Friday, June 5, 2009
The June issue of National Geographic* has a special report on the future of the global food system -
In an era of tightening supplies and rising prices, our hot and hungry world could face a perpetual food crisis.The article is an excellent review of the previous "Green Revolution", its positive and negative consequences**, and the enormous challenges we face finding a better future for humans and other species through the twin challenges of global warming and population growth:
...is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world's food crisis? Last year a massive study called the "International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development" concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world's poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world's 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness.***
And so a shift has already begun to small, underfunded projects scattered across Africa and Asia. Some call it agroecology, others sustainable agriculture, but the underlying idea is revolutionary: that we must stop focusing on simply maximizing grain yields at any cost and consider the environmental and social impacts of food production. Vandana Shiva is a nuclear physicist turned agroecologist who is India's harshest critic of the green revolution. "I call it monocultures of the mind," she says. "They just look at yields of wheat and rice, but overall the food basket is going down. There were 250 kinds of crops in Punjab before the green revolution." Shiva argues that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer petroleum-based inputs. Her research has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change. "If you are talking about solving the food crisis, these are the methods you need," adds Shiva.
* Previously on this blog: September 2008 Nat Geo article on Soils.
** Previously: NPR radio story on India's Green Revolution
*** Previously: UNEP report: The Environmental Food Crisis
Hat tip to Abhijit Dingare for pointing out the article.