Feeding The World

Martin Khor


What is the meaning of ‘sustainable agriculture’, and which farming method can best produce food to feed the world?

This was one of the burning questions debated recently at the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).


There was no one clear answer, as the merits and demerits of different methods of agriculture production is one of the most hotly contested issues in the world today.

But the CSD did see a healthy debate as representatives of non-governmental groups, farmers’ organisations and the multinational food industry put their views across in front of government delegations in unique ‘multi-stakeholder’ sessions at the UN headquarters in New York.


Best prepare were scientists and leaders of the NGOs who came with data showing that the present chemical-based agriculture is suffering from serious problems, that biotechnology solutions cause more problems than they solve, and that ecological methods are the best but have never given the chance to be proven so.


At a lunch-time forum organised by the Malaysia-based Third World Network, the NGO case was put forward by eco-oriented agricultural scientists.


Professor Miguel Altieri, a renowned Chilean scientist based in the University of California, said that conventional chemical-based agriculture was facing a host of problems, such as increasing losses due to pest attacks (in the US), genetic erosion, and yield decline as the soil structure is undermined by chemicals. Whilst initially there were increases in production in modern agriculture, now the negative ecological impacts had undermined productivity.


At the same time, Altieri warned of ecological risks from biotechnology,  including the crossing of genetically modified genes to weeds and other plants.


Altieri, who is the author of several books on agro-ecology, gave many examples from around the world (including the US, Mexico, Peru, and Chile) of the high productivity  of various types of ecological, chemical-free and biotech-free farming.


He said there were already 5 million hectares of farms being recuperated through ecological methods by two and a half million farming families across the world. ‘These are lighthouses in an expanding farmer-to-farmer network, which can be models that can spread if we have the right policy.’


Dr Peter Rossett, an agricultural scientist and director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, said that increasing food output did not necessarily end hunger, as the main problem is rural poverty, which is mostly caused by inequality in access to and ownership of land.


He advocated that more land be allocated to small and poor farmers, citing data to show that small farms have far higher productivity (per acre) than large farms.


He also gave the example of Cuba, which had a typical Green Revolution chemical-based farm model until it was forced to cut its use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides as a result of the collapse of its trade with the Soviet Union.


He said that today Cuba produces more food than before, owing to a second land reform, the switch to organic farming and the increased use of local inputs.


‘This shows the way out of a food crisis without aid but instead through a revolution led by small farms and based on organic farming. It is a remarkable success story that shows that small farms can be productive and that chemical and biotech are not needed, we can feed the world through small farms and alternative ecological technologies.’


Dr Mae-Wan Ho from the Open University in the United Kingdom warned that genetically modified (GM) crops are not sustainable due to a host of problems such as the evolution of weeds resistant to pesticides, poor economic returns and inconsistent performance.


She said a major problem was the inherent instability in the structure of GM crops. ‘There is no molecular genetic data anywhere showing the stability of lines of GM crops.’

Meanwhile, more and more hazards of using genetic engineering are being revealed; for example, a recent court case revealed that scientists at the US Food and Drugs Authority had warned of new risks associated with genetically engineered food.


Dr Ho said that over 300 scientists had signed an open letter calling for a moratorium on the use of genetically modified organisms  owing to the potential hazards they may pose to human health and the environment.


These and other points were raised by the same scientists and also by NGO representatives during the CSD’s multi-stakeholder session.


Representatives of some farmers’ groups also spoke up against biotechnology. The National Family Farm Coalition of the US said that a farmer using GM seeds in 1999 would have to incur an extra US$42 in costs per acre, whilst having less yield. ‘We would also have to worry about being sued by other farmers whose farms are contaminated by genetic transfer from GM farms.’


A farmers’ leader from India also spoke against the introduction of GM crops and called for a moratorium on the use of GM seeds until scientists could agree on the merits and risks.


However, some other farmers’ organisations called for a more open mind, saying that whilst organic farming may be part of the solution, they should not be prevented from also trying biotech methods.


An Indian scientist based in the US, C S Prakash, presented a letter from 2,000 scientists whom he said believed that biotechnology is good for agriculture as it could cut pesticide use, increase productivity and grow more nutritious crops.

The representatives from the multinational seed and food industries meanwhile were promoting the usefulness of biotechnology. As they were clearly on the defensive, they agrued that organic farming was one option, but that this was not enough. They argued that farmers and consumers must be given the freedom to choose which system to use and what food to buy, and thus genetic engineering should be also allowed with few or no restrictions.


Peter Rossett countered this argument. ‘The issue of choice is indeed relevant, but the problem is when the deck is stacked for some choices and against others,’ he said.


‘Levelling the playing field is what we want for ecological solutions. When there are equal numbers of cards on both sides, then we can talk of freedom of choice.’


He said that there were very few resources for the promotion of ecological farming whilst billions of dollars were spent on genetic engineering. For example, the industry is paying US$250 million for a campaign in favour of biotechnology, which is a huge amount compared to only US$ million spent by the US Department of Agriculture to promote sustainable agriculture.


‘There must be much research funds going towards ecological farming methods so that these are given a fair chance to prove themselves.’


The CSD chairman, Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr, concluded the debate by noting that there was a diversity of views on the diverse systems of agriculture.


Whilst there are benefits from biotechnology, there is also uncertainty on the environmental, socio-economic and health impacts. There was thus a need for precaution and more research on the effects.


On organic farming, Mayr said it has , limits but also advantages and great potential. ‘What is required is financial resources for it to progress as a major option and possibility.’


What is needed, he concluded, is an environment conductive to the promotion of enviornmentally sound production and consumption patterns.


The debate at the UN’s premier forum on environment and development is an indicator of the  differences of view on one of the most important issues facing the world.