It’s hard to miss Monsanto Corporation’s latest marketing and self-promotion campaign with full-page advertisements running in newspapers: “9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. NOW WHAT? Producing more. Conserving more. Improving farmers’ lives. That’s sustainable agriculture. And that’s what Monsanto is all about.” There is no doubt that this sophisticated advertising campaign has a basis in reality. A recent report released by the United Nations projects that the “population of the world, long expected to stabilize just above 9 billion in the middle of the century, will instead keep growing and may hit 10.1 billion by the year 2100” [www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/world/04population.html]. David Montgomery in Dirt, the Erosion of Civilization (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 2007), his profound history of world agriculture, notes that in the world’s most intensively farmed regions, to feed one human requires .2 hectares per person, which is equivalent to approximately 1/2 acre per person. Presuming that it would be possible to increase the average global agricultural production to this level of .2 hectares per person, the earth could support 7.5 billion people. However, Montgomery warns that given the continued loss of productive cropland, it is estimated that by 2050, the amount of available farmable land will drop to less than 0.1 hectares per person, or less than 1/4 acre per person. Thomas L. Friedman in his recent column, “The Earth is Full,” in the New York Times (June 8, 2011) describes the dire forecast made by Paul Gilding, the Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, in his new book called “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World” [http://paulgilding.com/the-great-disruption]. According to Gilding, “We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies.”
Nonetheless, the answer for producing more food in the developing world does not rest upon petrochemicals, lots of oil, crop subsidies and GMO (genetically modified) seeds according to the latest World Economic and Social Survey 2011 entitled “The Great Green Technological Transformation,” a United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs report recently published [www.un.org/en/development/desa/policy/wess/index.shtml]. Rob Vos, the Director of the U.N.’s Development Policy and Analysis Division (the main development research division of the United Nations), describes the report as calling for “transforming agricultural technologies so as to guarantee food security without further degrading land and water resources.” Chapter 3 of the 2011 survey is entitled “Towards a truly green revolution for food security.”
This green revolution will require the use of farming techniques that “require less water wastage and less use of chemicals and pesticides that cause land degradation.” The report says the green farming technologies exist, “but their deployment needs to be scaled up and made affordable to farmers worldwide, especially to small holders in developing countries.” Economies of scale in sustainable food production will have to be promoted through adequate support services, not only in the form of access to sustainable farming techniques, but also through upgraded distribution networks and transportation, sustainable irrigation and water management systems, and access to credits and land.
Maria Rodale’s passionate Organic Manifesto (Rodale Inc., distributed to the trade by MacMillan, New York, NY, 2010) [www.rodale.com/maria-rodale-organic-manifesto] lends support to the use of greener food production especially in the developing world. Results from the Farming Systems Trial (FST) Study begun by the Rodale Institute in 1981 has established that organic farming is an efficient method of farming that provides better results than chemical farming. Although organic crop yields are comparable to chemical yields, in years of drought, organic farm yields are higher than those of chemical farms due to the stronger root systems of organic plants and better moisture retention in the soil. In flood situations, organic yields are also higher due to stronger root systems and organic soil’s ability to absorb more water and prevent runoff and erosion. Citing this study, Maria Rodale strongly rejects the fears stoked by chemical companies that to “feed the world” their poisonous chemicals and GMOs are needed in agriculture. Ms. Rodale describes how the industrialization of cotton farming in India by the use of “magic” (GMO) seeds and the companion chemicals was a failure: “After the first year, they find out that it costs much more to maintain their crops due to the ever-increasing prices of seeds and chemicals. Yet they are still plagued by insects and, like all promises of magic, the yields are disappointing at best.” She makes a stunning assertion that “More than 160,000 Indian cotton farmers [presumably facing financial ruin] have killed themselves in the past decade. The favored method of suicide? Ingesting chemical pesticides” [Organic Manifesto, pg. 62].
Might there still be some hope for the adequacy of the world’s future food supply? This latest World Economic and Social Survey 2011 suggests that greener food production and the strengthening of voluntary family planning services is the place to begin. [FW Barrie, 8/9/11]