Eating Tomorrow: The Battle for the Future of Food

Adapted from the conclusion to Eating Tomorrow (New Press 2019)

“Agriculture out of World Trade Organization!” — Street protest, Buenos Aires, December 2017 (photo: Timothy A. Wise)

If anyone at the World Food Prize ceremonies in October 2017 back in Iowa was paying attention, reality was waving its arms in warning about our unsustainable model of agricultural development. Days before, Reuters had reported that the continued development of high-yield agriculture had generated a “global grain glut” that had driven crop prices so low farmers weren’t sure they could afford those technologies.[1] Meanwhile, the FAO had announced that the number of people suffering chronic hunger had increased 5% the previous year.[2] Hunger amid plenty.

No one at the annual agribusiness celebration was paying attention. With the usual pomp and circumstance the World Food Prize Selection Committee awarded the 2017 prize to Akinwumi Adesina, former director of the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa, oblivious to the program’s failures. Meanwhile, the nitrates flowed freely down the Des Moines River, again threatening to shut down the city’s water supply. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico hit a new record, growing to the size of New Jersey.

We will never restore balance in our agricultural ecosystems if we can’t restore a reasonable balance between family farmers and agribusiness. Right now, agribusiness is calling all the shots, from Iowa to India, Mexico to Mozambique. That leaves us wedded to policies and practices that have failed to feed the hungry while undermining the resource base that can feed us all in a climate-constrained tomorrow. And it leaves us blind to the solutions all around us.

Supporting poor food producers

Helping poor food-producers grow more food is a “win-win” solution. Allowing them to eat today, from a rich diversity of intercropped foods, is the very thing that can help them — and all of us — eat tomorrow from their restored, resilient soil. In the process, we directly address the needs of the largest group of hungry people in the world: small-scale farmers and their families. Such a “zero hunger” approach isn’t charity, it is a long-term investment in the productivity of many countries’ largest group of working people.

In that sense, the investment pays multiple dividends, not just the avoidance of lost lives — and for economists lost productivity — from malnourished children whose stunting in their first 1,000 days handicaps them for a lifetime.[3] The investment also revitalizes rural communities, as farm families grow a surplus they can sell and then look to better their lives by spending that money in their local economies. On eggs or some other food item they can’t produce themselves, putting money in the pockets of those who can. On improving their houses, stimulating the local market for cement to replace a dirt floor, roofing materials to replace tin or straw, a toilet to replace an unsanitary open-air latrine.

With more money in farmers’ pockets, they’d see implement dealers selling farm machinery, maybe a bank, a hardware store, maybe even a club to respond to demand for nightlife from a youth population that no longer has to migrate to escape poverty and boredom, and to earn money they can send home. Picture those rural Iowan communities of old, wistfully recalled by Iowa farmers I spoke with. Why not? That’s what the early stages of agricultural development look like. If agribusiness no longer gets to call all the shots, the later stages don’t have to look like the Iowa of today.

Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter and his institute, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, argue persuasively for a decisive shift away from the agribusiness model. In their report, “From Uniformity to Diversity,” they show that sustainable agricultural practices can grow all the food we need to feed a growing population.[4] The FAO recently added its institutional weight to that conclusion after convening its second conference on “Scaling Up Agro-ecology.”[5] Evidence showed that in Africa, a shift to farming practices based on diversity, mixed farming, and participatory plant breeding could double food production in 3–10 years.[6] In doing so, farmers can meet the challenges posed by a changing climate while reducing agriculture’s contributions to climate change, and they can do so more equitably than does our current corporate food system.

De Schutter and his colleagues are painstakingly clear that the central obstacle to changing course is the overwhelming economic and political power of agribusiness. Even before the recent wave of mergers — Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta, Dow-DuPont — three seed companies controlled 50% of the commercial market. Seven multinational fertilizer companies accounted for nearly all sales, while five companies captured two-thirds of the agrochemical market. Just four firms had 90% of global grain trade.[7]

Economic power conveys political influence. Agribusiness spent $133 million lobbying U.S. Congress in 2015, more even than the defense industry.[8] In the battle for the future of food, they are the main obstacle to change and recapturing our democracies from corporate influence is a crucial step surmounting that obstacle.

Resistance and sustainable alternatives

The good news is that in the battle for the future of food farmers’ resistance is strong, and so are their alternatives, many advanced under the banner of “food sovereignty.”

· In Malawi, farmers and their allies resist the imposition of a seed policy drafted by Monsanto and pursue an independent path using their own improved maize seeds in soils growing more fertile with their agro-ecological practices.

· In Mozambique, farming communities defend their hard-won land rights from land-grabs while promoting climate-resilient farms.

· Zambians fight for a just national land policy that recognizes women’s rights to secure village land and demands limits on corrupt land deals that give the best lands to foreigners and the rich.

· In India the right to food movement defends its National Food Security Act against hypocritical trade complaints from the United States, pushing for grassroots rural development in the world’s hungriest country.

· In Mexico, farmers and their allies sustain a multiyear resistance to the forced adoption of genetically modified maize, promote a transition to agro-ecology, and elect a president who might just reverse the trade and agricultural policies that have undermined small-scale farmers.

· And even in Iowa, residents demand clean water from more sustainable farming practices, livable communities not polluted by factory farms, and checks on the control agribusiness exerts over government policies in the state.

All are striving for the same thing: the right of everyone to eat safe and healthy food today while ensuring that we steward our natural wealth so we can all eat tomorrow.

Endnotes

[1] Rod Nickel, “Special Report: Drowning in Grain — How Big Ag Sowed Seeds of a Profit-Slashing Glut,” Reuters, September 27, 2017, sec. Business News, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-grains-supply-special-report/special-report-drowning-in-grain-how-big-ag-sowed-seeds-of-a-profit-slashing-glut-idUSKCN1C21AR.

[2] “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World: Building Resilience for Peace and Food Security” (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017), http://www.fao.org/3/a-I7695e.pdf.

[3] Roger Thurow, The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children — And the World, First edition (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016).

[4] IPES-Food, “From Uniformity to Diversity: A Paradigm Shift from Industrial Agriculture to Diversified Agroecological Systems” (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems, 2016), http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/UniformityToDiversity_FullReport.pdf.

[5] “Family Farmers Must Remain Central to Agroecology Scale-Up,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, April 5, 2018, http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1114099/icode/.

[6] Jules Pretty, Camilla Toulmin, and Stella Williams, “Sustainable Intensification in African Agriculture,” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9, no. 1 (2011), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3763/ijas.2010.0583.

[7] IPES-Food, “From Uniformity to Diversity,” 57.

[8] “Lobbying: Ranked Sectors,” Database, OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics, May 2018, https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?indexType=c&showYear=2015.

Author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, & the Battle for the Future of Food. Advisor with Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

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