We’re all familiar with the myth: we learned it in school. It goes something like this:
Once Upon a Time, in the 1960′s, a crew of brilliant whitefellas in lab coats Saved the World by revolutionising farming and eliminating world hunger. Their new, advanced mechanical/chemical farming methods — vast areas of monocrop, heavy tractors, giant combines, tonnes of artificial pesticides and fertilisers — and their new, improved, superior hybridised crops increased yields tenfold and more. Without industrial farming, billions would starve, even though other billions would be re-sentenced to the short lives of brutal, backbreaking toil from which they were rescued by industrial/mechanised farming. Therefore, anyone who advocates organic or “sustainable” farming practise is some kind of heartless elitist who wants billions to starve and the rest to live as dawn-to-dusk field slaves — for this is what will happen if we do not continue and expand the highly successful [and highly profitable, for everyone except farmers and eaters] model of industrial/corporate farming. There is no other way to feed ourselves. If there are “external costs” of the industrial farming system, we will just have to accept them.
That’s what I was taught in school — and probably you were too, if the subject of agriculture was even mentioned during your school years.
The real story — slowly emerging now into public discourse, in bits and pieces, in a mosaic of books, documentary films, research, nationalist and peasant movements, grassroots efforts — is a lot more ambiguous and complicated. Did agricultural productivity really rise as a result of industrial farming methods? Well, yes and no; it depends how you measure productivity. Was hunger really eliminated by the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960′s? Obviously not, since billions are going hungry worldwide today. How effective were the new artificial pesticides and fertilisers really? And what are the long-term consequences of their use? On what theories was this shift in agriculture based, and who benefited most, and what other agendas were on the table (or under it) at the time? And most urgently perhaps — as we measure the annual loss of topsoil, the reduced nutritional value of industrially-farmed food, and the many risks to food security posed by massively centralised and fossil-fuel-dependent food production — is there any other way to feed ourselves? If the answer is Yes, and any other approach to farming and food is capable of feeding us, then these two (or more) competing models of farming which should be examined and evaluated. But if the answer is No, then we are indeed the captives of an irrevocable choice made sometime in the 1930′s and 1940′s, with no way out.
So let us talk first of all about productivity: the productivity of land, that is, land producing food that we can eat.
First of all, when we consider climax ecosystems (maximally productive ecosystems, those which sustain the highest levels and diversity of life per hectare/acre), we find that they are never monocrops. There is no such thing as a monocrop in nature: all ecosystems are symbiotic, requiring the interactions of tens to tens of thousands of species to achieve maximum densities of life and nutritional exchange. A hectare of rigidly-enforced monocrop is “efficient” only in the sense that it can be harvested by machines (and the “efficiency” of machine harvesting is entirely dependent on the relative cost of machinery and fossil fuel); in terms of biomass produced, it is bound to be less productive than a climax ecosystem or a food plantation modelled on a climax ecosystem (the practise known as “permaculture”) employing a wide variety of species in symbiotic, complementary relationships. What’s the difference in productivity?
Forest gardens are inspired by nature. The reason natural woodland is so productive is because it grows on many layers, rather like having half a dozen fields stacked on top of each other.
A forest garden imitates each woodland layer, but uses more edible species. The garden floor is covered with fruit and vegetables, and above them, the shrub layer is equally abundant.
A bit higher up are the fruit trees, such as apples, pears, medlars (a fruit rather like the crab apple) and quinces.
And then there is the canopy where those trees that aren’t producing food are serving other essential functions such as recycling nutrients through their root system and leaf litter.
Some plants are selected primarily because they attract beneficial insects – hover flies, for example, which eat aphids – so no pesticides are needed.
Surely this requires endless attention and work?
‘Over a whole year, an average of one day a week,’ said Martin. ‘A lot of that is harvesting. In terms of maintenance, it’s about ten days a year.’ Compared to running a conventional farm, that is virtually nothing.
But how much food does it produce? ‘One designed for maximum yield could probably feed about ten people an acre,’ said Martin. That’s roughly double the number we can currently feed from an average acre of conventional arable farmland.
So we have a first approximation: diverse polyculture mimicking a climax ecosystem may be two times as productive as monocrop.
In Pasadena, California, the Dervaes family has been working towards food self-sufficiency on their standard (American suburban) 1/5 acre lot. Their food garden occupies 1/10th of an acre or about half the lot. On that .1 acre, they are cultivating over 350 species of plant, and their annual food yields are worth noting: (2008) 4,300 pounds of vegetable food, 900 chicken and 1000 duck eggs, 25 lbs of honey. Four people manage to get over 90 percent of their daily food from this 1/10th of one acre. That would suggest that over 30 people — if not actually 40 — might be able to eat from the productivity of one whole acre; far more optimistic than our British estimate.
