This question was the subject of the Soil Association Scotland’s Lady Eve Balfour Memorial Lecture last month (July 13) in Edinburgh. Speakers were Colin Tudge, author of So Shall We Reap, and Sue Edwards, director of the Ethiopian Institute for Sustainable Development. (The lecture was also given in London the night before and has been subsequently published inResurgence Magazine.)
As it turns out, the question might more usefully be framed “Can modern farming methods feed the world?”. Start digging below the surface of the agribusiness PR machine and a disturbing picture emerges.
Effects of modern farming methods
Aside from all the health implications of artificial fertiliser pollution (see Time for a Change of Heart?), large-scale monoculture has enormous ecological implications which pretty much guarantee that it’s ultimately unsustainable. The bumper yields promised by selective crop breeding, genetic modification and artificial fertilisation are turning out to be largely pie-in-the-sky. GE crop varieties are becoming susceptible to disease even faster than conventionally engineered varieties. Attempts at large-scale agricultural management with the aim of securing our food supply have been highly inefficient – the EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy is generally accorded about as much respect as an appallingly bad joke – and successive managerial disasters have been compounded by tying the system up into greater and greater inflexibility. The supermarket shelves of the West have been kept stocked at a huge cost: enormous wastage on the one hand, and a progressive impoverishment and restriction of the agricultural sector on the other.
But it goes much deeper. Lack of attention to the quality of the soil itself is something that can’t be remedied by any amount of superficial dressing. Impoverished soils don’t hold nutrients or even water for very long, or support all the other kinds of life that are essential to the functioning of a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Loss of biodiversity results in a degraded ecosystem which has little or no flexibility to respond to change. Since 1945 almost 11 per cent of the Earth’s land area, about 12 million square kilometres (4.6 million square miles), has been moderately to severely degraded. Every year farmers abandon 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles) of formerly arable land because the soil no longer supports crops.
In contrast, Sue Edwards (who also happens to be the wife of Dr Tewolde Egziabher, Head of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority) showed what could be done when land reduced to virtual desert is properly cared for using local traditional methods of agriculture – which, after all, have sustained humanity for all but the last half century or so of its roughly 10,000-year existence – plus a little help and adjustment from what has been learned in other sustainable agricultural systems in other parts of the world. Substituting compost, including composted animal wastes, for direct application of animal manure has been one of the most significant and beneficial changes.
Dr Tewolde B G Egziabher, Head of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority
Her husband Dr Egziabher, widely acknowledged as Africa’s chief biosafety and biodiversity expert, was originally to have given this lecture himself, but had to cancel at the last minute in order to attend an international meeting on biological patents (see Canadian assault on biosafety). What’s going on here is simply criminal. Not content with chaining most of our own farmers to lifelong contracts for seed supply (see Percy Schmeiser vs Monsanto), agribusiness is seeking to hold some of the poorest people on the planet to ransom, prohibiting them from collecting and growing their own seed and forcing them to make annual payments for the privilege of obtaining the means to eke out the barest subsistence level of existence. Seems what the West gives with one hand, it takes away with the other …
So can we instantly return to organic methods of cultivation and solve the problem? Not without reversing some of the post-WWII population trends and society’s attitudes to agriculture and the food we eat into the bargain. Organic farming is more labour-intensive. The proportion of the US and UK populations now working on the land is just 1%, and even at that, the farming community is hard-pressed to survive against the demands of the processors and retailers, the dictates of agribusiness, and the regulations of the agricultural policymakers. Farming barely rates a score on our social scales of fashionable and aspirational occupations. Next time you see a supermarket advertisement trumpeting ever cheaper prices and better value, ask yourself who’s really bearing the cost. Steadily improving profits says it’s not likely to be the supermarkets.
It all seems depressingly reminiscent of our societal attitudes towards healthcare. Our values seem hopelessly upside-down. We’re happy to pay huge sums of money for overseas holidays, second homes, additional cars, the latest piece of technology or a cosmetic makeover, yet grudge a fraction of that amount for food and healthcare. Surely it should be the other way round? Shouldn’t the fundamental building blocks of a healthy existence be top of our personal spending and qualitative priorities, not devolved to the responsibility of a state dominated by profit-driven corporate agendas? And complaining about the state and the extent to which big business milks it for all it can achieves nothing either. Until each of us take personal responsibility for adjusting our priorities and spending patterns, we surely can’t expect the collective to reflect that adjustment. No matter to what extent big business tries to manipulate public spending patterns to safeguard its revenue streams, ultimately the choice is ours – each of us individually – and ours alone.
Back to basics – and what could be more fundamental, more salt-of-the-earth common-sense, than comments like these? (From Voices from Knox County.)
“Why is it that when somebody gets deathly sick with cancer or something, and a doctor recommends that they go on an organic diet? I think all these people know that there’s a difference.”
“If you get on a chemical system, the only way you can keep going is to keep adding more and more powerful chemicals. If you get on an organic system, it will perpetuate itself. You don’t need to keep adding more and more fertilizer because it is a natural system. It’s like the difference between paying interest on a loan and getting paid interest on your savings.”
“The nice part about organic is that it’s economically viable, and the reason is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money, because the Good Lord designed the cycles of nature in order to do it itself.”
Interview with Dr Tewolde B G Egziabher
G8 approach to global poverty is simplistic
Compromise, Hell! – Wendell Berry