By Jonathan Latham, PhD
By conventional wisdom it is excellent news. Researchers from Iowa have shown that organic farming methods can yield almost as highly as pesticide-intensive methods. Other researchers, from Berkeley, California, have reached a similar conclusion. Indeed, both findings met with a very enthusiastic reception. The enthusiasm is appropriate, but only if one misses a deep and fundamental point: that even to participate in such a conversation is to fall into a carefully laid trap.
The strategic centrepiece of Monsanto’s PR, and also that of just about every major commercial participant in the industrialised food system, is to focus on the promotion of one single overarching idea. The big idea that industrial producers in the food system want you to believe is that only they can produce enough for the future population (Peekhaus 2010). Thus non-industrial systems of farming, such as all those which use agroecological methods, or SRI, or are localised and family-oriented, or which use organic methods, or non-GMO seeds, cannot feed the world.
To be sure, agribusiness has other PR strategies. Agribusiness is “pro-science”, its opponents are “anti-science”, and so on. But the main plank has for decades been to create a cast-iron moral framing around the need to produce more food (Stone and Glover 2011).
Therefore, if you go to the websites of Monsanto and Cargill and Syngenta and Bayer, and their bedfellows: the US Farm Bureau, the UK National Farmers Union, and the American Soybean Association, and CropLife International, or The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, USAID, or the international research system (CGIAR), and now even NASA, they very early (if not instantaneously) raise the “urgent problem” of who will feed the expected global population of 9 or 10 billion in 2050.
Likewise, whenever these same organisations compose speeches or press releases, or videos, or make any pronouncement designed for policymakers or the populace, they devote precious space to the same urgent problem. It is even in their job advertisements. It is their Golden Fact and their universal calling card. And as far as neutrals are concerned it wins the food system debate hands down, because it says, if any other farming system cannot feed the world, it is irrelevant. Only agribusiness can do that.
The real food crisis is of overproduction
Yet this strategy has a disastrous foundational weakness. There is no global or regional shortage of food. There never has been and nor is there ever likely to be. India has a superabundance of food. South America is swamped in food. The US, Australia, New Zealand and Europe are swamped in food (e.g. Billen et al 2011). In Britain, like in many wealthy countries, nearly half of all row crop food production now goes to biofuels, which at bottom are an attempt to dispose of surplus agricultural products. China isn’t quite swamped but it still exports food (see Fig 1.); and it grows 30% of the world’s cotton. No foodpocalypse there either.
Of all the populous nations, Bangladesh comes closest to not being swamped in food. Its situation is complex. Its government says it is self-sufficient. The UN world Food Program says it is not, but the truth appears to be that Bangladeshi farmers do not produce the rice they could because prices are too low, because of persistent gluts (1).
Even some establishment institutions will occasionally admit that the food shortage concept – now and in any reasonably conceivable future – is bankrupt. According to experts consulted by the World Bank Institute there is already sufficient food production for 14 billion people – more food than will ever be needed. The Golden Fact of agribusiness is a lie.
So, if the agribusiness PR experts are correct that food crisis fears are pivotal to their industry, then it follows that those who oppose the industrialization of food and agriculture should make dismantling that lie their top priority.
Anyone who wants a sustainable, pesticide-free, or non-GMO food future, or who wants to swim in a healthy river or lake again, or wants to avoid climate chaos, needs to know all this. Anyone who would like to rebuild the rural economy or who appreciates cultural, biological, or agricultural diversity of any meaningful kind should take every possible opportunity to point out the evidence that refutes it. Granaries are bulging, crops are being burned as biofuels or dumped, prices are low, farmers are abandoning farming for slums and cities, all because of massive oversupply. Anyone could also point out that probably the least important criterion for growing food, is how much it yields. Even just to acknowledge crop yield, as an issue for anyone other than the individual farmer, is to reinforce the framing of the industry they oppose.
The project to fully industrialise global food production is far from complete, yet already it is responsible for most deforestation, most marine pollution, most coral reef destruction, much of greenhouse gas emissions, most habitat loss, most of the degradation of streams and rivers, most food insecurity, most immigration, most water depletion, massive human health problems, and so on (Foley et al 2005; Foley et al 2011). Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that if the industrialisation of food is not reversed our planet will be made unlivable for multi-cellular organisms. Our planet is becoming literally uninhabitable solely as a result of the social and ecological consequences of industrialising agriculture. All these problems are without even mentioning the trillions of dollars in annual externalised costs and subsidies (Pretty et al. 2000).
So, if one were to devise a strategy for the food movement, it would be this. The public already knows (mostly) that pesticides are dangerous. They also know that organic food is higher quality, and is far more environmentally friendly. It knows that GMOs should be labeled, are largely untested, and may be harmful. That is why the leaders of most major countries, including China, dine on organic food. The immense scale of the problems created by industrial agriculture should, of course, be understood better, but the main facts are hardly in dispute.
But what industry understands, and the food movement does not, is that what prevents total rejection of bland, industrialised, pesticide-laden, GMO food is the standard acceptance, especially in Western countries, of the overarching agribusiness argument that such food is necessary. It is necessary to feed the world.
But, if the food movement could show that famine is an empty threat then it would also have shown, by clear implication, that the chemical health risks and the ecological devastation that these technologies represent are what is unnecessary. The movement would have shown that pesticides and GMOs exist solely to extract profit from the food chain. They have no other purpose. Therefore, every project of the food movement should aim to spread the truth of oversupply, until mention of the Golden Fact invites ridicule and embarrassment rather than fear.
Divide and Confuse
Food campaigners might also consider that a strategy to combat the food scarcity myth can unite a potent mix of causes. Just as an understanding of food abundance destroys the argument for pesticide use and GMOs simultaneously, it also creates the potential for common ground within and between constituencies that do not currently associate much: health advocates, food system workers, climate campaigners, wildlife conservationists and international development campaigners. None of these constituencies inherently like chemical poisons, and they are hardly natural allies of agribusiness, but the pressure of the food crisis lie has driven many of them to ignore what could be the best solution to their mutual problems: small scale farming and pesticide-free agriculture. This is exactly what the companies intended.
So divisive has the Golden Fact been that some non-profits have entered into perverse partnerships with agribusiness and others support inadequate or positively fraudulent sustainability labels. Another consequence has been mass confusion over the observation that almost all the threats to the food supply (salinisation, water depletion, soil erosion, climate change and chemical pollution) come from the supposed solution–the industrialisation of food production. These contradictions are not real. When the smoke is blown away and the mirrors are taken down the choices within the food system become crystal clear. They fall broadly into two camps.
On the one side lie family farms and ecological methods. These support farmer and consumer health, resilience, financial and democratic independence, community, cultural and biological diversity, and long term sustainability. Opposing them is control of the food system by corporate agribusiness. Agribusiness domination leads invariantly to dependence, uniformity, poisoning and ecological degradation, inequality, land grabbing, and, not so far off, to climate chaos.
One is a vision, the other is a nightmare: in every single case where industrial agriculture is implemented it leaves landscapes progressively emptier of life. Eventually, the soil turns either into mud that washes into the rivers or into dust that blows away on the wind. Industrial agriculture has no long term future; it is ecological suicide. But for obvious reasons those who profit from it cannot allow all this to become broadly understood. That is why the food scarcity lie is so fundamental to them. They absolutely depend on it, since it alone can camouflage the simplicity of the underlying issues.
