Land tenure: Highest productivity from agricultural land, other factors being held equal, is from small-holder or cooperative structures. Comparisons have been made in China, where there are diverse structures of land ownership. Large industrial holdings and communal holdings are less productive. Over the last several centuries the trend has been towards larger industrial agricultural holdings, with the former peasants who lost their land to this process working as labourers on the properties or migrating to city slums. The global economic institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have pushed this change strenuously. Some call it the 'depeasantization' of global agriculture.Most remarkably, recently the heads of these three institutions have made a statement saying that what is needed to deal with global hunger now is a return to small-holder farming. Oxfam has echoed this. The UN statement on food and agriculture agrees, and adds that there is a need to turn from industrial agriculture with oil-based inputs, to organic methods. The western writers who talk about response to peak oil and climate change speak of the need for 'reruralization' of the countryside, which has been extensively depopulated by industrial agriculture. It will need to be repopulated to provide a more productive and more labour-intensive agriculture.
- Closely related to the above point about the relationship between land tenure structures and land productivity is the kind of farming done and the kind of food produced. WTO, WB and IMF pushed indebted poor countries into what is known as 'structural adjustment', which among other things, meant that regional agricultural arrangements that produced for local consumption and a degree of food self-sufficiency were shifted to industrial agriculture producing food for export, such as tea and coffee, and non-food products, such as flowers for western markets. Countries such as Haiti, which were once self-sufficient in staples like rice, quickly became net importers of these staple foods. New Zealand, which some describe as 'one big farm', exports huge amounts of food all over the world. Does it feed itself? No. Half of what NZers eat is imported. This dependency on oil-based agriculture for exports to get the cash to pay for imported food brought in with oil-based transport is catastrophic for a country like Haiti, where the rise in food prices immediately bites as worsening hunger.
- Population increase. Up until recently, most of the literature dealing with feeding the world insisted that there was no problem producing enough food to feed all the people in the world. The problem was one of distribution - the poor didn't have the money to buy the food available. There was much evidence to show that famines in various parts of the world were caused or exacerbated by political decisions, and would have been averted under democratic functioning.
Now we must consisder that the population that can be supported sustainably depends on the kind of technology being used and the throughput of materials and energy. I don't see anyone asserting now that we can grow enough food for a world of 9 billion people insisting on the lavish use of energy, some of which will be biofuel.
- Climate change has affected food availablity in several ways. Drought causes crop failure; most outstandingly the years of Australian drought had a major effect on global wheat production. Some query use of the word 'drought' as meaning a time limited condition, being convinced that the change is permanent. Climate change also causes increased number and severity of cyclones and floods which destroy crops.
- Oil scarcity. My reading of this is that we are on the plateau of global production while global demand is swinging sharply up. This leads to high prices of fuel and other agricultural commodities (especially fertilizer, which has more than tripled), which leads to higher food prices. It actually leads to some land going out of production when farmers cannot afford the fertilizer on which they are dependent in the system of modernized agriculture.
- Oil scarcity leads to biofuel production, causing agricultural products to be diverted from food to fuel production, and increasing food prices.
- The increased global demand for meat leads to diversion of grain to feed animals and away from feeding hungry people. Of 2.3 billion tons of grain produced in 2007, less than half went to feed people. The rest went to feed animals and biofuel production.
Of all of these factors, my reading of the situation suggests that high oil prices, biofuel production and speculation on food commodities top the list for pushing hunger to present levels. As I write, the radio tells me that 6 million Ethiopian children are malnourished, 60,000 of them so ill they require specialist feeding, because of drought and high food prices. Aid money to alleviate the problem is scarce because people are giving to Burma and China.
What's to be done?
- A global moratorium on biofuel production would help. A possible form for this would be a change in the requirement many governments have made for inclusion of a percentage of biofuels with fossil fuel petroleum. This would increase global availability of grain and lower prices. It might allow restoration of the depleted global grain reserves. It would contribute to lowering carbon emissions and require rich country populations to face the necessity of adapting to lower energy use patterns. The claim that there are no problems in using non-food plants for biofuel requires careful examination. Whatever plant material is used, organic material is extracted from soil or water, depleting the ecosystem from which it comes, and leaving it less able to keep producing.
- Support food sovereignty for nations. Economic globalization of food provision needs to be reversed to national or regional food self-sufficiency. The transition in agriculture is likely to need state support, and to require economic instruments to protect it. Trade in non-essential food items is desirable, but the capacity of regions to feed themselves needs to be restored, after having been systematically and deliberately destroyed. This will increase food production and the problematic level of nutrition in many areas. It will increase employment.
- Support land reform. This is a notoriously difficult area politically. However there are few measures with such a dramatic effect on food production and population health.
- Support organic agriculture. Techniques of organic agriculture have benefitted from global knowledge growth. Permaculture principles are recognized widely as maximizing productivity, diversity and resilience of food production. Not only is more food produced, less fossil fuel is used and more carbon is sequestered with these methods of agriculture.
- Take food commodities out of the speculation market.
- Support the discussion of population policies, which have largely been an unmentionable topic in discourses like this one.
What can we do ourselves?
Right now, as usual, the adversities of hunger are affecting mainly developing countries and not most readers of this blog. This may not continue. The factors listed above that will not change in the near future are oil scarcity, climate instability, population growth. They will all get worse, of course. We don't know how they'll affect us in the lucky countries. It will be increasingly difficult to import food and to keep growing it with oil-dependent methods.
- Grow your own food to the extent possible.
- Join or create a community garden if you haven't land to plant.
- Get your food from a Community-supported Agriculture farm (CSA) This is likely to be organically produced, and is, of course, local.
- Move towards vegetarianism.
- Consider joining a sustainable village, which will enable you to move further in the direction of low-energy self-sufficiency and provide a greater range of food and other products locally grown.
- Help your town or neighourhood make these transitions by organizing under the Transition town, Natural Step or Post-Carbon Cities frameworks. The first began in the UK, the second in Sweden, and the third in North America. All are now global, and aim to enable a broad range of adaptations to peak oil and climate change, beyond food self-sufficiency. (See http://www.transitionculture.org/ , http://www.naturalstep.org/ , http://www.postcarboncities.net/ )
- As part of such moves, the need to adapt to lower energy use is central, shifting away from the maladaptive move to replace oil with biofuels.
- Make sure none of your invested money is going to food speculation.
Some of the readers of this blog may have insights that will deepen my understanding of this complex issue. Please consider posting comments that may help us all.
Warmest wishes to all,