Industrial Agriculture: A Recipe For Disaster

Achieving Truly Sustainable Food Security Only Possible Through Small-Scale Farming & Agroecological Methods, According to UN Report

[originally published on the Petaluma Bounty blog in March 2011, the central themes of this piece are more important than ever in light of unimpeded climate change, economic collapse, fossil fuel depletion, poverty and hunger]

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, last week presented his annual report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Agroecology and the Right to Food, an alarming but ultimately hopeful document, unequivocally states that feeding the estimated 9 billion people residing on planet Earth in 2050 will require the abandonment of industrial agriculture as we know it. The good news is that current research compiled during the study of hundreds of small-scale projects worldwide show that farming using ecological practices can double food production within ten years.

“Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavorable environments,” stated De Schutter in a press release accompanying the report. “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming and large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

According to De Schutter’s report, achieving true food security and sustainability is only possible if we move away from conventional farming, which fuels climate change, lacks resilience in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather events, and relies heavily upon rapidly dwindling (and  increasingly expensive) fossil fuels. The sooner we begin making this transition, the more likely we will able to mitigate some of the adverse impacts of climate change.  “With more than a billion hungry people on the planet, and the climate disruptions ahead of us, we must rapidly scale up these sustainable techniques. Even if it makes the task more complex, we have to find a way of addressing global hunger, climate change, and the depletion of natural resources, all at the same time. Anything short of this would be an exercise in futility,” stated De Schutter at the seminar in Brussels last summer where the world’s foremost experts on agroecology gathered to compare data, share some remarkable success stories, and re-think current agricultural policies. De Schutter’s report is the result of the discussions and analysis that began there.

According to agroecology expert Stephen R. Gliessman of the University of California, Santa Cruz, agroecology can be defined as the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. “Inherent in this definition is the idea that sustainability must be extended not only globally, but indefinitely in time, and to all living organisms, including humans,” writes Gliessman. Thus, by definition, when we discuss agroecological methods of agriculture, we are discussing sustainable agriculture. Agroecology and the Right to Food elaborates:

“The core principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in agroecosystems over time and space; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species. Agroecology is highly knowledge-intensive, based on techniques that are not delivered top-down but developed on the basis of farmers’ knowledge and experimentation.”


The conclusions of the De Schutter report directly contradict much of the current conventional wisdom as espoused by international food and development agencies, governments, and others, such as the Gates Foundation, regarding agricultural development. Their approach advocates technological advances in fertilizers and crop genetics to produce quick increases in crop yields, as well as subsidies for fertilizers and seeds in order to allow for their widespread adoption by poor, small-scale farmers. According to Agroecology and the Right to Food,however, simply increasing yields now to meet future needs is not enough, as it “will not allow significant progress in combating hunger and malnutrition if it is not combined with higher incomes and improved livelihoods for the poorest – particularly small-scale farmers in developing countries,” because short term gains due to increased productivity by conventional means will be more than offset by long term losses due to ecosystem degradation.

Continuing to follow conventional, industrial approaches is unsustainable and would be disastrous, as it entails “loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of water, and pollution of soils and water…issues which compromise the continuing ability for natural resources to support agriculture.” Conventional agriculture is also “increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, oil and gas,” and “choosing this path is agriculture committing suicide.” Illustrating this point, the International Energy Agency quietly admitted in November of 2010 that the peak of world oil production actually occurred in 2006, which would indicate that, at a time of rapidly increasing demand – particularly from the large, growing economies of China and India – much of the remaining oil left underground will be more difficult to obtain and increasingly more expensive. There remains a great deal of oil, mind you, but much of it will be obtained only at great economic and environmental cost.  Achieving true sustainability in agriculture in the future will require that we are less dependent upon such finite sources of energy.

Calling the continuation of industrial agriculture “a recipe for disaster,” the report points out that conventional agriculture  is responsible for 14% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, 32% if we include the carbon dioxide produced by the continuing conversion of forests to crop cultivation or pastures. If we include emissions from food processing and transportation, then the current industrial system of food production accounts for closer to 50% of all man-made greenhouse gases.

One area which illustrates a continuing, successful move from conventional to agroecological approaches to agriculture exists in Malawi, according to De Schutter. Malawi was the beneficiary of much international agency and foundation aid to increase food production after a disastrous drought from 2004 to 2005, aid focused largely on subsidized fertilizers and seed. As subsidies end, however, the country is pursuing a “subsidy to sustainability” approach, using agroforestry methods such as planting nitrogen-fixing trees “to ensure sustained growth in maize production.” Research reviewed for the De Schutter report has shown dramatic increases in maize yields there, from 1 ton/hectare to 2-3 tons/hectare after implementing such agroecological methods.

Overall, the results of transitioning from conventional industrial agriculture to agroecological methods documented by the report were equally encouraging. “To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects.” While increasing yields and agricultural resilience in the face of climate change-related weather events and unpredictability, the report also noted dramatic reductions in the need for insecticides. In Vietnam and Bangladesh, for example, insecticide use for rice went down 92%. “Knowledge came to replace pesticides and fertilizers. This was a winning bet, and comparable results abound in other African, Asian, and Latin American countries,” De Schutter noted.

At the conference De Schutter hosted last summer, attendees identified a variety of policies which used agroecological approaches that could be further developed and supported in order to feed our growing population. They studied governmental policies which promote agroecological practices in Brazil and Cuba; successful international research programs such as those of the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and the training programs of La Via Campesina, an international movement of peasant farmers. The successful agroecological programs studied required the prioritization of public goods such as agricultural “extension services, storage facilities, rural infrastructure (roads, electricity, information and communication technologies),” as well as access to local markets, credit, insurance, education and support of farmer’s organizations and cooperatives. Creating such public infrastructure is imperative, as is helping to create local and regional markets for small farmers’ produce and giving them some protection from the cheaper products of multi-national agribusinesses. Small farmers cannot compete with the economies of scale that large companies can achieve – the flooding of Mexico, post-NAFTA, with cheap U.S. corn being a good example. Millions of Mexican farmers lost their farms, with many of them migrating to urban areas and the U.S. in search of work.

