Show blog for Too Fat for Our Pants on Radio One, 91 FM, Dunedin, New Zealand. Airs Mondays 10 am - 12 pm.

If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.
~ George Bernard Shaw

Monday, 1 August 2011

Hunger and Industrial Agriculture

Listen to my interview with Dr. Hugh Campbell of the University of Otago's Centre for the Study of Agriculture, Food, and the Environment (CSAFE) about his role in the ARGOS project here.

Check out the sweet jams I played during this show here.

First and foremost, one thing must be understood: all farming happens on the earth.  I would have thought this to be obvious, but the rhetoric surrounding the issue indicates otherwise.  As is so often the case with popular discourse these days, the conversation about industrial farming has been presented as a dichotomy – the cost-benefit analysis of biological farming versus industrial farming, which is better and why, which will be able to feed the growing population. This distinction is illusion.  it’s ALL biological.  The industrial farming system exists on this planet, not in a vacuum in which the laws of nature are suspended, and this planet is governed by some fairly concrete biological and physical laws. Either we work within those same principles, as with biodynamic and organic practices, or we do not, as with factory farming.  Only one way will be viable for very long.  Guess which one.
This doesn’t have to be a moral issue – we don’t have to talk about the happiness of the animals in a concentrated feeding operation or the human cost of attaining the fossil fuels to run the system, or whether it is right or wrong.  While I think that ethics are a completely valid and important aspect of decision making, a lot have been convinced by the narrative of rationality that how we feel about something is imaginary; at the very least not to be taken into consideration.  So, morality being entirely a human construct, it is  therefore mutable and subjective; the intricacies of biological systems which have evolved together for millennia are not. As Michael Pollan says, “farming is not adapted to large-scale operations because of the following reason: farming is concerned with plants and animals which live, grow, and die” (Carnivore, 213-4).


Perhaps a quick rundown of the principles of industrial farming is in order: it relies on vast tracts of
land which are, by necessity, monocropped – that means one species, like say corn, for acres and acres.  Monocropping is necessary precisely because of the size of the farms: over thousands of acres, you can’t weed on your hands and knees, you must use threshers and tractors and other giant machines.  That means that not only does the crop have to be the same species, it also has to be uniform in height, which creates its own set of problems like access to sunlight and fruit-crowding.  Having acres planted with one singular species opens the entire holding up to a host of diseases that either could have been prevented by companion planting or polycropping, so that the disease kills one crop, but you’ve got a bunch of others planted too – in an industrial farming system, the corn equivalent of dutch elm disease could eradicate a huge percentage of the global food supply, simply because of the manner in which it is farmed.   Likewise due to the size, organic pest control and fertilization becomes impractical, and so the industrial farmer turns to chemical pesticides and fertilizers.  Of course, all of this also is reliant on injections of cheap fossil fuels at all stages, production, distribution, processing, packaging.  But there is so much else to talk about that I will just accept that we all know all that already, we’ll take it as a given.
So, ecology is nothing if not staggeringly, breathtakingly complex, I think we can all agree on at least that. What that indicates to any rational individual possessed of a modicum of critical thought is that you can’t just alter or eliminate one aspect without seriously disturbing a very delicate balance.  The beauty of ecology is, of course, that everything relies on everything else being precisely what it is; species evolve over millennia to interact with one another in a particular way, and any disruption to one species is inevitably going to affect all the others.  This is why our attempts to construct a self-sustaining biodome have so far failed: we simply can’t imagine all the myriad factors that contribute to the sustenance and health of a given ecology.  We’ve always missed something, and that something turns out to be crucial, every time.

