By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Feb 19 2019 (IPS)
For two centuries, all too many discussions about hunger and
resource scarcity has been haunted by the ghost of Parson Thomas
Malthus. Malthus warned that rising populations would exhaust
resources, especially those needed for food production. Exponential
population growth would outstrip food output.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram
Humanity now faces a major challenge as global warming is expected
to frustrate the production of enough food as the world population
rises to 9.7 billion by 2050. Timothy Wise’s new book [Eating Tomorrow:
Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of
Food. New Press, New York, 2019] argues that most solutions
currently put forward by government, philanthropic and private
sector luminaries are misleading.
Malthus’ ghost returns
The early 2008 food price crisis has often been wrongly associated
with the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. The number of hungry in
the world was said to have risen to over a billion, feeding a
resurgence of neo-Malthusianism.
Agribusiness advocates fed such fears, insisting that food
production must double by 2050, and high-yielding industrial
agriculture, under the auspices of agribusiness, is the only
solution. In fact, the world is mainly fed by hundreds of millions
of small-scale, often called family farmers who produce over
two-thirds of developing countries’ food.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, neither food scarcity nor poor
physical access are the main causes of food insecurity and hunger.
Instead, Reuters has observed a ‘global grain glut’, with
surplus cereal stocks piling up.
Meanwhile, poor production, processing and storage facilities
cause food losses of an average of about a third of developing
countries’ output. A similar share is believed lost in rich
countries due to wasteful food storage, marketing and consumption
Nevertheless, despite grain abundance, the 2018 State of Food
Insecurity report — by the Rome-based United Nations food
agencies led by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) —
reported rising chronic and severe hunger or undernourishment
involving more than 800 million.
Political, philanthropic and corporate leaders have promised to
help struggling African and other countries grow more food, by
offering to improve farming practices. New seed and other
technologies would modernize those left behind.
But producing more food, by itself, does not enable the hungry
to eat. Thus, agribusiness and its philanthropic promoters are
often the problem, not the solution, in feeding the world.
Eating Tomorrow addresses related questions such as: Why
doesn’t rising global food production feed the hungry? How can we
“feed the world” of rising populations and unsustainable
pressure on land, water and other natural resources that farmers
need to grow food?
Family farmers lack power
Drawing on five years of extensive fieldwork in Southern Africa,
Mexico, India and the US Mid-West, Wise concludes that the problem
is essentially one of power. He shows how powerful business
interests influence government food and agricultural policies to
favour large farms.
This is typically at the expense of ‘family’ farmers, who
grow most of the world’s food, but also involves putting
consumers and others at risk, e.g., due to agrochemical use. His
many examples not only detail and explain the many problems
small-scale farmers face, but also their typically constructive
responses despite lack of support, if not worse, from most
following the 1993 North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) agreement
swamped the country with cheap, subsidized US maize and pork,
accelerating migration from the countryside. Apparently, this was
actively encouraged by transnational pork producers employing
‘undocumented’ and un-unionised Mexican workers willing to
accept low wages and poor working conditions.
• In Malawi, large government subsidies encouraged farmers to buy
commercial fertilizers and seeds from US agribusinesses such as now
Bayer-owned Monsanto, but to little effect, as their productivity
and food security stagnated or even deteriorated. Meanwhile,
Monsanto took over the government seed company, favouring its own
patented seeds at the expense of productive local varieties, while
a former senior Monsanto official co-authored the national seed
policy that threatens to criminalize farmers who save, exchange and
sell seeds instead!
• In Zambia, greater use of seeds and fertilizers from
agribusiness tripled maize production without reducing the
country’s very high rates of poverty and malnutrition. Meanwhile,
as the government provides 250,000-acre ‘farm blocks’ to
foreign investors, family farmers struggle for title to farm
• In Mozambique too, the government gives away vast tracts of
farm land to foreign investors. Meanwhile, women-led cooperatives
successfully run their own native maize seed banks.
• Meanwhile, Iowa promotes vast monocultures of maize and soybean
to feed hogs and bioethanol rather than ‘feed the world’.
• A large Mexican farmer cooperative launched an
‘agro-ecological revolution’, while the old government kept
trying to legalize Monsanto’s controversial genetically modified
maize. Farmers have thus far halted the Monsanto plan, arguing that
GM corn threatens the rich diversity of native Mexican
Much of the research for the book was done in 2014-15, when
Obama was US president, although the narrative begins with
developments and policies following the 2008 food price crisis,
during Bush’s last year in the White House. The book tells a
story of US big business’ influence on policies enabling more
aggressive transnational expansion.
Yet, Wise remains optimistic, emphasizing that the world can
feed the hungry, many of whom are family farmers. Despite the
challenges they face, many family farmers are finding innovative
and effective ways to grow more and better food. He advocates
support for farmers’ efforts to improve their soil, output and
Hungry farmers are nourishing their life-giving soils using more
ecologically sound practices to plant a diversity of native crops,
instead of using costly chemicals for export-oriented monocultures.
According to Wise, they are growing more and better food, and are
capable of feeding the hungry.
Unfortunately, most national governments and international
institutions still favour large-scale, high-input, industrial
agriculture, neglecting more sustainable solutions offered by
family farmers, and the need to improve the wellbeing of poor
Undoubtedly, many new agricultural techniques offer the prospect
of improving the welfare of farmers, not only by increasing
productivity and output, but also by limiting costs, using scarce
resources more effectively, and reducing the drudgery of farm
But the world must recognize that farming may no longer be
viable for many who face land, water and other resource
constraints, unless they get better access to such resources.
Meanwhile, malnutrition of various types affects well over two
billion people in the world, and industrial agriculture contributes
about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Going forward, it will be important to ensure affordable,
healthy and nutritious food supplies for all, mindful not only of
food and water safety, but also of various pollution threats. A
related challenge will be to enhance dietary diversity affordably
to overcome micronutrient deficiencies and diet-related
non-communicable diseases for all.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics
professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for
Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for
Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.
Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Agribusiness Is the Problem, Not the Solution