But of course that’s in mild southern California, with its year-round growing season. Surely in more northerly climes — without Great Britain’s good fortune in being situated near a warm ocean current — manual garden-tending could not possibly out-produce fossil-assisted, mechanised farming? Dr Leonid Sharashkin examined closely the contribution of Russian smallholders and gardeners to the nation’s food supply.
In 2003, 34.8 million families (66% of all households in the country) owned gardening plots (subsidiary plot, allotment, garden, or dacha) and were involved in growing crops for subsistence (Rosstat 2005b). By 2005, 53% (by value) of the country’s total agricultural output was coming from household plots (which in 2006 occupied only 2.9% of agricultural land), while the remaining 47% (by value — Rosstat 2006) came from the agricultural enterprises (often the former kolkhozes and sovkhozes) and individual farmers, requiring 97.1% of agricultural lands (Rosstat 2007b).
Let us review those statistics for just a moment. In post-Soviet Russia (with a growing season of about 110 days in the area studied) smallholders — ordinary gardeners and market-gardeners — control only 3 percent of the agricultural land, yet they are producing over half the country’s total agricultural output (by value). Orlov highlights Dr Sharashkin’s results: smallholders are growing 90% of all the potatoes in Russia, 80% of all the vegetables, 50% of the meat and milk etc. In other words, very high proportions of certain products, including at least one calorie staple (potato). And they were doing so on about 3 percent of the available land. What does this say about the “efficiency” of the large industrial farms occupying the other 97 percent? Or about the potential of small-scale polyculture to feed large numbers of people?
And how can this be? How is it that these real-world results can co-exist with the repeated claims by monocrop/industrial farm experts that their methods are far more productive than “mere peasant farming”?
Vandana Shiva explains it carefully and clearly in her landmark paper “The War Against Farmers and the Land” [published in the highly-recommended anthology The Essential Agrarian Reader (ed. Norman Wirzba)]:
The polycultures of traditional agricultural systems have evolved because more yield can be harvested from a given area planted with diverse crops than from an equivalent area consisting of separate patches of monocultures. For example, in planting sorghum and pigeon pea mixtures, one hectare will produce the same yield as .94 hectares of sorghum monocultures and .68 hectares of pigeon pea monoculture combined. Thus one hectare of polyculture produces what 1.62 hectares of monoculture can produce. This is called the land equivalent ratio (LER).
Increased land-use efficiency and higher LER’s have been reported for polycultures of millet/groundnut (1.26); maize/bean (1.38); millet/sorghum (1.53); maize/pigeon pea (1.85); maize/cocoyan/sweet potato (2.08); cassava/maize/groundnut (2.51). The monocultures of the Green Revolution thus actually reduced food yields per acre when compared with mixtures of diverse crops. This falsifies the argument often made that chemically intensive agriculture and genetic engineering will save biodiversity by releasing land from food production. In fact, since monocultures require more land, biodiversity is destroyed twice over — once on the farm, and then on the additional acreage needed to produce the outputs a monoculture has displaced. Not only is the productivity measure distorted by ignoring resource inputs (focussing only on labour), it is also distorted by looking at a single and partial output rather than the total food output.
A myth promoted by the one-dimensional monoculture paradigm is that biodiversity reduces yields and productivity while monoculture increase yields and productivity. [...] Planting only one crop on an entire field as a monoculture will of course increase its yield. Planting multiple crops in a mixture will have low yields of individual crops, but will have high total output of food.
The Mayan peasants in the Mexican state of Chiapas are characterised as unproductive because they produce only two tonnes of corn per acre. However, the overall food output is twenty tonnes per acre. In the terraced fields of the high Himalayas, women peasants grow Jhangora (barnyard millet), marsha (amaranth), tur (pigeon pea), urad (black gram), gahat (horse gram), soybean (glysine max), bhat (glysine soya), rayans (rice bean), swanta (cow pea), and kodo (finger millet) in mixtures and rotations. The total output, even in bad years, is six times more than industrially-farmed rice monocultures.
