Food Fight: An Oxford-style debate on sustainable farming
What does “sustainable agriculture” truly mean—and what should it look like?
- M. Jahi Chappell, ecologist and post-doctoral researcher
- Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science
- Introduction: Two experts debate the causes of hunger and the meaning of “sustainable agriculture.”
- Round 1: Opening statements in the food debate.
- Both Sides Now [pdf]: Fallacies in the Genetic-Modification Wars, Implications for Developing Countries, and Anthropological Perspectives. By Glenn Davis Stone.
Greetings, reader, and welcome to the Rebuttals Round of the Food Debate, in which our experts each respond to one another’s opening statements. As you’ll likely recall, when we left the conversation, Dr. Chappell presented a two part-motion: 1) poverty and access to food are more directly related to hunger than food production. 2) Therefore, agroecological methods of farming, even if somewhat lower-yielding, are the more sustainable approach to long-term food security. Paarlberg mounted a strong defense for the Green Revolution, arguing that advocating for agroecological—and especially its strictest form, organic—farming in the developing world is foolhardy. First world elite tastes, he argued, should not confine African farmers to 19th century labor.
Now we reach the rebuttal stage, where the arguments on either side have heated up. Paarlberg, as you’ll see, is clearly miffed by Chappell’s use of data indicating that malnutrition has little correlation with food production: “[Lisa] Smith herself never drew this inference from the work…for good reason.” He goes on to offer India and China as near irrefutable evidence for success of Green Revolution farming—a revolution that bypassed Africa, with self-evident results. For his part, Chappell appears equally frustrated with Paarlberg, in particular his opening-statement-avowal that India overcame its hunger problem. “His statement that the rural poverty rate has decreased from 60 to 27 percent is very controversial within scientific circles,” he writes, citing an economist who puts the Indian poverty rate today closer to 70 percent. While acknowledging that this figure, too, remains hotly contested, he underscores the an important point: getting the facts straight about the impact of Green Revolution on India is critical if we are going use it as a model for African development.
Much of what Paarlberg argues is undeniable: Yes, Asia had a Green Revolution while Africa did not. Yes, the majority of Africans are farmers. And yes, on a per capita basis maize production actually fell in Africa by 14 percent between 1980 and 2006. But given that Chappell’s central argument, in the opening round, hinged on food availability not being the premier cause of hunger, we had hoped to see Paarlberg challenge that argument in an African context. Instead, he offers it as matter-of-fact: “This lack of agricultural productivity is what has kept Africans poor, and hence hungry.” He also criticizes his opponent for constructing a list of Five A’s for food security, but leaving out “the first and most obvious A of all: Agriculture.” We find it worth pointing out that Chappell never claimed to have constructed the “Five A’s”—he attributed that framework to Cecilia Rocha. And we are quite certain that the first “A,” availability, refers to the sufficiency of a food supply to meet people’s need, encompassing both internal food production (i.e., agriculture) and external food aid.
Chappell’s arguments, too, have both strengths and weaknesses. India’s Green Revolution history is an instructive one, but he might have acknowledged that the Asian model needn’t be imported to Africa whole cloth. We recognize that biotechnology without dramatic reforms to infrastructure, grain-marketing systems, subsidies, and food security policies will not go far—much like solar panels, hybrid cars, and CFLs will have little effect without an economy-wide carbon price. Yet biotechnology, particularly if developed in the public sector, could bring substantial benefits to smallholding farmers. Virus-resistant cassava, drought-tolerant wheat, and stress-tolerant rice, chickpea, and pearl millet are among the many varieties of crops in incubation at not-for-profit agricultural research institutions around the world. To be skeptical of biotechnology’s prospects for boosting nutrition and alleviating poverty and is not unreasonable, given its track record to date, but to us, an indiscriminate dismissal would (forgive us), be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
We find Chappell’s supporting claims for agroecology compelling. Rather than further wrestle with what he calls Paarlberg’s “Russian Dolls of food security theory,” we hope that in his closing statement, he responds to some of the environmental challenges that Paarlberg raised in his opening statement, namely the land- and labor requirements of organic farming.
But that is merely our take—We would like to hear from you: Who presents the more convincing argument? How does your experience—as a farmer, a scientist, or simply as a human who eats—inform your views of sustainable farming? Read on, and then send us your thoughtful commentary: by email here, or via Twitter @seedmag. Please use the hashtag #seeddebate.
No Country Actually Embraces Organic Farming—Why?
Robert Paarlberg is a political scientist at Wellesley College and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. His principal research interests are in international agriculture and biotechnology, and he is author of numerous books, including Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept out of Africa and Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.
The opening statement from Dr. Chappell was based largely on calculations from two quantitative studies. I welcome the chance to say a bit more about those studies.
