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Postcards From The Global Food System (#2)
Zaid Hassan, 7 Mar 05

farm.jpg (Read Postcard #1 here.)

The Road From Green Revolution to Fatal Harvest

There are so many criticisms around the current global food system that for a while I started wondering if in fact it had already collapsed and I was studying a post-apocalyptic food system.

The difficulty with data around the food system is a little like data around climate change, only much more fragmented and fast-moving. If a group of scientists make a claim, it's fairly easy to find a Bjorn Lomborg-type claiming it ain't so, you're just fear-mongering. Discerning the truth of what's going on with the global food system at the numbers and science level requires a lot of time and energy. There is contradictory information and all of it cannot be right. At the end of the day it boils down to epistemology and axiomatic truths, and a choice needs to be made as to what we are willing to accept as legitimate data.

In trying to discern patterns in the mass of data it seemed to me that there are two broad schools of dueling, wheeling thought, with a host of lesser and emerging schools emanating from them. The first is the modern Green Revolution. The second, simultaneously representing an older form of agrarian logic and a response to the Green Revolution, can be dubbed (perhaps unfairly) the Fatal Harvest School.

The Green Revolution took hold and changed the face of agriculture through the 1960s and 1970s, although its origins lie in the early twentieth century. Until the 19th century food production grew by expanding cultivated land area. If you wanted to grow more food then you had no choice but to put more land under cultivation. A key technological advance -- synthetic ammonia -- changed this age-old truism.

The modern fertilizer industry came into being in 1909, with the synthesis of ammonia by Fritz Haber. This discovery had little agricultural impact at first; during the two world wars production of ammonia was diverted to munitions instead of farming. Following the end of the Second World War, however, the ammonia industry turned to producing ammonia for the rapidly growing fertilizer industry, contributing to dramatically increasing crop yields. Norman Borlaug, known as the “father of Green Revolution”, in his survey, “The Green Revolution: Its Origins and Contributions to World Agriculture” (B. 2003) explains that change in hard, cold numbers,

“US maize cultivation led the modernization process. In 1940, US farmers produced 56 million tons of maize on roughly 31 million hectares, with an average yield of 1.8 t/ha. In 2000 US farmers produced 252 million tons of maize on roughly 29 million hectares, with an average yield of 8.6 t/ha.”

The Green Revolution coupled developments in fertilizer synthesis with the breeding of more robust and fast growing seed varieties. Borlaug won the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work in the development of rust-resistant (disease resistant), semi-dwarf wheat and rice varieties with radically improved yields.

“The new short wheat varieties, which drew on the Japanese Norin wheat germplasm, were much more efficient than their tall predecessor varieties in converting sunlight and nutrients into grain production. Furthermore their superior plant architecture provided resistance against lodging (falling over) in heavy winds and under improved conditions of soil fertility and moisture.” (B. 2003).

Throughout the 60s and 70s these varieties of wheat (known as Mexican dwarf wheat) and rice, spread far and wide, particularly in countries suffering from acute food shortages such as India and Pakistan, and later China. Radical (and controversial) changes were made in national agriculture policy in these countries in order to adapt to the regime specified by the scientists that had developed these new wheat varieties. “Within 10 years, wheat and rice production had increased by 50 percent.” (B. 2003)

To very crudely summarize, the Green Revolution was, and is, a revolution in generating more yield from the same patch of land using hybrid seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. It’s a Revolution because it has changed the face of agriculture and is squarely responsible for the current, dominant, food production regime. It’s a movement that yokes itself strongly to science and technology and claims that there is no way of feeding the growing world population other than through the further deployment of a science-based agriculture. The shift to GMOs can be seen as a new chapter in the story of the Green Revolution, an attempt to further increase yields.

Those who subscribe to the Fatal Harvest School cannot be neatly packaged. It consists of a rag-tag bunch of farmers and activists who claim to represent an older, more gentle and contextually sensitive agrarian logic. They believe that industrial agriculture (as the prime product of the Green Revolution) is inherently destructive: its farming practices, such as the use of fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs, are a serious threat to the environment and to people's health; its practices of monoculture, single crop farming and single minded focus on yield-based agriculture is a threat to biodiversity and pays little attention to local context; the business practices of industrial agriculture are monopolistic and a threat to all subsistence, small and medium size farmers. In short, the Fatal Harvest school lays the blame for each and every problem in the global food system squarely at the feet of industrial agriculture. To summarise the criticisms of the Fatal Harvest School, familiar to many of us, are as follows:

1. Health: The food industry is killing us. In the West there are diseases of over-nutrition, ranging from coronary heart disease through to diabetes. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta cites food related illnesses as the second largest cause of death in the USA. Food corporations are bracing themselves for “obesity” suits much in the same way that tobacco companies were targeted. In the developing world there are the diseases of malnutrition, such as Vitamin A and iodine deficiencies, as well as the stark fact that 40 million people die of hunger a year.

