The assumption that conventional farming is a necessity to feed the world should be re-examined. Large scale fuel dependent monocultural farms, are wasteful, cause land degradation, pollution, and the food produced is never free of pesticide and fertiliser residue. There are four facts about conventional farming which are as significant as they are obvious, yet we seem to forget:
Oil and waste
As Richard Heinberg, author of Peak Everything, points out:
“Agriculture accounts for about 17 percent of the US annual energy budget; it is the single largest consumer of petroleum products as compared to other industries. By comparison, the US military, in all of its operations, uses less than half that amount.” (Heinberg. 2007, p.53).
Our conventional farming model is oil dependent, and this a global pattern. It is now part of our culture. Conventional farming is dependent on fossil fuel and there lies its efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness but also it’s vulnerability, as with out cheap oil it will not be as efficient, or productive, and certainly not competitive.
Damage and Pollution
Agriculture contributes to land degradation such as erosion and salinity. The use of fertilizers and pesticides disrupts the natural equilibrium for life in the soil and in rivers. The main reason for land clearing in Australia is agricultural production, and as more land is needed to feed a growing population our forests and woodlands are at risk.
Climate Change emissions
We also have to factor in other oil dependent practices such as: storing, packaging, and transporting the food, to get it to us, which produce climate change emissions. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:
“Primary food production and the food supply chain, including landfill gas produced from food wastes, contribute approximately 22 percent of total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
An additional 15 percent of greenhouse emissions results from land use changes, particularly changes linked to deforestation brought about by the expansion of agricultural land.” (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2013)
Now, continued industrial agriculture accelerates Climate Change, and does damage to the environment in other ways such as land degradation. But what about the food it produces? Lets take strawberries as an example: “Without pesticides, strawberries would be more expensive because yields would be lower and there would be greater losses from them going bad before they get to the shops. (This is one reason why organic fruit costs more.) But pesticides can be applied too enthusiastically. The last time independent test results were published in Australia (in 2003), strawberries stood out as the fruit with the highest levels of pesticide residues, though still within acceptable limits.” (Choice Magazine, 29 Jan 2008).
As Clive Blazely puts it with this example: The so-called acceptable limits are based on the amount of pesticides consumed compared to the body weight of an average person. There are no warnings for children. Some of the pesticides used by growers are called systemics, which means they enter the sap stream and can’t be washed off, turning the strawberry fruit into pesticide bombs. If your child is say one fifth of your body weight then the amount consumed is five times as concentrated. If the strawberry your child is eating is one of those stacked with four pesticides, then you may be feeding your child with a dosage level 20 times over what our authorities said was safe! (Blazely. 2013, p.13)
We can go on ignoring the repercussions and dependency of an oil based agricultural system. We can still buy abundant cheap food at the supermarket. But there is just too much evidence that point to the damage, complexity, and vulnerability, of our food supply system to ignore it.
And yet there is a widely held view, which is: we need conventional farming to feed the growing population of the world. This assumption is based on the idea that large populations require large monoculture farming practices, and this is far from the truth. As David Montgomery, professor of earth and space sciences from the university of Washington exposes in his article about regenerative agriculture and the myths about conventional agriculture: family farms produce over three quarters of the world’s food.
Small diversified farms as we can see in many parts of the world today, address climate change, and ensure food security. The same can not be said for monocultural conventional farming. As the International Food Policy Research Institute found, we need to produce more food with fewer resources. Conventional farming requires large energy and resource inputs with the aim of producing a good that is primarily a commodity. But the world needs food, a diversity of food that is not transported from afar. And this can only be achieved on small landholdings producing a variety of foods in our immediate, -or as close as possible, environment.
Food needs to be part of our culture again, not just the consumption of it, but its production. Integrating diverse food production in the periphery of our cities, as we can still can see today even in many European nations, and changing from large monocultural farms to smaller diverse crops in the country, would address our food security and climate change issues. This structure may sound utopic, but it is the system that fed the world until relatively recently, before the industrialisation of food production was established along with the monopolisation of land in America, Africa, Australia, as will as in Asia to some extent. These new large scale enterprises often displaced indigenous people to produce food as a commodity, and thus rendering entire communities dependent on meagre wages for food, where once subsistence farming was the norm and no-one went hungry.
Clive Blazely. 2012, Growing your own Heirloom Vegetables. p.13
Choice Magazine 29 Jan 2000 http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/safety/strawberries.aspx8
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/energy/81337/en/
Jay Hakes. 2000, US Energy Information Administration. Long Term World Oil Supply presentation, http://www.eia.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/presentations/2000/long_term_supply/sld003.htm
Richard Heinberg. 2007, Peak Everything. New Society Publishers.