We often assume the only way to feed the world's rapidly growing human population is with large-scale industrial agriculture. Many would argue that genetically altering food crops is also necessary to produce large enough quantities on smaller areas to feed the world's people.
But recent scientific research is challenging those assumptions. Our global approaches to agriculture are critical. To begin, close to one billion people are malnourished and many more are finding it difficult to feed their families as food prices increase. But is large-scale industrial farming the answer?
Large industrial farms are energy intensive, using massive amounts of fossil fuels for machinery, processing, and transportation. Burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change, and the increasing price of oil is causing food prices to rise. Deforestation and ploughing also release tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing further to climate change. And industrial farms require more chemical inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers.
Agriculture also affects the variety of plant and animal species in the world. According to a review of scientific literature by Michael Jahi Chappell and Liliana Lavalle, published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, agricultural development is a major factor in the rapid decline in global biodiversity.
In their study — Food security and biodiversity: can we have both? — the authors note that agriculture, which takes up about 40 per cent of the world's land surface (excluding Antarctica), "represents perhaps the biggest challenge to biodiversity" because of the natural habitat that gets converted or destroyed and because of the environmental impacts of pesticide and fertilizer use and greenhouse gas generation from fossil fuel use.
Large-scale agriculture also uses a lot of water, contributes to soil erosion and degradation, and causes oxygen-starved ocean "dead zones" as nitrogen-rich wastes wash into creeks and rivers and flow into the oceans.
On top of that, despite the incredible expansion of industrial farming practices, the number of hungry people continues to grow.
Concerns about industrial agriculture as a solution to world hunger are not new. As author and organic farmer Eliot Coleman points out in an article for Grist.org, in the 19th century when farming was shifting from small scale to large, some agriculturists argued "that the thinking behind industrial agriculture was based upon the mistaken premise that nature is inadequate and needs to be replaced with human systems. They contended that by virtue of that mistake, industrial agriculture has to continually devise new crutches to solve the problems it creates (increasing the quantities of chemicals, stronger pesticides, fungicides, miticides, nematicides, soil sterilization, etc.)."
Volumes of research clearly show that small-scale farming, especially using "organic" methods, is much better in terms of environmental and biodiversity impact. But is it a practical way to feed seven billion people?
Chappell and Lavalle point to research showing "that small farms using alternative agricultural techniques may be two to four times more energy efficient than large conventional farms." Perhaps most interesting is that they also found studies demonstrating "that small farms almost always produce higher output levels per unit area than larger farms." One of the studies they looked at concluded that "alternative methods could produce enough food on a global basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base."
This is in part because the global food shortage is a myth. The fact that we live in a world where hunger and obesity are both epidemic shows that the problem is more one of equity and distribution than shortage. With globalized food markets and large-scale farming, those with the most money get the most food.
It's a crucial issue that requires more study, and the challenges of going up against a large industrial force are many, but it's hard to disagree with Chappell and Lavalle's conclusion: "If it is ... possible for alternative agriculture to provide sufficient yields, maintain a higher level of biodiversity, and avoid pressure to expand the agricultural land base, it would indicate that the best solution to both food security and biodiversity problems would be widespread conversion to alternative practices."
We need to grow food in ways that make feeding people a bigger priority than generating profits for large agribusinesses.