More viewpoints: “Who feeds the world?”

In response to the article, “Who feeds the world? (Feb. 17, 2014 issue)

February 13, 2014 | God at work in the World
Compiled by Will Braun | Senior Writer

Ron Krahn: A farmer responds

I don’t believe the phrase “farmers feed the world” implies a certain way of producing food. It’s a simple fact. Anyone who engages in the act of growing or producing food is a farmer. So there is a reason why “feeding the world” is a common phrase in agriculture. It is a task that farmers take pride in because they are providing one of the main necessities to sustain human life.

That being said, I personally don’t believe that we as farmers can feed a growing population using a less intensive, organic food production system. We have a shortage of skilled labour for our current system of agriculture, let alone a system that relies a lot on manual labour.

In the past five years, we have seen a shortage of grain in the world cause food prices to escalate around the world. Making a switch to an organic, low intensive food production system which typically has lower yield of food/energy per unit of land will only cause more shortages of food and in turn, even more hungry people.

The economic theory of supply and demand determines what food is grown in the world. Just like carmakers produce the kind of cars that consumers need and want, farmers grow the kind of food that consumers want, within reason. Consumers vote with their wallet. If all consumers wanted organic food, the overwhelming demand would create a financial incentive for farmers to produce food organically. Farmers are constantly evaluating the demand for different crops, and they produce the crops that are in highest demand and that they can produce profitably.

I find it interesting that many people who are critical of conventional agriculture find fault with feeding grain to livestock, and in turn to humans. An effective organic food production system or low input/less-intensive food system relies heavily on livestock production, as the animal waste is used to replace some of the nutrients that are removed from the soil. This is a confusing contradiction in my opinion. And both systems export nutrients off the farm, in the food. So both conventional and organic farming need to import nutrients from off the farm to keep the soil nutrient levels stable.

Most decisions in farming are not easy and usually have trade-offs. Zero-till farming in western Canada has increased the amount of glyphosate/Round-Up that is used but has decreased the amount of soil erosion caused by wind and water, increased our water/snow use efficiency, made our soil more healthy, and brought back our earthworms. The use of genetically modified crops has allowed us to increase yields and use fewer insecticides and herbicides that persist in the soil. 

I don’t think it’s important that only five percent of Canadian agricultural products go to undernourished countries, as Braun notes. The most efficient way to get the most food aid to a country is to buy the food close to the country in need, as Canadian Foodgrains Bank discovered years ago. Supplying food to the world trade, whether used domestically or internationally, all has the same result. It feeds people. I don’t believe it’s the farmer’s job to decide who gets our food. We are only responding to a demand for food.

Conventional agriculture is trying to supply the world’s food needs in an efficient manner. We are constantly striving to grow as much food as possible per unit of water, nutrients, and soil in a sustainable and profitable manner to meet the world’s food needs. 

Ron Krahn is co-owner of a 4,800-acre grain farm together with his wife Anita, father, brother and their families at Rivers, Manitoba.

Dr. Martin Entz: A professor responds

Almost one-half of food comes from the 1.5 billion smallholder farmers in developing countries. The rest comes from more industrialized systems, like the one we have in Canada. This is how farmers feed the world, and for this I am deeply grateful. Canadians rank farmers as the most respected members of society.

Will Braun asks whether there will be enough food? University of Manitoba scholar Vaclav Smil concludes there is plenty of food for now and in the future. His argument is not popular among agribusinesses, some of whom use the scarcity narrative in their marketing campaigns and to raise capital to expand their businesses. Others have recently joined Smil in questioning the pronouncement about future food scarcity made by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Smil does give a nod to fertilizer use, stating that unless we change our diets or reduce food waste, we will remain heavily reliant on this input. So, he places the ball into our court. 

I agree with Braun that North American agriculture should look (and act) differently. We are not just involved in food production, but in providing nutrition to people. Many grocery aisles sell food, but not nutrition. Processing favours the food companies, with limited benefits to farmers or consumers. One Washington State University study showed that women needed to eat 30 percent more bread slices of modern versus older wheat varieties in order to receive their recommended daily dosage of micronutrients. This needs to be fixed. 