Calculations were first cited from a study by Lisa Smith and colleagues, implying that increased food production in developing countries had done little to reduce the rate of child malnutrition. In fact, Smith herself never drew this inference from the work, and for good reason since her study did not even include a food production variable. One part of the study did consider “food availability at the national level” as a variable, but this included imports and food aid so it cannot serve as a proxy for food production or agricultural productivity. The key driver for hunger reduction in poor agricultural societies is productivity growth on the farm, not food on the market supplied by foreign producers. Invoking the Smith study was misleading in another respect as well, because Smith arbitrarily excluded income growth (a basic variable which she found elsewhere to be vitally important) from the pie chart of only four so-called “underlying” variables that generated high influence numbers for women’s education and status. Since this pie chart excluded both agricultural productivity and income growth, it can’t be used to draw comprehensive inferences. The inappropriate use of Smith’s so-called underlying variables becomes particularly obvious with the claim that 99 percent of all decreases in child malnutrition in Africa were linked to improvements in women’s education and health. This is clearly nonsensical since in Africa the prevalence of child malnutrition was increasing rather than decreasing over the years covered by the Smith study. In a separate boxed comment, Smith links these deteriorating food circumstances in Africa, as I would, to worsening poverty.
Why were poverty and hunger increasing in Africa when they were in steep decline in Asia? Because Asia had a Green Revolution and Africa did not. In Africa, where 60 percent of all citizens are farmers, the productivity of agriculture was low so poverty remained high. Income remained at only $1 a day because farmers had no improved technologies and grain yields were only 20 percent the level in rich countries. On a per capita basis maize production actually fell in Africa by 14 percent between 1980 and 2006. This lack of agricultural productivity is what has kept Africans poor, and hence hungry. Dr. Chappell strains his arguments to deny the centrality of farm productivity, perhaps to facilitate his later endorsement of agricultural techniques that are not very productive. He even constructs a list of “Five A’s for food security” but then omits the first and most obvious A of all: Agriculture. Farming is fundamental to food security because it is the work that most poor and hungry people do all day. Until their work as farmers is made more productive, they will remain poor. And as long as they remain poor they will also suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Dr. Chappell also undervalues productive farming when he moves on to his second claim that “more than sufficient food to feed people in the Global South” could be produced without turning to green revolution methods, relying instead on minimal synthetic nitrogen or even on fully organic systems with zero synthetic nitrogen. He provides no example of an actual country embracing this strategy successfully – because there aren’t any. Instead he points to a 2007 meta-study by Badgley and others, which he helped to co-author.
Table 1 in this Badgley study, based on author calculations, claims that grain yields on organic farms in developing countries average 57 percent higher than yields on non-organic farms. Oh? This would come as a great surprise to the green revolution farmers in India and China who have boosted their grain yields not through organic farming but through nitrogen fertilizer use. Wheat farmers in India used fertilizer applications to increase their average yield per hectare four-fold between 1964 and 2008 (FAO data). It seems that the Badgley study derived its claim of a 57 percent yield advantage for organic not by comparing organic to Green Revolution farming, but by comparing organic to resource-poor subsistence farming, where no soil improvements have been made at all. Yet even here we must be suspicious, since much of the data comes from organic advocacy groups such as the Institute for Biodynamic Research, and because the organic yield data do not reveal the much higher labor costs required for organic productivity. Backyard vegetable gardeners in Europe and the United States may find the more demanding organic methods a labor of love, but the labor of impoverished farmers in the developing world (mostly women, in Africa) should not be treated so casually as a free good.
For reasons such as these, the Badgley study has been dismissed by mainstream crop scientists. One academic commentator writing in the same journal (Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems) said the Badgley study had been based on methods that “do not meet the minimum scientific requirements for comparing food production capacity in different crop production systems.” Goulding and Trewavas (from Rothamsted Research and the University of Edinburgh) summarize the shortcomings of the Badgley study: “There are many omitted references that indicate organic yields are substantially lower…There are calculation errors…There would be insufficient food for the world population provided by global organic farming.”
A final claim made for organic farming and for agroecology by Dr. Chappell is its avoidance of the “high energy costs” associated with green revolution or industrial farming. This again skips over the much higher labor and land use costs of organic, but it also exaggerates the energy costs of today’s conventional farmers. Energy use by conventional farmers in the industrial world has for some time now been declining on a per-bushel-of-production basis. Between 1990 and 2004 the total volume of agricultural production was increasing by more than 15 percent in the United States, but total direct farm energy use increased by only 2 percent, so the energy intensity of farming was in significant decline. Off-farm energy consumption was also coming under control, as fertilizer use per-bushel-of-production declined (thanks to more precise applications). Taking the OECD countries as a whole, excess nitrogen use in agriculture actually fell by 17 percent between 1990 and 2004, and total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in these same OECD countries declined by 3 percent. If only the non-farm part of the economy had been doing this well.
