World agriculture appears to be approaching a crossroads. The globalized economy has placed a series of conflicting demands on the 1.5 billion hectares of croplands.
Not only is this land required to produce food for a growing human population, but also it must meet the increased demands for biofuels, and it must do so in an environmentally sound way preserving biodiversity and reducing greenhouse emissions while still representing a profitable activity to millions of farmers.
These pressures are setting in motion a crisis of the global food system of un-precedented scope already signaled by food riots in many parts of the world.
This crisis, which threatens the livelihoods of millions more than the already 800 million hungry people, is the direct result of the dominating industrial farming model, which is not only dangerously dependent on fossil fuels but which has also become the largest source of human impact on the biosphere.
In fact, there are now so many pressures on dwindling arable ecosystems that farming is overwhelming nature’s capacity to meet humankind’s food, fiber and energy needs.
The tragedy is that agriculture depends on the very ecological services (water cycles, pollinators, fertile soil formation, benevolent local weather, etc.) that intensive farming continually degrades or pushes beyond their limits.
Before the end of the first decade of the 21st century, humanity is quickly realizing that the fossil fuel-based, capital intensive western industrial agricultural model is not working to meet the food demands of various countries. Soaring oil prices will inevitably increase production costs and food prices, which have escalated to the point that today one dollar purchases 30 percent less food than a dollar did a year ago.
This situation is rapidly being aggravated by farmland being turned from food production to biofuels, and by climate change, which already reduces crop yields via droughts, floods and other unpredictable weather events.
Expanding land areas devoted to biofuels and transgenic crops will further exacerbate the ecological impacts of vast monocultures that continually override nature’s services.
Moreover, industrial agriculture presently contributes at least one-quarter of current greenhouse gas emissions, mainly methane and nitrous oxide. Continuing this dominant degrading system, as promoted by the current neoliberal economic paradigm, is no longer a viable option.
The immediate challenge for our generation is to transform industrial agriculture by transitioning the world’s food systems away from reliance on fossil fuels. We need an alternative agricultural development paradigm, one that encourages more ecologically biodiverse, sustainable and socially just forms of agriculture. Reshaping the entire agricultural policy and food system in ways that are environmentally sound and economically viable for farmers and consumers will require major changes in the political and economic forces that currently determine what is being produced, by whom and for whom.
Out-of-control trade liberalization is the key mechanism driving farmers off their land and the principal obstacle to local economic development and food security. Only by challenging the control that big multinational corporations exert over the food system and changing the export-led and free-trade-based agriculture model can the downward spiral of poverty, low wages, rural-urban migration, hunger and environmental degradation be halted.
The concept of food sovereignty, as promoted by the world’s movement of small farmers, Via Campesina, constitutes the only viable alternative to the current and collapsing global food system, which failed in its assumption that international trade was the key to solving the world’s food problem.
Instead, food sovereignty focuses on closed local circuits of production and consumption and community action for access to land, water, agrobiodiversity, etc., which are of central importance for communities to control in order to be able to produce food locally with agro-ecological methods.
There is no doubt that an alliance between farmers and consumers is of strategic importance. In addition to moving down the food chain, that is eating less animal protein, consumers need to realize that their quality of life is intractably associated with the type of agriculture practiced in neighboring rural areas, not only because of the quality of the food produced, but also because agriculture is multifunctional, producing a series of environmental services such as sustaining water quality and biodiversity conservation.
But this multifunctionality can only emerge if agricultural landscapes are dotted by small, diversified farms, which studies show can produce from two to 10 times more per unit area than do larger, corporate farms.
In the U.S. the top quarter of sustainable-agriculture farmers, which are mostly small to medium size, exhibit higher yields than conventional farmers, and exert a much lower negative impact on the environment, reducing soil erosion and conserving biodiversity.
Communities surrounded by populous small farms experience fewer social problems and have healthier economies than do communities surrounded by depopulated large, monoculture, mechanized farms.
Thus it should be obvious to city dwellers that eating is both an ecological and political act; that buying food at local farmers markets will support the type of beyond-peak-oil agriculture that is urgently needed, while buying food in supermarkets perpetuates an unsustainable agricultural path.
The scale and urgency of the challenge we face has no precedent but what needs to be done is environmentally, economically and politically feasible The speed with which changes must be implemented is great, but it is doubtful that we can gather the political will to radically transform our food system before hunger and food insecurity reach planetary and irreversible levels.
Miguel Altieri is a professor at UC Berkeley