Food Fight, Round 1

Seed Debate / by Maywa Montenegro /

What does "sustainable agriculture" truly mean—and what should it look like? In round one of our debate, two experts square off on the true causes of food insecurity.

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.”

What does “sustainable agriculture” truly mean—and what should it look like? The outlines of this long-running debate will be familiar to many. One side argues that modern, industrialized farming, for all its flaws, has mostly been a force for good, vastly improving yield, reducing food-borne illness, and saving the world from Malthusian disaster.  Building upon this foundation, modern farming should be science-based and highly capitalized, employing the arsenal of innovations in chemistry, biotechnology, and satellite systems—from biotech seeds to laser-leveled fields. The other side rebuts that given the enormous environmental and social costs of intensified agriculture, a paradigm shift is needed: one that takes a whole-systems approach based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experience.

Thankfully, the two sides in Seed’s debate have gotten beyond these vast generalizations towards a more nuanced discussion. Arguing in favor of the motion that food insecurity is only partially caused by crop yield—and therefore, that alternative farming can meet future demand—is M. Jahi Chappell, an ecologist and post-doctoral researcher at Cornell University. His opening statement takes aim at the commonly held view that food scarcity is the primary cause of malnutrition. The majority of underfed children in the developing world, he points out, live in countries where a dearth of calories isn’t the primary problem. Rather, it is access, adequacy, acceptability, and lack of food rights that, synergistically, contribute to the problem of entrenched hunger.

Given that production, per se, isn’t the primary problem, Chappell then argues that low-input agroecological farming (an umbrella term that includes organic) could boost food production in the developing world to meet global consumption needs. With the important caveat that “banning all pesticides tomorrow would be as much folly as any other sweeping and draconian measure,” he contends that the answer to the question “industrial vs. organic” is between the two…in the same way that Philadelphia lies between New York and Los Angeles.

Robert Paarlberg, author of Food Politics and professor of political science at Wellesley College, has no bone to pick with Chappell on one point: Poverty and hunger are intimately linked. But the majority of the world’s poor majority are farmers, Paarlberg argues, so it is “a dangerous error” to separate food production from undernutrition. He then mounts a robust defense of the Green Revolution, pointing out that only by virtue of improved seeds and fertilizer inputs were China and India saved from devastating famine.

Paarlberg writes that the organic community’s wishes for farmers to abandon the use of synthetic chemicals, would force farmers to use not only more labor but also much more land. Such a change would, in effect, push “them back into 19th century practices.” He dismisses such “all-natural” approaches as the products of romanticized views of old agrarian lifestyles. He points out that Europe and America have largely rejected “organic dogmas,” which is precisely why they have enough food. Africa, on the other hand, has a de-facto organic system—local, low-input, and slow. You can judge for yourself how that is working out.

Are you champing at the bit to see how Chappell replies to Paarlberg’s organic smackdown? And what rejoinder Paarlberg will have for the food-availability jab? Who is developing the stronger case? Drop us line by email here, or send us a tweet at @seedmag.

Opening Statements:

Production Isn’t the Core Problem

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.

This House believes the two following related propositions:

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.

The first proposition
The piece you’re reading now started, to an extent, as a discussion of whether or not organic agriculture could “feed the world.”  However, starting the discussion at that point means missing a lot—perhaps the majority—of what’s important in answering the question of exactly how to feed the world.  The starting point must be understanding that food production has, at best, an indirect relationship with feeding people. Indeed, in a series of comprehensive analyses conducted for the International Food Policy Research Institute, Lisa Smith and colleagues found that 55 percent of the decrease in infant malnutrition in developing countries between 1975 and 1990 was tied to women’s education and status; food availability contributed to around 27 percent of the decrease, with health environment and services accounting for the remainder. Within Sub-Saharan Africa, the results are skewed even more towards non-food-availability-related measures, where they found that ~99 percent of the (small) decrease in infant malnutrition was due to improvements in women’s education and health environment. (This is chiefly because food availability in this period increased only very slightly while much more progress was made in women’s education. The potential effect of increasing food availability in her data appears to be roughly equal to that of increasing women’s education.) In a similar study, they found that around 78 percent of malnourished children in the developing world live in countries with sufficient national food availabilities.

These results would come as no surprise to one of the modern pioneers in the study of hunger, Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen. Sen observed, a little less than 30 years ago, that starvation “is the characteristic of some people not having enough to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough to eat. While the latter can be a cause of the former, it is but one of many possible causes.” Hunger’s primary cause is widely summarized as poverty, but as Smith’s data shows us, poverty isn’t precisely correct. It would perhaps be more precise to term hunger’s primary cause to be a lack of socioeconomic or sociocultural access. That is, poverty can be one cause, but discrimination, poor health care, and a lack of food rights or a government capable of providing them are others.

