Every year on 16 October, the United Nations marks World Food Day. Around the world, national governments and local communities join in the celebrations and events, held to mark the founding of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and a moment in history when, in 1946, governments came together to commit to a united effort to end the scourge of hunger. Seventy-six years later, there is a lot to celebrate. A much (much) bigger world population enjoys a much (much) lower incidence of hunger — a drop from one in three people on the planet to around one in seven live with food insecurity.
If you ask people to explain this achievement, many point to the Green Revolution and the explosion of productive capacity unleashed by the introduction of a few key technologies, including irrigation, hybrid seeds chosen to maximize the yield per individual plant, the application of nitrogen fertilizers derived from fossil fuels and the mechanisation of labour, which replaced people and animal-power with combustion engines. This explanation continues to attract billions of dollars of public and private investment into agricultural research and extension.
But this telling of the Green Revolution story is highly selective. It leaves out key aspects of the story that are vital to understanding the scope and the limitations of the technologies. Missing details include land reform: The Green Revolution brought more lasting positive changes where land redistribution helped to diffuse the benefits of the technologies widely within rural communities. Also missing is an account of the harm caused by the overuse of inputs and the gross mismanagement of land and water systems to the detriment of soil and farm biodiversity, and damage to the planet’s climate. The focus of Green Revolution technologies on increasing production made companies selling seed, fertilizer and pesticides, and the grain traders and processors, richer. But farmers quickly lost out in places where there was no control on production and no institution to redress concentrated buyer power in their markets.
The story has recently taken some new twists. Hunger is again rising in different parts of the world, a phenomenon that predates the pandemic but accelerated as the pandemic took hold. In the United States, hunger has been held somewhat in abeyance — but not thanks to the advent of a new seed varietal or improved herbicide. Rather, hunger was held in check because the state put money into people's hands, protected jobs, supported rent amnesties and extended health care. Local food growers and distributors pivoted to meet community needs. The U.S. threw a lot of food away during the lockdowns. (Food waste is endemic in U.S. food systems, but it intensified when supply chains were disrupted.) But that waste only underlines that supply was never the problem here. The strategy that lessened food insecurity was a simple but powerful mixture of public policies that protected employment income and met basic household needs.
The federal government appears not to have learned from the experience. At the U.N. Food Systems Summit held on 23 September, U.S. Secretary for Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a new “Coalition of Action on Sustainable Productivity Growth for Food Security and Resource Conservation.” The accompanying document succinctly presents the current global food security challenge as one of a growing population, a deteriorating natural resource base, an urgent need to reduce and cap climate emissions, and for farmers and food workers to earn more from agriculture to reduce global poverty. It’s a decent list of the challenges. From there, though, the document makes a leap to claim that “increasing agricultural productivity growth” is the only solution to all these problems. The proposed solution is to grow (a lot) more food using less water, soil and labour, with the help of genetic manipulation.
Secretary Vilsack’s call for a new coalition follows a long line of U.S. agriculture leaders who have boasted that U.S. agricultural productivity "feeds the world”. As ever, that boast does not spare a glance to the problems — including hunger — at home. The Biden administration has promised to tackle persistent systemic racism, including environmental racism, to end child poverty, and to make sharp, real cuts to climate emissions. Instead of confronting these problems, the secretary is pushing to globalize an agricultural system that has impoverished rural communities, polluted waterways, stripped soils, and created such surpluses that we don’t just feed most of our production to animals, but also to fuel tanks and methane-producing landfill. The share of U.S. productivity given over directly to food is shockingly small.
We can do better — and you can learn much more about what can be done at our seminar on 20 October. We know how to grow food (not feed and fuel) and we know how to do it such that rural communities benefit and food security is achieved. The approach is called agroecology. Agroecology involves a different view of food systems and feeding people. Instead of looking at a plant and measuring yield of a grain, you measure productivity by the species that thrive in a landscape, and their resilience. You assess profitability by looking at the returns from sales and the wages of farm workers and at the economic health of the rural community where the food is grown. When you follow the money, you find it circulating in the local economy rather than increasing returns for an investor who has diversified their retirement portfolio with farmland. When you look at what is produced, you find a diverse and nutritious variety of foods, rather than tonnes of animal feed or biofuel feedstock or sugars and oils destined to make ultra-processed snack foods. The U.S. is a vast country, blessed with millions of acres of arable land. Thousands of farmers are practicing sustainable agriculture despite the productivist hold on Congressional imaginations — and electoral ambitions. Imagine how the country could really benefit the world if support for truly sustainable food security started at home.