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Debunking Myths About Agriculture

anna lappe

Organic agriculture, wrote political scientist Robert Paarlberg in a recent Foreign Policy article, is just a “trendy cause” for “purist circles.” The movement for sustainable farming around the world, he said, is an “elite preoccupation.”

Whole Foods shoppers, you’re on notice.

While I wouldn’t argue that buying overpriced kale chips at Whole Foods is certainly not a direct route to saving the planet, Paarlberg’s diss misses the mark.

Paarlberg, who has served on the National Research Council and writes often on food issues in the developing world, views industrial agriculture as “science intensive.” But this form of farming is more aptly dubbed “energy-intensive” and — while we’re at it — chemical- and water-intensive too. The sector is also a major culprit in the climate crisis. Worldwide, our food system is directly and indirectly responsible for nearly one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, largely because of the global shift toward industrial livestock production and agribusiness-driven deforestation.

Paarlberg’s defense of industrial agriculture — including genetically modified seeds, agricultural chemicals and factory farms — reflects the same myth-laden refrains sung by agribusiness and the chemical industry to undermine the case for a global shift to sustainable farming.

1. The inevitability myth

Proponents of industrial agriculture would like us to believe it’s the only game in town. Agriculture dependent on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers is presented as the planet’s unavoidable future, as inevitable as Kenny getting killed at the end of every “South Park.”

The inevitability myth is powerful; if we buy it, opposition seems futile.

But the view from the ground tells a different story. In every pocket of the planet where industrial agriculture is spreading, so is resistance. In Poland, where Smithfield Foods has been expanding its industrial hog operations, local farmers and activists are banding together to fight back. In South Korea, where the country saw a decline in farmers from 63 percent of the population in 1963 to less than 20 percent today, a new movement of consumer co-ops is knitting together consumers and farmers and rebuilding sustainable farming.

Worldwide, the farmer-led movement, La Via Campesina, provides even more evidence that the industrial agriculture system is not intractable. Members of this grassroots movement, which represents as many as 200 million food producers in more than 60 countries, are speaking out on the international policy level for the potential of small-scale farmers to “feed the planet and cool the world.”

2. The false tradeoff

A June 2008 Forbes article described Dow AgroSciences’ latest business move: heavy investment in agricultural biotech, one of the newest twists on industrial farming. “The world will have to accept biotech crops,” explained chief executive, Jerome Peribere, “especially if we all agree that we cannot keep cutting trees to increase farmland.” And who among us would want to be seen as having a direct hand in forest loss?

But breathe easy, organic apple munchers. This is more false tradeoff than real sacrifice.

Look at the real drivers behind rainforest destruction and the argument against agroecological farming dissipates. One of the biggest causes of deforestation is agribusiness’ demand for crops to feed livestock. Worldwide, half of all corn and 90 percent of all soy is directed to feed animals, not people. Another? Agrofuels, especially the spread of palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Indonesia has become one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions as agribusiness destroys carbon-rich wetlands and rainforests to grow palm oil, half of which is destined for the fuels market in the European Union. (Much of the rest ends up on our shores, in our granola bars, Reese’s Pieces and Girl Scout cookies).

3. The poverty myth

“If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger,” Paarlberg wrote in Foreign Policy, “we need to … appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West.”

In statements like this, Paarlberg suggests that sustainable farming would curse developing world food producers to poverty. But he skims over how industrial agriculture, especially when it has been adopted in the developing world, often has worsened hunger, not alleviated it. Small-scale farmers in developing countries may be cash poor, but many have been resource rich: growing healthy foods for themselves and their local economies. Yet the decades-long push by World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies for large-scale, mono-cropped agriculture for export undermined farmers’ ability to feed themselves.

Today, we produce more than enough calories globally to make everyone on the planet chubby, yet hunger is more pervasive than a decade ago, afflicting an estimated 1.02 billion people in 2009, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. By depleting water tables and topsoil and emitting significant greenhouse gases, industrial agriculture further undermines long-term food security. Industrial methods also are, by design, input-dependent, and those inputs — synthetic fertilizer, chemical pesticides, hybrid seeds, as well as farm equipment and fossil fuels — are all expensive. Small-scale farmers are the least able to afford such inputs or weather the destruction of their soil and loss of water tables. In one of the most extreme and heartbreaking cases, an estimated 100,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1997, many having fallen into crushing debt after crops failed.

4. The food yields myth

Among the most pervasive myths about sustainable farming is that these methods simply cannot produce the yields needed to feed the world.

Speaking to the British newspaper The Independent in 2001, Michael Pragnell, CEO of Syngenta, said: “We need to recognize that were agriculture to go organic again, we would have an enormous food deficit.” (Hmm, might the CEO of one of the world’s largest agricultural chemical manufacturers have a stake in this argument?)

Pragnell, like Paarlberg, bases this claim on the misplaced notion that no-input agriculture in parts of the developing world is synonymous with the agroecological methods sustainable food advocates defend.

Says Paarlberg: “Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic.” But sustainable farming is not just the absence of chemicals. Sustainable farming, for instance, uses beneficial pests, multicropping and cover crops, among other agroecological techniques, to manage pests and weeds while improving soil fertility. Indeed, sustainable farming is best called knowledge-intensive farming, tapping natural cycles to improve yields and soil quality.

New research is showing that these methods absolutely can result in sufficient yields. In a meta-analysis of data from farming sites around the globe, researchers at the University of Michigan found that by adopting agro-ecological approaches, farmers in the developing world could grow “almost twice as much to four times as much of the crop as with his/her previous practices.”

Signs of progress on planet-healthy food

I recently returned from my latest book tour, and in every corner of the country, I saw exciting food and farming projects whose successes chip away at these myths.

I saw communities coming together to build sustainable, regional food systems — fostering climate stability, food security and good health all at the same time: Spokane (Wash.) Community College’s culinary school teaching aspiring chefs to cook with regionally raised faro and spelt; the city of Santa Monica linking its own carbon footprint to the food chain, banning non-recycled to-go packages and more; the mayor of Portland, Ore., breaking ground on the second year of City Hall’s edible garden.

Some are doing this work explicitly to address the climate crisis, others to foster food security. All have one shared dream: to create a healthier food system for people and the planet, one bite at a time.


Anna Lappé is author of the new book, “Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It.”She is a founding principal, with her mother Frances Moore Lappé, of the Cambridge-based Small Planet Institute, an international network for research and popular education about the root causes of hunger and poverty. The Lappés are also co-founders of the Small Planet Fund, which funds democratic social movements worldwide.