lives of poverty and undernourishment.

Chappell has vociferously countered this claim with reams of data to the contrary (which, unsurprisingly, Paarlberg finds suspect in provenance). While there may be bones to pick with the Whole Foods crowd, according to Chappell, an elitist ethic is neither representative of nor intrinsic to the sustainable food movement. Further, he argues, the scientific foundations of organic and agro-ecological farming are sound, though based on modern systems thinking inherent to ecology, rather than on reductionist approaches more characteristic of the conventional agricultural sciences. Agroecology empowers local small-scale farmers, he argues, and by shrinking farming’s outsized ecological footprint—including its impact on wild biodiversity—conserves the public goods that benefit us all.

At the crux of their arguments appears to be the primacy of “yield.” Just how important is boosting crop production in the overall scheme of food security? To generalize a bit, those in Paarlberg’s camp have been focusing on a single question: “How can we maximize food output?” Those in Chappell’s camp have concluded that other factors—ecological sustainability, social cohesion, cultural survival—are equally, if not more important.

Our debate has attracted the interest of many of our readers. Dr. David Tribe of the Agriculture and Food Systems department at the University of Melbourne found himself almost wholly sympathetic to Paarlberg’s views: “The difficulty with the first proposition put forward by Jahi Chappell is that it is half true: hunger and food insecurity’s primary cause is indeed rooted in poverty and lack of socioeconomic access to food.” But, he said, “Poverty and lack of access are linked to uncompetitive and unproductive farming methods. If we are to meddle with a proven supply system that’s fed billions of extra people since 1960, we should think very carefully before jumping on an alternative agriculture bandwagon.”

Another of our readers, who wrote to us very early in the debate, seemed flummoxed by Paarlberg’s Green Revolution proselytizing. “I’m not sure how your debate is going to proceed,” said James Norman, a PhD student in chemical engineering at the University of Georgia, “but I hope that Dr. Chappell will be able to directly deal with Dr. Paarlberg’s fallacious arguments. I’m at work and do not have the time to dissect them all, but many of his arguments either 1) dodge the real issue at hand, or 2) identify something that has a separate and larger cause.  If he’s allowed to make these types of errors without correction, this food fight isn’t really any different from watching Glenn Beck’s program.”

We hope the ensuing conversation has bumped us beyond any possible conflation with Beck. Thank you readers, for your active participation in the debate. And thank you Dr. Paarlberg and Dr. Chappell for your time, thoughts, and carefully articulated arguments.

Without further ado, the closing comments.

Closing Statements:

For Poverty Reduction, There’s No Alternative To Productivity

Robert Paarlberg is a political scientist at Wellesley College and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. His principal research interests are in international agriculture and biotechnology, and he is author of numerous books, including Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept out of Africa and Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.

We are starting to repeat ourselves.  And the longer the debate continues, the more I fear we will be driven toward narrowly defensive statements.  But on the issue of India, which I first visited in 1967, I would defend strongly my previous statement that green revolution farming has reduced poverty in India. Chappell’s only evidence against this assertion – evidence that not even he appears to fully credit – comes from a Marxist journal that has practiced progress-denial on a regular basis. In India, science-based agricultural growth has done a far better job of reducing poverty than manufacturing growth. Ravallion and Datt (1996) found that every 1 percent gain in the agricultural sector in India reduced poverty nation-wide by a range of 1.2 to 1.9 percent, while growth in the secondary manufacturing sector had no clear poverty-reducing impact at all.  For poverty reduction, then, there has been no alternative to agricultural productivity.

The nutrition gains from poverty reduction in India have been real as well, although disappointingly small as Chappell points out.  He would probably assert, and I would agree, that this reflects the unusually disadvantaged status of women in India, causing a persistent misallocation of household food resources away from nursing women and very young girls. India is undeniably a hard case in this regard, but state-level data show that where Green Revolution farming caught hold (i.e., in states with adequate irrigation) women were able to gain status relative to men through increased participation in the wage labor force.  Farm productivity increased demands for rural labor and drove up rural wages, and more of those wages went to women. UNDP found that from 1971 to 1981, the gender ratio (females per 100 males) of agricultural workers in rural India increased from 25 percent to almost 35 percent.  I’m not aware of any evidence that practicing agroecology or organic farming has ever provided similar income or status gains for rural women.

Dr. Chappell also makes in his rebuttal a reference to what he sees as persistent hunger in the United States, despite abundant food production.  Here his evidence is survey data from the Department of Agriculture showing 45 million Americans are “food insecure.” The questions asked in the survey, however, set an unusually low standard for what qualifies as food insecurity. For example, if respondents say they “worry” about running out of food, that is counted as evidence of food insecurity.  If parents report that they “cut” their child’s food portions at any point in the previous year – without specifying how often they did so, or what the portions were before or after – that also counted as “food insecurity.”  The USDA researcher who wrote this report later conceded, “Persistent undernutrition in terms of adequate calorie and protein intake is extremely rare in the United States.” How rare?  The USDA survey revealed that only ½ of 1 percent of American families contained one or more household members unable on an average day to afford enough food. 