Despite all this, the food and environmental movements have never seriously contested the reality of a food crisis. Perhaps that is because it is a narrative with a long history. As early as the 1940s the chemical and oil industries sent the Rockefeller Foundation to Mexico to “fix” agriculture there. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Rockefeller scientists derived a now-familiar narrative: Mexican agriculture was obviously gripped by a production deficit that could be fixed by “modern” agribusiness products (The Hungry World, 2010). This story later became the uncontested “truth” that legitimised the green revolution and still propels the proliferation of pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs and other agribusiness methods into every part of the globe.
Yet in the age of the internet it is no longer necessary to let an industry decide where the truth resides. It is possible to restore reality to the global discussion about food so that all potential production methods can have their merits fairly evaluated (IAASTD, 2007). Until this is done agribusiness and chemical industry solutions will always be the default winner, alternative agriculture will always be alternative, if it exists at all.
The evidence with which to contradict the lie is everywhere; but in an unequal and unjust system truth never speaks for itself. It is a specific task that requires a refusal to be intimidated by the torrents of official misinformation and a willingness to unembed oneself from the intellectual web of industry thinking. (That will often mean ordinary people acting alone.)
The task requires two things; the first is familiarity with the basic facts of the food system. Good starting points (apart from the links in this article) are Good Food for Everyone Forever by Colin Tudge or World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset and Frances Moore Lappe.
Power, lies, and consent
The second requirement is a shift in perception. The shift is to move beyond considering only physical goals, such as saving individual species, or specific political achievements, and to move towards considering the significance of the underlying mental state of the citizenry.
Companies and industries pay huge sums of money for public relations (PR). PR is predicated on the idea that all human behaviour is governed by belief systems. PR is therefore the discovery of the structure of those belief systems, mainly through focus groups, and the subsequent manipulation of those belief structures with respect to particular products or other goals.
Thus human reasoning, which asks questions like: Is it fair? What will the neighbours think? can be accessed and diverted to make individuals and groups act often against their own self-interests. Two important general rules are that it works best when people don’t know they are being influenced, and that it comes best from a “friendly” source. PR is therefore always concealed which creates the widespread misunderstanding that it is rare or ineffective.
Anyone who desires social change on a significant scale should seek to understand this, and its corollary, that the food crisis lie is far from the only lie. As philosopher Michel Foucault documented for madness and also criminality, many assertions constituting supposed “reality” are best understood as establishment fabrications. Those described by Foucault mostly have deep historical roots; but others, such as the genetic origin of disease, or the validity of animal experiments, are untruths of recent origin. The function of these fabrications is always social control. As Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR, long ago wrote:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
The possibility of manipulating habits and opinions, which he also called “the engineering of consent” was not an idle boast.
Foucault, who was concerned mostly with the power held by governments, considered that the fabrications he had identified were not conspiracies. They were emergent properties of power. Power and knowledge grow together in an intertwined and mutually supportive fashion. He argued that knowledge creates power but is also deferential to power and so is deformed by it. An example is when US newspapers decline to use the word “torture” for when torture is used by the US government. These newspapers and the US government are together doing what Foucault theorised. The US government gets to torture and gains power in the process while the public is simultaneously deceived and disempowered. In this way the preferred language of the powerful has historically and continuously evolved into the established public truth, to the disadvantage of the people.
Bernays, however, worked mainly for corporations. He knew, since some of them were his own ideas, that many of the more recent fabrications were not emergent properties but were intentionally planted.
The essential point, however, is to appreciate not only that companies and others deliberately engineer social change; but also that when they do so it begins with the reordering of the “reality” perceived by the people. The companies first create a reality (such as Mexican hunger) for which their desired change seems to the people either obvious, or beneficial, or natural. When it comes, the people therefore do not resist the solution, many welcome it.
The structure of “reality”
Dictators and revolutionaries provide an interesting lesson in this. The successful ones have achieved sometimes extraordinary power. As always, they have done so first by changing the opinions of the people. The dictator, like any corporation, must make the people want them. As a general rule, dictators do this by creating new and more compelling false realities on top of older ones.
Hitler, to take a familiar example, harnessed a newly synthesised idea (German nationalism) to a baseless scientific theory (of racial genetics) and welded this to pre-existing “realities” of elitism and impugned manhood (the loss of WWI). These ideas were instrumental in his rise to power. But the important lesson for social change is that none of the ideas used by him possessed (now or then) any objective or empirical reality. They were all fabrications. It is true Hitler also had secret money, bodyguards, and so on, but so did others. Only Hitler found the appropriate combination of concepts able to colonise the minds of enough German people.
But Hitler is not known now for being just another leader of Germany. He is infamous for two events, the holocaust and World War II. The same lessons apply. Millions fought and died for almost a decade in a struggle to assert ideas that could have been destroyed by the intellectual equivalent of a feather. But that is how powerful ideas are.
The lies told in more democratic societies are not so very different to those used by Hitler in the sense that the important ones have predictable properties that can be categorised and sorted. What the food scarcity lie has in common with Hitler’s use of race, and with myths of nationalism, or of modern terrorism, and many others, is the creation of a threat, in this case of famine and possible social breakdown. The creation of an internal or external threat is thus the first category of lies.
The second category recognises the necessity of “efficient government”. No government can issue direct and separate orders to all the people all the time. Nor can it possess the resources for physical enforcement of those orders. It must therefore find ways to cause the people to govern, order, and regiment themselves, in exquisite detail. Therefore, governments supply and support guiding principles in the form of artificial unifying aspirations, such as “progress” or “civilisation”. Typically, they also strongly encourage the desirability of being “normal”; and especially they reinforce elitism (follow the leader), and so on.
Another structural category follows from the recognition that the effective operation of power over others, unless it is based on pure physical force or intimidation, usually requires an authoritative source of ostensibly unbiased knowledge. The population must be “convinced” by an unimpeachable third party. This function is typically fulfilled by either organised religion or by organised science. Scientific or religious institutions thus legitimate the ideas (progress, hierarchy, normality, inequality, etc.) of the rulers. These sources conceal the use of power because they combine the appearance of authority, independence and disinterestedness. These qualities are all or partly fictions.
Another category are fabrications intended to foster dependence on the state and the formal economy. These aim to undermine the ancient dependence of individuals on the land and each other, and transfer that dependence to the state. Thus the worship of competition, the exaggeration of gender differences, and genetic determinism (the theory that your health, personality, and success derive only from within) are examples of fabrications that sow enmity and isolation among the population.
Another important category, which include the myths of papal infallibility, or scientific and journalistic objectivity, exist to reinforce the power of authority itself. These fabrications act to bolster the influence of other myths.
The above list is not exhaustive, but it serves to introduce the idea that the organising of detailed control over populations of millions, achieved mostly without resorting to any physical force, requires the establishing and perpetual reinforcement of multiple interlocking untruths. This itself has important implications.
The first and most important implication is that if the lies and fabrications exist to concentrate and exercise power over others (and then conceal its use), then it also follows that genuinely beneficial and humanitarian goals such as harmony, justice, and equity, require retrieval of the truth and the goals will follow naturally from that retrieval.
The task of anyone who wants harmony, justice, peace, etc to prevail therefore becomes primarily to free the people from believing in lies and thus allowing them to attain mastery over their own minds. At that point they will know their own true needs and desires; they will no longer “want” to be oppressed or exploited.
The second implication of this entwining of knowledge with power is that, when properly understood, goals of harmony, understanding, health, diversity, justice, sustainability, opportunity, etc., are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. Rather, they are necessarily interconnected.
The third implication is that an empire built on lies is much more vulnerable than it seems. It can rapidly unravel.
Given that resources are limited, the problems of achieving broad social justice, of providing for the people, and of restoring environmental harms consequently become that of discerning which of the lies (since there are many) are most in need of exposing; and perhaps in what order.