The advent of industrial farming practices and its application in the developing world is known as the Green Revolution.  In fact, more accurately, there have been two: the first began in the 50s and 60s, when chemical pesticides and fertilizers were invented, and their use became widespread, particularly in the developing world.    The second began in the last decade and a half, and is to do with genetic modification.  Monsanto being the most famous of the big petrochemical-genetic-engineering-private-army-owning firms – how’s that for a terrifying confluence of descriptors – I’ll use one of their products known as RoundUp-Ready seeds.  RoundUp is an extremely toxic broad-spectrum herbicide, and some seeds have been genetically engineered to withstand its effects, meaning that the farmer can simply spray everything and walk away.  While there is talk about the endless possibilities of genetic engineering in terms of creating plants which require no water, or no sunlight, or no natural nutrients, in actual fact the best we’ve been able to do so far is to modify seeds to be resistant to one or another type of chemical or pest.  More on the near-religious faith in the ability of technological advances to save mankind in two weeks, when I’ll talk to James Howard Kunstler about it.  Techno-triumphalism, my favourite delusion.
Anyway, genetically modified seeds in an ecologically complex environment – and there is no other kind – can present all kinds of problems.  Here’s an example from China, which I came across in Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved, probably the best coverage of the power politics of food I’ve ever come across, go read it immediately. I’m trying to get him on the show, too.  In 1997, China introduced cotton seeds which had been genetically engineered to fend off the bollworm, a common cotton pest.  Immediately, farmers found they were spending less on pesticides, as the bollworm pesticides had been built into the DNA of the plant. Great! But by 2004, those same farmers were spending an average of 10 times as much on pesticides as they had originally, because another pest that was unaffected by the DNA pesticides had “found a new ecological niche, now that bollworm numbers had been temporarily depressed” (Patel 138).   Can’t trick nature.

The common refrain in support of industrial farming practices is that without them, we would never be able to grow enough food to feed everyone.  Now, aside from a growing body of research that  suggests organic farming can produce just as much food as industrial, this line of defense rests on the seemingly unassailable position that people are hungry because there is not enough food.  Here's how that happens:

Mainstream economics theorizes on the assumptions of efficiency, competition, selfishness, and scarcity. As we’ll talk about next week with feminist economist Prue Hyman, each of these traits are in fact part of a duality: efficiency/complexity, competition/cooperation, selfishness/altruism, and scarcity/abundance.  It is with this last one that we are concerned today: because economics only measures scarcity, the assumption is that if not everyone has some, it must be because there is not enough.  Because economics does not measure abundance, any shortage in supply looks like scarcity, when more often the issue is misdistribution.  This is especially true of food.
For example: in 1943 there was a famine in Bengal that led to the deaths of 3 and a half million people.  Contrary to prevailing wisdom, this famine was not caused by a shortage of food, but rather  by the appropriation of the grain harvest from bengali peasant farmers by the British, to fund the war effort.  So we can add those 3.5 million to the total of WWII dead, and you can be damn sure that this is one example of the many I could have chosen.  As another nasty side effect, the colonial impoverishment of many more millions of farmers forced them to abandon their often ancestral lands and move to the city to try to find work, as farming no longer supported them.  This continuing bout of urbanization means there are more people in the cities relying on food produced in the country and shipped in, and less people in the country producing that food (Shiva 6).

But let’s for a second entertain the idea that an increase in the amount of food will cure hunger. The industry can argue that they are the only road to victory because of their claim that genetically modified seeds, in combination with their chemical pesticides and fertilizers, will dramatically increase the crop yield per acre.  And under perfect, laboratory conditions, that’s true, the yield does increase, at least initially.  The problem is, of course, that conditions are never perfect in practice:  GM seeds require irrigation, which is a particular problem for the moment in the developing world, but will spread soon enough.  It leads to greater competition for water and results in falling water table levels.  In many places, due to the proximity of the ocean, irrigation led to salt deposits in the soil, rendering increasing swaths of land unusable – the upshot of that is that the farmer must move on to a new plot of land, likely created by clearing native growth, and if industrial practices are continued, destroy that new piece too (Patel 125). And so it goes.
More than all this, the yield will inevitably decrease, as the lack of organic nutrients being replaced in the soil, in combination with the constant applications of highly toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers destroy the capacity of the soil to sustain life.  Eventually the soil is not soil anymore, but just dirt; like one of those green sponges that flower arrangers use, all soaked in chemicals, and those chemicals are what feeds the plant. Paul Hawken estimates that the “combination of drought, deforestation, industrial agriculture, and climate disasters cause the loss of 250 million acres of arable land a year” (Hawken 70), and that’s counting industrial agriculture as one factor of many, instead of the direct cause of drought and deforestation. Shrimp farming is a terrible exampe of this; it’s so destructive that in the industry it’s known as “rape and run” aquaculture. Eventually the soil is so depleted that even Monsanto brand RoundUP Ready corn can’t grow in that chemical soup, and the land is left to fallow and dry out, and more land is cleared to do the same thing. Rinse repeat until the whole damn world is dead and useless, and all the farmers have committed suicide by drinking Monsanto pesticides because they are so deeply in debt to pay for these practices that they are literally worth more dead than alive.

