09/23/2013 10:35 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

Mosaics in Food and Agriculture

I remember going to one of the preparatory meetings on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development at the State Department. It was late 1978 and I represented Congressman Clarence Long (D-Md.).

There must have been at least forty federal bureaucrats around a huge wooden table in a large conference room. I asked them how many peasants they or the United Nations had invited to address the 1979 Agrarian Reform and Rural Development Conference in Rome. After all, who knows more about the pain of the peasants than peasants themselves?

The icy silence that followed my question was a reminder that this conference had nothing to do with food and agriculture or agrarian reform. It was rather a forum for the amusement of men and women from the North and the South who guarded the world's food and agriculture.

It was not much later that I became a persona non grata on Capitol Hill.

This incident is illustrative of an age that has put all its eggs in the agribusiness-large farm basket. The U.S. has abandoned its family farmers for giant farmers. By 1978, the mechanization of farming was about a century old.

Entire industries exist to manufacture farm machines, fertilizers, pesticides, agribusiness public relations and food.

The U.S. and American industries have been funding sixty-five agricultural universities to provide the brains for agribusiness. Such an agricultural goliath has no place for small farmers, much less for landless folk.

Despite the "triumph" of large-scale farming in America, enough people and policy makers here and abroad understand that agribusiness is no longer an asset but a liability. Its footprint has been deleterious in society and the natural world.

William Heffernan, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, issued his warning several years ago. In "Consolidation in the Food and Agricultural System," a report he prepared for the National Farmers Union, on Feb. 5, 1999, he wrote:

"The centralized food system that continues to emerge was never voted on by the people of this country, or for that matter, the people of the world. It is the product of deliberate decisions made by a very few powerful human actors. This is not the only system that could emerge. Is it not time to ask some critical questions about our food system and about what is in the best interest of this and future generations?"

Heffernan is right. Time is of the essence that we ask critical questions. Indeed, dozens of researchers, including me, question the policies behind the dependence of America on a few giant farms for most of its food.

Now the UN is taking part in this debate. On Sept. 18, 2013, the UN Conference on Trade and Development issued a report prepared by 50 international experts. The report is warning the world to rapidly move from large farms to small farms, from "a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management," resulting in pro-poor development policies.

The report, "Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate," cited the following ominous trends:

In just the last two years food prices were 80 percent higher than the prices for the years 2003 to 2008; in the last 40 years global cereal production doubled but global fertilizer use increased by eight times; industrialized agriculture has caused "irreparable environmental damage" to biodiversity, water and soil; industrialized agriculture in the tropics is the most significant source of global warming gases; rich foreigners are responsible for "land grabbing" in the tropics: the value of this land is worth five to ten times the "aid" the tropics receive from affluent governments of the North.

Hunger and malnutrition, meanwhile, are hitting hard two billion people. Some 75 percent of the hungry and malnourished are peasants and farm workers. And this tragedy is unfolding not because there's food scarcity. On the contrary, the report says, there's enough food for 12 to 14 billion people.

An additional handicap of large-scale one-crop farming is that it does not provide sufficient affordable food where it is needed the most. Thus, the report urges the world to enable the rural poor to become self-sufficient in food.

"Farming in rich and poor nations alike," the report says, "should shift from monoculture [agribusiness] towards greater varieties of crops, reduced use of fertilizers and other inputs, greater support for small-scale farmers, and more locally focused production and consumption of food."

The world ought to heed this timely advice -- and wake up. Global warming will "drastically impact agriculture," especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. If left unchanged, industrial agriculture will threaten the security of the twenty-first century.

Global warming, hunger, population growth and environmental crises, the report warns, are bound to "increase the frequency and severity of riots, caused by food hikes, with concomitant political instability, and international tension, linked to resource conflicts and migratory movements of starving populations."