Over-reliance on processed food is driving obesity and diabetes-related diseases in developing countries as well. Negative health effects from poor diets are costing society a lot of money. Even though it may cost more in the short-term, all people need access to healthy food, especially people reliant on food banks and school breakfast programs.

Modern societies are guilty of ignoring and subduing nature, and we do so at our own peril. Agriculture is completely reliant on nature’s processes, so farming systems need to work in harmony with nature. Canadian farmers have led many “natural” solutions including reduced tillage farming on the prairies, integrated pest management in horticultural production, grass-fed livestock production, and community based food systems. But we are just scratching the surface of what is possible.

Nowhere are such “natural systems agriculture” approaches more important than in the degraded agricultural landscapes of Asia, Central America and Africa. I admire the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) approach in southern Africa (the place I am as I write this). Together with local partners, CFGB seeks to educate farmers on how to help themselves by improving their soils and using scarce water more efficiently. Their approach places farmer knowledge and skill at the centre. This stands in contrast to the transnational agribusiness approach (and many donors, sadly) that place expensive crop inputs at the centre of the model farm. The difference may seem trivial, but it is not—it makes all the difference to food security and to child and community nutrition.

Dr. Martin Entz is Professor of Natural Systems Agriculture at University of Manitoba

Jim Cornelius: A charity executive director responds

Will Braun rightly notes that the issue of “access” to food is fundamental to the problem of global hunger. Our experience confirms the analysis of Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen that widespread hunger, and even famine, often co-exist with markets that are full of food. The problem is that people are not able to purchase the food available.

People generally access food through some combination of growing food for themselves, having a livelihood that enables them to purchase food on the market, or benefiting from some type of safety net, insurance, pension or relief program that provides them with food or cash. This is why the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s program focuses on helping hunger-affected households strengthen their livelihoods and food production, while at the same time providing food assistance when crops have failed, livelihoods have been disrupted, or households are facing chronic poverty and are unable to access sufficient food in the market.

The reality is that most hungry people still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture in some form or other for their livelihoods. We need to find ways of strengthening agriculture-related livelihoods in developing countries. These efforts need to be combined with the development of other types of livelihoods and improved safety net and social protection supports. Countries that are making significant progress in reducing hunger are supporting the development of their agriculture sector, particularly smallholder agriculture. They are also supporting the development of agriculture-based rural industries and employment, and diversifying their economies to provide other types of livelihoods. We are also seeing a significant expansion of their social protection systems to ensure that the poor can access the food they need. These are key steps for reducing global hunger.

At the same time, it is important that we have a resilient global food system that ensures food is available at affordable and stable prices. Food shortages can lead to price rises which push the poor out of the market; they are forced to buy less or poorer quality food. Canadian farmers are an important part of the global food system, helping to ensure an adequate supply of food around the world.

Jim Cornelius is executive director of the charity Canadian Foodgrains Bank. 

What others are saying

If given a chance, small-scale farms could make a difference in solving hunger problem

Can “only large-scale, industrial, biotech farms . . . save our increasingly overpopulated planet?” According to Washington Post columnist Barbara Damrosch, a six-year, 61-country study initiated by the World Bank showed that “small-scale, diverse, sustainable farms (and even home gardens) had the most potential to solve the world's hunger problems while reversing modern agriculture's devastation of our ecosystems.” See full article here

It's a Cute Little Movement, But Can It Feed the World?

Watch Barbara Damrosch's lecture here

American Farmers Say They Feed the World, But Do They?

“‘We're feeding the world’ . . . . It's high-tech agriculture's claim to the moral high ground. Farmers say they farm the way they do to produce food as efficiently as possible to feed the world.” For a look at the truth on both sides, read or listen to the report by Dan Charles, of National Public Radio. 

How to Feed the World

Mark Bittman, of the New York Times, writes: “The question ‘How will we feed the world?' implies that we have no choice but to intensify industrial agriculture, with more high-tech seeds, chemicals and collateral damage. Yet there are other, better options....

“‘Feeding the world’ might as well be a marketing slogan for Big Ag, a euphemism for ‘Let’s ramp up sales,’ as if producing more cars would guarantee that everyone had one....

“The current system is . . . geared to letting the half of the planet with money eat well while everyone else scrambles to eat as cheaply as possible.”

—Posted  Feb. 12, 2014

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