Thus the necessary shift in perception is to see that, as in most wars, the crucial struggle in the food war is the one inside people’s heads. And that the great food war will be won by the side that understands that and uses it best.
This food war can be won by either side. The natural advantages of the grassroots in this realm are many. They include the power of the internet–which represents a historic opportunity to connect with others; second, that it takes a lot less effort to assert the truth than it does to build a lie-many people only need to hear the truth once; and thirdly, that in this particular battle the non-profit public-interest side doesn’t necessarily need a bigger megaphone because, unlike the industry, they are (broadly) trusted by the public.
Consequently, it is perfectly possible that a lie that took several powerful industries many decades to build up could be dismantled in months. It is necessary only to unleash the power of the truth and to constantly remember the hidden power of the people: that all the effort industries put into misleading them is an accurate acknowledgement of the potential of that power.
There are many writers and NGOs, such as Pesticides Action Network, IATP, the EWG, the Organic Consumers Association, the Center for Food Safety, and others, who are aligned with the grassroots, and who are doing a good and necessary job of explaining the problems and costs of industrial agriculture. But these arguments have so far proven inadequate. Agribusiness knows why that is.
But by combining these arguments with a refutation of the food crisis they can help destroy the industrial model of agriculture forever. And when that happens many of our worst global problems, from climate change and rainforest destruction down, will become either manageable or even negligible.
It is all in the mind.
(1) Thanks to Prof J Duxbury, Cornell University.
Billen et al (2011) Localising the Nitrogen Imprint of the Paris Food Supply: the Potential of Organic Farming and Changes in Human Diet. Biogeosciences Discuss 8: 10979-11002.
Cullather, N. (2010) The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia (Harvard)
Foley et al (2005) Global Consequences of Land use. Science 309: 570.
Foley et al (2011) Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478: 337–342.
Peekhaus W. (2010) Monsanto Discovers New Social Media. International Journal of Communication 4: 955–976.
Pretty J. et al., (2000) An Assessment of the Total External Costs of UK Agriculture Agricultural Systems 65: 113-136.
Stone GD and Glover D. (2011) Genetically modified crops and the ‘food crisis’: discourse and material impacts. Development in Practice 21: DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2011.562876
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Good stuff… But you don’t address Big Ag’s current strategy to try to industrialise agroecological approaches – the usual attempt at turning legitimate criticism into a market for themselves. See for instance http://www.syngenta.com/global/corporate/SiteCollectionImages/Content/news-center/full/2014/why-is-soil-so-important-syngenta-infographic.pdf
how would you deal with that?
That is a good and interesting question. Is there compromise that could be made that meets the needs of agribusiness and those of the rest of the world? Technically, there may be, for some cropping systems or climates, options that allow agribusiness to make its profit and have its control and its supply lines but still preserve ecosystems, biological diversity, and so on. However, agriculture has always a political dimension. Land ownership is power, for example. If the farmers are physically, legally, or economically dependent inside Syngenta’s system because they are on a plantation or are trapped by whatever prices agribusiness wants to pay, then they have no power and therefore whatever system agribusiness creates they can also take away. What Syngenta proposes might be ecologically sustainable, therefore, but politically it would not be (this is a version of the very important food sovereignty argument).
Excellent overview, sharp analysis, thank you.
One example showing perfectly what jrlatham says in his response about Syngenta is documented in this new documentary by DanWatch and is showing the pure PR character of Syngenta’s “Good Growth Plan” campaign : http://vimeo.com/115130942
‘Seeds of Debt’ is a documentary (28 min) about the world’s second largest agro-company, Syngenta, that lends money to small-scale corn farmers in India. Farmers and Syngenta agents confirm loan interest rates as high as 50%-100%, which drives thousands of farmers into poverty and bonded labour. The last two decades, more than 280.000 indian farmers have committed suicide because of debt slavery.
Syngenta has threatened to sue the Director of the documentary, Jens Pedersen, and therefore DanWatch has decided to buy the rights to the film. The message is too important.
An excellent post! Two small points I would make.
First, one of our major problems is we are living in a time of great violence. Whether it’s gun violence, covert wars waged throughout the world, terrorism, there’s too much of it that is tearing apart civilization. The Food Movement is not (in my opinion) in a war. Rather, it’s a struggle, a long struggle with very deep roots. In any event, I think we would all benefit from the conscious decision to manage our verbiage toward a higher moral ground and avoid the references to war.
Second, there’s another inherent advantage that exists with industrial agriculture that I’m sure you know. It produces cheaper food. Granted, if we eliminated the subsidies (and of course we should), and factored in the full environmental and exploitative labor costs (again, we should), then it would not be less expensive. Until that happens first, many more people want cheap food and are less concerned about what they eat, as long as it’s convenient and inexpensive to eat.
Forget about the PR campaigns to co-opt the hearts and minds of eaters, its the power and economic corruption that prevents our political system (especially at the federal level) from acting in the public interest. If I were to advise the Food Movement and those fighting for environmental and social justice (as an individual voice), combine forces and directly go after the money and influence it buys in Washington. That’s the lie that has to change before other fundamental change can happen. I don’t think it’s enough to expose a lie for what it is, even the big lies as you so deftly point out in your post, we need politicians to respond to the interests of the people, first instead of the narrow private interests that feed them. Unfortunately, one of the high costs of living in a time of great economic inequality, the scales are tilted toward the top.
It wasn’t that long ago, we would have gone after wrongdoers at the highest levels of government and industry (with the possible exception of a U.S. president), but today we clearly have 2 sets of standards. Banks are too big to allow to fail, executives too rich to indict, and Wall Street too politically powerful but to appease.
Our societal institutions are corrupt. Until that is reversed, I don’t believe fundamental change will happen for the Food Movement, or any other social justice movement in America.
Very interesting comments, especially those on the cheap food concept.
OK, so how do you change institutions? Well they are run by people, right? And how do you change the thinking of people? You educate. Which is what this article is about. Sheesh.
Very good and strong article. The author is right about the “perverse partnerships” with agribusiness which some NGO have discovered as business model. A few years ago I started to investigate the case of the WWF, the most powerful conservancy NGO of the world which has deep, strong and friendly relations with the oil business and with protagonists of the “green revolution”, as Monsanto. Interested? Find more information here: http://www.pandaleaks.org
Good overview of the challenges within the current state of affairs relative to food, the primary need of any living organism. Many propagandas are noted, and they are elements within the “food fight.” Is it really a war, or is that another element of propaganda – turning an idea into a belief held to be true – don’t confuse me with your “facts,” I’ve got more important things to do. A term that might be useful to enable clear thought is to consider all the ideas around such a basic issue as a “mental environment?”
We need to step back into space and look at the earth as our “local planet,” consider the competing thoughts and network world-wide to a future oriented dynamic. The technology approach of fixing the problems caused by technology with technology is a thought form in the human mental environment is one that needs to be put in time-out, so the natural systems can restore themselves.
This is not a new perspective. Buckminister Fuller gave us the vision of “spaceship earth.” Science and engineering paths do reach dead ends.
Global is a practical impossibility – but worldwide networks of those that seek to perpetuate human civilization are a cooperation industry motivated by community first, community motive (80%), and profit second, profit motive (20%). The most important things people do in life, are not for money, profit or wealth, but for family, community and the greater community that humanity is, if only we can get more people to the “local planet” perspective. From there, thought and action is regional, for to solve problems, we must cross boundaries.
Is the food overabundance due to agribiz?
Will agribiz not take credit for same?
