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This is my first post! I wanted to give a bit of background for Neighbourhood Bites. So I figured how better to introduce the issues of food and waste and hunger than with my AP Seminar paper that started it all, “To what extent is arable industrial agriculture a justifiable practice to meet the global demand for food? A Historical View.”
It’s a long read but what really hit was the research I found from the FAO (The agricultural arm of the UN). Copying from page 6: “This exponential growth is raising the question of whether enough food will be produced in the next 50 years. However, the FAO reported that in 2012, the world’s farmers grew enough food to feed the entire population plus an extra 1.6 billion people. On the other hand, research from the FAO shows that in the past ten years, one out of seven people suffer from malnutrition and do not have access to enough protein.”
It seemed that hunger is not an issue of supply but distribution. If you’re interested in what’s been going on with food and waste here on the Pacific West Coast, check out the film “Dive!” by Jeremy Seifert. It’s about how people can eat very well off food that’s been thrown away by businesses.
That’s it for now! Stay tuned….
ps Below is the full paper:
To what extent is arable industrial agriculture a justifiable practice to meet the global demand for food?
A Historical View
Since World War Two (WWII), industrial agriculture has dominated worldwide farming practices. It developed in response to food insecurity on a global scale. Many decades have passed since its inception, with notable significant technological advances. The Union of Concerned Scientists defines industrial agriculture as “the practice of growing single crops intensively on a very large scale while using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.” Although industrial agriculture has thrived, there are many concerns about its impact on the environment. A historical examination is crucial to help understand whether industrial agriculture continues to be a justifiable practice to meet the global demand for food. This paper will show how, why, and when industrial farming was necessary and whether it is still a viable paradigm.
World War Two and the Industrial Revolution
The term “industrial agriculture” appears around the same time of the Industrial Revolution when new agricultural mechanical inventions were being created. According to Wayne Rasmussen, former chief historian of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “The rate of adoption of machinery and other technological advances is dependent upon the strength of…demand for farm products.” Although the roots of mechanization began earlier, it is only until the mid 20th century that industrial farming practices started to replace traditional agriculture in Western countries. Rasmussen contends that this late adoption was due to the tremendous demand for farm products during WWII, which caused a doubling increase in prices during the WWII period. Lizzie Collingham, a history professor at the University of Warwick, claims that the shortage of food was due to the loss of resources caused by intense fighting during WWII. In fact, a large percentage of battles were fought over a dire lack of food. One of the best examples was when Japan attacked China to obtain more land and resources to grow more crops. Collingham argues that a substantial number of deaths during WWII were not due to combat but to starvation. Supporting Collingham’s claim, Stephen O'Brien, the United Nations (UN) humanitarian chief reported that, “at least 20 million people died...from starvation, malnutrition and its associated diseases”.
Because of the scarcity of food, farmers had to turn to cost-efficient machinery and technology. Data shows that by 1962 most horses and mules had all but disappeared on farms in the United States of America. This severe WWII period led to the investment in infrastructure and machines that made monoculture possible.
After WWII, the Green Revolution was the next significant advancement in industrial agriculture. Although many believe that the Green Revolution describes a growing environmental movement starting in the 1960s, in fact, it represents a crucial phase in global large-scale industrial farming. According to the environmentalist and professor, Peter Fitzgerald-Moore, “the Green Revolution was the technological response to a world-wide food shortage which became threatening in the period after WWII.” Gordon Conway, an agricultural ecologist, found that organizations including the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), would encourage countries to invest in agrarian technologies that helped create a surplus of new inventions. Conway’s argument is supported by Derek Byerlee and Mywish Maredia two professors at Michigan State University in the Department of Agricultural and Food, who found that the CGIAR helped increase food production in these developing countries by 20%. The CGIAR was aiding nations in Asia to further enrich their knowledge on crop germplasm (the genetic makeup of an organism). Thus, once companies and governments saw germplasm’s immense success, they began to invest in research and development programs in agricultural technology. Therefore without the contribution of corporations like CGIAR and IRRI, not only would the improvement of crop germplasm and the production of chemical fertilizers not have occurred, but the Green Revolution would not have taken place.
Due to all these technological investments, crop yields in every continent, except Africa, have increased. Edward Wolf, an environmental writer, found that developing countries between 1966 and 1985 experienced a 75% increase in wheat and rice production with only a 20% increase in land usage. The founding director of the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, Prabhu Pingali, claims that the strategies implemented in Africa did not correctly evaluate whether farmers were sowing suitable crops. For example, instead of cultivating cereals, they were growing orphan crops which were not ideal for the environment and climate of the land. However, the majority of countries have been able to produce enough food to feed their citizens since the Green Revolution.
Following the Green Revolution, the next most notable development was the introduction of the controversial Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the late 1990s. However, widespread GMO cultivation did not prevent the food crisis in 2007-2008: which followed a sudden rise in the price of wheat, maize and rice. The World Bank estimates that 73 million to 133 million people suffered from malnutrition and hunger during this global hunger epidemic. Surprisingly, the crisis was not due to a lack of food production but lax agricultural laws. According to Phil Abbot, Professor at Purdue University and a consultant for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “this food crisis of 2007-08 brought substantial responses by national governments and by the international donor community to address poverty and hunger, to renew efforts aimed at increasing agricultural productivity.” After the crisis, most countries implemented new, stricter agricultural policies. These new strategies were developed to reduce the probability of such a food crisis happening again.
Even before the crisis, people have been panicking due to the alarming population increase. Joel Cohen, Professor of Populations at Rockefeller University, estimates that the human population grew from 1.7 billion to 7 billion between 1900 and 2012. This exponential growth is raising the question of whether enough food will be produced in the next 50 years. However, the FAO reported that in 2012, the world’s farmers grew enough food to feed the entire population plus an extra 1.6 billion people. On the other hand, research from the FAO shows that in the past ten years, one out of seven people suffer from malnutrition and do not have access to enough protein.
Another current concern of industrial agriculture is whether it is sustainable. As a response, organic agriculture is growing and increasing. The Rodale Institute published a study that analyzed the benefits of organic farming which include: increased biodiversity, better water usage, and equal or better yields than industrial agriculture over the long term, especially in times of drought. Although the demand for organic agriculture is still a fraction of industrial farming, the pace of its growth could mean that it ends up dominating agriculture again. However, it will have to use more sophisticated machinery and technology with a focus on sustainability, to differentiate it from pre-WWII organic farming.
The historical rise of industrial agriculture was caused by a food shortage commencing with WWII. Most nations responded by investing in technology and adopting the Green Revolution: an effort to yield vast quantities of crops to feed growing populations. In the past thirty years, however, new technologies have not been proven sustainable or effective in reducing the threat of malnutrition and food insecurity. Looking forward, the agricultural challenge lies not in underproduction of food but in building a system that supports sustainable agriculture and delivers it to consumers. Organic methods address sustainability and focus on long-term crop and soil viability. Furthermore, local production solves the distribution challenge because then food is consumed close to where it is produced. Supporting this solution, in 2013 the UN reported that small-scale local organic farming is key to progress instead of relying on large industrial farms. Directing energy and resources to sustainable organic farming, in addition to compatible industrial technologies, would help reduce hunger in the world.
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