Our Food is in Jeopardy

 

Subhadra Khaperde selling seeds at the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) Biannual Conclave in Udaipur, 2019 – photo © Rahul Banerjee

 

Agriculture is what gave rise to civilization and it is also what is going to end it!

Assured availability of food began with the Neolithic Revolution about 10 000 years ago. At the end of the Pleistocene epoch and the start of the current Holocene epoch about 12 000 years ago, the last Ice Age came to an end, and in today’s Middle East region, the climate became conducive to food production as opposed to food gathering (Bowles and Choi, 2019). However, it took two thousand years after that for settled agriculture to emerge, because communitarian agriculture was initially not more productive than communal hunting and gathering.

Agriculture requires considerable labour in soil and water conservation and manure preparation before its productivity rises above that of wild growth of cereals and pulses. Initially, there was not enough agreement within the community to put in this preparatory work together. So, humans preferred to continue with hunting and gathering or switched back to it after trying agriculture for some time (Willcox and Stordeur, 2012). There was the problem of some members of the collectivity free riding on the labour of others and consuming the food stored by the community without working as much. But as private property emerged and attained enough critical mass to be able to change social norms and gain acceptability, people began to invest in improving their lands, and the productivity of settled agriculture increased.

The human population at the time of the Neolithic Revolution, averaging various estimates, was about 5 million, rising slowly to about 820 million by the time of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in 1760 AD (OWiD, 2021). Through the decimation of forests and pastures and the creation of new farmland, agriculture and animal husbandry continued to spread over that entire period, to cater to the food needs of the expanding human population.

 

Colonization and industrialization: converting agriculture into industry

The colonization of the two Americas, Africa and Asia began from the 16th century onwards. This led to further farmland being cultivated and to the spread of some of the most popular foods across the world – corn, potatoes, chillies, tomatoes, peanuts, avocadoes, papayas, pineapple and cocoa. However, even though there was deforestation, the ecology was not harmed much, because large areas of forest and grasslands still remained intact and the agriculture practiced was one that ploughed back most of the agri-biomass into the farms, along with the animal manure.

Things changed with the Industrial Revolution as, slowly but surely, agriculture also began to be converted into industry. In European countries and later in the United States, mechanization and land consolidation pushed farmers and farm labourers out of agriculture, forcing them to seek employment as workers in various industries.

In terms of production materials, the most important input in agriculture is manure, given that productivity tends to fall without its continuous application. As more and more farmlands were brought under the plough, there were attempts from the early 19th century on to chemically synthesize fertilizers. Gypsum began to be used, even though nitrogenous fertilizers were not easy to synthesize. The breakthrough in this regard came in 1909 when German scientists Haber and Bosch succeeded in converting atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. Later, phosphatic and potassium fertilizers were synthesized as well. These processes also came in handy in producing bombs and ammunition.

 

War-oriented agricultural production

Immediately following these scientific advances, World War I broke out. Since European countries were involved in the war, it was the US that provided food to Europe. American farmers expanded their production to meet wartime goals, and price support was given for the production of wheat, and pork, and other staple commodities. Once the war was over, however, farmers were producing more food than was necessary. Then came the Great Depression. The demand for food collapsed, but agricultural productivity stayed the same. The US government increased support to American farmers through guaranteed prices, crop insurance, cheap loans and direct grants (Dubner, 2019).

This was followed by World War II in which once again the US became the supplier of food for Europe, and food surpluses were utilized. However, after the end of the Second World War, the US was again faced with the problem of redirecting its massive war-oriented industry and agricultural production. The solution involved making civilian cars, trucks, planes and cargo ships instead of armoured vehicles, and transforming manufacturing units for explosives into fertilizer and pesticide-producing units.

Obviously, so many cars, planes and ships, and so much fertilizer and pesticide could not be consumed by the US population alone. And so, the high-flying consumerist lifestyle of cars and jets and the heavy reliance on processed meat and cereals was propagated all over the world, and a market was created for these products. Cattle can eat a greater volume of cereals than human beings, so the people of the developed world were encouraged to eat the former, and the people of the poorer countries (along with their cattle) were fed the excess cereals resulting from increased use of fertilizers and pesticides.

A global economy was set in motion based on the sale of the “world car” and the “world steer” (Friedmann & McMichael, 1989). A significant development was the worldwide adoption of soybean at the behest of the US, which pushed its exports and cultivation through cheap aid to developing countries, so as to provide cheap feed for beef production and cheap edible oil for processing this food into ready-to-eat marketable forms. The local farm economy was decimated and the supermarket model became the norm, with food and agricultural inputs being produced, processed and marketed by huge agribusiness corporations.

 

An artificial agricultural system takes over

The corn surpluses were still very large, and so were converted into high-fructose corn syrup and used to make sweet food in large quantities. Aggressive marketing was then used to get people to increase the proportion of sugary foods in their diet. The American Sugar Association paid scientists to falsely publish papers saying that sugar consumption had no connection to heart disease (O’Connor, 2016). Later, when a British scientist named John Yudkin questioned this fraudulent research in the early 1970s and affirmed that sugar consumption and heart disease are connected, the sugar industry ruined his reputation (Leslie, 2016).