Many of those who criticize the energy dependence of modern farming haven’t looked at these most recent data, and have not visited a modern farm. Thanks to continued technology innovations (GIS mapping, GPS auto-steered tractors, drip irrigation, infrared sensors, laser-leveled fields, no-till seeding) agriculture in today’s advanced countries is evolving away from its energy-intense polluting past toward what is known as “precision farming,” where high productivity can be joined with greater sustainability. If we reject modern science in favor of organic approaches, or agroecology-only approaches, both productivity and sustainability will be compromised.
Let’s Examine the Indian “Success Story”
Ecologist M. Jahi Chappell is currently a postdoctoral associate and provost’s academic diversity fellow in science & technology studies at Cornell University. His research focuses on examining the effects of and interplay between food security policy, biodiversity, and sustainability in mixed agricultural and natural landscapes. Starting in July 2010, he will be assistant professor of environmental science and justice at Washington State University-Vancouver.
In his opening piece, Dr. Paarlberg nimbly pivots from agreeing that hunger is rooted in poverty and not a shortage of food to the position that a majority of hunger really is rooted in (locally) inadequate food production. He doesn’t, as far as I can see, cite any given source or authority, apparently viewing it as self-apparent. The hard thing is that he’s not entirely wrong in this—he’s not entirely wrong in most of his remarks—but he subsequently comes to larger conclusions that end up being wrong in rather contorted ways. In what follows, I will try to unravel them.
His basic premises seem to be as follows:
1) Hunger comes from inadequate food production—not because insufficient food is produced to feed people but because
2) Most hungry and poor people are farmers, so
3) Increasing their levels of agricultural production will increase income, decrease poverty and
4) Therefore decrease hunger.
Each of these premises is correct as far as they go, but on inspection, they don’t go very far. It’s a sort of perverse Russian Doll of food security theory, with each layer containing a smaller and smaller total portion of the truth until you get to something rather unrecognizable. Perhaps the easiest thing to do in the space here would be to examine this concretely in the context of one of his examples of a country that overcame “their own monumental hunger problems”: India.
His use of India’s example seems to be a bit of sleight-of-hand, inadvertently or purposefully. To wit: the Green Revolution “ended [India’s] struggle with famine and cut the rural poverty rate.” Astute readers will notice that nowhere in his piece does he say that India has ended hunger—because saying such a thing would be a significant error. Today, India alone has more hungry people than all of Sub-Saharan Africa (and indeed, more than the entire African continent). The severity of the hunger suffered, as I said in my previous piece, tends to be higher in Africa. But the conclusion that 250 million malnourished (India’s total) are in fact, more numerous than 212 million malnourished people (all of Sub-Saharan Africa) is unavoidable, as far as I can see. South Asia as a whole has 336 million malnourished, and “despite increases in income and remarkable improvements in child malnutrition, the region still has the highest prevalence of underweight children in the world”—higher even than in poorer Sub-Saharan Africa (my emphasis). About half of child deaths in South Asia are tied to malnutrition, and child malnutrition may be responsible for 22 percent of India’s burden of disease. India has been called “an economic powerhouse and a nutritional weakling.” His statement that the rural poverty rate has decreased from 60 to 27 percent is very controversial within scientific circles. Indian economist Utsa Patnaik argues that the poverty line used by Indian officials (and here by Paarlberg) is improperly calculated, essentially defining poverty lower and lower, such that a person at the poverty line today has access to 400 calories less than a person in the same position in 1973 (1800 vs. 2200 kcal/day). Her adjustments to the data imply that today’s level of rural poverty in India is around 70% if one applies the 2200 kcal/day standard. Although there’s a pretty vigorous debate around Patnaik’s analysis, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)’s massive work “The Poorest and the Hungry” partially concurs on the mismatch between official (monetary) poverty and nutrition poverty, noting that a 2003 study reported that only around half of Indians who were identified as nutrition-poor also counted as monetarily poor (that is, half of all food-insecure Indians were above the official poverty line).
The fact that his premises and conclusions are incredibly scientifically contentious doesn’t appear to have made it into his piece. This is important, because if we are going to use India as a model and from that model project policy for Africa, we should have a model that that aligns with the facts.
