trading profit for food

According to a recent article in The New York Times, grain prices, especially wheat, are rising sharply, ostensibly as global demand grows ("A Global Need for Grain That Farms Can’t Fill," March 9, 2008). The Times largely paints a picture in which developing third-world economies are driving increasing demand for greater food production, exacerbated by global consumers acquiring a taste for Western goods like bread. And yet, like so much media coverage, the article invokes some problematic assumptions about food production and population growth, and conveniently minimizes the role of neoliberal economic policies in cultivating monoculture cash crop farming and the global food commodity market, and in encouraging reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers over longterm sustainable methods.

A choice quote from the article illustrates the implicit view that the "third world" is out of control, with explosions in population size threatening the supposedly stable use of resources attributed to those in the industrialized world: "[i[n recent years, the world’s developing countries have been growing about 7 percent a year, an unusually rapid rate by historical standards." Interestingly, though, a world population chart by percentage according to continent shows that current population distribution is returning to roughly mirror the distribution prior to the Industrial Revolution -- except, unsurprisingly, in the Americas. Political economist Amartya Sen has suggested that the growth rate in places like Asia and Africa is in fact quite similar to that in Europe following the Industrial Revolution, rather than some out-of-control imbalance.

The articles goes on to quote an agricultural consultant as saying "'Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe... But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.'” Unquestionably, global industrialization is going to require increased food production, but perhaps how Americans eat is also part of the problem.

Lastly, the article completely overlooks the possible negative effects of the so-called "Green Revolution," in which conventional agriculture was brought to developing countries to boost yield and focus on growing certain energy-rich crops, noting only that "[e]xpenses for the diesel fuel used to run tractors and combines and for the fertilizer essential to modern agriculture have soared." But ultimately, relying on chemical fertilizers depletes soil, and pesticides both harm local ecological systems, and appear to reduce plants' own capacities for fighting insects (a number of studies over the past few years have shown that organic produce tends to have higher levels of antioxidants, as reported in New Scientist and on OrganicConsumers.org).

All of which leads me to wonder if it wouldn't be better to promote diversified, decentralized, and sustainable food production methods in the developing world, to meet world food demands without relying on economically and ecologically vulnerable cash crops. By ramping up grain production in the US, we reinforce global trade networks in which staple crops are grown in industrialized nations and exported to poorer ones, while local economies in the developing world remain dependent on luxury cash crops (like coffee, sugar, cotton and bananas) sold to first-world consumers, despite falling profits and high financial risk. Perhaps we should focus instead on developing agricultural self-sufficiency and diversity to address these issues, rather than exacerbate the global trade which capitalizes on profit rather than sustainability -- and possibly prevent repeating the environmental and nutritional disaster wrought by the industrialization of agriculture.

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