Thanks for the question, Ken
The estimates I have seen is that half the words’ food comes from peasant farmers. The other half from agribusiness. Its changing so accurate figures are a bit moot and the categories are anyways a bit blurred. Most peasant-produced food feeds people. Agribusiness food goes mainly to animals and biofuels. So a lot depends on how you measure “food”. If you mean what people actually eat, then, no, they shouldn’t take credit. They claim it though.
…Just finished reading your superbly written article. Your analysis of the insidious nature of agribusiness and description of its effort to gain total control of our food supply is perceptive. By employing disinformation geared to manipulate public opinion and co-opting the moral high ground by falsely claiming to have a solution to the food crisis, they have shifted the conversation away from the environmental debacle they are perpetrating. However, although I wholeheartedly concur with your analysis of the environmentally destructive and unsustainable nature of current agricultural practices driven by corporate profits, I can’t help but question the adequacy of the solution implied, i.e. a return to family-oriented or other systems of organic farming without the need for population control.
It is instructive to remember that, until the mid-20th century, small family farming was precisely the type of farming practiced world-wide since the dawn of civilization, and which (for those cultures lacking a stable population at sustainable levels) not only failed to prevent regular famines throughout human history, but such farming occurred concurrently with the explosive growth of human-caused planetary environmental degradation. Did you really mean to say, “Our planet is becoming literally uninhabitable solely as a result of the social and ecological consequences of industrializing agriculture”? Humans have been the cause of extensive planetary environmental destruction long before industrialized farming was ever conceived. Large numbers of species were driven to extinction by humans even before the industrial age, and half of the old growth temperate forests were already decimated before the first tractor or chain saw ever snarled. It is not merely industrialized farming that destroys ecosystems. It is excessive farming OF ANY KIND that does so, in combination with a litany of other human activities, such as road-building, home construction, mining, and the effects of industrialization in general – all driven by population pressure.
Though I fully endorse your condemnation of industrialized agriculture as a major contributor to our current environmental crisis (particularly as it applies to the obscene practices involved in the atrocity commonly known as ‘meat production’), industrialized agriculture is but one of several manifestations – albeit a Frankenstein – of the more pervasive and underlying cause that nurtures it: ever-increasing human numbers. As long as we continue to tacitly endorse the oxymoron of ‘sustainable growth’ and ignore the cancer of human population growth, we are simply putting ointment on the tumor and delaying the inevitable. Every vector involving planetary collapse points back to unsustainable POPULATION, not merely to unsustainable PRACTICES. Of course, practices do matter, insofar as they are multiplied by human numbers. Both factors are inextricably bound up with human civilization, and both must be confronted if we are to avert disaster.
Yet, all we are hearing from environmentalists these days are proposed solutions involving greener practices in a futile attempt to control consumption. Even if it were possible to convince (or coerce) billions of people to ‘go-green’ for the sake of the planet (given human nature, a manifest impossibility), the planet would still ultimately become uninhabitable due to eventual environmental degradation. This can be demonstrated with any closed biological system where essential conditions for survival are gradually degraded and depleted. Even the ‘greenest’ version of modern civilization is not green enough to support the numbers being discussed. Returning to more eco-friendly farming would certainly help delay the day of reckoning (just as the so-called ‘green revolution’ already has) but, without arresting population growth and ultimately reducing the absolute number of humans exploiting the earth’s unrenewable resources, any ‘solution’ will be short-lived indeed, until it is once again overtaken by ever more consumers at the top of the food-chain, at which time, the ‘tumor’ (i.e. unchecked human biomass) will have grown to even greater and less manageable proportions.
I think it is important to emphasize that food is just one component of planetary habitability, and any biologically meaningful concept of “the future” involves more than just a century or two. Even using the best agricultural practices ever devised by civilization ultimately depletes the soil if nutrients are not replaced at a rate equal to or greater than the rate they are extracted. It is one thing for our stone-age ancestors to have eked out a living on small farms surrounded by vast tracts of rich seemingly infinite fertile land, and quite another for 9 or 10-billion people (all of whom are actively aspiring to a western middle-class life style and facing already depleted ecosystems) to reach sustainability in any meaningful sense of the word.
The house of cards continues to ascend. What about the other elements of a habitable planet, such as biodiversity, forest preservation, healthy marine ecosystems, breathable air and drinkable water? I would be the first to cheer the demise of industrialized agriculture, but, without zero population growth AND EVENTUALLY DRASTIC POPULATION REDUCTION, the concept of ‘sustainability’ is vacuous.
This brings me to the premise of your paper: That environmentalists have fallen into a “carefully laid trap” based on the “myth” of a food crisis. That the ag-industry is using the facts of soil and fishery depletion to promote their bogus profit-driven ‘solutions’ is only part of the disinformation campaign. I believe environmentalists have indeed fallen into a trap, but based on a different and far more dangerous myth – the illusion that there is no population crisis after all. The fundamentalists of capitalism, in their rabid frenzy to maintain ever-expanding markets, have succeeded in shaming the environmental movement into silence about the unsustainable growth in human numbers, implying that anyone who even suggests limiting population is either racist or communist. It is time for the environmental movement to have the courage to confront the real
planetary crisis and promote the only practical solution available – family planning on a global scale, including women’s rights, free contraception, and economic & tax policies that foster few births.
Thanks for those points. I think you are making some assumptions. It is not the people directly how cause environmental problems. Some forms of farming and harvesting are arguably beneficial for the environment. Fish can be caught without causing really any degradation, if the process is done right. So I would argue it is the decisions people make (or are forced to make) that cause the problems. Basically, agriculture done by agribusiness (or using its methods) is astoundingly destructive. Good agriculture actually needs people to tend the land, note pest problems, etc. We need food so we cant avoid farming but how you do it makes all the difference. There are some things that people don’t need, that also cause a lot of harm:
As stated by Meadows et al. (2004, p. 262):
‘‘People don’t need enormous cars; they need admiration and respect. They
don’t need a constant stream of new clothes; they need to feel that others
consider them to be attractive, and they need excitement and variety and
beauty. People don’t need electronic entertainment; they need something
interesting to occupy their minds and emotions. And so forth. Trying to fill real
but nonmaterial needs—for identity, community, self-esteem, challenge, love,
joy—with material things is to set up an unquenchable appetite for false
solutions to never satisfied longings. A society that allows itself to admit and
articulate its nonmaterial human needs, and to find nonmaterial ways to satisfy
them, would require much lower material and energy throughputs and would
provide much higher levels of human fulfillment.’’
It was the PR industry that caused people to misconceive their needs in this way. I strongly recommend the documentaries linked to in the article “The Century of the Self”.
Further to Dan’s points about the need for population reduction, I concur with Jonathan Latham that sustainable farming requires more people than chemical-intensive farming. I spoke to a man in the organic exports industry in India who told me his number 1 problem was — not pests, not low yields or any of the other issues that agroindustry pundits keep saying bedevil organic farming — but a shortage of labour. All the young healthy folk had moved to the cities, leaving no one to harvest the organic crops. His solution, but hardly a sustainable one, was to import labour from Bangladesh.
Just as the GMO/agribiz lobby meme right now in this age of population growth is “Only GMO/chemical ag can feed the exploding population”, they will certainly have another meme ready for when the population levels off and begins falling, as will certainly happen. It will be along the lines of “With the falling population, we have to go for chemical-intensive ag because there isn’t enough labour to go organic.” I’d bet my hat on that.
Interesting discussion but one that needs to include the prospectives of peasant families and consumers. As one of my professors said many years ago, “all of our great schemes work only as long as we keep them (the peasant farmers) poor”. But the vast majority do not want to be poor nor do they want their children spreading manure on their small-holdings. And their children do not want to do it either! The current reality is that the glorified organic farmer who can provide all the “wants” of modern life is a very small exception, not the rule.
