By Lee Rinehart, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist
High input prices have raised the alarm in media and global food system organizations, with daily headlines reading something like “Will the Ukraine war cause unprecedented food shortages?” or “High fuel prices may compromise our ability to feed the world.” Feed the world… What does that mean? What solutions do they, media or businesses or think tanks, suggest will solve the problem? And who do the purveyors of this feed the world narrative suppose should be producing the “world’s” food?
In the mid-20th century, a new paradigm emerged to address the problem of poverty and hunger when Norman Borlaug began breeding plants to allow them to use synthetic nitrogen to increase yields. The increased productivity prompted him to write, “I now say that the world has the technology – either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline – to feed a population of 10 billion people” (Borlaug, 1997).
Borlaug’s argument is nuanced. Population growth is a function of industrial advances, fossil fuel use, new transportation and communication modes, and plant breeding and chemical use in agriculture goes hand in hand with these developments. Whereas Borlaug and others suggest that without chemicals we do not have enough land to support the growing population, practitioners of diversified farming systems are showing that yields and efficiencies are often much higher for these systems than for monocultures.
The productivity solution, based on specialization and global markets, is focused on delivering sufficient calories to the world’s population (IPES-Food, 2016), though most commodity crops go to biofuels and livestock feeds through the global marketplace, not to the plates of hungry people. Increasing productivity is the answer and global agribusinesses and global markets are in the best position to meet these needs. With this paradigm, the “feed the world narrative” has become the norm.
But focusing on productivity alone leaves out the real reason why hunger and poverty occur. The productivity solution ignores who produces the food and where it is produced (IPES-Food, 2016). Agribusiness maintains the production paradigm by turning small farmers into agribusinesses, which undermines their own agency. In turn, their ability to provide their own dietary sufficiency, to use their own cultural methods, to maintain their community relations, and to realize their political autonomy is seriously compromised. Smallholder farmers cannot afford the inputs needed to remain in productivity while growing commodity crops, cannot afford to buy the food imported by corporations, and remain in poverty both economically and culturally as their local community and culture is subsumed by a global market chain.
This is the milieu in which the current food system thrives. It’s the dominant social paradigm that is informed by a fundamental belief in progress, growth, prosperity, technology, and property rights (Beus and Dunlap, 1990). But can a capital-intensive global system reliant on fossil fuels and credit systems provide small farmers and workers autonomy and dietary sufficiency?