The first Green Revolution was driven by governmental concerns about how to feed their countries the easiest way – as in, not through development of redistribution strategies or anti-hoarding legislation, but through simply increasing the absolute number of grains available for the market.  Petrochemical companies merely took advantage of those governments’ willingness to open new chemical and fertilizer markets.  The second Green Revolution, genetic engineering, was  spearheaded by private corporations and facilitated by governments and the second, the genetically modified seed green revolution, is undertaken for the same reasons.  Having reached the point a few years ago at which, for the first time in history, the number of malnourished or undernourished equalled the number of people who are overweight, at a billion each.  This has opened up a new marketing avenue for businesses reliant on a continuation of Green Revolution practices, in particular genetic engineering.  Enter the war on hunger, fought valiantly by corporate warriors with weapons like Golden Rice.
In Asia, somewhere between ¼ to ½ a million children a year go blind from vitamin A deficiencies; half of those die within the year. In their genuine concern for this problem, the private sector created “Golden Rice”, which has become the poster crop for the ability of genetic engineering to address the needs of the poor.  It’s golden because it has added Vitamin A, taken from beta carotene, which gives carrots their orange. However, not only is rice that’s not white considered inferior in Asia, but also the amount of Vitamin A in a bowl of this rice means that the kids would have to eat fifty bowls a day to get their recommended daily allowance, which is about half a carrot.  This is solely a feel-good marketing solution to battle public distaste for genetic modification, implemented in countries which have food surpluses, as indeed does most of the world, so the problem is not that there isn’t enough vitamin A foods to go around, but that the prices are too high for poor people to afford to eat.  It is, again, a distribution issue rather than an issue of scarcity.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the corporate takeover of agriculture is the strangling of high-level research, particularly in academics.  That universities are gradually becoming more and more corporate should come as no surprise – particularly if you specialize in the humanities, as I do, where there’s no corporate interest and so no money and we all joke about finding a way to make the study of Waiting for Godot interesting to corporate funders.  There’s an enormous agricultural university in my hometown the research at which is now funded almost exclusively by Syngenta.  The professor I’m talking to today is a member of a research committee funded in part by the Agribusiness Group. Obviously these are not isolated cases, and the effect on academic research should be equally obvious.  The hope of corporate money, in such a highly competitive environment, make everyone willing participants.  The papers and research proposals which are useful to the company funding the department will get written and published, and those that aren’t won’t. In a publish-or-perish environment, the vast majority of researchers are going to be trying to find something useful to the industry.  Simple as that.

There’s a bigger problem here than the disingenuousness of the corporations, which I think we can all take as a given at this point; the aggressive promotion of genetic modification, petrochemical fertilizers, and large-scale industrial farming as the only way to feed everyone actively restricts discussion of systemic poverty.  While we are constantly being told that the problem is the number of people versus the amount of food, there is no room to discuss the actual management and distribution flaws which are the true cause of widespread hunger. I suspect that this is no accident, or mere byproduct of corporate marketing plans, but yet another way that the powerful few maintain  their control over a broken system which enriches them significantly at the expense of the disenfranchised majority.  In conclusion: shop at the market.


Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. London : Allen Lane, 2008.
                         The Omnivore's Dilemma. New York : Penguin Press, 2006.

Patel, Raj.  Stuffed and Starved. Melbourne: Black, 2007.
Shiva, Vandana. Stolen Harvest. London : Zed, 2001.

Steel, Carolyn. Hungry City. London : Chatto & Windus, 2008.
Hawken, Paul.  Ecology of Commerce. New York : HarperCollins, c1993.

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