Fork in the Road

This is the final installment of the ‘big picture’ on global food crises I co-authored with Richard Kock and Robyn Alders. The first two installments can be found here and here.

We learned food insecurity and disease outbreaks can serve as a cover for a particular capital-securitized science tied into spreading the Livestock Revolution, with profound effects on diet and health worldwide.

Studies of bird flu outbreaks, for instance, at one and the same time repeatedly embody the premises of and serve as tautological arguments for the transition into highly capitalized farming. ‘Biosecurity’ effectively permits agribusiness, a likely source for pathogenic influenzas, to dispossess indigenous farmers, spreading hunger and disease and despoiling local agro-ecologies. The resulting environmental collapses are treated as due cause for subsequent dispossession.

That is, agricultural pathways are as much, if not more, about controlling the means of food production as they are about the food produced.

Two Tines

The path of commoditized food production.

If, as we reviewed, the evidence for an apocalyptic food ecology is so stark, why continue highly capitalized industrial food production? The arguments made are severalfold.

The human population will reach 9-11 billion by 2050, and there will be no other way to feed people. Urban society requires industrialized systems and their efficiencies of scale in production and distribution to ensure supply. Industrialization, once mature and wealth accrued, flattens population growth rates, curtailing food demand too. Stability and sufficiency ensue.

Genetic modification and other food technologies are increasing production per unit of energy and meter of land used, the argument continues. We can thereby achieve food targets and reduce impacts on the environment.

Such food systems support the urbanized society and technological advances which have brought untold benefits to human health, wealth and well-being. Urban systems historically have been associated with lower infectious disease burdens, improved survival rates, longevity and food security. Natural and organic systems, on the other hand, will not satisfy demand and in any case are inaccessible to the majority.

Biomedicine and biosecurity can prevent the severest impacts of whatever emerging diseases should result from massive increases in human and domestic animal populations, intensive production systems, livestock impoverishment, declining immunocompetence and deteriorating agro-ecology. Growth promoters and the chemical control of pests and weeds will sustain production in the face of passing detrimental consequences.

Failure to use these technologies, the argument concludes, will lead to rapid decline in the amount of food available to humans.

The path of conservation agriculture.

The other school of thought argues that industrialized systems, whatever the short-term gains in production and supply efficiencies, have been developed only by way of a series of perverse subsidies from and costs to local peoples and the environment. Costs kept off company balance sheets.

Occupational hazards, pollution, food poisoning, antibiotic resistance, price spikes, climate change, monopolistic consolidation, declining nutritional content, flooding, export economics, farmland bubbles, grain dumping, farm dispossession, forced migration, research gaps, and damage to transportation and health infrastructure are routinely externalized to governments, the indigenous, workers, consumers, taxpayers, livestock and wildlife. Or, as discussed in our previous installment, are cited as due cause for expanding the kinds of agriculture which caused these problems in the first place.

In short, the approach, despite or perhaps because of its creative accounting, is unsustainable, expensive and disingenuous.

The alternate approach proposes lower input costs—minimizing ecological subsidies to be floated by governments and consumers—using organic, naturally renewable production methods and conservation cultivation.

These are no pie in the sky. Jules Pretty summarizes a number of practices that are even now already inputs and outputs of more sustainable agro-ecosystems, including of ‘sustainable intensification’, which in some cases is producing as much food per acre as clear-cut, chemical agribusiness,

1. Integrated pest management, which uses prevention through developing ecosystem resilience and diversity for pest, disease, and weed control, and only uses pesticides when other options are ineffective.

2. Integrated nutrient management, which seeks both to balance the need to fix nitrogen within farm systems with the need to import inorganic and organic sources of nutrients, and to reduce nutrient losses through control of runoff and erosion.

3. Conservation tillage, which reduces the amount of tillage, sometimes to zero, so that soil can be conserved through reduced erosion, and available moisture is used more efficiently.

4. Cover crops, which grow in the off-season or along with main crops, help protect soil from erosion, manage nutrients and pests, maintain healthy soil, enhance water infiltration and storage in soil.