The framework I therefore favor to analyze hunger has been called “The Five A’s of Food Security” by Cecilia Rocha, the director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Studies in Food Security. The “A’s” are Availability (sufficient food), Accessibility (consistent physical and economic access to food), Adequacy (nutritious, safe, and environmentally sustainable food), Acceptability (food in accordance with people’s culture and beliefs), and perhaps most importantly, Agency (political policies, processes, and rights that allow people to achieve food security). So while availability is a prerequisite for food security, history and common sense tells us that the other four “A’s” are no less so in the long run. (I prefer the term “food security” to “hunger” because it better incorporates these multiple elements, though it is also a less intuitive term.) Reflecting this, histories of famine by political ecologist Mike Davis and more recently economist Cormac Ó Gráda have focused on the complex interplay between government, economy, environment and famine, such that famines are not “food shortages per se” according to Davis. Ó Gráda quotes Liu Shaoqi (Chinese leader during the Great Leap Forward) as saying their disastrous famine was “three parts nature and seven parts man”, referring to the dominant role sociocultural factors have even when natural factors like drought and flooding intercede.

The second proposition
Food production from organic agriculture is currently the subject of intense debate. Many, however, tend to agree that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of the dichotomy between “industrial vs. organic food production.” I count as one of these “many”, with the stipulation that I think the answer lies somewhere between the two models in the same way that Philadelphia is somewhere between New York City and Los Angeles—that is, much closer to one than the other. I was one of the authors of a paper called “Organic agriculture and the global food supply,” led by Catherine Badgley and published in 2007 in the scientific journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. We found, reviewing over 91 studies with 293 examples comparing organic and non-organic production systems, that organic agriculture could produce sufficient food to feed the world, now and for the future projected population of 9-10 billion people. (“Organic” in our paper was used broadly and not specifically for certified systems. Page 8 of this report gives a good review of this idea.) The two points that are important here are that we do not claim an absolute advantage over intensified, high-input industrial methods—that organic can produce more food than any other alternative—and, that indeed some synthetic inputs may be necessary in the short-term or even long-term in some systems. To the first point, we calculate that organic agriculture could increase yields an average of 80 percent in developing countries based on 133 cases. Considering that such an increase would generate more than sufficient food to feed people in the Global South, it would seem then logical to prefer organic approaches to industrial ones, considering the high energy costs and negative effects of industrial agriculture on climate, the environment, and biodiversity.

A recent report issued by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and headed by Rachel Hine and acclaimed British ecologist Jules Pretty reanalyzed preexisting data from 114 projects in Africa and found even higher potential increases in yield from organic agriculture for Africa than in developing countries generally.

Numerous critiques can, and have, been made of these studies, and Dr. Paarlberg has already done so in at least one forum. For the time being, I refer the reader to my reply to address these. We may get into these in more detail in subsequent posts, so for now I’ll only observe that I have not seen any updated, comprehensive studies or meta-analyses of the literature since our 2007 paper. As such, in my view it remains the best overall picture we have of research in this highly contentious area; critiques of its elements, however apposite, nevertheless don’t offer a new or more comprehensive analysis and are inevitably based therefore on less data. (I say this aware that data quality is a major issue of debate.) However, the evidence we have today seems sufficient to go forward, with all appropriate caution—banning all synthetic pesticides tomorrow would be as much folly as any other sweeping and draconian measure. Rather, support for small farmers and the disadvantaged more generally is necessary—a point on which I believe Dr. Paarlberg and I agree, even if we disagree on the precise forms of such support. Hunger is most severe in Africa, but affectsmore than twice as many South Asians. Over half of the malnourished are in rural areas, but that still leaves many food insecure people in the cities. Yet despite these disparate issues, we know that providing education, health, and other social support to people, especially women, can dramatically lower hunger, inequality and poverty. Frankly, those of us concerned with food security should possibly be more concerned with addressing these issues, issues with little direct relationship to production method per se, most of all.

Don’t Ignore the Successes of the Green Revolution

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.

I agree with one part of this motion. Hunger is indeed rooted in poverty, rather than in over-population or in any global shortage of food. Nonetheless, a majority of all hunger still comes from inadequate food production—because most of the world’s poor and hungry people are farmers. In Africa, roughly 80 percent of the poor are farmers. They are poor, and hence hungry, because their hard labor as farmers is not productive. Hundreds of millions of poor farmers in Africa and in the drylands of South Asia still lack all of the things farmers elsewhere have used to escape poverty: They lack seed varieties improved by scientific crop breeding, they have no irrigation, and they use almost no chemical fertilizers. As a result their cereal crop yields are less than one fifth as high as in other parts of the world, they earn less than a dollar a day, and they stand a one in three chance of being chronically malnourished. Over the last 25 years in Africa, crop yields per hectare have barely increased while population has doubled, so the total number of malnourished farmers has doubled as well. Under a business as usual scenario over the next decade, if there is no significant improvement in farming productivity, the number of hungry people in Africa will increase by another 30 percent. It is therefore a dangerous error to separate the problem of hunger from the problem of low farm productivity.