All this is rather bothersome to point out (though hopefully, less so to read), because I want to reiterate that these ideas aren’t altogether wrong. However, as presented they do represent a hodgepodge of ideas presented with much more certainty than is warranted. Let me belabor this a moment more—Patnaik’s conclusions on the actual increase in rural poverty, for example, are not universally accepted, and one can quickly trot down a rabbithole of critiques and counter-critiques there. Similarly, the role of the Green Revolution (GR) in improving small farmers’ lives is deeply contested; “At best,” Patel et al. wrote last year, “it was an ambiguous success.” (Scholar-activist-academic Patel, an Oxford, London School of Economics, and Cornell University graduate, briefly commented on food issues in Seed last year.) In a detailed empirical and theoretical analysis, University of Dundee geographer Raju Das concluded “there seems to be no association between the GR and the important issue of poverty-reduction.” It is not my intent to claim Das’ analysis as the ultimately correct one—as with the above issues, the scientific conversation here can be fractious and high-volume, and good science dictates that we acknowledge, and even-handedly discuss the conflicting propositions to the best of our abilities, even if we favor one set of propositions over the others. Presuming all science that disagrees with you is incorrectly done is common, but not necessarily helpful. This is expressly the problem with Paarlberg’s arguments: he repeatedly takes contentious or equivocal points being actively debated in the scientific literature, and asserts that the evidence supports his point of view—it appears that any split decision goes to the Wellesley Blue.
Quickly reviewing his conclusions about organic production, they rest on equally questionable ground. It’s true that much low-input African agriculture is effectively low- or no-synthetic input because, as he’s pointed out, many African farmers are too poor or isolated to improve their practices. The poor “organic” African farmers who are using some of the agroecological techniques Paarlberg mentions, but who lack support for education, market access, and organic inputs (which may range from manure to pest predators to the newest locally-adapted crop varieties and more) have an exact corollary in Africa: their counterparts who are using an average of 9 kg of fertilizer per hectare (compared to the gratuitous average of 117 kg per hectare in industrialized countries). They’re using fertilizers, right? Some of them may even use elements of other Green Revolution practices. Clearly, because farmers who use 9 kg of fertilizer per hectare aren’t doing well, fertilizers don’t work.
This is transparently silly. We know fertilizers certainly can work to increase yields (whether it’s always a sustainable or wise way to do so is a different question). Similarly, we know organic methods—the modern, scientific, vibrant expanding and changing body of knowledge that is organic agriculture—can work to increase yields. Paarlberg’s consistent argument that bad results from low-intensity poorly supported “organic” agriculture disproves all organic agriculture is just as silly as the the 9 kg-synthethic-N-per-hectare-industrial farmer. For example, if you search for articles on organic agriculture and agroecology on the scholarly database ISI, as of this morning it will return 13,509 articles. You will find over 50 university programs, departments, and academic centers and over 350 organizations around the world focusing on agroecology, sustainable, or organic agriculture. I also happen to personally know a number of agroecologists; I can assure you that these articles, centers, and people are not advising farmers to put some seeds in the ground, maybe add a companion crop, stir vigorously, and wait. (Nor do they come upon struggling, marginalized low-input farmers and say “Doing good! Keep it up!”) The reason all this stuff is out there is because organic agriculture, even the strictest-no-synthetic-input-ever form of it, is not as easy or simple, nor defined only by using low or no synthetic inputs, as Paarlberg implies. Once you realize that, the possibility of intensive, productive organic agriculture becomes clearly more realistic.
In closing, let’s turn briefly to a point of agreement between Dr. Paarlberg and myself—I absolutely agree that we need to support small farmers, in Africa and elsewhere, and indeed helping them be more productive will be a vital part of this. But his critiques of organic agriculture in this regard are misguided. Paraphrasing a message to the “COMFOOD” listserve by Dr. Richard Wilk, director of food studies at Indiana University:
“Paarlberg is right that better infrastructure—particularly roads, electricity and water systems—are urgently needed in poor rural areas. But then turning around and blaming this lack on organic supporters, rather than structural adjustment programs, corruption at all levels of government (including bilateral aid agreements), and the influence of those who think that bioengineered seeds will just themselves solve problems of hunger—this is not an honest approach.”
(I guess that agreement didn’t last long.) That is to say, there are many and complex contributing causes to, say, the poverty of rural African farmers and widespread food insecurity. Choose any one of a number of major reports by international authorities on the issue, and you will find poverty, remoteness, gender, ethnic, political and religious discrimination, education, land tenure, governmental stance on redistribution, and quite certainly, food production are important factors. If you spend an afternoon looking around, actually, you’ll find that different factors are important in different places—and you’ll find that the contention that inadequate production is the chief or root problem of hunger in the majority of cases is not supported. It is, to paraphrase Amartya Sen, “but one of many possible causes.” We do a disservice to those we hope to work with and help when we ignore all of these complexities and push simply for our vision of what they need—be that biotech, strict organic, higher exports or more localized economies. We must work with them, with the humility of talking to a co-equal human being, and negotiate solutions based on the many different local needs and wants. We have seen the results of the opposite approach—250 million malnourished in green revolutionized-India, and 45 million food insecure people in the United States, where farmers suffer from a number of dilemmas, but inadequate production is not, in any straightforward way, one of them.
Originally published May 14, 2010