High agricultural productivity has been a part of this success against hunger in America. Thanks to a combination of increased food production plus income growth the price of food relative to income has finally fallen to a safer level.  The share of income spent on food in America has decreased from 41 percent a century ago, when hunger was a serious problem in America, to just 10 percent today.  If we look at actual patterns of food consumption in the United States the poor as well as non-poor are no longer suffering from any significant undernutrition.  In fact, a growing number are suffering from over-nutrition relative to energy use, but the obesity crisis would be the subject of another debate! 

All of the issues opened up in this debate deserve more extensive treatment.  For those interested in how I might frame such a discussion, take a look at my new book just published from Oxford University Press, Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Even in this abbreviated format, however, I have enjoyed sparring with Jahi Chappell since it gave me a chance to share with a wider audience the positions taken on food and farming concerns by a preponderance of the best trained and most well-informed specialists, including farmers, economists, and agricultural scientists.  These experts are too often ignored in popular media that carelessly turn for their information to food writers or advocacy organizations. I congratulate Jahi Chappell for linking so many of his arguments to scholarly sources.  I have responded by showing why I found those sources unconvincing. The result, nonetheless, was something closer to a responsible debate. 

This debate is important because (as I pointed out in my opening statement) if the proven success of science-based agriculture is kept away from farmers in Africa, and from the lagging dry lands of South Asia, these regions will remain non-productive, and hence poor, and hence undernourished.  The views that Dr. Chappell and his colleagues endorse are championed mostly by advocates from rich countries, where they remain marginalized in professional circles because the benefits of science-based farming have already been realized, making a return to the pre-industrial alternative deeply unappealing.  This is why only 4 percent of agricultural land in Europe is farmed organically today, despite extra subsidies European governments offer farmers to convert to organic, and why only 1 percent of agricultural land in the United States is organic. 

Dr. Chappell’s views are more likely, unfortunately, to be persuasive among policy elites in some developing countries that have not yet experienced the benefits of science-based farming, particularly in Africa.  Governments in Africa have been under-investing in agriculture for decades, with disastrous results, and the arguments endorsed by Chappell will only encourage further under-investment.  Chappell is in effect telling governments in Africa that they don’t need to make any investments in modern fertilizers or improved seeds.  This is dangerous because so far there is no example of an agricultural society that has reduced rural poverty and fed its people without these technologies.  Citizens from rich and well-fed countries that attained their status by using these technologies should think twice before advising poor countries not to follow the same path.  But now I’m repeating myself!
So, to Seed Magazine, many thanks for making this debate possible.  And to my worthy debating partner Jahi Chappell, I thank you sincerely for the time and care you took to prepare and present your views.  This has been stimulating.  Let’s hope we will have a chance in the future to continue our spirited exchange. 

True Agroecology is By and For the People

Ecologist M. Jahi Chappell is currently a postdoctoral associate and provost’s academic diversity fellow in science & technology studies at Cornell University. His research focuses on examining the effects of and interplay between food security policy, biodiversity, and sustainability in mixed agricultural and natural landscapes. Starting in July 2010, he will be assistant professor of environmental science and justice at Washington State University-Vancouver.

In wrapping up this “Food Fight”, I want to try and step away from what I consider to be Dr. Paarlberg’s numerous errors of fact and broad and simplistic assertions that ignore or trivialize contradictory analyses. Instead, I will try to succinctly offer a concluding piece that balances critique with an explanation of my vision of how agroecological methods offer not only the most effective, but also the only plausible approach to the challenges of promoting universal food security, and in establishing an agricultural system that will help us sustain, rather than destroy our environment.

The GR: Green Reductionism
One needn’t be one of the Green Revolution’s (GR) numerous critics to observe that it was obviously completely insufficient to solve poverty or hunger. Raju Das’s analysis, which I previously cited, specifically and carefully compares poverty in various Indian states, concluding that any claim of a “necessary relation” between the Green Revolution and poverty levels are “conceptually indefensible”. Other researchers taking a close and careful look at the Green Revolution more broadly have reinforced his conclusion: “From 1970 to 1990, the two decades of major Green Revolution expansion, the total food available per person in the world rose by 11 percent, while the estimated number of hungry people fell from 942 million to 786 million, a 16 percent drop. In South America, however, where per capita food supplies rose almost 8 percent, the number of hungry people went up by 19 percent. In South Asia there was a 9 percent increase in food per capita by 1990, but there were also 9 percent more hungry people. Eliminate China from the global equation – where the number of hungry dropped from 406 million to 189 million – and the number of hungry people in the rest of the world actually increased by more than 11 percent – from 536 to 597 million.”

