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On "How to Feed the World"

On "How to Feed the World"

Posted by Patrick Coonan on 25 Oct 2013

Some of you might be interested in this article from New York Times columnist, Mark Bittman - "How to Feed the World." Bittman argues that we need to embrace small-holder farming as part of the solution to food sustainability rather than accept the solitary focus of "Big Ag" on increasing the supply of food commodities.

At one point, Bittman writes that "not all poor people feed themselves well, because they lack the essentials: land, water, energy and nutrients." He doesn't seem to be going very deep into a number of factors that impact nutritional outcomes among this population, like the availability of, access to and utilization of nutritious foods at the community and household levels. And he seems to gloss over the importance of cash crop production for many small holder farmers in generating income that can be used to purchase nutritious foods. Still, the article is a good read and makes a compelling case for tackling other important considerations in the struggle to "feed the world" besides the idea of boosting supply.

And I love this quote from Raj Patel: "The playing field has been tilted against peasants for centuries, and they've still managed to feed more people than industrial agriculture."

Did anyone else have any thoughts on the article?

- Patrick

Thoughts on NYT article, How to Feed the World

Posted by ReidH on 28 Oct 2013

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for sharing this article; I had missed it. I think Bittman makes a lot of solid points about overnutrition, waste, and the inefficiencies and environmental degradation associated with an increasingly animal product-based diet. However, it also smacks a bit of cultural relativism to me. Regardless of the environmental advantage and hypothetically more equitable access to nutritious foods, it is not preferable for most poor people to be subsistence farmers. It is backbreaking labor associated with a great deal of risk with negligible profit margins. As you note, the reliance on cash crops is important to purchase not only complementary food inputs but also other household needs, including health and education investments. To that end, it doesn't really matter if income generating activities are within agriculture or involve diversification out of it. It's a false dichotomy to suggest that the rural poor can either be supported to grow all their own food or forced out of ag. to work in urban slums (plus there are both push and pull factors at play here). He doesn't consider where poorest segments of society, and particularly the landless (which he acknowledges many are), have a real comparative advantage, and ultimately this should be about having a broader choice set.

Similarly, I find there is an implicit suggestion that we should dismiss big ag. and focus energies elsewhere rather than thinking more about how current systems may be better regulated and adapted to promote more equitable growth and distribution.

I welcome thoughts from other members of the group.


On "How to Feed the World"

Posted by ECarlberg on 1 Nov 2013

Thanks for posting the article, Patrick!

This is an interesting article. There are a lot of statements and generalizations that I do not agree with in his logic. First of all, I think this article needs to be broken into a 4-5 (or 10!) articles in a series on "How to Feed the World". He brings up way to many issues (subsidies, governance rule, environmental impact, urbanization, behavioral choices, livestock management, etc.) to be addressed in a single op-ed. Each topic is poorly linked to his overarching position against big agriculture. Second, the article has a hatred for big agriculture and blames big ag incorrectly for a lot of issues. While I agree that more resources should be directed at small ag, I do not think that big ag is the big bad wolf that this article makes it out to be.

Therefore, my opinion is that we should be careful when creating theories of what *the* solution is to feed to world with a nutritional, diverse diet with an overarching strategy. Different approaches are needed in different places. Instead of labeling one strategy, big agriculture, as the enemy, theories need to be specific analysis of local problems. Global trends and issues will be present, but they need to be conceptualized at the local level. The article states that "all kinds of questions and all kinds of theories are needed if we're going to produce food sustainably", but these theories should not over generalize the current picture. 


Small is Bountiful?

Posted by mdecoster on 2 Nov 2013

I agree that this is a complex issue, and Bittman certainly didn't delve into all the nuances of farming and food security.  After all,  he's a journalist, his intended audience was NY Times readers, and his intention seems to have been to spark a bit of debate. 

I found this bit especially interesting: 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.

If that's even partially true, its quite interesting to contemplate how it might be possible to adapt some small scale approaches to produce more food with fewer resources.

Thanks for the food for thought!

Mary DeCoster


Small is bountiful also applies to livestock production

Posted by Andrew Bisson on 4 Nov 2013

This article raises a number of issues and as good tales do, paints a picture of good guys and villains, usefully engaging the non-technical reader. As others have commented the reality is however more complex, analysis leading to solutions needs to be more nuanced and the potential positive contributions of all stakeholders amplified and their negative impacts mitigated. I would like to see more recognition of the tremendous diversity of livestock production systems (from village chicken production in southern Africa to feedlot produced beef in the Americas). Some systmes contribute negatively, others contribute v positively. The so called livestock revolution (due to surging, largely urban demand) offers great opportunities for poor small holders (as well as big agriculture), particularly if small-holders can access urban markets. How livestock production systems are governed in terms of a pro-poor share of the benefits and proper costing of the negative (and sometimes positive) environmental and health impacts and ensuring consumers make informed choices may be a more pragmatic and ultimately rewarding road to walk than presenting a rather two-dimensional 'four legs-bad' message?  

Family Planning

Posted by Alexandra Rutishauser-Perera on 3 Nov 2013

The article is not published in a scientific or technical journal but in the New York Times and i think that the article is good enough to serve as an eye-opener and people willing to know more or specialized in the ag field can surely get more information about it...

i agree with the author on the fact that we can't rely solely on industrial agriculture but i still think that a combination of both is needed in the current world we live in... More knowledge and better access are needed for small scale farmers to be more productive ...

However, I think that an important fact has been forgotten in this article :the mention of need for family planning .

Our human population keeps growing and most of that growth is happening in the least-developed nations which are the least able to feed themselves.

We need to ensure that every woman who wants to plan her family has the ability to do so.
If we meet the need for family planning, we will be able to slow population growth, reduce economic burden on individual families and help ensure that farmers are able to feed the world... 
There was also a good article end of August on the expression "feed the world" and some of the comments following the article are also really interesting:

I am also really interested in other's thoughts...

All great points made here. I

Posted by kmacd on 10 Nov 2013

All great points made here. I think my favorite bit was Raj Patel's quote:

“The playing field has been tilted against peasants for centuries, and they’ve still managed to feed more people than industrial agriculture. With the right kinds of agroecological training and the freedom to shape the food system on fair terms, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be able to feed themselves, and others as well.”

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