Consider how the two biggest countries in Asia—China and India—managed to overcome their own monumental hunger problems. They did so by making investments in the productivity of small farmers.  In India, investments in improved seeds and fertilizers in the 1960s and 70s led to a “Green Revolution” that finally ended that country’s struggle with famine and cut the rural poverty rate from 60 percent down to 27 percent today. India’s wheat farmers began planting the new seed varieties in 1964, and by 1970 production had nearly doubled. Rice farmers in the states of Punjab and Haryana began planting new varieties in 1971 and production doubled there in just 5 years time. Small farmers as well as large farmers took up the new seeds, and even landless laborers profited because there was a larger crop and hence more work at harvest time, which pushed up rural wages. 

Likewise in China, where improved farming technologies were key to reducing rural poverty and hunger. China’s crop scientists developed their own high yielding seed varieties in the 1960s and 70s, including the world’s first hybrid varieties of rice. When Chinese farmers were then offered adequate incentives to embrace these new technologies, they did so with enthusiasm. Between 1978 and 1999 total grain output in China increased 65 percent. As a result of this farm productivity surge and the economic activity it supported, average per capita income in rural China increased more than tenfold. Roughly 250 million people in China escaped poverty, causing hunger to decline.

Hunger is worsening in Africa today because farmers there have not yet experienced a comparable upgrade in their farming techniques. One reason has been diminished assistance to agricultural development from international donors in recent years. Even as hunger in Africa was doubling, US assistance to African agricultural development fell by 86 percent between 1980 and 2006. One reason for this evaporation of assistance to agriculture was the mistaken argument (repeated in the first part of this motion) that hunger problems can somehow be solved without focusing on improvements in farm productivity.   

The second part of this motion is equally misguided, stating that agroecology and organic farming can do a better job of providing food for the world than “capital-intensive, industrial agriculture.” I’m not happy with the framing of this statement, as it appears to leave no room for the intermediate farm upgrades of the “Green Revolution” that produced such success in China and India. The Green Revolution in Asia was neither capital-intensive nor industrial; small rice farms in Bangladesh get higher yields by planting improved seeds and adding nitrogen fertilizer, but they are still labor-intensive, rather than capital intensive. 

The larger problem with this second half of the proposition is that organic techniques and agroecology have long been available to farmers, yet we still have no example of any modern society feeding itself adequately using only these methods. We have many examples of countries that have increased their food production to keep pace with population and income growth by using either green revolution techniques (e.g., the countries of developing Asia) or genuinely capital-intensive and industrial techniques (e.g., conventional farming in today’s advanced industrial countries), yet we have no examples of countries using only agroecology or organic farming to do this important job.

Advocates for agroecology can point to a long list of farming techniques that do work well (biological controls for pests, crop rotations and manuring, mulching and water-harvesting), yet these techniques always work best when combined with scientifically improved seed varieties and nitrogen fertilizer. If agroecology is employed by itself without modern seeds or fertilizer, too much human labor will be required and the results will often still be inadequate. Smallholder African farmers today use a wide range of agroecology techniques: they plant in polycultures rather than monocultures, they contour the land to capture rainfall, they employ traditional seeds and local knowledge, and they also work from dawn to dusk. Yet their cereal yields are only 20 percent the level of the United States or Europe, and in many African countries these yields per hectare are actually falling rather than rising.

The strict rules of organic farming go even farther than agroecology in telling farmers what they cannot do. Organic farmers cannot use any synthetic chemicals at all, not even nitrogen fertilizer. This pushes them back into 19th century practices and rules out even some agroecological practices such as integrated pest management (IPM) and no-till farming. It forces them to use not just more labor (weeding, and composting animal manure) but also much more land (needed to plant cover crops and legumes for soil restoration, and to graze the animals needed to produce the manure). This is why organic foods cost so much more than conventionally grown products. The organic farming standard did not evolve from any scientific inquiry into what works best; the originator of the standard was an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) who was neither a farmer nor a scientist. He was a mystic philosopher, and he also believed in human reincarnation and the lost city of Atlantis.

Advocates like to assert that organic products are more nutritious and safer to eat. There is no scientific evidence to support these views. Take a careful look at what the Mayo Clinic has to say on this question. Nor is organic farming better for the environment, given its much larger land-use requirements per bushel of production. If the United States were to convert its entire farming system to organic, it would need to increase its cattle herds fivefold to generate enough composted manure to provide the needed nitrogen for its crops. There are no examples today of well-fed societies relying only on organic methods. European governments promote organic farming with generous subsidies, yet only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is farmed organically. In the United States, less than 1 percent of cropland is certified organic. 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.

Originally published May 12, 2010

Tags development environment food food-fight poverty

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