How to Feed the World

Put the focus on small-scale farmers using eco-friendly agriculture, argues a new book by a Tufts researcher
Timothy Wise at a farm in Malawi
“Hunger in the world is not a problem of scarcity of food, it’s a problem of scarcity of power,” said Timothy A. Wise, here at an agro-ecology project in central Malawi. Photo: Mangani Katundu
February 25, 2019

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As the population in developing countries grows, the need for increased agricultural productivity there becomes more urgent. The standard answer is to follow the agricultural “green revolution” example—create large-scale farms using commercially bred seeds and industrially produced fertilizer.

But when Timothy A. Wise, AG05, traveled the world looking to see how that model is working on the ground, he saw that it was failing. On farms from Mozambique and Mexico to Zambia and even Iowa, large-scale agriculture focused on single crops like corn is leading to ecological harm, while small-scale farming focused on land-friendly practices is creating resiliency and increasing agricultural productivity and food security.

In his new book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (The New Press), Wise, a senior research fellow at Tufts’ Global Development and Environment Institute, details what he found in his travels.

Wise, who is also a senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute, where he directs the Land and Food Rights Program, spoke recently with Tufts Now about alternatives to agribusiness and his hope for the future of small-scale farmers in the developing world.

Tufts Now: You say in the book that small-scale farmers produce 70 percent of developing countries’ food—and yet the trend in those countries is to focus on big agriculture, not small-scale farmers.

Timothey A. Wise: It varies country to country, but what I’ve found is that the bias in government policy and donor funding—from countries like the U.S. and foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—is to mostly see small-scale farmers as inevitably unproductive and inefficient. Their goal in promoting larger-scale agriculture is to really push farmers off the land and out of agriculture, and into roles more like farmworkers.

One of the central points I raise in the book is that the most valuable way to reduce hunger in the developing world be to invest in the small-scale producers, so that they could grow more food for themselves and their nations—and to do so in a way that nourishes the planet through ecological agriculture, rather than damaging the planet through industrial models of agriculture.

You visited many small-scale farmers in southern Africa—how were they faring?

Here’s an example. There’s an inspiring group near the town of Marracuene in Mozambique, not too far from the capital city of Maputo. They include 7,000 mostly women farmers grouped in nineteen farmers associations, with access to some irrigation. They adopted an ecological agriculture model, use their own seeds, and save their own seeds. When I visited, they had withstood some of the worst climate impacts—temperatures of 100 degrees one summer, another up to 110. They had droughts in those years, so bad one year that the river that fed the irrigation system dried up and salt water from the Indian Ocean four miles downstream flowed back up the riverbed and into their fields, poisoning them.

But when I asked if they were in crisis, they were completely calm, because ecological agriculture involves deep care of the soil through a mixture of crops. It’s climate insurance, because if the drought or pests come and kill off the maize—they have other crops. They told me, if we get another two years this bad, we’ll be in trouble, but right now, we’re OK.

If farmers were focused on single crops, like maize, would they have been as resilient?

I saw those farms, too—small-scale maize farmers following the lead of the government, getting subsidies for chemical fertilizers, and a pest that attacks maize—the fall army worm—came, and coupled with the drought, the farmers lost everything, and basically went on the government dole.

In many of these countries, governments have taken land and sold it to foreigners to create large industrial agricultural enterprises. What’s been the result of that?

In its best light, the argument that governments gave me is that it’s a fast track to modern agriculture. These governments have very little money to invest in agricultural development, so they carve out large tracts of land to lease on long-term ninety-nine-year leases to foreigners to grow whatever they want. They are essentially putting their land up for sale, and hope that the company that leases the land will generate food and jobs, and stimulate agricultural development. I did not see that result hardly anywhere.

In fact, it displaces more people than it creates jobs. To begin with, it’s not unutilized or underutilized land, as they usually say it is. People get displaced and they really have nowhere to go.

The net effect on food security is clearly negative. Most of these projects are not growing food or they are not growing it for the domestic market—they are growing it for export. So there is almost no evidence that this is a path to food security.

You talk about agribusiness—companies like Monsanto and Cargill—and its stranglehold on agriculture. I can see that in the U.S., but how does that work in the developing world?

It’s a matter of economic power creating political influence. Monsanto, for example, is not just a GMO seed company, they market a wide range of products, and are still the largest provider of so-called hybrid corn seeds, which can’t be planted year after year; farmers need to buy new seeds each year.

Here’s a story I tell in the book. When the government in Malawi went through a financial crisis in the 1990s, they were advised by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to sell off assets for cash to pay down their debts. One of the assets they sold was the national seed company of Malawi, which produced seeds for distribution to small-scale farmers, including some very productive seeds produced by Malawian crop breeders. Monsanto bought the company and promptly shelved the seeds that they didn’t own a patent on. They discontinued production of a highly popular local corn variety, not because it was unproductive, but precisely because it was productive.

That’s one really clear example of how large-scale corporations with some level of monopoly power can control markets to their benefit, but in ways that do not benefit their host countries.

Governments in countries like Malawi often subsidize the use of commercial seeds and fertilizer and other industrial inputs, but do farmers benefit? And how about consumers?

Government subsidies are passing through farmers and creating markets for fertilizers and commercial seeds—so those corporations are benefiting, not the farmers who get those inputs.

In a place like Malawi, you could argue that some urban consumers have benefited from an increase in maize production from these sorts of policies, which has held down maize prices in cities. That’s one positive social impact of those policies, but it’s done in a way that’s so unsustainable and at the expense of small-scale farmers. It is contributing to the collapse of soil stability there.

Just ten years into the “African green revolution,” with its emphasis on expensive inputs, you’re seeing a yield plateau, where more and more fertilizer is needed to get the same yield, because soil fertility is slowly deteriorating with that monoculture-fertilizer regimen.

Is there hope that governments might turn to small-scale farmers, seeing them as a way to promote productivity?

At the end of the book, I’m hopeful—I call it a perverse optimism. That’s because the policies promoting large-scale agriculture are failing—and that failure itself is creating seeds of a new way of doing things. Plus, small-scale farmers are not waiting—they are already adopting positive ecological practices, which make them more productive.

That’s important because large-scale agriculture, with its heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer, is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. And when fertilizer is overapplied to land, it runs off and contributes to water pollution.

The alternative is to focus on less chemical intensive agriculture, and more soil restorative or regenerative agriculture. That can take a whole lot of different forms, and all can be really positive. And that reduces greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and rejuvenates the soil, which then retains water more efficiently, creating a virtuous cycle.

Timothy A. Wise will speak about his book Eating Tomorrow on March 5, from 5 to 7 p.m., at Cabot 701 and 702, The Fletcher School, 160 Packard Ave, Medford. He will be joined by Frances Moore Lappé, renowned author of Diet for a Small Planet, Food First, and many other books.

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