2. Environmental: Industrialised agriculture is the key cause of environmental degradation today. Mono-cropping is leading to a massive loss of biodiversity (See George Monibot’s excellent article “Fallen Fruit” for one case), it’s putting massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides into the air and into water, it’s causing a “food bubble” through rapidly depleting non-renewable water aquifers which once they run dry will cause a collapse in key grain commodities, it’s pushing fish stocks to extinction (in Canada & Europe).

3. Cultural: Modern agriculture is destroying rural and indigenous farming cultures. We’re heading towards a "walmartisation" of food, where the death of small & medium farmers, rural culture and indigenous farming practices means that millions of peasants are left vulnerable to displacement, loss of livelihoods and famine; a monoculture of food and the loss of valuable agricultural practices.

4. Economic: Agribusiness is forming a oligopoly out to control the entire food chain. The food business through rapid consolidation is leading us towards a food monopoly where a handful of Western corporations will control every aspect of food.

From what I can tell, the Fatal Harvest School is winning the public battle for hearts and minds. In the UK it was largely responsible for shaping public attitudes to GMOs – which were clearly rejected by the public at large. It’s responsible for the mass mobilization of farmers from the South, through the anti-globalisation movement and organizations such as Via Campesina.

In turn, the Green Revolutionaries -- that is, the scientists, agronomists and multinationals who are the target of so much ire -- throw up their hands in exasperation at the “irrationality” of the Fatal Harvest School. Their rebuttal can be boiled down to a few key points. The first is that given population growth figures we cannot afford, at social, financial and environmental levels, to turn over enough land to feed everyone through less intensive forms of organic farming. Jason Clay, in his excellent and monumental work “World Agriculture and the Environment” puts it bluntly,

“...the Earth is currently home to over 6 billion people. Supporting them all by low-intensity cropping – depending solely on recycling organic matter and using crop rotation with legumes – would require doubling or tripling the area currently cultivated. This land would have to come from somewhere – and would most likely mean the elimination of most if not all tropical rainforests and the conversation of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands too.”

His rather dead-pan conclusion is that “these are hardly acceptable alternatives.” Non-organic methods of farming, in other words, provide more bang for buck. Furthermore because industrial agriculture uses comparatively less land this means that less of the environment is disturbed and cleared away to meet farming needs. This argument hinges on the claim that industrial agriculture yields more per acre than organic agriculture, that we have no choice but to feed the growing population and that the masses want a standard of living equal to those in the West. The Green Revolutionaries think of themselves as the pragmatists in this particular game, they are responding to undeniable trends. The trouble with this, of course, is that they have designed an agricultural logic that profits from destructive and undeniable trends. They leave themselves open to broadsides of criticism in that it’s no longer possible to discern if they are simply responding to destructive trends or actively a cause of these trends.

The Fatal Harvest School, on the other hand, is arguing that some sort of fundamental change in human behaviour needs to be made. Ideally, population growth figures need to be controlled otherwise industrial agriculture will chew up the planet. Behaviour change, however, can take place in two places, the West and the developing world. In the West this behaviour change looks like a change in consumption patterns thus reducing stress on the environment. In the developing world this change looks like, at best, a change in reproductive patterns (if not more). I find it disturbing that so few people have any faith that behaviour change can take place in the West. At the moment the burden is therefore placed squarely on the developing world. What's more the way Green Revolutionary logic is playing out against Fatal Harvest logic currently means that the world will see an increasingly stratified global food regime, with the rich being able to afford organic food and the poor having to rely on GMOs.

Having said that there are precidents for behaviour change in both the West and the developing world.

Smoking is currently declining in the West, largely due to years of campaigning and health education. Given the liklihood of obesity taking the place of smoking as the number one killer it's also possible that the issue of over-eating be addressed in the same way, through massive public health campaigns. (Of course tobacco companies responded to the decline of business in the West by focussing efforts in the developing world.)

As we've reported before, it looks like global population figures will level off at around the 9 billion mark, which is far from the dire predictions of 20 billion or so that were being made in the 70s. Planning around such levelling off should, at least in theory, mean that it's much easier to make a case for a particular, more environmentally friendly, food logic other than one designed for runaway population growth.

