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Food Mosaics

October 07, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Ecology, Evaggelos Vallianatos, Politics

UN Appeals for Urgent Agricultural Reform

by Evaggelos Vallianatos

I remember going to one of the preparatory meetings on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development at the State Department. It was late 1978 and I represented Congressman Clarence Long (D-Md.).

There must have been at least forty federal bureaucrats around a huge wooden table in a large conference room. I asked them how many peasants they or the United Nations had invited to address the 1979 Agrarian Reform and Rural Development Conference in Rome. After all, who knows more about the pain of the peasants than peasants themselves?

The icy silence that followed my question was a reminder that this conference had nothing to do with food and agriculture or agrarian reform. It was rather a forum for the amusement of men and women from the North and the South who guarded the world’s food and agriculture.

It was not much later that I became a persona non grata on Capitol Hill.

This incident is illustrative of an age that has put all its eggs in the agribusiness-large farm basket. The U.S. has abandoned its family farmers for giant farmers. By 1978, the mechanization of farming was about a century old.

Entire industries exist to manufacture farm machines, fertilizers, pesticides, agribusiness public relations and food.

The U.S. and American industries have been funding sixty-five agricultural universities to provide the brains for agribusiness. Such an agricultural goliath has no place for small farmers, much less for landless folk.

Despite the “triumph” of large-scale farming in America, enough people and policy makers here and abroad understand that agribusiness is no longer an asset but a liability. Its footprint has been deleterious in society and the natural world.

William Heffernan, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, issued his warning several years ago. In “Consolidation in the Food and Agricultural System,” a report he prepared for the National Farmers Union, on Feb. 5, 1999, he wrote:

“The centralized food system that continues to emerge was never voted on by the people of this country, or for that matter, the people of the world. It is the product of deliberate decisions made by a very few powerful human actors. This is not the only system that could emerge. Is it not time to ask some critical questions about our food system and about what is in the best interest of this and future generations?”

Heffernan is right. Time is of the essence that we ask critical questions. Indeed, dozens of researchers, including me, question the policies behind the dependence of America on a few giant farms for most of its food.

Now the UN is taking part in this debate. On Sept. 18, 2013, the UN Conference on Trade and Development issued a report prepared by 50 international experts. The report is warning the world to rapidly move from large farms to small farms, from “a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management,” resulting in pro-poor development policies.

The report, “Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate,” cited the following ominous trends:

In just the last two years food prices were 80 percent higher than the prices for the years 2003 to 2008; in the last 40 years global cereal production doubled but global fertilizer use increased by eight times; industrialized agriculture has caused “irreparable environmental damage” to biodiversity, water and soil; industrialized agriculture in the tropics is the most significant source of global warming gases; rich foreigners are responsible for “land grabbing” in the tropics: the value of this land is worth five to ten times the “aid” the tropics receive from affluent governments of the North.

Hunger and malnutrition, meanwhile, are hitting hard two billion people. Some 75 percent of the hungry and malnourished are peasants and farm workers. And this tragedy is unfolding not because there’s food scarcity. On the contrary, the report says, there’s enough food for 12 to 14 billion people.

An additional handicap of large-scale one-crop farming is that it does not provide sufficient affordable food where it is needed the most. Thus, the report urges the world to enable the rural poor to become self-sufficient in food.

“Farming in rich and poor nations alike,” the report says, “should shift from monoculture [agribusiness] towards greater varieties of crops, reduced use of fertilizers and other inputs, greater support for small-scale farmers, and more locally focused production and consumption of food.”

The world ought to heed this timely advice — and wake up. Global warming will “drastically impact agriculture,” especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. If left unchanged, industrial agriculture will threaten the security of the twenty-first century.

Global warming, hunger, population growth and environmental crises, the report warns, are bound to “increase the frequency and severity of riots, caused by food hikes, with concomitant political instability, and international tension, linked to resource conflicts and migratory movements of starving populations.”