Shiva emphasises that the diversity of crops in traditional peasant food gardening is essential to their high productivity: as many as twenty different sweet potato varieties (out of over 5000 grown nationally) may be found in any garden in Papua New Guinea; in Java, the typical small farmer cultivates over 600 species in the home garden; in sub-Saharan Africa, women traditionally cultivate over 100 species in leftover spaces alongside cash crops; a single home garden in Thailand typically has over 230 species. In eastern Nigeria results similar to those from Russia are reported: home gardens occuping only 2 percent of a family’s land account for half of the total output of the farm.
Again and again, in widely varying climates, we see living proof that large-scale monoculture is hopelessly inefficient at producing food. It is efficient only at producing uniform commodities for export and/or industrial processing — as with the nearly-inedible varieties of corn now dominating much of North America’s farmland, which must be heavily processed before becoming at all palatable. (cf Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the independent documentary film King Corn, inspired by Pollan’s work).
Not only does industrial monoculture produce less food per hectare, it produces its inefficient results at very high (and unaccounted-for) “external” costs. North American industrial farming has been estimated to consume 10 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of food produced; estimates of topsoil loss vary from 2 to 6 bushels for every bushel of industrial corn harvested. Water usage for industrial farming is similarly alarming: in North America, the ancient Oglalla Aquifer is being drained dry by the enormous water demands of huge acreages of unnatural monoculture. Meanwhile, runoff from artificially-fertilised fields is creating large “dead zones” in coastal waters, destroying fisheries; and pesticides are implicated not only in human health risks, but in the destruction of beneficial insect populations including essential pollinators. Clearly, the inefficiencies of industrial agriculture go far beyond how many bushels of corn or soy can be extracted from each hectare of land in each season; if non-renewable resources are being consumed, or other sources of food (such as oceans and rivers) are being damaged, then our food-producing capacities are being impaired by the way in which we are producing food — in which case we are on a downward escalator of diminishing returns and negative feedback, and there is no future in the present paradigm.
Returning to our original article from the UK:
Could permaculture feed Britain?
I asked Patrick Whitefield, Britain’s leading expert in permaculture.
‘Good question,’ he said. ‘A better question would be, “Can present methods go on feeding Britain?” In the long term, it is certain that present methods can’t because they are so entirely dependent on fossil-fuel energy. So we haven’t got any choice other than to find something different.’
The petrochemical industry, the owners of massively consolidated factory farm operations, the farm equipment sector, and the purveyors of patented hybrid and GMO seed, meanwhile, are telling us that we have no choice: we must go on playing by their rules. But the numbers from actual research in the field (literally) suggest that their absolute certainty is ill-founded as well as self-serving. Smallholder polyculture not only can feed the world — it may be the only farming method that will.
In seeking local food security, then, we may be quite confident that the encouragement of diverse smallholdings — backyard gardens, SPIN farms, family farms — practising polyculture rather than monoculture, is a sound, practical, and realistic strategy. It is not sentimental dreaming, nor the charming but useless hobby of a handful of food snobs; the myths we were taught in school are just that — myths. It is industrial monoculture that is unsound, impractical, inefficient, and unrealistic. We can — and sooner than we think, perhaps, we must be prepared to — feed the world with small-to-medium-scale organic/sustainable farming.
It is not the productivity of land that prevents us from eliminating hunger. It is not the lack of new, improved, ever more phantasmagorical high-tech toys and techniques. What prevents us from eliminating hunger is our failure to return to, and adhere to, a moral code that recognises healthy food as a human right. As F M Lappé notes in a recent article, such a moral code is nearly universal among the people we call “primitive”; early humans, in striking contrast to many other animals, seem to have an innate tendency to share food — even with others not directly related to themselves. Allowing people in our tribe, village, or city to starve is a violation of our primeval human nature. When we muster the political will to continue our ancient food-sharing behaviour in modern dress, the results are astonishing: astonishingly simple, astonishingly easy, astonishingly efficient.
In the early 90′s, Brazil’s fourth largest city made a serious commitment to the elimination of hunger among its citizens. As Lappé tells the story:
Belo [Horizonte], a city of 2.5 million people, once had 11 percent of its population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a right of citizenship. [...]
The new mayor, Patrus Ananias-now leader of the federal anti-hunger effort-began by creating a city agency, which included assembling a 20-member council of citizen, labor, business, and church representatives to advise in the design and implementation of a new food system. [...] During the first six years of Belo’s food-as-a-right policy, perhaps in response to the new emphasis on food security, the number of citizens engaging in the city’s participatory budgeting process doubled to more than 31,000.