The conundrum posed by these dueling logics boils down to a single, highly complex question, the answer to which is far from clear. Given the vast surplus of food, at least in the West, does the world really need more food?

Next Week: Postcard #3 Southern Views of Northern Logic

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1. Is conventional really 200 - 300% higher yield than organic? I thought it was more like 20%
2. Half of Havana's food is now provided by urban farms (land not included in anyone's statistics)
3. IIRC, about 70% of global agricultural land is either for grazing animals or growing animal feed. Cutting back on bacon cheeseburger consumption would free a lot of land for fruit and veg.
4. People starve not through lack of demand, but through lack of cash.

Enough for now. Thanks for the article Zaid!

-- John

Posted by: John Norris on 7 Mar 05

Interesting article - however I hope when you said:

"In the developing world there are the diseases of malnutrition, such as Vitamin A and iodine deficiencies, as well as the stark fact that 40 million people die of hunger a year."

that this just an example of an idiotic quote from the Fatal Harvest side. Right!?

Because in fact the number who die from malnutition is less than 1 million.

Posted by: Joe Deely on 7 Mar 05

A move toward a more vegetarian diet could easily solve hunger problems (if not unfair food allocation problems) and let our planet feed 10s of billions of people (feed them, but the pollution and energy use would probably not be at sustainable levels).

IIRC, there are 40 billion animals killed for food each year on the globe, 10 billions just in america. The amount of land needed to grow the grain we feed these animals is HUGE, not to mention all the water needed to grow that grain.

Eating animals is incredibly inefficient, not to mention polluting, from an environmental point of view. There are of course ethical and health reasons to be considered too.

Some relevant information can be had here (but it's incomplete).

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 7 Mar 05

I think we all need to put ourselves in self-storage, as Garrison Keillor suggested. We just aren't doing enough to save the planet.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 7 Mar 05

Just like to say - thanks Zaid. These are really interesting

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 7 Mar 05

The reason conventional growing costs so much energy is NOT growing food.

Its growing wonderful looking directly eaten foods such as apples oranges grapes strawberries and such.

When the same exact foods are produced for such things as apple sauce, jams, and juices they use far less energy in production and far less pesticides and fertilizers.

And the bulk food items the west counts on are soo cheap to produce and thus soo energy unintensive that the food is the cheapest part of the product by a factor of 10-100. Its litteraly cheaper/less energy intensive to grow many foods then it is to harvest them.

Posted by: wintermane on 7 Mar 05

If "bioprinter" technology (aka "meat-jet printers") can be made cost-effective, we may see a wholesale move away from agriculture for meat.

I fully expect that by mid-century most people will still be eating meat, but very few will be eating meat that actually came from a living animal.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 7 Mar 05

Ive actauly eaten meat like substance... its quite tasty now.

Posted by: wintermane on 7 Mar 05

Regarding the comment that less then 1 million people a year die from malnutrition (and not more). Perhaps a little quote from UNICEF might help illustrate the scale of the problem.

"Of the nearly 12 million children under five who die each year in developing countries mainly from preventable causes, the deaths of over 6 million, or 55 per cent, are either directly or indirectly attributable to malnutrition."

See for more detailed information.

Posted by: Zaid on 7 Mar 05

As usual great comments...

Wintermane - never thought about the fact that our "need" for shiny oranges, bruiseless strawberries and apples, etc... makes our food more "energy intensive". I also wonder how much food gets thrown out. I know that in many countries spoilage is a huge problem.

Jamais - your "bioprinter" gives a whole new meaning to the concept of a "fresh hamburger" from IN N OUT Burger.

I don't want to quibble about how many children's deaths are caused by lack of food. The number should be zero.

However, your article stated "the stark fact that 40 million people die of hunger a year." Where does this number come from?? In my comment I was trying to point out that 40 million is a ridiculous number in talking about hunger deaths.

In total, 57 million people died last year. To see the causes of death go to the World Health Organization mortality table

This table shows that 0.9% of this 57 million died directly from nutritional causes. This is where I got my under 1 million number. It is arguable that there are more who died indirectly as well.

Based on the number of deaths from cardiovascular, diabetes, cirrhosis of liver etc... I would guess that 10x as many people worldwide died last year from eating and drinking TOO MUCH versus too little.

Posted by: Joe Deely on 7 Mar 05

I'm not sure exactly which book I picked the number of 40 million from (certainly a Fatal Harvest type book) but you're probably right - that many deaths a year directly from hunger is a lot.

