Guest post: Feeding on fear – Dr Julia Wright

julia_wright_thumbDr Julia Wright is the deputy director of the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security (CAFS).

In my opinion, attempts to ensure that the world has access to sufficient and nutritious food are being held back by the view that increasing the productivity of agriculture is the only solution.

In my opinion, attempts to ensure that the world has access to sufficient and nutritious food are being held back by the view that increasing the productivity of agriculture is the only solution.

For some time now, the news media have been alerting us of impending food crises. These apocalyptic headlines serve to repeat the mantra that only by further intensifying agriculture will we be able to feed the nine billion people due to populate the planet by 2050. But where’s this mantra coming from?

Industrial agriculture has been unable to feed the world so far – more than a billion people are currently undernourished. In fact, this approach is actually destroying our natural resource base through pollution and degradation, and destroying human health through denaturing food products so that they have a reduced or even negative nutritional quality.

Paradoxically, current global food production provides 4,600 kilocalories of edible food per person per day, which is enough to feed 14 billion people. What’s obvious from this statistic is that worldwide, we waste a significant amount of the food that we produce, both in the field and after harvest. In fact, the commonly accepted proportion is about 40 per cent. In other words, we produce too much food, but of the wrong type at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

Food security isn’t only about availability. It’s also about accessibility and whether the food is nutritionally and culturally adequate, and it’s these latter two factors on which we also need to focus. To resolve this would mean having location-specific strategies that are in the hands of –
and meet the needs of – the peoples concerned, and this is what the call for localisation of the food system is all about.

So why does the rhetoric of feeding the world through industrial agriculture continue? And why haven’t we seen a greater and more rapid increase in agroecological farming approaches? It seems easy to blame individuals in the agribusiness and food corporations for their need to control and maintain the system as it is, but hard as I’ve tried, I can’t think of another feasible explanation.

During my research in Cuba, I found an obsessive focus on increasing yields at the expense of all else, despite the fact that Cuba has no private, profit-making sector to drive the belief forward. This ‘industrialised mindset’ was apparently being driven by fear – fear of a perceived lack of food, and of a lack of control. In this sense, it appears that no amount of scientific evidence on the benefits of more sustainable agriculture would make a difference to the individuals in the corporations that are maintaining business as usual, for they are themselves being driven by emotionally based fear.

So can the world’s peoples feed themselves with organic or agroecological farming? Research indicates that they can, particularly in the context of climate change, which will require the use of more resilient farming systems. However, on a country-wide scale, we won’t actually know until we’ve tried and, sadly, those in the industrial farming and food sectors have shown little interest in doing so.

I rarely encounter individuals from agribusiness at events or meetings that focus on ecological, organic or permaculture approaches. During the 15 or so years that I’ve spent researching the alternative approach to agriculture that’s practised in Cuba – arguably one of the largest-scale examples of what may be possible – I’ve only twice been asked to present my findings to a conventional audience. And to date, I’m the only British researcher studying Cuba from this angle and for such a long period.

At present, only about one per cent of research goes to organic farming, the justification being the apparent low level of consumer demand. However, it seems to me that no consumers demanded to consume industrially produced foods – we were never even consulted – yet now we have to pay more for organic and other sustainably produced foodstuffs, and to make more of an effort to seek them out. This doesn’t seem logical if  we want to encourage sustainability, and also ignores the fact that millions of pounds are spent on advertising that encourages consumers to  demand unsustainable products.

Rather than get caught up in this stymied situation where the mainstream sector knows that it can’t maintain business as usual but refuses to turn to agroecology, I prefer to get on with the interesting and exciting stuff – undertaking research and development with people who do care and are excited about the ways in which we can increase the supply and health of our food in harmony with nature. It’s fun to develop more ecologically sustainable farming and food systems, and to this end, we’re rolling out a new MSc course and short courses from our Centre for Agroecology and Food Security to support these efforts.

Perhaps we need a new mantra. How can we enable people to feed themselves? And, in doing so, how can we help people to change their outlook, so that the farming and food sectors are being driven not by fear, but by the desire to feed people with nutritious foods?

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 edition ofGeographical magazine.

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