Aiming for elegance, one thought at a time

World food production

Posted: July 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: News | No Comments »

I’ve just read Feeding the World, a special report by Joel K Bourne Jr published in June’s National Geographic – I’m just catching up on the issues that came while I was away. The report discusses the fact that world food production is failing to keep pace with world food consumption. It also discusses the Millennium Villages, championed by The Earth Institute and Jeffrey Sachs, whose book I recently read. It’s hard to fault Sachs’ book, which argues compellingly that we can end poverty, but Feeding the World reminded me of an aspect of the book with which I am not wholly satisfied.

Sachs argues, amongst other things, that the Green Revolution of the 1960s should be brought to Africa as part of a program to end extreme poverty. The Green Revolution brought high-yield grain varieties, intensive irrigation and synthetic pesticides and fertilisers to Asia, enabling global production to double in the second half of last century. The Millennium Villages are in part intended as a demonstration that this can also be achieved in Africa.

In this argument Sachs’ takes the West’s proven technologies and rigourously plans and calculates how they can be applied in the third world. This is an eminently reasonable approach, and due to its conservative nature, no doubt the approach that has the best chance of receiving mainstream political support. However, one wonders if saddling the third world with technologies that increasingly seem outmoded is the best approach.

Intensive industrial agriculture has enabled us to feed a growing global population, but it has also depleted soils and aquifers, and in many cases degraded those resources to the point where they can no longer be used. It seems that there may be hard limits to how much further industrial agriculture can carry us, and it seems that we might have come right up against those limits.

There is, however, an alternative to industrial agriculture, one that has a great deal of promise. Sustainable farming seems to be a real alternative- choosing crops that suit the local conditions, rather than those crops for which there is the greatest demand; combining different crops that compliment each other and rotating through crops that fix nitrogen or protect soils, rather than raising vast areas of a single crop; managing farms as entire and complex ecosystems, from soil biology up, rather than as an equation of nitrogen plus water in equals gross tonnage out.

Despite its great promise, sustainable farming is handicapped by it’s apparent idealism, by the ease with which it is dismissed as naivety, and by the real complexity of achieving ecological management at a global scale. The simplicity of chemical agriculture for the end user is an enormous advantage. It remains to be seen whether sustainable farming will gain any real support, or the outcome if it doesn’t. For my part though, I’d rather struggle with the complex answer, then risk backing the simple response – as appealing as it might be – to the exclusion of all else.

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