The city agency developed dozens of innovations to assure everyone the right to food, especially by weaving together the interests of farmers and consumers. It offered local family farmers dozens of choice spots of public space on which to sell to urban consumers, essentially redistributing retailer mark-ups on produce-which often reached 100 percent-to consumers and the farmers. Farmers’ profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got access to fresh, healthy food.
In addition to the farmer-run stands, the city makes good food available by offering entrepreneurs the opportunity to bid on the right to use well-trafficked plots of city land for “ABC” markets, from the Portuguese acronym for “food at low prices.” Today there are 34 such markets where the city determines a set price-about two-thirds of the market price-of about twenty healthy items, mostly from in-state farmers and chosen by store-owners. Everything else they can sell at the market price.
“For ABC sellers with the best spots, there’s another obligation attached to being able to use the city land,” a former manager within this city agency, Adriana Aranha, explained. “Every weekend they have to drive produce-laden trucks to the poor neighborhoods outside of the city center, so everyone can get good produce.”
Another product of food-as-a-right thinking is three large, airy “People’s Restaurants” (Restaurante Popular), plus a few smaller venues, that daily serve 12,000 or more people using mostly locally grown food for the equivalent of less than 50 cents a meal. When Anna and I ate in one, we saw hundreds of diners-grandparents and newborns, young couples, clusters of men, mothers with toddlers. Some were in well-worn street clothes, others in uniform, still others in business suits.
“I’ve been coming here every day for five years and have gained six kilos,” beamed one elderly, energetic man in faded khakis.
“It’s silly to pay more somewhere else for lower quality food,” an athletic-looking young man in a military police uniform told us. “I’ve been eating here every day for two years. It’s a good way to save money to buy a house so I can get married,” he said with a smile.
No one has to prove they’re poor to eat in a People’s Restaurant, although about 85 percent of the diners are. The mixed clientele erases stigma and allows “food with dignity,” say those involved.
Belo’s food security initiatives also include extensive community and school gardens as well as nutrition classes. Plus, money the federal government contributes toward school lunches, once spent on processed, corporate food, now buys whole food mostly from local growers.
Residents of the Northern Hemisphere, dazed by decades of neoliberal propaganda about the inefficiencies of government, the futility of “welfare,” and so on, may understandably be convinced that this food-rights programme must have foundered somewhat over the 15 years since its bold inception; or we may be tempted to conclude that it must be weighing down the city’s finances unbearably by now.
The result of these and other related innovations?
In just a decade Belo Horizonte cut its infant death rate-widely used as evidence of hunger-by more than half, and today these initiatives benefit almost 40 percent of the city’s 2.5 million population. One six-month period in 1999 saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced by 50 percent. And between 1993 and 2002 Belo Horizonte was the only locality in which consumption of fruits and vegetables went up.
The cost of these efforts?
Around $10 million annually, or less than 2 percent of the city budget. That’s about a penny a day per Belo resident.
For a penny a day per person — a whopping $3.65 per year each — a world-class city took meaningful, measurably successful steps towards the redefinition of food as a human right, the elimination of hunger among its poorest people, the promotion and availability of fresh and healthy food for everyone, and the revitalisation and ongoing support of local, small-scale agriculture. Rather than escalating the destructive practises of gargantuan-scale industrial farming and then distributing its inferior, malnutritious products as charity or welfare, Belo Horizonte made a courageous attempt to create a food economy that would meet the standards suggested by Carlo Petrini of the Slow Food Movement: good, clean, and fair. (Here’s a video clip of Petrini explaining his standards and their implications.) As the Slow Food web site explains:
Slow Food is good, clean and fair food. We believe that the food we eat should taste good; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.
The city of Belo Horizonte, by boldly addressing food justice and food rights, has begun the process of guaranteeing every person acess to food that is good, clean, and fair. Their success vividly highlights the many failures — nutritional, social, agricultural — of our own industrial and wholly profit-oriented food system. It also suggests that our situation is far from hopeless. If we were to continue with business-as-usual, the future of food looks pretty dismal; but the documented productivity and sustainability of dense polyculture, plus the documented success of the food-as-a-civic-right policy implemented by Belo Horizonte, seem like very well-lit signage beckoning us to a safe exit from the ratcheting finger-trap of industrial agriculture.
Hunger is not inevitable. Factory farming is not inevitable. Low-quality, tasteless, contaminated food is not inevitable. Repeated “food scares” are not inevitable. Soaring public health costs are not inevitable. Another and better food system is eminently possible — now, not ten years from now or after some promised, imaginary “scientific breakthrough”. It is possible right now, today — in our own backyard(s).
What are we waiting for?