Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Feeding People is Easy

We're big fans here at Natural Messiah of the work of Colin Tudge.  Tudge puts a lot of thought in to agriculture; from the culture, science, biology and ecology that underpins it, to the commercial and health/nutritional drivers that so influences the form of what is harvested out in the fields by the time it ends up on our plate. 

In Feeding People is Easy, Tudge launches a polemic at the current state of world agriculture and makes a case for 'New Agrarianism'.

He tackles modern capitalism and the mendacious behaviour of global capitalists who bind the hand of Adam Smith, and compel farmers in a cut-throat race to the bottom of longer hours and lower pay in a bid to undercut one another,
  • "It is good to grow a big crop, to be sure.  But there is no point in this if the crop cannot be sold.  If everyone achieves high yields there is a glut.  The market is flooded.  The price falls.  We have seen the truth and the disaster of this in the world's coffee market these past few decades.  People worldwide have been drinking coffee at least since the seventeenth century but recently it has become even more wildly popular.  Traders operating on the global scale have wanted more and more.  Spurred by the modern vogue for global competition they have encouraged farmers to grow more and more of it - not simply the traditional coffee growers in Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Kenya and so on but in places that a few years ago had hardly heard of coffee, such as Vietnam and East Timor.  Fair enough, you might think.  Except that too much has been produced.  Between the 1980s and 1990s the price of coffee on the global market fell seven-fold.  I have seen entire plantations of coffee on Brazilian hillsides abandoned, dying in the sun, because the farmers knew that it would cost more to harvest the crop (let alone to grow it in the first place) than they would get for in on the world market.

    Zealots for global free trade driven by maximum competition see to see nothing wrong with this.  If a Brazilian farmer goes bust because a Vietnamese farmer can grow the crop more cheaply - well: that's life.  'The consumer', we are told, benefits from the new cheap price - although of course that is not true: coffee on the high street becomes more and more expensive.  It's the traders who benefit; the corporates who organise the global market and the governments who are supported by corporate wealth."
Tudge goes to to make several points I've made on this blog before,
  • "...Cut price agriculture is extremely dangerous....cheap farming is simplified farming - the biggest possible fields with the biggest possible machines to achieve economy of scale; single kinds of crops grown horizon to horizon  - large scale monoculture -  so that all can be harvested together, with one sweep of the combine.  Hedges, copses, and islands of higher ground among the paddy fields for horticulture, are swept aside.  Biodiversity is lost and so too is the essential nutritional variety.  In addition, because the vast crops are uniform, all are vulnerable to the same diseases.  One particular virulent strain of one pathogen could wipe out the whole lot."
The banana is currently in a battle for its economic life from just such a pathogen which is a Darwinian weakness built in to modern agriculture,
  • "...monocultures are extremely vunerable.  All the individual plants are susceptible to the same strains of disease and an infection that can attack any one of them is potentially able to wipe out the whole lot.  So the crops meed or are perceived to need extra quantities of herbicide, fungicide, and pesticide; and since labour is cut to the bonethere is not itme to assess the crops to see if particular pests are in practice causing problems and so the toxic brew must be applied prophylactically, in anticipation of possible outbreak, just by following the manufacturers instructions.  Proper farmers call this 'farming by numbers'.  Agriculture becomes an exercise in industrial chemistry, abetted increasingly by genetic engineering to make crops that are better able to withstand the chemical assaults.  Meanwhile the copses and hedges that wildlife need and the patches of horticulture which in the Third World in partiuclar people depend upon both for gastronomic variety and for micronutrients, are rooted out.  They get in the way of the machines.  The land is deemed too valuable to waste on human communities and ways of life, or on the survival of wildlife."
Perhaps most poigniant is his pithy observation of the consequence of industrial monocultural excess on nutrition.  The outcome is extinctions and nutritional deficiencies,
  • "Among the most conspicuous these days is hypovitaminosis A - lack of vitamin A, leading to 'dry eye', alias xerophthalmia, which the WHO says is currently causing blindness in 40 million children worldwide.  vitamin A (or at least the precursor of it), is carotene, the yellow pigment in plants.  Carotene is an extremely common molecule.  It occurs in quantity in dark green leaves such as spinach, in yellow roots such as carrots, and in yellow fruits such as papaya and mango, which grow like weeks throughout the tropics, given half a chance.  The sensible long-term antidote to xerophthalmia is to restore the horticulture tha has been swept aside by industrial monoculture.  Instead the genetic engineering industry has produced 'golden rice' - rice that contains carotene genes - to ameliorate (at least up to a point) the effects of its own monoculture excesses.  Thus it compounds its own nonsense."
Reading around the web there does seem to be much more to the politics of Golden Rice than addressing hypovitaminosis A.

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