by David Suzuki
June 14, 2011
David Suzuki Foundation editorial
specialist Ian Hanington.
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We often assume the only way to feed the
world’s rapidly growing human population is with large-scale
industrial agriculture. Many would argue that genetically altering
food crops is also necessary to produce large enough quantities on
smaller areas to feed the world’s people.
But recent scientific research is challenging those assumptions. Our
global approaches to agriculture are critical. To begin, close to
one billion people are malnourished and many more are finding it
difficult to feed their families as
food prices increase.
large-scale industrial farming the answer?
Large industrial farms are energy intensive, using massive amounts
of fossil fuels for machinery, processing, and transportation.
Burning fossil fuels contributes to
climate change, and the increasing price of oil is causing food
prices to rise. Deforestation and ploughing also release tonnes of
carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing further to climate
change. And industrial farms require more chemical inputs, such as
pesticides and fertilizers.
Agriculture also affects the variety of plant and animal species in
the world. According to a review of scientific literature by
Michael Jahi Chappell and Liliana Lavalle, published in
the journal Agriculture and Human Values, agricultural development
is a major factor in the rapid decline in global biodiversity.
In their study - "Food
security and biodiversity - Can we have both?"
- the authors note that agriculture, which takes up about 40 percent
of the world’s land surface (excluding Antarctica), “represents
perhaps the biggest challenge to biodiversity” because of the
natural habitat that gets converted or destroyed and because of the
environmental impacts of pesticide and fertilizer use and greenhouse
gas generation from fossil fuel use.
Large-scale agriculture also uses a lot of water, contributes to
soil erosion and degradation, and causes oxygen-starved ocean “dead
zones” as nitrogen-rich wastes wash into creeks and rivers and flow
into the oceans.
On top of that, despite the incredible expansion of industrial
farming practices, the number of hungry people continues to grow.
Concerns about industrial agriculture as a solution to world hunger
are not new.
As author and organic farmer Eliot
Coleman points out in
an article for Grist.org, in the 19th
century when farming was shifting from small scale to large, some
“that the thinking behind industrial
agriculture was based upon the mistaken premise that nature is
inadequate and needs to be replaced with human systems. They
contended that by virtue of that mistake, industrial agriculture
has to continually devise new crutches to solve the problems it
creates (increasing the quantities of chemicals, stronger
pesticides, fungicides, miticides, nematicides, soil
Volumes of research clearly show that
small-scale farming, especially using “organic” methods, is much
better in terms of environmental and biodiversity impact. But is it
a practical way to feed seven billion people?
Chappell and Lavalle point to research showing,
“that small farms using alternative
agricultural techniques may be two to four times more energy
efficient than large conventional farms.”
Perhaps most interesting is that they
also found studies demonstrating,
“that small farms almost always
produce higher output levels per unit area than larger farms.”
One of the studies they looked at
“alternative methods could produce
enough food on a global basis to sustain the current human
population, and potentially an even larger population, without
increasing the agricultural land base.”
This is in part because the global food
shortage is a myth.
The fact that we live in a world where
hunger and obesity are both epidemic shows that the problem is more
one of equity and distribution than shortage. With globalized food
markets and large-scale farming, those with the most money get the
It’s a crucial issue that requires more study, and the challenges of
going up against a large industrial force are many, but it’s hard to
disagree with Chappell and Lavalle’s conclusion:
“If it is... possible for
alternative agriculture to provide sufficient yields, maintain a
higher level of biodiversity, and avoid pressure to expand the
agricultural land base, it would indicate that the best solution
to both food security and biodiversity problems would be
widespread conversion to alternative practices.”
We need to grow food in ways that make
feeding people a bigger priority than generating profits for large