Industrial Agriculture And Threats To Global Food Security

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Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi

[Sustainable Agriculture]

Transitioning from an industrial model of agriculture to a system benefiting small-scale producers - a step governments must support - will not only alleviate worldwide hunger and poverty, but will reduce carbon emissions, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food concludes in a new report.

Middle-class Americans take it for granted that whatever hardships we face in life, we can always count on food appearing on the table. Supermarkets feature well-stocked shelves, restaurants bustle with business, and the choice of cuisines available to us would even dazzle Old World aristocrats.

But the great majority of the world’s peoples don’t enjoy such blessings. For them, the task of feeding their families is a challenge they face anew each day. Chronic hunger and malnutrition afflict close to 850 million people; another billion subsist on substandard diets; and billions more spend a huge portion of their income, even as much as half, on their humble meals of rice, wheat or corn.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes the right to food as integral to a satisfactory standard of living, affirming "the right of every individual, alone or in community with others, to have physical and economic access at all times to sufficient, adequate and culturally acceptable food that is produced and consumed sustainably, preserving access to food for future generations."

Yet too often this right is neglected or trampled upon. To remedy this situation, in 2000 the UN Commission on Human Rights established the post of UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Since 2008, this position has been held by Olivier De Schutter, who has spent the past six years seeking ways to ensure that the right to food is fully realized. His final report, issued in March, documents his conclusions and recommendations. Though written in the cool, impersonal language of the policy expert, the report conveys a truly bold message with transformative implications for the future of the global food system.

De Schutter sees the major obstacle to the achievement of global food security to be the dominant paradigm of industrial agriculture, which favors giant agricultural corporations over small-scale producers and sanctions profits rather than the eradication of hunger as the driving force behind food production. Just two pages into the report he bluntly asserts: "Measured against the requirement that they should contribute to the realization of the right to food, the food systems we have inherited from the 20th century have failed."

While agricultural productivity has certainly increased and helped to reduce extreme hunger over the past half-century, he points out that glaring inequalities in the distribution of food persist, with women and children at a comparative disadvantage. Apart from those who lack a sufficient intake of calories, 2 billion people, especially in the developing world, suffer from "hidden hunger," a lack of critical micronutrients such as iodine, vitamin A and iron, all essential to optimal health.

Over 165 million children worldwide are stunted, unable to reach their full physical and cognitive potential. But even in the more affluent parts of the world, the diets promoted by modern food systems, rich in fats, salt and carbohydrates, have sharply increased obesity and set off epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and gastrointestinal cancer.

The report explicitly links these problems to the dominance of the industrial model of agriculture, which negatively impacts not only personal health but also communal well-being through its imperial reach and destabilization of the environment. Its commitment to monoculture has led to loss of agro-biodiversity and soil erosion, while its overuse of chemical inputs pollutes fresh water and leads to the emergence of resistant super-pests. However, the report states, "the most potentially devastating impacts of industrial modes of agricultural production stem from their contribution to increased greenhouse gas emissions."

Heavily reliant on carbon-powered machinery, the modern food system contributes to 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions at field level; but when all facets of industrial agriculture are taken into account, the figure doubles to 30 to 32 percent.

Climate change and agricultural productivity lock together in a mutually detrimental relationship. Not only does agriculture intensify climate change, but disruptive weather events driven by a warmer climate, such as droughts and floods, turn fertile lands barren and destroy harvests. Beneath the threshold of perception, the slow heating up of the planet causes gradual declines in crop fecundity. Thus it is predicted that over the coming decades, yields of key staple crops such as wheat and corn could fall by as much as 27 percent.

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