Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Global harms of industrial ag: We know enough.

Last month global experts released yet another report linking industrial agriculture with the dramatic degradation of soil, water and other natural resources currently threatening our ability to feed ourselves.

Just how much evidence do we need? I posit that like the banking crisis, the causes of the food production crisis are actually quite clear. A very few large and powerful beneficiaries of the current system (and their lackeys) continue to vociferously defend the status quo, while ample data show that it simply doesn't work. Meanwhile, growing numbers of farmers around the globe demonstrate viable, safer and necessary alternatives.

The State of the World's Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW), released by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization calls for new national policies in countries across the globe to effectively support sustainable management of water and land.

It also recommends investment in local agricultural knowledge, together with modern technology and innovative farming practices such as conservation agriculture, agro-forestry, integrated crop-livestock systems and integrated irrigation-aquaculture. These systems will expand production, address food security and limit harmful impacts on fragile and pressured ecosystems.

Water & soil in crisis worldwide

The SOLAW authors report that in cereal producing areas across the globe, intensive groundwater use is drawing down aquifer storage and threatening the groundwater sources upon which rural communities depend. At the same time, food production is threatened by degradation of water quality from salinization, excessive build up of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, contamination by pesticides and the disappearance of wetlands.

Best practices can protect, nourish, even build soil — if we haven't destroyed it altogether

Water quality and availability are inextricably linked to how we mange (or destroy) soils. While it takes thousands of years to develop soil, industrial agriculture practices can destroy soil at a rate 10 to 100 times its rate of formation. According to a 2006 Cornell University study, the vast majority — 99.7% — of human food comes from cropland, which is shrinking by more than 10 million hectares (almost 37,000 square miles) a year due to soil erosion by wind and water.

Luckily, there's good news to report as well. Best practices can protect, nourish and even build soil — if we haven’t destroyed it altogether. While such practices can do little to rebuild the subsoil (constructed over geologic time from the weathering of underlying rock), they can build vital topsoil rich in organic matter and nutrients. According to the SOLAW report, while fully 25% of the planet’s land (agricultural and non-agricultural) is highly degraded and another 8% is moderately degraded, 10% is described as "improving." This gives us reason for hope.

Global food system fails like the banks

According to the SOLAW report authors:

No region is immune: systems at risk [of their capacity to produce food] can be found around the globe, from the highlands of the Andes to the steppes of Central Asia, from Australia's Murray-Darling river basin to the central United States.

Impressive, and arguably important, increases in production of the Green Revolution grain crops — primarily corn, wheat and rice — turned out to be short-term gains with potentially devastating long-term implications, founded on the negligent depletion and destruction of resources necessary for sustained food production. Kind of like those fast growing, short term financial instruments that nearly brought down the entire financial sector.

Admittedly I'm not one to advise on the dealings of the financial markets. I’d much rather spend my time growing food — and community — than gambling in the marketplace to grow money with money. Nevertheless, it just makes sense to me that if the financial system is based on smoke and mirrors rather than building productive capacity, the economy fails; and similarly, an agricultural system based on short-term gains that destroy the soil’s productive capacity will inevitably lead to a failure of that system.

Willie Nelson hit the nail on the head in his Occupy the Food System story, published online just a few days ago:

From seed to plate, our food system is now even more concentrated than our banking system. Most economic sectors have concentration ratios hovering around 40 percent, meaning that the top four firms in the industry control 40 percent of the market. Anything beyond this level is considered "highly concentrated," where experts believe competition is severely threatened and market abuses are likely to occur.

In the U.S., 93% of soybeans and 80% of corn production are controlled by just one company (Monsanto); three companies process more than 70% of our beef operations, and four companies control up to 90% of the global trade in grain. That's seriously concentrated economic power.

Ecological farming gives real reason for hope

My colleague Marcia Ishii-Eiteman has written extensively on the demonstrable successes of agroecological practices around the globe in increasing food production while mitigating climate change, alleviating poverty and protecting — even enhancing — biodiversity and other environmental resources.

Marcia’s eloquent analyses are echoed by many, including UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter (2010) and a 2008 UN report on agriculture in Africa reporting that agroecological practices benefit soil and water in ways that "allow farmers to grow crops for longer periods with higher yields and in marginal conditions — all of which reduce food insecurity in a given region."

And earlier this month author Barry Estabrook contributed eloquently to efforts among the 99% to debunk the myths promoted by the defenders of industrial agriculture. 

What is notably lacking in the "conventional" versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can't feed the world's growing population. They persist in repeating this as an irrefutable fact, even as one scientific study after another concludes the exact opposite: not only that organic can indeed feed nine billion human beings, but that it is the only hope we have of doing so.

Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves is a PAN Senior Scientist with expertise in agroecology and soil ecology. As a long-time farmworker advocate, Margaret serves on the Board of the Equitable Food Initiative and works with partners around the country to ensure worker-protective federal and state policy. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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