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Feeding Nine Billion: Five Steps to the Wrong Solution

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FARMING BRAZIL
Diane Diederich via Getty Images

National Geographic's recent online slideshow featuring an article by global ecologist Jonathan Foley lays out a Five Step Plan to Feed the World that proposes to "blend the best" farming techniques of organic and local farms with those of high-tech and conventional farms. It is a collaborative proposition framed within an attractive media presentation that relies on much of the conventional wisdom expressed in food and agriculture policy circles today.

It is also wrong.

The five steps (freeze agriculture's footprint, grow more on existing farms, use resources more efficiently, shift diets, reduce waste) are all good technological fixes, none of which are terribly complicated. So if they are so great, why aren't we implementing them? Or even more disturbing, why is hunger still prevalent in places where they are implemented?

The answer is because the Five Step Plan is based on a number of hidden -- and false -- assumptions.

The first assumption is that the world needs to increase food production by 70 percent by 2050 in order to feed 9 billion people. This assumption is repeated as fact -- ad nauseam -- by many mainstream food policy reports. Setting aside that we already grow enough food to feed 10 billion people, did you ever wonder where this 70 percent in 2050 figure came from?

According to research by Isobel Tomlinson, this factoid has two primary sources; one is an Earthscan book published in 2003, the other is a 2006 interim report from the FAO. Based on general economic equilibrium modeling exercises, the authors took economic growth assumptions together with population growth to determine projected food production. The two scenarios described a 50 percent increase by 2030 and a 100 percent increase by 2050, respectively. (This huge discrepancy between estimates amounts to more than all the food production of the North American continent.)

The FAO models were re-run in 2009 by the United Kingdom House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee who then derived the now popular, 70 percent by 2050 scenario. The scenarios are based on prices, not yields; do not include fruits and vegetables and do not consider unequal distribution. But the biggest caveat is that these were not prescriptions but scenarios of a likely future. The original reports never argued that we needed to increase food production by 50, 70 or 100 percent by 2050. This is simply what the models predicted would happen.

Sometime after the 2008 food crisis, the predicted global outcome of food production was flipped to become a prescription for ending hunger.

This prediction cum prescription flies in the face of everything we know about hunger. Hunger is not the result of scarcity. The 2008 and 2011 food crises both occurred during years of record global harvests, record food prices -- and record profits for the world's agri-food monopolies. People go hungry when they are too poor to buy the food that is produced. They go hungry when they don't have access to food-producing resources. The cause of hunger is poverty.

Sadly, most of the hungry people in the world are peasant farmers, most of whom are women. Taken together, peasant farmers produce nearly 70 percent of the world's food. But they don't have enough land and are paid too poorly to make a decent living. If we really want to solve hunger, give peasant farmers more land and pay them fairly for their product. That will eliminate 70 percent of hunger right away.

But poverty and the inequitable distribution of resources is not address in Five Steps. Instead, building on the shaky foundation of the 70 percent by 2050 assumption, the article goes on to claim that we are can't end hunger because we are too busy fighting over whether conventional or organic farming is best.

The battle is not conventional versus organic at all, but industrial monocultures versus diversified, agroecologically managed, smallholder farming systems. It is a battle over who controls markets, land and food producing resources -- locally and globally.

These distinctions are critical because organic monocultures farmed on big plantations can be just as resource-inefficient and socially destructive as conventionally-farmed plantations. If industrial agriculture displaces peasant farmers and sucks wealth out of rural communities, it really doesn't matter if it is organic or local, it still leads to impoverishment and hunger.

The problem with proposing a happy blend of conventional and organic farming techniques to end hunger is that the approach ignores the ways that industrial agriculture and global markets are destroying smallholder livelihoods worldwide. (The 3 million smallholder bankruptcies in Mexico following the North American Free Trade Agreement are a well-documented example of this.)

Suggesting "we all just get along" by blending techniques is like asking foxes and chickens to share their best eating habits for the overall benefit of the henhouse.

Technical "solutions" invite us to ignore the growing financial speculation and monopolization of food, turn a blind eye to massive land grabbing and pretend free trade agreements benefit the poor. Even if we could (theoretically) take National Geographic's advice, if steps aren't taken to prevent the dispossession of the world's 2 billion peasants they will still be condemned to poverty, migration and hunger.

When false scientific assumptions are presented as facts, members of the academic community call on the researcher to revisit their assumptions. However, when despite evidence to the contrary, these false assumptions are repeated over and over as facts in pseudo-scientific literature that seeks to persuade public opinion and influence public policy -- i.e., when they have entered the public sphere -- then these systematically unexamined assumptions are called "lies."

This is a very serious word that is understandably avoided in academic debate. In the academy, the accepted way of dealing with repeatedly unexamined assumptions is to denounce the work as "bad science." Unfortunately, when these assumptions have become accepted as policy facts, this academic disapproval is stopped cold by an ideological firewall constructed by the institutions and corporations with vested interests in the public lie.

Let's drop the deceit, the techno-fixes and the false assumptions. It is time to end the injustices that cause hunger.

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