Industrial agriculture is destroying food security throughout the world. In a recent joint report, the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences, the leading scientific bodies of Britain and the US, said that:
"Modern agriculture is intrinsically destructive of the environment. It is particularly destructive of biological diversity. The widespread application of conventional agricultural technologies such as herbicides, pesticides, fertilisers and tillage has resulted in severe environmental damage in many parts of the world."
At the beginning of the last century, food was largely grown and distributed locally. At its end just 20 multinational corporations dominated the food trade. In spite of this, well over half the population in poor countries is still in farming families. So the first priority should be to ensure that these farmers are not forced off the land, are not made dependent on seed purchase, are helped with appropriate research and technology and have secure water sources. Above all that their income should not be undercut by subsidised imports -- as was recently recognised by the Johannesburg conference.
Two-fifths of the world population is malnourished. Half of these are hungry. The other half simply eats too much unhealthy junk food. This is not surprising because most nutrition research has been privatised and is now funded by, and for, industrial agribusinesses. It is in their interest to develop and advertise food that will appeal to the rich, not the poor, to encourage growing for export, not to meet local needs; to make farmers dependent on purchased seed, chemicals, and machinery. It is not in their interest to make farmers self-sufficient.
There is no world shortage of food. Europe has a 'set-aside' policy where farmers are paid not to grow food. India exports grain and meat in huge quantities to wealthy countries, and even considers dumping excess grain at sea. Poverty, not lack of food, in an increasingly wealthy and unequal world, condemns a billion people to live daily with the horror that they and their families may not have enough, or anything, to eat.
Aid from the North to the South is inadequate, but it is also an admission of failure. Aid, other than disaster-relief, would not be necessary if the world had a fair economic system. The 20 companies that dominate the food trade would like us to believe that increasingly specialised crops, genetic engineering and more sophisticated chemicals are required to feed the world. But these just put the world's food at risk.
Risk from chemical farming
Arable land is constantly being abandoned because chemicals destroy the quality of soil. Dependence on chemicals puts poor farmers in debt and drives them from the land. Nitrates seep into the ground and poison drinking water. Persistent synthetic chemicals (POPs and EDCs) endanger human and animal health and reproduction. The short-term advantage of insecticides soon turns into a long-term hazard as resistance develops and the balance of predators is upset.
Risk from monoculture
Diversity is fundamental to all life. The current use of only high-yield and GM crops is a tendency towards monoculture, and is contrary to sound science. During the 20th century, three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops was lost, 100,000 varieties of rice have been reduced to a few dozen, and three-quarters of the world's rice now descends from a single plant. The Irish experience with potatoes is only one warning out of many that monoculture is the herald of starvation.
Risk from specialisation
Crops are increasingly produced where they can be grown cheaply and transported around the world. This creates single-crop farming which makes the whole crop vulnerable. When farmers grow a cash crop for export rather than local sustenance the local economy is made hostage to the global economy.
Risk from dependence on oil
Industrial agriculture is dependent on oil, for making chemicals, for distribution and for machinery. Oil is a limited resource, is going to escalate in price, and is causing climate change which may make it impossible for a farmer to know which plants will survive to harvest or, indeed, to know when that harvest will be.
Risks from reliance on imports
When societies take unnecessary supplies from abroad, the security of their food is put at risk. Britain imports apples and, as a result, has lost most of its orchards. European dairy products are destroying local production in milk-rich Mongolia. Dutch butter costs less than Kenyan butter in the shops of Nairobi. Cheap wheat, subsidised by the US, is bankrupting thousands of Third World farmers. Imports of food should be restricted to what cannot be grown, or cannot be grown in sufficient quantities, locally.
The present surplus could be used to abandon industrial agriculture and establish sustainable, local, mixed, science-based, farming methods that are largely organic.
Excerpted from The Little Earth Book by James Bruges, published by Alastair Sawday. To order a copy or for further details visit www.littleearth.co.uk