Evaggelos Vallianatos teaches at Pitzer College. He is the author of several books, including Poison Spring (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press).

1 Comments to “Food Mosaics”


  1. CLIMATE CHANGE.
    OCEAN DEGRADATION.

    OCTOBER 2013 REPORTS:
    IPCC and IPSO

    October saw the publication of two significant reports concerning climate change, the warming of the oceans, the release of greenhouse gases, the emission of pollutants. They confirmed the facts that the food industries are busy destroying the environment that keeps us alive,
    The first report was the 5th. Assessment Report, published by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] . The second report was produced by IPSO, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean.

    Working Group 1 of the IPCC declared that there was clear evidence that the Earth climate system is warming:
    1. the oceans and the atmosphere have warmed;
    2. amounts of snow and ice have decreased;
    3. Sea level has risen;
    4. greenhouse gases have increased;
    5. heat waves have increased in Europe, Asia, Australia;
    6. the troposphere has warmed since 1950 and become more disturbed by convection.

    Their work revealed that ocean warming leads to increases in the energy stored in the climate system. The upper 75m of the oceans have risen in temperature, giving rise to greater evaporation, and increased salinity. Since 1971 the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass. Glaciers have shrunk. Arctic sea ice, and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover decreased. Permafrost will reduce.
    Ocean warming has resulted in glacier mass loss, and ocean thermal expansion. Sea level has risen every year since 1850. Working Group 1 suggests that ocean warming will continue during the 21st Century and the heat will penetrate to deep ocean and effect the circulation, and initiate changes in the climate system.

    The researches of the IPCC indicate that the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels not seen for 800,000 years. What is more, the increases since 1750 are due to human activity. The continued emission of greenhouse gases are the result of industrial processes by humans.

    IPSO declared that ocean degradation is greater and faster than previously thought.
    IPCC noted that the global ocean is absorbing much of the warming as well as unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide.
    IPSO reported that there are decreasing levels of oxygen in the ocean as the result of climate change; nitrogen run-off; chemical pollution; rampant over fishing.
    IPSO found that the ocean is subject to
    7. De-oxygenation – the result of increases in coastal hypoxia with eutrophication; that is, lack of oxygen with too much organic matter such as sewage
    8. Acidification – due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and the lack of calcification resulting in the extinction of coral, and loss of bio-diversity;
    9. Warming – leading to reduced seasonal ice zones; disappearance of sea ice; increased venting of methane from the Arctic seabed; increased anoxic and hypoxic events :too little oxygen associated with pollution; stratification of the ocean and temperature zones; oxygen depletion;
    10. Over fishing undermines the survival of key species. World fish populations are unsustainably exploited.

    IPSO identified actions that must be taken if ocean degradation is to be controlled.
    11. If temperature rise is to be controlled, global carbon dioxide emissions must be limited and reduced to 350 ppm at least;
    12. Fishing must be managed so as to control the catch. Small scale fisheries are to be implemented;
    13. the UN should implement structures for the governance of the high seas. For example, seas like the Baltic Sea should be kept clear and clean, and not left to become increasingly polluted, filling up with sewage!

    The IPSO report has categorically placed the state of the Ocean as a key factor in planning for the conservation of the natural environment.[www.stateoftheocean.org].

    Both reports have made it clear that while there are many factors in play in the climate system, human influence is paramount in generating green house gas emissions, and raising temperatures; as well as creating sewage pollution and depriving waters of oxygen and reducing biodiversity.
    The researchers acknowledge that there are natural processes and cycles that contribute to changes in the climate system. But their effects are magnified by the consequences of human activity across the globe. Any rises in temperature are increased by the emission of carbon dioxide. The degradation of the levels of oxygen in the oceans is exaggerated by the accumulation of sewage and bio-pollutants in river deltas, coastal zones, and inland waters.
    The reports assert that the cycles of rapid climate change are the result of human behaviour in the troposphere.

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