Given that (reported in the WSJ) "After falling for decades, the estimated number of undernourished in the developing world increased by 18 million to 798 million between 1997 and 2001, according to the latest data from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization." -- it makes you wonder what "undernourishment" means? The point I guess is that while deaths that are directly due to hunger are probably low (relatively), there are a very large number of deaths due to people not getting enough food. A fine and not so fine line.

I guess it needs further research, as well as demonstrating the incredible complexity of this system. Thanks for pointing it out.

Posted by: Zaid on 7 Mar 05

Another great post.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Anyone who truly wishes to go back to a 19th century farming model will need an 18th century population. There are several promising technologies for a smaller, greener future for farmers, incuding hi-tech greenhouses, irrigation systems and bio-fuels. But there are legitimate fears regarding the techno-food giants: terminator technology, anyone?

It should be noted that many of the studies on differences in yield between organic and industrial farming define organics this way: what yields would be if chemicals were eliminated from an industrial system. What is not understood in these studies is that organic is an entirely different system of agriculture than industrial, it requires polycultures, local markets and integration with other industry, to name a few components.

Also, urban ag: Havana was brought up before; not only is half their food grown in city, but 90% is grown within its greenbelt. There is tremendous opportunity for urban agriculture, when combined with larger regional farms, to support urban consumption.

Also, malnutrition - see my comment to your Postcard #1 for a comment.

Thanks again,

Posted by: Justus on 7 Mar 05

Yup in order to produce jam you only need bugs to not eat up too much of the product before you harvest. To produce an apple to eat directly no bug can touch it AND it has to be pampered and transported gently and it has to be washed and waxed and a fair amount is discarded before during and after sale.

In fact many farmers wouldnt do anything buy juices and jams because they didnt want to work with the level of pesticides and ferts and just plain hard work and risks involved.

Posted by: wintermane on 7 Mar 05

Food needs to cost more, it is currently underpriced and does not reflect the real value. Once prices come in line, people will eat less, of better quality food, thus solving an even bigger problem: healthcare. Industrialized countries will go bankrupt from healthcare costs associated with poor quality abundant cheap food long before it starves. The pragmatic reality of this problem is urgent and clear. There is a direct association with food supply and public health that the agri-business model does not take in to account.

Posted by: Stephen Balbach on 7 Mar 05

Thanks Zaid for a great post, and a good point from Justus - organics, and other 'alternative' forms of agriculture have suffered from underfunding and lack of research. Conversion to a more sustainable form of farming (whatever that turns out to be) may lead to drops in yields in the short term, but as we build up knowledge of methods and technology, and as plants are bred to fit these new methods, yields should increase again.

One thing is certain, present rates of soil erosion, fossil fuel use and water polution mean we are rapidly eating into our natural capital. Far from preparing to feed future generations, we are undermining their ability to do feed themselves. For one calculation of the true cost of current practices, see the study below just published which puts agricultural externalities in the US alone at 16bn USD per year:


Posted by: Sami Grover on 8 Mar 05

Zaid, thanks for this excellent piece of work.
It's such a good intro to a complex issue.

The Green Revolutionaries are obviously correct in pointing out that -- all consumption remaining equal -- a switch to organic agriculture would mean the complete destruction of all remaining forests and biodiverse sites on this planet. Every single tree will have to be sacrificed, and then you still won't have enough land. That's beyond dispute, and it remains a very strong argument against organic farming.

When it comes to changing people's behavior, I won't be too optimistic, especially since obesity is becoming a problem in the rapidly developing developing world. There are billions of people waiting to become moderate middle classers, and that means far more meat, and more overconsumption.

The worst is yet to come.

One thing you point out in very strong terms, and which in my opinion is the key, is a horrible sociological law: Western elites (a tiny little upper middle class) consistently start buying organic food (which still has a bit the aura of a luxury), while billions upon billions of first-time-middle classers will gladly become overweight from the moment on Walmart comes to a street near them.

This same logic holds for obesity (as for every social affliction): in the USA, obesity is a phenomenon which hits the lower middle classes most. The higher your personal income, the lower your chance of being overweight or morbidly obese.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 8 Mar 05

Just to correct some of the comments on starvation; according to a UN report

"Undernutrition is the major risk factor
underlying over 28 per cent of all deaths in
Africa - some 2.9 million deaths annually."

and the water supply causes as much distress:

"Almost half of all Africans suffer from one of
six main water-related diseases."

Posted by: Toby Kelsey on 20 Mar 05



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