5. Agroforestry, which incorporates multifunctional trees into agricultural systems, and collectively manages nearby forest resources.

6. Aquaculture, which incorporates fish, shrimp, and other aquatic resources into farm systems, such as irrigated rice fields and fish ponds, and so leads to increases in protein production.

7. Water harvesting in dryland areas, which can mean that formerly abandoned and degraded lands can be cultivated, and additional crops can be grown on small patches of irrigated land, owing to better rainfall retention.

8. Livestock reintegration into farming systems, such as the raising of dairy cattle, pigs, and poultry, including using both grazing and zero-grazing cut-and-carry systems. Mixed crop-livestock systems provide many synergies that enhance production and allow for better nutrient cycling on farms.

Unlike industrialized food systems—vulnerable to external pressures, likely to change precipitously without enormous inputs, and exposed to the kinds of selfish exploitation detrimental to a shared commons—complex and diverse wildtype food webs appear more resilient to stochastic events, animal losses and crop failures, and the whims of centralized governance.

Restoration of ecological processes and systems, conserved biodiversity and complex agro-ecologies should restore resilience to food communities helping prevent, among other things, the emergence of pandemic strains, and disenabling drivers for rapid pathogen evolution and spread.

The benefits are likely more than ecological, however.

Contrary to the underlying assumptions of the first model, food isn’t just about calorific content. Wild or organic food and a diversity of livestock breeds and plant types provide a better overall quality of nutrition if only by reducing chemical residues and toxins but in many cases also by increasing micronutrients.

The immune system and disease resistance appear to benefit from a wildtype food diet. Immunity is highly dependent on sufficient and diverse micronutrients in which organic products are rich. Comparisons of disease incidences in developed countries, and in particular of allergies, are establishing links between diet, the immune system and disease.

Agro-ecologies must be deeply social in character, of course, if humanity is to bother with them. As agriculture was by definition ecological in character before industrialization, examples still abound, particularly in the less industrialized world.

The village chicken, selected over thousands of years for local climates and production outlets, offers an excellent example of the way the food diversity, nutrition, health and indigenous ownership we have discussed in this series are integrated.

Under mixed agricultural systems of cropping and village poultry production, crop wastes provide scavengeable feed for poultry, poultry provide manure and pest control for the crops, which with poultry products provide a source of nutritious food for farmers and their families.

Farid Hosny writes of the bird’s role in the face of an Egypt increasingly pressured into a foreign-capitalized Livestock Revolution,

Poultry production can provide meat and eggs for the family, be a source for a small and fairly regular cash flow and avoid waste by using kitchen leftovers and broken seeds as feed. Poultry manure can be used as a fertilizer for crop production and poultry also help in pest control. Importantly, unlike in the case of larger livestock, poultry production is not restricted by land ownership. This is important as only 24.5 percent of rural households own land, which is very unequally distributed. Poultry is also important for festivals and traditional ceremonies and for [a variety of] other socio-economic reasons…

The importance of poultry in income generation, especially for the poor and landless, is evident when studying the household income structure by income quintile in Egypt… For the poorest group (bottom quintile 1st), livestock income is more important than crop income, accounting for 17.3% of the total income of households. The most important types of livestock for the bottom quintile are poultry. Poultry account for 72% of total livestock income, with chicken alone accounting for 61% of livestock income.

We need avoid the prelapsarian fantasies of a pre-industrial family farm that never existed or illusions about the struggles of subsistence farming, as well as the assistance such farming and their modernized sequelae require, but millions of people worldwide were able and continue to survive this way much on their own terms.

With so much attention on outputs—bushels and head produced—self-determination is a critical part of human well-being often given short shrift in food research. Food security isn’t enough. Food sovereignty, the right to control one’s food destiny, is critical to any sustainable future. The agriculture becomes something its participants believe worth defending (and maintaining).

Outfoxing Our Fallacies

The very attributes by which the present food system is viewed as advantageous may be spurring its destruction. But as in the past, humanity can think its way out of its present conundrum.

