By Fred Pearce
The World Health Organization has estimated that El Niño-related weather across the globe is putting sixty million people at increased risk of malnutrition. On track to being the strongest event since 1997-98, El Niño has caused droughts in countries such as India and South Africa that have staggered farming considerably. How will we manage to feed the world when the effects of climate change continue to encroach on our food sources? In this excerpt from The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth, environmental journalist Fred Pearce argues that small-scale farming, not agribusiness, is the better solution to combat the food crisis.
The specter of Malthusian famines has returned to haunt the world. The British government’s chief scientist, John Beddington, forecasts a “perfect storm”—a combination of climate change, rising world population, disintegrating ecosystems, and land and water shortages. The storm will trigger a global food crisis that could see hundreds of millions starve. “We are at a unique moment in history,” he says. “We have twenty years to deliver forty percent more food...this is really urgent.”
The actual outcomes of climate change are far from certain. It could cut farm yields in some parts of Africa by fifty percent by mid-century, and trigger monsoon failures in south Asia. But other regions, particularly the northern hemisphere outside the tropics, could see increased yields. Much will also depend on how cleverly farmers respond to changing weather by switching crops, and how good science is at developing more heat- and drought-tolerant varieties. World population will probably stabilize by mid-century at nine billion or so people. That is still two billion more than today, and sub-Saharan Africa’s population may double. But the head counts in many countries outside Africa will probably be contracting by then, including most of Europe and much of Asia, including China.
Water shortages are worsening. Farms use most of our water, especially in the drier places. Many rivers tapped for irrigation are running dry. Cities are also demanding ever more. Water grabs could trigger water wars. But the potential for using water more efficiently, and for recycling urban wastewater for irrigation, is immense. Ecosystems, especially forests, underpin much agriculture by maintaining climate, river flows, soils, and coastlines, and by providing more esoteric services such as pollinating insects. But the impact of their local degradation is hard to predict.
Finally, good new land fit for the plow is running short in some countries. But we won’t “run out” of land. Only twelve percent of the world’s land is currently used for cultivation, much of it at very low yields. Most agree we need to protect forests and wetlands from encroachment. But a critical question is how much of our unfenced and commonly owned grasslands and grazing pastures we want to, or can safely, give up. That, of course, has huge ramifications for the land grab debate. But there are choices. So what choices should we make? Do we need to hand over those commons, along with millions of cultivated smallholdings, to agribusiness in order to feed the world? Or is that part of the mythology behind the land grab?
For modernists such as Beddington, feeding a world of nine billion or more requires an urgent revolution in the way the world grows its food. That revolution must harness Western markets and technology, especially in Africa. Efficiency is the watchword—in production and trade.
Beddington sees feeding the world as, in large measure, a matter of growing more food. And to do that he wants to unleash commercial agriculture. To fill the grain hoppers, and improve Cargill’s turnover. So he supports plowing up African pastures and grabbing the smallholdings of millions of peasant farmers to create large, more “efficient” farms. Half the world’s undernourished people, and three-quarters of Africa’s undernourished children, live on small farms. Beddington wants to take away their land in order “to make agriculture more efficient.” More efficient for whom? Are we most interested in the efficient use of capital or labor? In the efficient delivery of food to markets or to the poor? In healthy children or healthy bottom lines? If these different efficiencies have different requirements, then Beddington’s efficient farms may not solve the problem as he hopes.
Simple measures of tons of grain per acre may suggest big is best. But small farmers bring many other things to the kitchen table. Official statistics often ignore the fact that they use every corner of their plots, planting kitchen gardens where mechanized farms have vehicle yards. They gather fruits from the hedgerows. They have chickens running in the yard. They feed animals on farm waste and apply the animals’ manure to their fields. They raise fish in their flooded paddies. Big farmers may have access to more capital. But ultimately their purpose is to generate returns for that capital—to please their investors, rather than to feed families.
“There can be a green revolution in Africa,” said Gordon Conway, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, launching his Montpellier Panel report on African agriculture in 2010. “But it will be driven by smallholders—the thirty-three million smallholders in Africa with less than two hectares. The people from whom that continent gets ninety percent of its food. It is their productivity we have to improve.”
Asia’s green revolution is often cited as a triumph for agribusiness. But a 2011 study by Diana Hunt and Michael Lipton at London’s Chatham House, Green Revolutions for sub-Saharan Africa?, says the real Asian lesson for Africa is that “employment-intensive, small-scale farming [is] both more efficient and more pro-poor.” Vietnam, a country with a booming economy and fast-rising population, has gone from running a regular food deficit to being a major food exporter by investing in smallholder farming.
Big farms hollow out communities, while investment in small farms sustains and improves them, says a 2007 study by the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute. “When small farm households spend their incomes, they tend to spend them on locally produced goods and services, thereby stimulating the rural non-farm economy and creating additional jobs,” says IFPRI’s Peter Hazell. Small farms also nurture local agricultural know-how, and networks of marketing and other expertise. Such “social capital” underpins wider development, but could never emerge from turning smallholders into laborers for corporate farms. “Unless key policymakers adopt a more assertive agenda towards small-farm agriculture, there is a growing risk that rural poverty will rise dramatically,” says Hazell.
Pretending that big commercial farming can, or even wants to, feed the world, is dangerous, according to a 2010 report from the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi. “It is not big efficient farms on high potential lands but rather one billion small family farms, tending rice paddies or cultivating corn and beans while raising a few chicken and pigs, a herd of goats or a cow or two...who feed most of the world’s poor people today,” write Susan MacMillan and Carlos Sere in Back to the Future. Small farms are good for the planet, too. They “make up the biggest and most environmentally sustainable agricultural system in the world.” The world needs more of them, since “this same group is likely to play the biggest role in global food security over the next several decades...Governments and researchers are mistaken to continue looking to high-potential lands and single commodity farming systems as the answer to world hunger.” Hooray to that.
About the Author
Fred Pearce is an award-winning author and journalist based in London. He has reported on environmental, science, and development issues from eighty-five countries over the past twenty years. Environment consultant at New Scientist since 1992, he also writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper and Yale University’s prestigiouse 360 website. Pearce was voted UK Environment Journalist of the Year in 2001 and CGIAR agricultural research journalist of the year in 2002, and he won a lifetime achievement award from the Association of British Science Writers in 2011. His many books include With Speed and Violence, Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, The Coming Population Crash, The Land Grabbers, and The New Wild.