So why was China, and practically only China, different in this period? Researchers from the FAO and IFPRI have pointed to key roles from its egalitarian redistribution of land in the late 70s and government programs [pdf] in the 1990s that have decreased inequality: “government expenditure on education had the largest impact on reducing both rural poverty and regional inequality, and a significant impact on boosting production” (my emphasis). Returning to Das, he points out that “the very fact that the [Indian] state could not rely on the GR for poverty-reduction and thus started a ‘direct attack’ on poverty through [other] policies is an indirect indicator of the limited impact of the GR… If the lack of technology was a necessary cause of poverty, one in seven people in the United States of America would not have to live below the line of absolute poverty.” (See i.e., 2007-2008 survey data [pdf].) This is in line with conclusions by the FAO, the IAASTD (a major international report on world agriculture composed by hundreds of scientists [pdf], and is well illustrated in this graphic by prominent agricultural economist Chris Barrett, showing the continued increases in per capita production of the last 20 years side by side with stagnant levels of absolute poverty and hunger.

Thus while Paarlberg would have us believe that technology will fight poverty outside of a context of other supportive policies, an examination of the evidence shows the exact opposite: although GR technology presents many potentially useful tools, it is neither necessary nor sufficient in itself to fight poverty and food insecurity. Paarlberg’s approach represents business as usual, yet “business as usual is not an option”—we can no longer afford the luxury of thoughtlessly expanding the GR model that has proved environmentally unsustainable while simultaneously permitting hunger and surplus

Agroecology’s “High technology”
Paarlberg is among a cadre of commentators who accuse agroecologists of being anti-modern or anti-science. This is exceedingly odd, as the broader field of ecology itself is a young (~100 years old) and “cutting edge” science. Agroecology, a subfield that is younger still [pdf].), seeks to apply this growing understanding of earth’s ecosystems to agriculture. It is thus passing strange to me to set up agroecology and “modern” or “scientific” approaches as antithetical—considering that the majority of people who call themselves agroecologists are scientists, AKA, the people who have published more than 13,509 academic articles on the subject. Agroecology draws on traditional practices and modern science both; calling it romanticism to learn from old knowledge is like discarding democracy as quaint because we may partly draw its provenance from Ancient Greece. There is a reason we question attempts to “reinvent the wheel.”

We must therefore be careful not to conflate specific practices (like GR technology, including genetic engineering) with all cutting edge science generally. No less a leading light than Dr. Hans Herren advocates the modern, science-based field of organic agriculture, saying that it “can easily double or even quadruple food production in [developing] countries.” Why should we particularly listen to Dr. Herren? Well, besides being Vice chair of the groundbreaking IAASTD report, he is also a World Food Prize winner credited with saving as many as 20 million lives with his development of a method to control a major African agricultural pest. The method, a form of what is called “biocontrol” because it utilizes a natural (biological) pest predator rather than synthetic chemicals, is just one example of the “high tech” or “cutting edge” methods available to agroecologists. Using such methods takes great care, research, and collaboration—all hallmarks of modern, cutting-edge science.

True Agroecology: By and For The People
Let’s step back a moment and consider the oddity of labeling as “elitist” those who question whether or not mega-corporations like Monsanto truly have the best interests of the poorest people in the world at heart. We needn’t believe corporations are evil to understand that they are not primarily looking out for the poor, and many promoters of genetic engineering are extremely worried [pdf] about corporate domination of biotechnology (a topic Paarlberg, a 2007 member of Monsanto’s Advisory Council [pdf], seldom raises). But let me go further in defending us agroecologists against charges of elitism. I said earlier that most people who call themselves agroecologists are scientists—but most of the people who support and practice agroecology are farmers themselves. Indeed, one of today’s largest and most prominent international social movements is La Via Campesina, the umbrella organization for nearly 150 small farmers’ groups in 69 countries. Via Campesina alone represents millions of small farmers and farm laborers (consider that two of its members, Brazil’s MST and Mexico’s UNORCA have an estimated 1.5 million and 200,000 members, respectively). Originated, organized and led by small farmers from around the world, Via Campesina is fiercely independent of academics, NGOs, foundations and political parties. Yet two of Via Campesina’s main issues are agroecology/organic agriculture and women’s rights—because, by their own analysis, these farmers believe that both of these issues are vital to supporting sufficient, sustainable production and equitable distribution. While it’s easy to charge “Whole Foods Shoppers” with elitism, such a charge leveled against the farmers themselves, who demand and have taken their own “seat at the table”, is nonsensical.

Food sovereignty and the problem of how to help
Prominent agroecologist Miguel Altieri has directly addressed what is a real tension between “organic” in the wealthier countries and organic as part of a genuinely alternative system that helps small and poor farmers. The problem is not biotechnology vs. agroecology, either of which can be advocated or used by elites ignorant of or indifferent to the poor. The key issue rather is how we choose to approach and engage those we nominally wish to help—it behooves us to work with and for local communities, rather than sticking to telling them what we think they need. Such a negotiated process is difficult, time-consuming, and not very flashy, but it is the only way to provide for a sustainable, dignified agricultural system that also provides for a healthy, food-secure population. Via Campesina calls this approach food sovereignty. I would call it the only rational way forward from here.

We would like to hear from you: Who’s perspective do you find yourself tilting towards? Did you begin this debate on one side and shift to the other? Shall we call it a draw? Send your thoughts and comments by email here, or via Twitter @seedmag. Please use the hashtag #seeddebate.


Originally published June 4, 2010


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