by Mark Bittman
nyt, via David
If we want to ensure that poor people eat and also do a better job than “modern” farming does at preserving the earth’s health and productivity, we must stop assuming that the industrial model of food production and its accompanying disease-producing diet is both inevitable and desirable. I have dozens of friends and colleagues who say things like, “I hate industrial ag, but how will we feed the poor?”
Let’s at last recognize that there are two food systems, one industrial and one of small landholders, or peasants if you prefer. The peasant system is not only here for good, it’s arguably more efficient than the industrial model. According to the ETC Group, a research and advocacy organization based in Ottawa, the industrial food chain uses 70 percent of agricultural resources to provide 30 percent of the world’s food, whereas what ETC calls “the peasant food web” produces the remaining 70 percent using only 30 percent of the resources.
Yes, it is true that high-yielding varieties of any major commercial monoculture crop will produce more per acre than peasant-bred varieties of the same crop. But by diversifying crops, mixing plants and animals, planting trees — which provide not only fruit but shelter for birds, shade, fertility through nutrient recycling, and more — small landholders can produce more food (and more kinds of food) with fewer resources and lower transportation costs (which means a lower carbon footprint), while providing greater food security, maintaining greater biodiversity, and even better withstanding the effects of climate change. (Not only that: their techniques have been demonstrated to be effective on larger-scale farms, even in the Corn Belt of the United States.) And all of this without the level of subsidies and other support that industrial agriculture has received in the last half-century, and despite the efforts of Big Ag to become even more dominant.
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This isn’t about “organic” versus “modern.” It’s about supporting the system in which small producers make decisions based on their knowledge and experience of their farms in the landscape, as opposed to buying standardized technological fixes in a bag. Some people call this knowledge-based rather than energy-based agriculture, but obviously it takes plenty of energy; as it happens, much of that energy is human, which can be a good thing. Frances Moore Lappé, author of “Diet for a Small Planet,” calls it “relational,” and says, “Agroecology is not just healthy sustainable food production but the seed of a different way of relating to one another, and to the earth.”