Why Big Ag Won't Feed the World

So what changes are necessary for us to feed the world? In 2005, the World Bank, the FAO and the UNDP brought together 400 leading natural and social scientists, representatives from government (including the U.S.), private sector and non-governmental organizations to ask how we would feed the world in 2050. It's called the IAASTD report, and it just came out last year.The scientists concluded that genetically modified crops and chemical agriculture had failed to show much promise in feeding the world. They won't be a big part of the solution. Instead, tomorrow's agriculture will need to be much more regionally controlled and locally adapted, and will need a diversity of approaches to meet the challenges of climate change and resource scarcity. The result is a farming system that uses water frugally, sequesters carbon, and doesn't require external inputs.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called Failure to Yield found that genetically modified crops have not delivered on increased yields. In fact, nearly all of the gains in yields over the last two decades can be attributed to other practices. Vast tracts of rainforest are indeed being cut down to plant commodity crops, particularly soy. This deforestation isn't happening because the varieties are old, unimproved, and not intensive. These are acres of chemically farmed, genetically modified crops.

The IAASTD concluded that if we want to feed the world, we need regional ownership and control, locally adapted varieties and practices, and farmers to grow for subsistence and local markets—and we don't need export commodities.

"So," I said to the institutional investors, "I've got good news, and I've got bad news." The good news is that feeding the world in 2050 is completely possible; these solutions are within reach. The bad news is that there isn't a ton of money to be made by a small number of companies in doing it. You can make money investing in technology and putting great gobs of capital into rural land that currently doesn't have it, but you will likely be exacerbating climate change and global hunger, not fixing it."

This, of course, gets to the heart of what it means to help.

When I was a little boy, my dad was building a tool shed in our back yard. It looked like fun, and I had always wanted to use a hammer. I wandered out to help him as he sawed a two-by-four. I picked up a hammer and some nails and started pounding them, without any particular plan, into a piece of wood. My dad looked over at me and said, "Josh. Tell me, what are you doing?" "I'm helping." I responded, completely sincerely. He gently explained to me that if you want to help, first you have to ask the people you want to help what they need. In this case, he told me, he could really use someone to sit on the sawhorse to hold down the piece of wood he was trying to saw, so it didn't bounce all over the place. When I protested that that wasn't nearly as fun as pounding nails, he agreed with me.

"You are welcome to pound nails into that board," he explained. "Just don't pretend you are helping me build this shed." Yes, global hunger is a market opportunity; some corporations will make money treating it as such. But it in so doing they are about as likely to end hunger as seven-year-old me was to build a shed by pounding nails into a piece of plywood.

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Josh Viertel is the president of Slow Food USA.

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