Thus, an artificial agricultural system that was highly productive and environmentally unsustainable was established worldwide. Backed by massive state subsidies, this system devastated local farming systems and leveraged cheap transport based on fossil fuels to move food around the world. A golden era of capitalist development ensued, booming on the production and sale of the “world car” and the “world steer” by multinational corporations in the 1950s and 1960s.

In a further twist to the subplot, the US used the food industry as a weapon in conjunction with its military might, in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The heavily subsidized US food industry was much more productive than the Soviet agriculture sector, which was starved of funds. Financing was primarily used by the Soviet Union to build its military might to counter the US (Dubner, op. cit.).

 

The beginning of the end

The party came to an end in the 1970s with a triple whammy delivered by nature. Firstly, biologist Rachel Carson sounded the initial warning cry in 1962 about the way in which chemicals, and especially pesticides, were causing immense environmental and health hazards, including the emergence of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico due to excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides (Carson, 2002).

Secondly, there was a drastic hike in the price of crude oil, as its natural scarcity in relation to demand and its non-renewable character became clear to the producer countries. This severely impacted industrial production, especially that of motorized vehicles, and led to price hikes in the transportation and movement of goods, which had been the basis of global trade and especially the trade in food.

Finally, emissions from the use of fossil fuels in all aspects of life resulted in greater and greater global warming, with grave consequences of climate change looming in the future. Matters were compounded by the fact that deforestation had increased by leaps and bounds. To cater to industrialization and the extension of agriculture, forests – the best carbon sinks – were heavily decimated.

Nature has a system of ensuring that the ecosystem stays balanced. This is why there are many mechanisms to ensure that various living species prey on each other. Human beings broke this system and, as a result, their population slowly began to increase at the expense of other species. Even so, a huge agrobiodiversity was maintained by traditional farming. This too was adversely affected by industrialized farming, as there was a precipitate decline in agro-biodiversity with the breeding of high-yielding varieties of only a few kinds of crops suitable to the global food economy. At the same time, the demand for food continued to increase due to the huge increase in population from about 1.3 billion in 1850 to 7.8 billion now.

The industrial answer was to produce more and more, with the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, while this met the needs for food for the burgeoning population, it did so by devastating the environment, poisoning food, and leading to many new diseases. Due to the excessive application of chemical fertilizers, micro-organisms in the soil have been decimated and soil health has been impoverished, resulting in decreasing yields. Most importantly, because this food system is controlled from farm to fork by multinational corporations whose sole aim is to maximize profits, even today, 811 million people are going hungry and 2 billion people are malnourished (Welthungerhilfe, 2021).

 

The solution has always existed

The important question currently is whether there is any alternative to this poisoning of our earth and food by chemical farming, which can provide enough food to the billions of humans in an ecologically sustainable and economically equitable manner. The main problem with regard to farming is the availability of manure. Since agricultural productivity will nosedive without it, this productivity has to be ensured for food security in the future.

Here is what the father of modern organic farming, Sir Albert Howard, has to say in this regard:

The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can … be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to reserve the soil and prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease. (Howard, 1940)

This is a labour-intensive process, which requires the whole farming community in a local area to act together to maintain this ecologically sustainable and socio-economically equitable system. This is what traditionally had been done all over the world, as Howard goes on to say about farming in India: “What is happening today in the small fields of India … took place many centuries ago. The agricultural practices of the orient have passed the supreme test, they are as permanent as those of the primeval forest, of the prairie, or of the ocean.” (Howard, op. cit.)

Thus, if subsidies had been given to farmers rather than to chemical agriculture, to compensate them for the immense labour required to extend their natural farming system to all the land being brought under cultivation, we would have had a system that was communitarian, socio-economically equitable, agriculturally diverse and productive, and ecologically sustainable – instead of the present one, which will collapse the moment the huge subsidies being given to it are withdrawn. The 54 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and the 12 largest emerging economies together provided US $700 billion in subsidies to chemical agriculture in 2019 (Calder, 2020). As Howard said:

Improvements are possible but they are not economic… In India the cultivators are mostly in debt and the holdings are small. Any capital required for developments has to be borrowed. A large number of possible improvements are barred by the fact that the extra return is not large enough to pay the high interest on the capital involved and also to yield a profit to the cultivator. (Howard, op. cit.)

The vast majority of farmers in the world cultivate small plots of land on terrain that is unsuitable for flood irrigation, and they have traditionally been driven by the desire to produce for subsistence rather than for profit. They have over thousands of years developed a system of agriculture that makes the most of the locally available resources in terms of seeds, organic fertilizers, soil moisture and natural pest management. The clever use of rotation of a bewildering variety of crops ensured that, despite flood and drought, some part of the harvest was always saved. Famines have occurred not because of the failure of agriculture but because of socio-economic factors such as excessive levies by kings and colonial rulers, or usury and hoarding by moneylender traders (Patnaik, 1991). Indeed, excessive taxation and usury have severely constrained the development of agriculture all over the world, from ancient times.