If society decides small-holdings are the way to proceed, it will have to make farming attractive. But in most of our societies, who is the largest payer? – the consumer. All one has to do is look at the market shares and prices of conventional versus organic foods to know that most consumers will or can not pay the price if they have an option.
Lastly, for those who immediately distrust ag school professors, I have worked on and off with small-holders through-out the world for over 40 years and my family has farmed organically. In my early days, I was a strong proponent of integrated farming systems for small-holders. I quickly learned that they (the small-holders) know much better than I what their needs were.
I would say the reason consumers find organic food is pricey is because non-organic food doesn’t pay its externalities, and because non-organic food is subsidised far more, and because with non-organic food there is the unknown health cost of the pesticides and the lower quality (often). If you buy conventional you pay four times. On your last point for farmers to “know” what they want there has to be accurate information (eg on the health issues of pesticides) and fair prices. This point pertains to your first too.
Excellent article! Did you happen to listen to the NPR public discussion of GMOs a few weeks ago? Too bad the anti-gmo scientists didn’t read your article before they got on the podium. It was a landslide victory for the pro-gmos! Why? Because the anti-gmo scientists don’t know how to debate. Just because you are a scientist, even a great one doesn’t mean you can effectively debate your position. Different skills are involved.
Rule #1: Never, ever let your opponent define the issue. Dismantle the yield argument
Rule #2 Know your audience. Gmo’s are a complicated issue so keep the debate about something you know no one supports – ever increasing pesticides on the gmo foods! Only testing was done in 1996 and the GMO’s now are Very, Very different…Find out what works and USE IT!
Rule 3: Don’t use your opponents language. “Disruption of service” was used to describe china’s refusal to accept GMO by one of the PR guys from Monsanto. Hows that for sugarcoating…and the anti-gmo scientists started using it!
Rule 4: Never, Ever yield the floor to an opponent who tries to talk over you .Never!!
Very good piece. However you have a gaping blind spot in your perspective. One so fundamental to what you are describing that I scratch my head that you rarely if ever speak to this point. That being of course the fundamental economic order that has created the very ills you so adeptly describe. Big Ag like our Education System, like our PR system, like our ________ reflect the current modes of production. Until there is a movement that upends the tyranny of capitalism I’m afraid well-intentioned folks will forever be tilting at windmills.
“The Century of the Self” gives only a superficial understanding of the situation and is one of the more redundant “underground” documentaries out there. Perception certainly is not everything- material conditions are.
And, no, it is not all in the mind it is mostly in the body. As a parent you should know that (LOL). As far as the topic at hand it is not even close to being in the mind it is in the land- who owns and controls it and everything else that follows.
Thanks for the coffee.
As an aside have you heard of a GMO/Monsanto sycophant named Kevin Folta from FSU? Familiar with any of his propaganda?
Two good questions. I do appreciate that there are other factors influencing human behaviour but I wanted to focus on one that is neglected. I mentioned subsidies and externalities just to show that there are answers to the “Organic is more expensive” question, for example. My other reason for leaving out that discussion is that my answers to it are a bit unconventional and need a proper explanation.
One way to give that explanation is that many of the ideas I am thinking of predate capitalism. Threats, like the vengeful God, original sin, etc. are very old and what capitalism has done (if we date it to the end of feudalism) is to allow the power structures to get their way more easily. Capitalism is efficient in getting things done (compared to command and control methods of organisation, or feudalism) and so it sharpens and speeds up and even brutalises the process of government and hides it under an economic rationale, but it doesnt ultimately explain it. It gets blamed for it because it looks like the cause, and it is the proximal cause, but it isnt the ultimate cause. Overthrowing/upanding it will not help, therefore. How it works in essence is that the economic rationale is set by subsidies (in diverse forms), which are set by government to help its favoured projects and partners. No money for organic farming, etc. These projects of government need exploring in depth: moving people to cities, digitisation, surveillance, criminalisation, genetic determinism, centralisation, mechanisation, etc. They mesh very well with the agenda of agribusiness But all run against supporting local organic farming.
Kevin Folta is well known to me. I share your estimation of him, it looks like.
I’ll address the fundamental point about the socioeconomics at a later time as I’m pressed for time at the moment.
Would you have any further info on Folta as he seems to be quite the propagandist for BioTech. My impression is that either directly or indirectly he is paid (by Monsanto?) to be a proponent.
Here’s one of his comments: “Monsanto is one of the largest producers of plants and seeds used in organic farming.”
I remember when I was very involved in the anti GMO movement and we would organize debates (we brought Vandana Shiva to Ithaca) we would be doing research on the pro BioTech spokespeople and invariably they were all being funded by industry while being cagey about their funding. No surprise of course but I’m wondering if Folta is being compensated for his efforts.
I know he has a university position but also he spends his time online (assuming of course that it is really him operating his social media web), which is not very consistent with the academic activities of most hard-pressed Uni scientists. I raise this because another Uni Prof (at Edinburgh Uni in Scotland, Tony Trewavas) denied being the author of his own letter when he was sued for libel:
Hey guys, you know you could just reach out and ask… always glad to talk about such things. My research has been funded 100% by public sources, except for a small amount we get for strawberry research, mostly molecular marker development that helps our breeding program pyramid flavor-related genes via traditional breeding. No Monsanto.
Most scientists I know spend a huge amount of time communicating with the public directly. It is part of what we are supposed to do. It is ‘extension’ in our mission. Most do this with issues related to specific crops or production practices. I get to do this with biotech because I have studied it for a long time and understand the literature very well. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to work for Big Ag, but prefer the public science gig. It is nice to work for you.
Michael, yes, Monsanto does breed and cultivate many plant lines that have nothing to do with transgenics. They own some of the major “big box store” brands of garden plants, and are a major supplier of organic seeds (I don’t know where I got this, I actually recall it being that they were THE largest supplier- heck they have the infrastructure to do that).
And I operate my own social media “empire”– it’s a few tweets here and there, responding to a comment now and then, maybe a blog or two a week. It fits with my academic life no problem. Some people have kids, sports cars, travel, or mistresses…. I like helping folks think about science and I learn something too.
Don’t be so suspicious and crabby just because a scientist says something you don’t agree with. Maybe we have something to say. It is not just me, it is all of us, maybe not to the same degree, but we all acknowledge that the benefits by far outweigh the limitations. We all recognize that many opportunities to help others with publicly-derived transgenic technology have been lost. That’s sad.
However, more of us are getting involved, and that’s a good thing. When I do talks at universities about how to communicate topics in biotech, I get hundreds showing up and ready to learn how to do it. I’m doing 2-5 talks a month. Scientists are tired of good science being smeared by the anti-GMO folks. We’re waking up, kind of like how it took time for us to stir about vaccination and climate change too.
You always know where to find me and I’m always glad to answer questions kevinfolta at gmail.
* I should have noted, public sources are USDA/NIFA, NSF, USDA Specialty Crops Block Grants, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. These are listed at the end of every publication, and you can see that all here. https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=kIh3BRwAAAAJ&hl=en Every single one of them has been awarded through a highly competitive process where only a few percent are funded.
Alas, no research money from Monsanto, never any personal compensation for any talks. Even honoraria from farm groups or professional organizations I receive go back to the research program to pay for more research that benefits society and contributes to small fruit variety improvement. Thanks.
Just dropping this in here: Kevin Folta received $25,000 from Monsanto
Great to hear you’re eager to answer a few questions.
Here are a few I have for you:
1) Could you talk a little about your first-hand farming experience? Where? When? What type of farming? For how long? What farm or farms?
