Wednesday, November 12, 2008

food production or distribution...

...which are we talking about changing?

If you’re new to the hot topic of food and farming and how our agricultural system works and you're spending any time at all catching up you’re bound to run across lots of occasions of food industry giants talking about hunger and what it will take to end it. In fact if most of your information comes from such sources, including much of the mainstream press on the topic, you’re likely to end up thinking that what we really need in order to feed the nearly 1 billion people who don’t have enough food to eat is a change in the way we produce food. We need the seeds of genetically modified plants available to more farmers so they can increase yields. We need new pesticides to help harvest more food. We need to be able to clone animals for more meat. We need to make synthetic fertilizers available to those in the developing world with larger percentages of their populations going hungry. As far as the international agribusiness corporations think we just need another green revolution to help us grow more food and that only these types of changes in production will feed more people. By the way this is totally false.

If instead you’ve done your homework when it comes to hunger issues- maybe you’ve read World Hunger 12 Myths by Frances Moore Lappe’ et al- you know that here on Earth we already grow enough food to feed everyone more than twice what they need, we just don’t distribute it well. But because so many of us are in the former category- people who are largely divorced from food issues besides going to the grocery store and eating fast food- this probably comes as a shock to many of you reading this.

Don’t feel bad if your relationship with food doesn’t include an intimate knowledge of where or how it is grown, how far it travels on its way to meet you and how much energy, synthetic chemicals, underpaid labor and animal cruelty is involved in getting it to you. The system is set up to keep us in the dark. I didn’t grow up on a farm and it wasn’t until after university that I began to discover these issues for myself. And yes one of the biggest surprises for me was learning that we already produce more than enough food to feed everyone. Remember the Ethiopia famine that received so much attention here in the US in the mid 80s. Yup, they were exporting food from Ethiopia during that entire crisis. The people that died during that famine didn’t die because there wasn’t enough food available in that country, they died because they couldn’t afford to buy it and didn’t have access to what they needed to grow their own. The rich people to whom the food was exported continued to eat quite well thank you.

Sometimes when I suggest that growing more of our own, as we did during WWII in Victory Gardens, is an appropriate idea based on the rising cost of food and the damaging effects of industrial agriculture, someone suggests I’m in favor of food rationing as that policy was in part responsible for the Victory Garden movement (even though it was mostly about household food security). But the truth is we already ration food. We just ration it by price. We distribute food on a sliding scale based on how much money a person has. And there are lots of people waking up to this reality. Once you spend any time at all learning about our food system you will quickly find people suggesting that it’s not production that needs improvement, it’s distribution.

And of course on a certain level those people are exactly right. If we had a system where by every human being on Earth could go to their local market and get the exact same amount of food as everyone else we’d have enough to feed roughly twice as many people as are living on the planet today. Now listen closely because this is important. The planet can’t handle a doubling of the human population and I am not suggesting we should try that. Other resources- water jumps to mind- are already under extreme duress, to say nothing of the challenges we face regarding climate change. Overpopulation and overconsumption by certain segments of the population (think the Global North especially the US) is a big problem.

And it’s important to note the some of the agricultural processes of industrial agriculture are incredibly destructive and cannot be continued indefinitely. It’s likely that they can’t even be continued for very much longer. Soil for instance is being lost and degraded at an alarming rate. This issue alone threatens our ability to continue feeding even the current population of the planet at today’s rate of inhabitance. That is, we’re going to have to change the way we produce food anyway because industrial agriculture is too destructive to allow it to continue without risking our very survival. But it is true to point out that if we had a more just and fair system of distribution for the time being we could feed everyone including the predicted increase in human population over the next few decades using our current system of production. It is technically about distribution at this exact point in time.

Then again is it? At the turn of last century about a third of the US population was involved in agriculture. By 1950 that number was down to about 15%. Today it stands at less than 2%. So the current means of production includes a small number of people growing lots of food for almost everyone else.

The other 98% do something entirely different. So while it is true that we currently have more than enough food to feed the other 98% if we had a more equitable means of food distribution, we still must make changes because of how destructive our current system is. And maybe trying to figure out how to feed more people by changing either the means of production *or* changing the means of distribution is like not seeing a forest full of trees. Maybe hiding in this false dichotomy is the real answer to the problem of how to feed everyone. Perhaps the answer is that we have to change the means of production by changing the means of distribution or vice versa if you prefer. Maybe the answer is that more of us need to grow food.

The Chinese proverb goes, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and you have introduced another competitor into the overcrowded fishing industry. But teach a man to farm and, well, you’ve got a farmer." Alright that translation is a bit loose but I bet you get the point. Now there are some mental frameworks that have to be tweaked in order for this crazy scheme to work. Sharon and I (and others) are calling for many more people to become actively involved in agriculture again. In our book we call for 100 million new gardeners and farmers and 200 million new home cooks. That’s roughly 1/3 and 2/3 of the US population respectively. That’s a huge increased compared to today’s standards. Historically speaking though, it’s not that high of a percentage.

But we also have all sorts of tools and techniques available to us now that we not available to us the last time such a percentage of Americans grew more of their own food. We’re talking about changing the means of production both by including more people but also by using the best methods of producing food from the past and from the present. I should probably save more on that for the book. It’s available for pre order on Amazon by the way which is less a shameless plug than a proud coauthor sharing his supreme pleasure in finally seeing up there.

OK it's both pride and a plug but back to the discussion about what an agricultural shift might look like. My point here is that this isn’t a suggestion that we simply abandon everything about where we are in space and time. We’re not suggesting that we all get into our time machines and travel back to the early 1900s and that we try to land them all in corn fields. This is 2008 and many more of us live in towns and cities and suburbs. That is reality. But so is the fact that despite the rise of industrial agriculture and all its destructiveness we still don’t feed almost a billion of the people on the planet. About 12% of the population here in the US is food insecure, meaning they don’t have enough to eat on a regular basis. This may be better than at other points in recent history (and worse than others going farther back) but better is not itself success.

Success means feeding everyone and success will not come until we make a change in the way we eat. If more people are growing more of their own food then by we have a better system of production. This we know. People like Peter Rosset have been telling us for quite a while that small scale agriculture is more productive per unit of land than larger scale operations. A recent study from the UN suggests something similar saying,
The research conducted by the UN Environment Programme suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings with it.

An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. That increase in yield jumped to 128 per cent in east Africa. – The Independent
But more people are growing more of their own food also means a better system of distribution. Highly concentrated systems of anything are risky in that they can easily exclude people. De-concentrating our system of food distribution by actively including at least 1/3 of Americans in agriculture means more people are more likely to get fed. This isn’t just because it’s more productive per unit of land to do so but also because many more of us will have access to food right on our own property and because more gardeners and farmers means a higher likelihood that someone near everyone is growing food. We’re talking about the underpinnings of the relocalization of agriculture. This could lead to all sorts of sharing, gifting, bartering and buying economies of local farmers growing food for local people. And this network of- is it production or distribution?- means overlap. It means variety. It means fresher food, which means more and better cooking and healthier people. And ultimately a better fed world. We have a long way to go but the time to start is now.

opening image credit: Sustainable Everyday Project