The necessary way forward is to remove the obstacles in the path of development of this traditional agriculture, and strengthen it with further research, extensive land reforms, cheap institutionalized credit and market support. Consumers also have to be subsidized and educated about the need to consume locally-sourced and sustainably produced food, instead of the poisoned stuff served by multinational corporations in supermarkets.

 

Rahul Banerjee with a sling shot to ward off birds at Pandutalab – photo © Subhadra Khaperde

 

Studies have shown that the indigenous agricultural practices of India, which have been honed by farmers over the centuries, are as productive as the high-yielding seeds and artificial-input-based chemical agriculture (Richharia & Govindaswamy, 1990). But this productivity was not to be, because the US had devised a new model of industrial agriculture in which hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, big dam irrigation and machines were used to ramp up agricultural production with huge state subsidies. These subsidies eventually went to the corporations, which not only supplied these inputs but also owned most of the farms and traded in the outputs.

This meant that farm gate prices remained low, which forced the actual small farmers in the US to gradually sell out and become unemployed, and led to tremendous destitution (Wessel & Hantman, 1983). Moreover, the post-World War II urgency to sell the excess production of fertilizers, pesticides, tractors and trucks arising from the reorientation of production in plants from explosives and armoured vehicles necessitated the replication of the US agricultural system worldwide.

So, at the behest of the research foundations set up by US multinational corporations, and with financial support provided by the US government, the US agricultural pattern was promoted worldwide in the plains areas, leaving the upper watersheds literally high and dry.

Many pilot projects in opposition to the currently prevalent destructive chemical food system are taking place around the world, to make agriculture local, equitable and sustainable. Some are in the USA itself, such as those in the traditional farming-based Amish community. These experiments remain marginal, however, as management of the global food system, based largely on chemical agriculture, remains in the hands of multinational corporations and capitalist states, which are taking humanity to its doom!

This is of course unacceptable, and worldwide pressure must be brought to bear to compel states to stop subsidizing chemical agriculture and instead fund the gradual switch to organic agriculture. The United Nations has declared 2021-2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, recognizing that this is the only way in which the present ecocidal rush can be averted.

Ecosystem restoration and sustainable agriculture are two sides of the same coin and must go hand in hand. Since the farming population is negligible in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia, the onus is on farmers in Third World countries to mobilize and bring about this crucial change in the way agriculture is being practiced. Fortunately, such mobilization has already begun and is gaining steam around the world.

 

More information on Subhadra Khaperde is available on the following websites: Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti (Society for Respect for Women and Earth), Kansari Organics, Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra (Dhas Rural Development Centre), in an interview with World Pulse, and on her website. Details on Rahul Banerjee’s projects are available on his website and blog.

 

 

References:

Bowles, S and Choi, J (2019): “The Neolithic Agricultural Relations and Origins of Private Property, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 127, No. 5, October.

 

Calder, A (2020): Agricultural Subsidies: Everyone’s Doing It.
https://www.hinrichfoundation.com/research/article/protectionism/agricultural-subsidies/, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Carson, R (2002): Silent Spring, Mariner Books, New York.
Dubner, S J (2019): How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War.
https://gen.medium.com/how-the-supermarket-helped-america-win-the-cold-war-59c788def3eb, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Friedmann, H & McMichael, P (1989): “Agriculture and The State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agricultures, 1870 to the Present,” Sociologia Ruralis, Vol. 29 No. 2.

 

Howard, A (1940): An Agricultural Testament, Oxford University Press, London.

 

Leslie, I (2016): The Sugar Conspiracy.
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/apr/07/the-sugar-conspiracy-robert-lustig-john-yudkin, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

O’Connor, A (2016): “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat, New York Times.
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html,  accessed on 22.10.2021

 

OWid (2021): Our World in Data.
https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/world-population-since-10000-bce-ourworldindata-series, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Patnaik, U (1991): “Food Availability and Famine,” Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 19 No. 1.

 

Richharia, R H & Govindaswamy, S (1990): Rices of India, Academy of Development Science, Karjat.

 

Willcox, G and Stordeur, D (2012): “Large-scale Cereal Processing Before Domestication During the Tenth Millennium BC in Northern Syria,” Antiquity Volume 86 Issue 331, 22nd February.

 

Welthungerhilfe (2021): Hunger: Facts and Figures.
https://www.welthungerhilfe.org/hunger/, accessed on 22.10.2021

 

Wessel, J & Hantman, M (1983): Trading the Future: Farm Exports and the Concentration of Economic Power in Our Food System, Institute for Food and Development Policy, San Francisco.

 

 

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