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Can Organic-Style Farming Help End Hunger?
8/19/2009
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UN report favors sustainable, low-tech, natural farming methods; “Malawi miracle” supports fertilizer subsidies as a stop-gap measure to halt hunger

by Craig Weatherby

Vital Choice supports sustainable food production, from the earth as well as the sea.

So we’re strong advocates of organic farming, and feature organic foods in our product selection.

Until recently, organic farming has been perceived as a pet project of relatively affluent people in Europe and America.

This is absurd, since all farming worldwide was “organic” until the 1940s, when synthetic pesticides and fertilizers made from petrochemicals began to spread around the globe.

Agrichemical-based farming – plus the addition of new, pest- or stress-resistant hybrids – reached Third World countries with the “green revolution” of the 1960s.

For more on the green revolution – and the promise researchers attach to the return of its ancient, organic-style antecedents – see “Green Farming Found Sounder”.

Now, a major joint report from the UN and the World Bank suggests that the time is ripe for a shift – or a return, in some cases – to fully sustainable methods.

The report envisions a wide variety of sustainable agriculture and fishing practices, which may combine new technologies with near-forgotten traditional techniques.

UN report supports organic-style methods for long-term success

Three years ago, the World Bank and the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) commissioned 400 contributors, from scientists to businesspeople, to study agriculture in poor countries and make recommendations.

The study, which examined farming methods in relation to their impacts on hunger, poverty, the environment, and social equity, was released last April by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

While the report recognizes a role for biotech and petrochemical inputs, its conclusions prioritize organic-style farming methods as a primary path to food security worldwide.

The World Bank/FAO report encouraged agriculture that is less dependent on fossil fuels, favors the use of locally available resources, and focuses research efforts on sustainable natural processes.

We’ve translated the main recommendations from the dense, obscure bureaucratese in which the executive summary was written (IAASTD/pdf 2008):

  • End subsidies that encourage unsustainable practices.

  • Encourage better natural resource management to preserve environmental quality.

  • Promote integrated pest management (IPM). As opposed to conventional, all-chemical pest control, IPM combines natural pest control with judicious pesticide use.

  • Develop resilient seed stocks.

  • Pay farmers and local communities for ecosystem-protection services.

  • Provide incentives to strengthen local markets, develop alternative markets such as “green” (organic) food products, establish certification for sustainable forest and fisheries practices, and support organic agriculture.

  • Ensure long-term land and water use rights, social safety nets, easier credit, and crop insurance.

  • Promote modes of governance that emphasize participatory and democratic approaches, to reduce resource over-exploitation by distant owners.

  • Approach use of genetically modified (GM) crops with caution, as reliance on them may raise production costs, restrict experimentation, and undermine local practices that enhance food security and economic sustainability.


You can view a five-minute video about the IAASTD report on You Tube.

Of course, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have helped feed billions and saved many lives. They can play a positive role if they’re applied appropriately when and where they’re actually needed.

In fact, the refusal of one chronically hungry African nation to keep taking international lenders’ advice about fertilizer subsidies points the way toward a stop-gap food security solution for many such countries.

Agrichemicals and food-poor nations … do as we say, not as we do

We can excuse poor farmers who may be confused by the mixed messages coming from the developed world.

Even as they subsidized their own farmers in various ways, the wealthy, food-exporting nations that control the World Bank have leveraged its lending power to force poor countries to end fertilizer subsidies and other supports to food production.

For example, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the World Bank pressed the poor African country of Malawi to end fertilizer subsidies for food crops.

Instead, countries like Malawi were urged to grow export crops such as coffee, and use the proceeds to pay for food imports from rich countries.

This force-fed strategy for food self-sufficiency never made much sense. Export crops require costly fertilizers, expansive acreage, and effective transport, while sub-Saharan nations like Malawi have mostly tiny subsistence farms ill-suited to large-scale production of commodities.

Earlier this year, Professor Robert Watson led a new UN report on food security, expressed an increasingly common view among agro-economists without ideological biases: “... the poorest developing countries are net losers under most trade liberalization scenarios.” (IAASTD 2008)

Africans reap immediate rewards by resisting hypocritical aid regimens

Starting in 2005, Malawi and expert supporters – including some of the World Bank’s own agriculture scientists – essentially shamed the institution into letting Malawi spend bank funds to subsidize fertilizer for virtually all of its farmers,.

The result was what many observers call the “Malawi miracle”. For the first time in memory, food crop harvests in 2006 and 2007 were big enough to feed Malawians and export food surpluses to surrounding countries.

As The Los Angeles Times noted earlier this year, “Only by challenging such market nostrums did Malawi's political leaders preempt potentially catastrophic economic and political consequences … rural poverty, dependency on foreign food and even famine.”

The New York Times detailed the results last December: “[Malawi] … is selling more corn to the World Food Program of the United Nations than any other country in southern Africa and is exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of corn to Zimbabwe.”

The World Bank denies that its policies left Malawians hungry, and defends its record in a paper titled “Malawi, fertilizer subsidies and the World Bank

But as articles in both newspapers make clear, the Bank’s defense is misleading at best. (See “Malawi's 'free trade' revolt” in The Los Angeles Times and “Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts” in The New York Times.)

The success of the Malawi miracle depended on costly petrochemicals paid for by outsiders.

As The New York Times reported, “In a withering evaluation of the World Bank’s record on African agriculture, the bank’s own internal watchdog concluded in October not only that the removal of subsidies [in the 1980s and 1990s] had led to exorbitant fertilizer prices in African countries, but that the bank itself had often failed to recognize that improving Africa’s declining soil quality was essential to lifting food production.” (Dugger CW 2007)

In other words, while the Malawi miracle is wonderful in the short term, it may not be viable over time, given the impact of oil prices, and the fact that large swaths of Asia and Africa are running out of water.

And this is where the new UN/World Bank report, summarized above, enters the picture.

The real, long-term solution for countries like Malawi lies in more sustainable forms of farming that would rebuild their soils’ productivity and reduce reliance on outside help.

Sources

  • IAASTD. Agriculture: The need for change. April 15, 2008. Accessed online August 14, 2008 at http://www.agassessment.org/docs/Global_Press_Release_final.doc

  • IAASTD/pdf. Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Accessed online June 12, 2008 at http://www.agassessment.org/docs/SR_Exec_Sum_210408_Final.pdf

  • Dugger CW. Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts. December 2, 2007. Accessed online August 14, 2008 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/world/africa/02malawi.html

  • Barber BR. Malawi's 'free trade' revolt. January 9, 2008. Accessed online August 14, 2008 at http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-barber9jan09,0,134908.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions

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