2) Could you speak to the sources of funding that you refer to? Specifically could you speak to the various revolving doors between big business and the USDA and how that influences decisions on funding? Even more specifically could you speak about known conflicts of interest between corporations (e.g.Monsanto) and NIFA?
When you use the terms public funding that can mean many things. Many private interests are using public funds for their own benefit. The government agencies in many cases carry out that program. They call it policy.
3) Could you speak about your advocacy or support of “Golden Rice?” At least in general theory what are your thoughts on this “product?”
4) Could you give a little primer on what you think about the Green Revolution?
5) What are your thoughts on privatization?
Let me give you a friendly tip Kevin- Your sly innuendo to end your comment relating to vaccinations and global warming might work with someone born under a cabbage leaf but your not in that company here so put it to rest. BioTech, vaccinations and global warming are three very different things so don’t embarrass yourself by conflating the three in attempt to discredit anyone who is opposed to BioTech.
In any case let’s not get bogged down by that. I’m sure your responses will be useful in understanding your positions on these questions.
…Not sure what ‘assumptions’ you are referring to, so I will try to provide more clarity in my argument in the hope of dissipating any confusion I may have unwittingly generated.
Setting aside for the moment any geo-sociological musings about what people ‘need’ to be fulfilled in life, it is a physical fact that 1.5 million new humans are being added to the world’s population EACH WEEK. It is also a physical fact that more than 200,000 acres of tropical rainforest are being decimated EACH DAY (along with a plethora of plant and animal species, many of which are still unknown to science). Examples of ecological disasters, any one of which could be considered catastrophic in its own right, have now become commonplace, and they are just the ones we know about. Other, more insidious processes resulting from human activity may be at work that will come to light later and in potentially more ecologically devastating ways, just as climate change did a few decades ago.
The process of dominating the planet with our presence is certainly not new. It is biologically ‘natural’, as Malthus demonstrated so long ago. Virtually every species contains the seeds of its own demise through the universal propensity for mindless reproduction and exploitation of its environment. Of course the process works fine, as long as there is a regulatory mechanism in place.
What makes solutions to environmental problems that focus solely on a reduction in consumption so ineffective is that humans are in fact acting rationally as individuals when they exploit the environment in their own self-interest. On an individual level, each of us is driven toward what we perceive as the betterment of our own existence. Few see their actions for what they are – part of an unmitigated appropriation of all the planet’s resources by a runaway species! In the absence of a ‘meta-mind’ capable of objectively understanding and controlling the process, we must rely on and promote solutions that allow each individual to act selfishly, while at the same time acting in the best interest of the whole.
Like with all species, the birth rate for homo sapiens evolved as a response to the death rate. Civilization has managed to significantly reduce the death rate but has paid little attention to reducing the birth rate in the interest of sustainable habitat. It is a fact that almost half of all people alive today are the result of unplanned births, and a large percentage of those were unwanted. If people are encouraged to have fewer offspring and allowed to determine their own reproductive behavior, the population will inevitably drop. Those who choose to have one or no offspring will actually be acting in their own perceived self-interest. Difficult as it might seem, this would be a lot easier to accomplish than trying to convince everyone to refrain from environmental over-exploitation or avoid consuming environmentally harmful products.
As I see it, the challenge for the environmental movement is to truly embrace the science to which they claim allegiance and acknowledge the fact that maximizing human protoplasm is ultimately a fools game, and that more food, organically grown or not, will not avert ecocide. Attacking industrialized agriculture and consumption only, justified as the attack may be, cannot adequately address the environmental crisis without addressing the pregnant ‘elephant in the room’.
Regardless of what methods are employed in the production of food, one thing is assured, production will have to DOUBLE well before the end of the century in order to keep pace with demand…and that will have to happen despite the unpredictable effects of climate change currently unfolding. Since everyone agrees that agriculture is the primary cause of environmental degradation, it might be tempting to conclude that, by simply reforming agricultural practices, humanity might be able to avert ecological catastrophe. As Paul Ehrlich so graphically stated years ago, this kind of reasoning is equivalent to claiming that the length of a rectangle is more important than its width in determining its area.
Further, promoting the absurdity that the world could sustain 14-billion, and that the food crisis is a myth, has the effect of joining forces with the capitalist free-marketeers who salivate at the prospect of billions more additional consumers. Until the reality of excessive human numbers is acknowledged, no solution involving the tweaking of human activities will ever succeed. There is ‘no free lunch’…literally.
Regarding the quote from Meadows describing what may be necessary for human fulfillment, I can only respond by rephrasing the question: What do ALL earthlings need in order to lead fulfilling lives?
I find two things interesting about your logic. One is that something as complex as ecological harm has many causes. There are economic causes, there are physical causes, there are political causes, there are psychological causes, yet most people only are interested in only one of these and have even further difficulty in breaking each of these down into their constituent parts. I am interested in all of them but I focused on the one most neglected because it is the one most easily changed. People and nations can change their minds in an instant. Edward Bernays and the US Govt persuaded isolationist Americans to enter WW I in a very short period.
The second is that people who are very interested in physical causes and limits to growth rarely explain the links. I have studied arguments of those concerned with “population” issues, in various books, etc and the one common denominator (as you demonstrate) is to look at population charts and look at the destruction and miss the bits between. In particular what is odd to me is not to do maths (since we are talking about physical limits), so I am going to offer some rough figures. India has 3% of the global land surface. It has 1.3 billion people and it has a food surplus of perhaps 50%. If we all were as clever as Indians the globe could feed around 60billion people. If India adopted SRI techniques yields could double, possibly quadruple (see the important link in the article). Note that this would be organic and sustainable production. Now, India, in case you havent been there seems crowded, but many parts are also quite empty, it has deserts, the Himalayas, tigers, many remote and tribal areas. It also produces 30% of global cotton (on the best land). The point is that even India is not necessarily even at its own limits.
So, that is basically another way to explain the agribusiness lie. Now, I do not argue that there are no such things as physical limits. I presume that level of population would struggle for many reasons but it probably wouldn’t struggle for food availability, if it was as efficient as India.
So the point of all this is that to feed 10 or 14 billion people is easy. It can be done to the highest of gourmet standards. There is nothing to fear, Dan, at least from that perspective.
Lack of concern about population, by the way, does not enhance the corporate lie. It is one of their lies, to distract us all from the bits between. Their astounding inefficiency, for example.
Thank you for expounding a bit further on your views regarding food production as it relates to population. I had to chuckle when I read your comment alleging that population theorists neglect the ‘maths’. For many years, this has been precisely my own tongue-in-cheek criticism of overpopulation deniers. Of course, I think we will agree that neither side of the debate is mathematically challenged, but perhaps both camps are talking past each other and using numbers associated with different variables in order to prove their points.
For example, using the math you cited for India: “India has 3% of the global land surface. It has 1.3 billion people and it has a food surplus of perhaps 50%. If we all were as clever as Indians the globe could feed around 60billion people.”
It seems to me that your conclusion is unwarranted and fallacious. First, 3% of the global land surface does not translate into 3% of all ARABLE land. India is quite fortunate in having not only a large landmass but also HALF (48-60%, depending upon who you ask) of its land arable. In fact, (for purposes of this example, I will use the CIA charts. The world bank has slightly different figures depending upon how arable land is defined), out of 244 countries, India has the FIFTH HIGHEST percentage of arable land, (other sources say it has the highest) barely exceeded by only a few (significantly smaller) ones: Moldova=53%, Ukraine=54%, Denmark=58%, and Bangladesh=53%. Even the United States, which likes to refer to itself as, “The Breadbasket of The World”, has only 16% of its land arable. (See: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2097.html)
Of the total global land surface, 11% is arable. Since India comprises 3% of the total global land surface, its arable portion (50%) therefore consists of 1.5% of the total global land area. Since 11% of the global land area is arable, and India has 1.5% of it, India therefore has about 14% of the total global arable land. With India’s population at 1.3-billion, and the world’s population now at 7.3-billion, India has approximately 18% of the population of the world. Thus, India, with 14% of the world’s arable land is feeding 18% of the world’s population. Given that Indians tend to consume less meat per capita on average than the rest of humanity, this figure is in the range that one would expect, and should provide no cause for celebration by anyone wanting to feed 60-billion people using India’s methods.
