Each year there are about 80 million more mouths to feed. That we have managed so far is a tribute to the world’s farmers. Grain production rose from 623 million tonnes in 1950 to 1,447 million tonnes in 1983. Much of this increase has come from Western-style ‘high tech’ farming, using oil-based fertilizers and new hybrid seeds in huge monocultures. The USA has been dominant, providing 90 per cent of net grain exports and about half of all agricultural produce on the international markets. But since 1973 output has only just managed to keep pace with population - whilst particularly in Africa, there have been severe shortages.
However despite the productivity of th.e ‘high tech’ farming, it is also destructive. First there is the soil loss. The US has lost a third of its best topsoils. Second, the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are responsible for over a half of all US water pollution, costing approximately $500 million a year. Third, farmers have been forced into debt. The average debt of an American farmer - $70,000 - means they are forced to garner ever bigger harvests whatever the long-term environmental costs, to meet the interest on loans.
On the one hand nearly half the crops are lost to resistant pests and bad storage while on the other, there are milk lakes and butter mountains. In the rich world good land is used to grow animal feed destined for the over-rich meat-heavy diets. While in the poor world countries become increasingly dependent on food imports and the gap between the well-fed and the hungry widens. This is not an agricultural system that has any long-term future.
New dust bowls
Chemical resistant insects
Wasteful eating habits.
The way forward
Modern farming has been devoted to ‘bending’ the environment to suit the crops; through glasshouses, irrigation or fertilizers. Now we can bend the plants instead - finding the right crops to flourish in harmony with their environments. But if ecologically sympathetic agriculture is to work in the South, priorities must change and food come first.
Instead of government encouragement of factories in the cities, more finance and staff have to be devoted to farming. And agricultural schemes should not encourage export crops for fickle overseas markets but more humble food crops for local diets. Nor should agricultural schemes look to the large commercial landowners for implementation - priority should go instead to the more efficient small farmers and peasants.
Practical ‘food first’ policies would include: cheap agricultural loans; better prices for government-bought crops; help with transport and marketing; useful and relevant research on small farmer crops like sorghum and millet; and improved security of tenant farmers on decent agricultural land.
The best model for developing countries has been China, The country has largely eliminated malnutrition, both producing a great quantity of food and ensuring it is fairly shared. The Chinese also lead in ecological farming - wasting nothing. They recycle much of their crop residues, pig manure and human waste in bio-gas stoves which can provide up to 40 per cent of a commune’s electricity. The country now feeds 22 per cent of the world’s people on 7 per cent of the world’s arable land. Whether China will continue environmentally sound farming is an open question.
Natural pest control.
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