The inconvenient truth about industrial agriculture
The holiday season, stretching from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, has become a time of cheerful overeating and overindulgence. Once the New Year rolls around, the latest diet and exercise crazes will be promoted to help us shed all those pounds we gained.
In a cruel contradiction, this time of year is also characterized by pleas for non-perishable food and monetary donations to food banks and organizations that serve those without enough food to eat.
As important as these charitable efforts are in the present moment, they do not address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition to put an end to this injustice in our communities.
The raw numbers tell a grim and nearly inconceivable reality.
In 2018, 6 million U.S. children (almost equivalent to the population of Iowa times two) lived in food-insecure households.
Worldwide, a United Nations report published earlier this year estimated that 821.6 million people were food insecure in 2018, without access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.
Just as charity does not solve the problem of hunger, neither does the tired, oft-repeated canard of giant agribusinesses and trade associations, “Iowa farmers feed the world.”
Contrasting proposals to end food insecurity through agriculture have created challenges we must address, and farmers in Iowa need to be a part of that discussion.
On the one hand, what we see most on Iowa’s landscape is the industrialization of agriculture that has been a process of eliminating farmers and destroying rural communities, all the while creating an economy that depends more and more on filling low-wage jobs in urban areas.
It has also destroyed biodiversity and diversity of crops, crammed livestock into confinements, kept the price that remaining farmers receive for commodities low, and polluted soil, water and air with chemicals.
The era of digital knowledge and biotechnology is driving us all further away from our natural environment and into an alienated world.
On the other side, as other countries recognize the devastation wrought by this process of industrializing agriculture, farmers, peasants and governments are turning to ecologically-sound, often organic, always community-specific farming, and the name given for this model is agroecology.
In fact, we produce more than enough food already for the world’s population with 70 percent of food produced by small-holder farmers. Production is not the problem.
National Family Farm Coalition, a member of Civil Society organizations (CSM), understands the importance of the farmer’s voice at policy discussions. Thus, I was given the opportunity to attend the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security (CFS46) at Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome last October, where I explored the connections between food insecurity and agriculture.
The United Nations is a complex space which recognizes that diplomacy in matters of disagreement and processes to ensure all perspectives are included and respected must be in place for countries and citizens to work for a better future.
While there was much agreement between the 130 member states and other participants, the stark contrast of differing worldviews regarding agriculture as a solution to food insecurity was jarring.
In this space, the United States government, in alignment with representatives of the agribusiness and food industries as well as a few other governments who follow the U.S. lead, were in the minority. But they are a vocal, insistent, persuasive and powerful minority.
This was first evident to me when I kept hearing that the causes of food insecurity are conflict and climate change.
While those two realities are undoubtedly causes of hunger, there are many other intertwined conditions that contribute greatly to hunger and make food insecurity even more likely when conflict and climate change disrupt normal living situations.
Industrial agriculture; institutionalized discrimination and marginalization of women, rural populations and indigenous people; lack of access to land, water and sustainable livelihoods; and most of all, poverty are some of those conditions.
Yes, industrial agriculture, where family farmers and the environment are sacrificed to corporate efficiencies, contributes to hunger.
Civil society organizations, which represent millions of farmers, fishermen, rural workers, women and youth at CFS, put forth this statement: “We recognize that the current hegemonic food system and agro-industrial production model are not only unable to respond to the existing malnutrition problems but have contributed to the creation of different forms of malnutrition, the decrease of the diversity and quality of our diets; as well as to the environmental destruction and climate crisis that we are witnessing.”
As I reflect on the disparity between views of agriculture, I recall the private conversation between myself and the U.S. representative to the FAO, Ambassador Kip Tom, and our public statements.
Privately, I spoke with Ambassador Tom about my concern for the financial stress Midwestern farmers are experiencing. He had a quick response.
“Some farmers are just lazy,” he said.
Ambassador Tom, who claims to be a family farmer, manages an operation that was reported to be nearly 20,000 acres in 2018 and had grown to over 25,000 acres in 2019. These acres are located on two continents, specifically in Indiana and in Argentina.
As reported in 2018, Tom Farms was the largest contract seed producer for DuPont Pioneer and one of Monsanto’s largest seed producers. He is a “keen proponent of agrifood tech adoption” which was quite evident in Rome.
During the Plenary to launch the U.N. Decade of Family Farming, I had the honor of reading the civil society intervention. In part, I said, “In order to achieve the objective of the UNDFF, family farming must be based on agroecology and food sovereignty, embracing small-scale food producers including fisher folks, pastoralists, forest people, waged workers and indigenous communities as the key agents of sustainable development.”
I also emphasized human rights as universal and inalienable.
In contrast, U.S. Ambassador Tom’s statement included: “I know firsthand how family farmers need access to modern agricultural tools and innovations like biotechnology, crop care products, fertilizer, digital tools and mechanization. This includes many digital tools and I think really will revolutionize those in the developing nations.”
Certainly, Ambassador Tom could not have the operation he has without those items he listed.
Is this the model of agriculture that will provide the diverse, culturally appropriate and healthy food that people have the right to eat?
Most of the world does not think so, and instead, has elevated agroecology, which builds on the sciences of ecology and sociology as well as other sciences, to farm as closely as possible with nature.
CFS46 also had a plenary on agroecology. The CSM intervention of the agroecology plenary was powerful: “Industrial agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to the ecological crises which is now the fight for survival for many. It is also a major cause of poverty, hunger and malnutrition including through grabbing of resources, concentration of power, homogenization of diets, and (migration) of young people from rural areas. ... The HLPE report demonstrates that agroecology is the only transformational option to address all the structural changes needed in our food system in a systematic and integrated way and shows that sustainable intensification and climate smart agriculture can only provide one dimensional solution via incremental changes.”
Furthermore, as a challenge to the U.S. and agribusiness insistence on the inclusion of biotechnology and chemicals as necessary “innovations,” the CSM intervention continued: “Agricultural innovation is essential as long as it does not lead to further concentration of knowledge and power.”
I would add, acceptable innovations should not lead to the elimination of farmers, but instead assist them in the valuable work they do.
This struggle between worldviews and the future of agriculture can be seen as a struggle to work with nature or to dominate nature.
In the face of the multiple crises we face — from climate change to food insecurity to chemically-polluted soils and water — I believe the answer is a Just Transition for all farmers to embrace agroecology.
Greene County farmer Patti Naylor participated last month in the United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS) Regional Consultation for North America on the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition, an effort that will guide governments on appropriate policies, investments and institutional arrangements needed to address the causes of malnutrition.