Another problem I see not only with this example, but with the discussion in general is the notion of what it means to ‘feed’ any hypothetical population. Are we to assume that everyone will become a vegetarian and will be consuming the grain currently being fed to animals? According to E. O. Wilson’s calculations, “If everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land (3.5 billion acres) would support about 10 billion people,” I think we will both agree that expecting the world’s population to forego eating meat for the sake of the planet is extremely unlikely. In fact, meat consumption is rising rapidly as affluence spreads. We might, however, reasonably expect a very large number of people to refrain from having unwanted children IN THEIR OWN BEST INTEREST if they have the means and are encouraged to do so.
And when we speak of the earth’s capacity to ‘feed’ a given population, are we willing to specify that it be able to do so indefinitely even as those double-digit billions of humans monopolize and further exploit the biosphere upon which not only food, but life itself depends? My goodness, John, the threat of climate change alone demands that we take a serious look at population. The consequences for inaction now will be horrific down the line. Although the impact of climate change is yet to be fully assessed, it is extremely likely that it will have a net negative effect, not only on the world’s food supply, but on other factors affecting habitability.
Please don’t misinterpret my argument here. I fully agree with the need to abolish industrial farming and expose agribusiness for what it is – a parasitic enterprise that is accelerating the process of ecological collapse EXPONENTIALLY. But in our eagerness to ‘connect the dots’ leading to the evils of industrial agriculture, we (the environmental movement, ‘Big Green’, etc.) do a disservice to concept of sustainability by giving our already bloated population a free pass on reproduction and by turning a blind eye to the fact that a medium-sized city is being added to the earth every week. It may be true that big-ag is using the fear of a food crisis to its advantage, but it does not follow that the fear is unjustified. Moreover, what is more subversive to the future of life on earth than an exaggerated fear of the food crisis is the myth that “to feed 10 or 14 billion people is easy”.
I have not been to India, but have lived in South Korea for a time. One of the first things that got my attention there was the sheer intensity of the way agriculture was conducted. First of all, I never saw anything remotely approaching what I knew as a forest. Crops were cultivated on every available vacant spot of land, even on the meridians between roads and right up to utility poles and concrete barriers along the highway. At the time (40-years ago) most of this agriculture was of the traditional type, but this didn’t spare the landscape from being denuded of wildlife, stripped of virtually all native flora, and transmogrified into one sprawling human encampment. Since then, of course, S. Korea has become even more ‘developed’, and its people are now demanding a lot more than a daily bowl of rice.
I also concur with you that the prospect of feeding 10-billion people becomes incredibly complicated and daunting, given the political, religious, geographic, and economic realities of our world. But, even if we somehow manage to abolish industrial agriculture and increase production with SRI, SWI, or any other new technology yet to be devised, where would we be? Is it our goal to reach MAXIMUM CARRYING CAPACITY of the planet? (One could make a case that, with the right technology and agricultural practices, the moon itself could support a billion people, but who would want to live there?) By dismissing population growth and relying solely on fixing broken agricultural methods, the goal of sustainability becomes a mere fantasy. Talk of sustaining astronomically high numbers of people only serves to strengthen the capitalist forces of exploitation, hungry for ever bigger markets and cheaper labor. Other than that, I totally agree with you.
Wow, Jonathan, thank you so much for this. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for for a long time and I appreciate your research and effort.
Rather than answer Dan’s latest points (which I do not think refute anything I wrote–e.g. there is nothing much useful about the % arable land statistic since ag is also a feature of much non-arable land) but better discussed somewhere else) I would like instead to know if anyone who reads this article has practical suggestions for getting the job of exposing the food crisis lie done. The big green groups mostly are corrupt, but the others potentially could do so. Organic Consumers Association made it their “Essay of the week” and many individuals have expressed strong enthusiasm but it has been largely ignored by the medium and smaller non-profits who have complex agendas and relationships with their funders that may be causing them to ignore it. In some ways also the problem is it is too easy for them to do this. There is no work involved. It may be hard to justify in a funding sense. Is that the biggest problem? My feeling, as hinted at in the article, is that independent individuals are the people best situated to do this. E.g. it needs letters to newspapers, editors, mentions in presentations, articles to be written, and so on, a constant drip-feed to turn the tide. I would welcome suggestions or sharing or discussions of barriers that people may feel exist–Jonathan.
I wrote out some lovely barriers but they read like rich PR fodder for agribiz, I’ll give them one as an example:
“How incredibly immoral of you to deny the reality of millions of hungry starving people who will die now and into the future because you’ve taken the world’s focus off them. I’m scared to carry your message in case someone dies.”
Excellent read. As a mother, I find it unconscionable that my tax dollars are still being spent on harmful farming solutions and practices that bleed of chemicals, and then offered up to our Public School cafeterias where my children have to eat. In other words, children have no say over the food that Public School food managers purchase when trying to save a buck. Lucky for us, we live in a democratic country. So, at the state level, the public can demand that our money is not going to be spent on conventional processed foods like “tater-tots,” derived from ingredients that came from fields sprayed with pesticides. At first glance, this seems like some hippie-mom’s wacky idea. But I dare say, restricting bad foods (and therefore the demand in the production of farm chemicals) from the standpoint of “meeting the growing child’s needs” and who happens to attend a public institution, leaders have to uphold health and safety standards— which is one way to change people’s mindsets, quickly. After all, who could argue against NOT protecting children? It’s a smart and strategic way to force any major or influential opponent (politicians or food manufacturing giants) to do the right thing. In all fairness, this idea did not just come to me last night. I’m currently pushing my new proposals for legislative changes in fairmarket and competition for The Organic Food and Farming Industry. All too often they are left out of government bidding. And when it comes to supplying public schools with healthier alternatives, they are THE only choice. Thank you so much for writing your article. Very timely and helpful. I also see a financially innovative and “inivisible” incentive to decrease the manufacturing of agricultural pollutants— by increasing the demand of Organic Food purchases through taxe write-offs. Capitalism still gets to be in charge but the government gets all of the credit for fascilitating growth in that sector. As the Organic Food Industry expands, so too will jobs and new technologies to support it’s effort to remain profitable. This also allows the typical junk food companies to shift more quickly towards organic yields. And maybe not for the right reasons, i.e. greed to win the next government public school contract, but once our government endorses organic foods by making envirnomentally-freindly Vendors more accessible during the food selection process of food managers— can you imagine how much money the Department of Defense alone spends on providing food throughout its organization alone? I happen to think it’s brilliant 🙂 And, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr. Latham, you are absolutely right that over production of “food” is the problem. I came back to the family farm in 1976 and fell into the trap of raising corn and soybeans–because that was the thing to do, and my dad feared the risk of going organic. 39 years later, being active in the progressive family farm movement, I believe I can back you up with many angles of support. From the farmer’s standpoint, too low prices has always been the norm. The resulting elimination of family farmers who used diverse crop rotations, feeding livestock in extensive systems and consequent replacement with extensive monocropped corn and soybean farms along with intensive industrial livestock farms has been the result of the simple minded rule that farmers should produce as much as they can even if it means low prices for them and environmental destruction for everybody. Consequently, our agricultural system is running full tilt to provide feedstuffs for livestock factories and biofuels serving the richest segments of the world’s population. If I could suggest reading a chapter I wrote in a great book published by Food First: Food Movements Unite! There are many food and agriculture groups around the world–especially in the international movement La Via Campesina that will love your essay and be glad to bring their efforts and allies into the cause with your for a just and sustainable agriculture.