A good first step toward resolving our present fix is explicitly confronting the assumptions underlying business as usual. The key presumption underlying capital-driven deforestation, agriculture and pollution is that we can ignore what James O’Connor called capitalism’s second contradiction: capitalism destroys the environment on which it depends. In overfishing, the cod industry, for instance, collapsed on itself.

Indeed, many ongoing industrial practices and trajectories often presented as their very advantages are in actuality hastening collapse.

The old argument that the current development model leads to population stability once countries achieve wealth omits that much development is based on an exploitation which selects for reduced population growth rates in those exploiting but exponentially increased rates in those exploited. Reduced survivorship generally selects for increased reproduction. Under the present development model one demographic trend is linked to the other.

Wealth creation requires exploiting one resource or another, human, animal or material. The wealth inequalities which result under the current economic model lead to more rapid resource depletion by accumulation on the one hand and a desperate survival wrecking nature on the other, a mix accompanied by increasing social instability.

The counterargument that improving efficiency will reduce resource depletion is contradicted by Jevons paradox, on the books for 150 years. The paradox proposes that in the medium-to-long term the very opposite occurs. Better—and cheaper—extraction selects for greater exploitation, often until a resource is exhausted. Under the present economic model the paradox is ‘solved’ only by repeating its dynamics on an alternate resource once the original is depleted, wiping out the natural base species by species, mineral by mineral, and region by region.

Even the common adage urbanization is cross-the-board positive in terms of wealth, health and well-being and an elegant solution to a growing population’s land scarcity is at best debatable given present trends. Improved health in urban settings is inconsistent, especially in poorer countries where infrastructure investment is too low and unlikely to ever reach those achieved in wealthier societies under the present economic paradigm. In the poorest places there is increasing evidence that, in an albeit broad generality, the health of an urban citizen living in slum conditions is far worse than his or her rural counterpart.

The benefits promised by the conventional development paradigm are not materializing for many societies.

Breaking such bedrock assumptions opens up space for alternate models aimed at solving the long-term problems of food security. Current concerns are certainly justified but the challenge is that long-term resolution requires more than pursuing a second Not-So-Green Revolution, whatever heavily capitalized transgenics and chemicals such a thing might entail.

We must assimilate the highly likely, if not already accumulating, detrimental consequences should unfettered human growth and consumption continue as presently. If the likelihood can be conceptually absorbed, there is a chance policy, behaviors and practices encouraging a gradual reduction in ‘growth’ and consumption, indeed even at times to a negative rate, can be accepted globally as both the norm and beneficial.

The resulting ‘breathing room’ might allow ecosystems and biodiversity time enough to recover, establishing integrative agricultures, and improving the quality and sustainability of human life. The rapid growth of interest in steady state economics is cause for hope, as is the increasing comprehension of the full potential of the ‘One Health’ approach, wherein the health of humans, livestock and wildlife are treated as inextricably linked.

But is an idea enough? A key to this revolution—and there can be no other word for it—will be the governance of such a change. To give credit where due, global institutions have shifted their policy thinking around food security towards more sustainable and equitable solutions but still all highly dependent on improving global governance structure.

As a result, to date the progress is in the rhetoric and not in the field. The need to adapt is accepted during the ‘good’ times but is soon submerged in a political panic as economies fail by way of the very models used to justify continuing production practices.

Contradictory approaches by international agencies and the failure to grasp the nettle on food security reflects weak and conflicted governance. As the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East exemplify, the political will may be supplied from  elsewhere instead, by a popular movement outside the present political infrastructure.

For some such revolts serve as fair warning, for much of the world the very hope of the future.

The problems of food—beyond security and access, to nutrition, health, sovereignty, community and even taste—appear inordinate. But the human species is resilient and our current generation, and those soon to follow, have an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to apply the full force of our intellect and will to shifting the dominant paradigm to a sustainable, just and healthy way of being.

As our species’ history has repeatedly shown, not only a good idea but a perilous necessity, a naked lunch, a frozen moment when near everyone must see what is on the end of every fork.


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