Many of these successful programs could be replicated and “scaled up” for use elsewhere by far larger populations. “What is needed now is political will to move from successful pilot projects to nation-wide policies,” De Schutter pointed out. “This is the best option we have today. We can’t afford not to use it.”

The successful human-scale approaches to agriculture highlighted in Agroecology and the Right to Food have now become so well established and documented that De Schutter is beginning to push for their adoption by more advanced countries, arguing that such changes could dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He points to a United Nations Environment Program report which said that the agriculture sector could be carbon neutral by 2030 and feed the world’s population of nine billion (in 2050) if agroecological systems proven to reduce emissions were widely adopted today. The aforementioned World Agroforestry Centre has stated that worldwide adoption of agroforestry methods could result in 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere – nearly one third of the world’s total carbon reduction target.

In an article published in the Guardian newspaper (UK) last fall, DeSchutter argued forcefully for an urgent, whole-systems approach to tackling climate change, agricultural development, fossil fuel depletion, and poverty. Left to a variety of policy makers and corporate interests, these challenges, addressed in isolation from one another, will leave us hostage to “the short termism of markets and of electoral politics.” Corporate agribusinesses, he has pointed out, “will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.” Here lies one of the most significant challenges in reorienting a worldwide system of agriculture in which the paramount goal is delivering short term profitability to corporate shareholders.

I was reminded of this on the day De Schutter’s report was published, when Richard Cornett, Director of Communications of the Western Plant Health Association, an agribusiness industry group, posted an article titled “Science sides with agriculture as global population booms” in the Western Farm Press, an online publication generally very friendly to agribusiness perspectives. Cornett’s industry-friendly definition of “sustainable” listed just one attribute, with all other considerations secondary: profitability.

Agroecology and the Right to Food follows a plethora of other recent international studies on sustainable agriculture which have reached similar conclusions. Research from the Food and Agricultural Organization, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development, the UN Conference on Agriculture and Trade Development, the Rodale Institute and the World Watch Institute collectively represent an emerging scientific consensus that only human-scale agriculture, based on agroecological methods can simultaneously mitigate the effects of climate change, reduce poverty, and increase food production. It remains to be seen, however, if any of this information is reaching the corporate and governmental arenas where the levers of power are pulled. As writer Tom Philpott pointed out online at last week, the elite, influential British magazine, The Economist, recently devoted an entire edition to celebrating the ways in which only industrial agriculture can feed the world. While paying scant attention to the ways in which industrial agriculture is failing the one billion people worldwide who now go hungry, it also downplayed the agribusiness contribution to global warming and its reliance upon dwindling fossil fuels, while suggesting that international development agencies are unequivocally lined up behind conventional agriculture as the answer.

It’s worth noting that Olivier De Schutter’s mandate is to study and report upon ways in which we are to realize the right to food. This right is almost universally recognized around the world, but guaranteeing that we can exercise that right – guaranteeing that we can eat today –  is another matter entirely. One need only to ask any of the 1 billion people worldwide who have insufficient food. One in four children in the United States rely on food stamps in order to eat. The program which puts food in their mouths is in imminent danger of being cut further, while the need for assistance has steadily grown. “Ensuring the right to food requires the possibility either to feed oneself directly from productive land or other natural resources, or to purchase food,” De Schutter explains, conditions which are clearly non existent for many people.

In 1976, after reviewing decades of the results of the agribusiness-led Green Revolution, writer and academic Susan George published a book titled How the Other Half Dies which demolished industry and government arguments that we need only to increase productivity and yields through greater technology in order to feed the world. While acknowledging the agribusiness industry’s successful increases in productivity, George pointed out that the fundamental problem of food remained: too much land was controlled by a few large multinational corporations producing food sold for profit. In the 1980s, famine and starvation in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa (site of much of the Green Revolution’s efforts) served to dramatically illustrate her point.

Too many people continue to have neither the resources to purchase enough food nor the ability to grow it. That fundamental problem remains unchanged.  Around half the world’s cereal grains are used for animal feed. One sixth of the world’s corn is used to produce ethanol fuel. This need not be the case, but one area outside Agroecology and the Right to Food’s purview is how we go about changing the food priorities of an industry-led food system in which increasing profitability and shareholder value is the only primary consideration. De Schutter concluded that whether or not we are successful “in this transition will depend on our ability to learn faster from recent innovations. We need to go fast if we want to avoid repeated food and climate disasters in the 21st century.” Time is of the essence.



  1. “Agroecology and the Right to Food,” report submitted by Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, to the sixteenth session of the UN Human Rights Council, December 20, 2010
  2. “Eco-Farming Can Double Food Production in 10 Years, says new UN report,” press release, March 8, 2010
  3. “It’s time to tackle climate change and agricultural development in tandem,” by Olivier De Schutter, The Guardian (UK), October 16, 2010
  4. “Agroecology outperforms large-scale industrial farming for global food security,” press release, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, June 22, 2010
  5. “An Ecological Definition of Sustainable Agriculture,” by Professor Stephen R. Gliessman,
  6. “World Energy Outlook 2010,” International Energy Agency,
  7. “Debunking the stubborn myth that only industrial ag can feed the world,” Tom Philpott, Grist,
  8. “How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger,” Susan George, Rowan & Littlefield, 1976

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