A fantastic article Jonathan – I particularly liked the way you tied the argument for sustainable agriculture into also developing an understanding of how minds are manipulated to only ‘play within certain fields’. In other words we need to challenge the framework rather than react to BigAg claims.
Some very interesting comments to the article also.
Dan points out that the destruction of environments by human populations was happening long before the ‘green revolution’. However, I suggest we consider this as the evolution of the ‘meme’ of human vs nature – this was either the outcome of societies ‘developing’ to such a degree that they disconnected the livelihoods of most of their members from farming practices (i.e. they created cities), or the destruction was the direct consequence of colonization and the imposition of mono-cropping, which was happening hundreds of years before the ‘green revolution’ – eg: sugar-cane, cotton and wheat. Not to mention the breeding ground for such practices – feudalism.
In other words its the politics of control and power playing out through the system.
Many indigenous societies (who managed to escape the impositions of colonisation) survived into the industrial age because they were using sustainable agriculture or livestock farming methods. And/or because they continued to have a symbiotic relationship with their surroundings, and as ‘custodians’ of their environment they caused little destruction.
They didn’t buy into the meme that control is the ultimate form of power.
In addition to dissolving that meme, something else has to happen in order to refute the global food model and halt rainforest destruction etc.
Tom Christoffel makes the important point that a mental shift is required to start thinking of a ‘local planet’. And let’s honour the indigenous people who already recognise the elegant argument encapsulated in the term ‘local planet’.
As people of the Developing world scramble to catch up with the Developed world in terms of ‘standards of indulgence’ they are forced to accept the resulting consequences of disconnection and destruction of local communities. And the true value of connected communities is only now becoming apparent in industrialised nations.
However, we have yet to see mainstream thinkers and media making the link between our high incidences of mental diseases, such as depression and suicide, to our society’s unequivocal embracing of technology and industrialisation at an increasingly accelerated rate.
Only the more prescient of us, with our expanded leisure time, are shaking off the shackles of the mind and are now waking up to ask ‘why do i feel so lonely/dissatisfied/disgruntled?’ Not to mention the growing obsession with our diet and health as if having that level of control over our bodies is going to save us from the issues brought on by the industrialisation of society.
Hopefully those in the developing world can save their communities and ‘local planet’ before their countries’ own development has completely uprooted communities and lives in the course of acquiring industrial goods and shackles.
To unshackle ourselves from the ‘reality’ created by ‘authorities’ and power-brokers we need to answer the question for ourselves: what are the truly valuable elements of human life?
It’s a sad fact and great irony that we in the Developed world now have the leisure to contemplate this is because so much of the work is being done for us by the ‘Developing’ – who, struggling to feed families in their increasingly industrialised landscape, have no time for such contemplation.
Nobel prize winner Wangari Maathai notes that the African people in their villages did not know themselves to be ‘poor’ until the White man introduced the contrast of ‘what you are not/what you don’t have’. And followed the mental indoctrination with the mirage of industrialized wealth.
Debbie makes a very neat summary of why the nonGMO scientists lost the silly debate so widely publicised (at the end 2014?) – basically they let the pro-GMO establish the framework.
By analogy the non-Developed people of the world were forced to allow the White man to establish the framework by which poverty can be defined (and now their government officials and corporate power brokers are greedily in compliance). These kinds of mental controls both create the notion of poverty, and lead to the behaviours and activities which continually manifest poverty.
And poverty is at the heart of any discussion around what ag system is used to ‘feed the world’, because as we know the least destructive one is the method that restores food sovereignty to communities, while also re-building the true value of food production. Children of farmers head to the cities for reasons of social betterment because for a very very long time, in the model of development we currently adhere to, farmers and farming have been on the lowest rung of socioeconomic hierarchies – while ironically they do the most important job.
Follow the governments lead for one!
Mar 3, 2015 Inside the ‘Doomsday’ Vault Past the Arctic Circle
Tree seeds that will be stored safely in a “doomsday” vault have been deposited on a Norwegianarchipelago in the Arctic Ocean.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, more than 807 miles beyond the Arctic Circle in mountainous permafrost, is the “world’s largest, secure seed storage vault.” Since the vault opened in February 2008, crates of seeds are sent there “for safe and secure long-term storage in cold and dry rock vaults,” according to a statement from the Norwegian government.
Everything you have written seems plausible. I have a question about famine and food crisis, however. in the late 1980s we had a severe famine and food shortage in Ethiopia. there was he potato famine in Ireland I the late 1800s. How can we make sure these things do not recur elsewhere or globally?
I can believe – and pretty much do – that organic farming can go a long way into growing an of food and feed the world while drastically reducing the amount of pesticides and herbicides which are helping to poison our soil and waterways. I really do.
However, I just find it extremely difficult to buy ANY argument was cornerstone is to knock GMOs when almost every scientist I’ve ever heard or read that has studied them say they are perfectly safe and are not the apocalyptic harbingers of global annihilation that some in the environmental movement make them out to be. To me, when someone starts railing against GMOs, I assign them to the same trash bin I would climate change deniers because both like to use half-truths and populous misconceptions as the cornerstone of their beliefs which science is clearly opposed to.
Everyone is looking around for the best natural approach and she has been preaching and teaching it for years: Dr. Elaine Ingham!
Her methods are in concert with nature and costs are minimal, although you will need a $300 microscope and the ability to make compost and compost tea. Google her and study it for yourself.
For example, a golf course used her methods, reinvigorated the grass and reduced chemical and water inputs by $1M/year! They applied compost and two to three applications of compost tea…..
Same result for farms across the US. If this was applied everywhere, it would be a new paradigm and agrocompanies would be put out of business. Imagine saving the chemical input costs on every farm, immediate profits! Yes, it will take a season or two, but it it is far better than turning your farmland into chemical dumps.
Finally, we owe her and her student for saving the planet from the GMO Klebsiella planticola. Just prior to its release they discovered that soil with the GMO organism kills plant roots and this biology is in nearly all soils, so releasing it could have killed most terrestrial plants, and the rest of the planet. . It was a few weeks from being released into the biosphere Biotech is the most dangerous companies and people on the planet, with the ability to kill us all. Everything they do should be banned from release without proper safety studies. following the precautionary principle seems like good science to me, seems like $$ over ride good science?
Hi – there is a broken link: Stone GD and Glover D. (2011) Genetically modified crops and the ‘food crisis’: discourse and material impacts. Development in Practice 21: DOI: 10.1080/09614524.2011.562876
They move these things around ..I found one here:
Hello I wonder what the great food war is and who the each side is…
Everything you have written seems plausible. I have a question about famine and food crisis, however. in the late 1980s we had a severe famine and food shortage in Ethiopia. there was he potato famine in Ireland I the late 1800s. How can we make sure these things do not recur elsewhere or globally?
In the case of the Irish famine it was mostly economic and political in origin. There was a disease problem but Ireland exported food throughout it. Exports to England were prioritised over the needs of the poor.
See here for more, which connects Ireland to Ethiopia, btw: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/whose-fault-is-famine-what-the-world-failed-to-learn-from-1840s-ireland