Food Fight at the New York Times

Last week, I chipped in a contribution (below) to a New York Times discussion on biotech. The debate garnered about a quarter as many reader responses as a previous one about the future of laundry in the 21st century. I’m not sure how to interpret that other than, simply, more people have opinions about laundry than about food. But don’t let that put you off visiting the site. There are some very fine (and sometimes very obtuse) comments beneath our interventions. More here.

When Cheap Water and Oil Disappear
Raj Patel

Raj Patel is a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, and author of “Stuffed and Starved”.

The U.S. leads the world in genetically modified agricultural technology, yet one in eight Americans is hungry. Last year, with bumper harvests, more than a billion people ate less than 1,900 calories per day. The cause of hunger today isn’t a shortage of food — it’s poverty.

Agriculture will need to be much more regionally controlled and locally adapted.

Addressing that will require not new agricultural technology, but a political commitment to making food a human right.

We do, however, need to transform the way we farm. Today’s industrial agriculture depends on fossil fuels and abundant water. The growing and processing of food for the average American every year takes the equivalent of more than 500 gallons of oil. The future will see both cheap water and oil disappear.

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So how should we farm tomorrow? To answer this, we’ll need the very best independent and peer-reviewed science. In 2005, the World Bank’s chief scientist, Robert Watson, brought together leading natural and social scientists, representatives from government (including the U.S.), private sector and non-governmental organizations to ask how we’d feed the world in 2050, when there will be nine billion of us.

Over three years, more than 400 experts worked on a sobering report which has recently been published as “Agriculture at a Crossroads.”

The scientists concluded that genetically modified crops had failed to show much promise in feeding the world. Instead, the study suggested that to feed the world, we need both political and technological change. Tomorrow’s agriculture will need to be much more regionally controlled and locally adapted, and will need a diversity of approaches to meet the challenges of climate change and resource scarcity.

Among the farming techniques endorsed by the report is agroecology, which builds soil, insect and plant ecology. The result is a farming system that uses water frugally, sequesters vast amounts of carbon and doesn’t require external inputs.

This is cutting edge science, but it isn’t terribly profitable for large U.S.-based agricultural corporations. Perhaps that explains why, despite strong support for this report among governments overseas, the U.S. government last year refused to endorse it.