Dear Friends and Colleagues
Agroecology and Economic Justice Needed to Transform US Agriculture
U.S. agriculture is contributing to climate change and exacerbating rural problems. The failure of industrial agriculture and the fact that the US is not feeding the world’s hungry is exemplified by the state of Iowa (Item 1). Iowa mainly feeds pigs, chickens, the junk food industry, and cars; half of its corn goes to ethanol, and 30% of soybean oil is used for biodiesel fuel. The state has lost half its topsoil to erosion, the product of excessive row-cropping. The state’s agriculture is mainly rain-fed, but its aquifers are being pumped at unreplenishable rates. Meanwhile, the excessive chemical applications needed for corn and soybeans pollutes drinking water and destroys habitats for those species agriculture needs to grow food. The excessive fertilizer applied to Iowa’s corn fields emits clouds of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. A study estimates that by 2075, Iowa corn yields could be 20-50% lower than they are today due to increased storms and droughts.
There is therefore a need for a systemwide shift that cuts carbon emissions, reduces vulnerability to climate chaos and prioritizes economic justice – ‘a just transition’ (Item 2). Two elements are essential: agriculture based on principles of ecology, and economic policies that end overproduction of cheap food and re-establish fair prices for farmers.
Agriculture generates about 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from sources that include synthetic fertilizers and intensive livestock operations. These emissions can be significantly curbed through adopting methods of agroecology. For instance, cover crops such as legumes, rye and alfalfa reduce soil erosion, improve water retention and add nitrogen to the soil, thereby curbing fertilizer use. When these crops decay, they store. Another strategy is switching from row crops to agroforestry, which combines trees, livestock and crops in a single field, which can increase soil carbon storage by up to 34%.
Meanwhile, in 2018, less than half of U.S. growers made any income from their farms, and median farm income showed net losses. Reconstructing rural America and decarbonizing agriculture will require addressing systemwide issues of politics and power. A strong starting point is connecting ecological practices to economic policy, especially price parity – the principle that farmers ought to be fairly compensated in line with their production costs.
With best wishes
WORLD HUNGER IS ON THE RISE
For the third straight year, U.N. agencies have documented rising levels of severe hunger in the world, affecting 820 million people. More than 2 billion suffer “moderate or severe” food insecurity. During the same period, the world is experiencing what Reuters called a “global grains glut,” with surplus agricultural commodities piled up outside grain silos rotting for want of buyers.
Obviously, growing more grain is not reducing global hunger.
Yet every day, some academic, industry, or political leader joins the Malthusian chorus of warnings about looming food shortages due to rising populations and strained natural resources. For example, here’s Richard Linton, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University, sounding the familiar alarm: “We’ve got to find a way to feed the world, double the food supply,” he said. “And we all know if we don’t produce enough food, what the outcome is: it’s war, it’s competition.”
“How will we feed the world?” calls the preacher. “Increase our bounty,” responds the choir.
There is so much wrong with that answer. And even with the question, which is profoundly arrogant.
How will “we” feed “the world?” We know who we mean when we ask that question: rich countries, with high-yield seeds and industrial-scale agriculture. The United States thinks it’s feeding the world now. It is not.
More than 70 percent of the food consumed in developing countries, where hunger is pervasive, is grown in those countries, the majority of it by small-scale farmers. Those farmers are the main people doing the feeding now. And they’re only using 30 percent of agricultural resources to do it. (That means industrial agriculture is using 70 percent of the resources to feed 30 percent of the population.)
There is no “world” out there, passively waiting to be fed. Most of the hungry are small-scale farmers or live in farming communities. They aren’t waiting for food handouts; they are actively — often desperately — trying to feed their families and their communities.
But the world already grows more than enough food to feed 10 billion people, which is nearly 3 billion more than we currently have.
Why do we keep getting it so wrong, acting like growing more commodity crops will end hunger?
Indian economist Amartya Sen won his Nobel Prize for showing that famine is rarely caused by food shortages. Frances Moore Lappé showed us almost 50 years ago in her seminal “Diet for a Small Planet” that hunger isn’t caused by a scarcity of food.
Hunger is caused by a scarcity of power on the part of food producers and the poor. Power over land, water, and other food-producing natural resources. And the power to earn incomes that can allow people to buy the food they need.
The illusion that “we” feed “the world” has its home in places like Iowa, planted fencerow to fencerow in corn and soybeans in a system designed to coax every last bushel from the incomparably fertile soil.
But it’s hard to find demonstrable ways that Iowa’s prolific production feeds any hungry people in the developing world. Iowa mainly feeds pigs, chickens, the junk food industry, and cars; half of our corn goes to ethanol, and 30 percent of soybean oil is now used for biodiesel fuel. The world’s poor can’t afford meat and they don’t drive cars; junk food is the last thing they need.
We export about half our soybeans and 15 percent of our corn, but even those don’t feed the hungry, because they’re mainly used as animal feed, overwhelmingly for hogs, many in China, the world’s biggest pig producer and consumer. But the poor aren’t eating that pork; it mainly feeds the country’s growing middle class.
At best, Iowa’s prodigious production of corn and soybeans is making food bills a little lower for the developing world’s emerging middle classes. But it is an illusion that Iowa is feeding the hungry.
And it’s a dangerous illusion that we can solve global hunger by expanding global production with industrial-scale agriculture. Dangerous because the way we are growing that food, on chemical-intensive, monoculture farms, is quite literally destroying the resource base — soil, water, climate — on which future food production depends.
Take Iowa, again: The state has lost half its topsoil to erosion, the product of excessive row-cropping. Half-a-million acres came out of conservation in the last decade as farmers planted right up to streambeds trying to cash in on the ethanol-fueled high in corn prices. Soil is a renewable resource, but only if you farm it in a way that protects and renews it.
Iowa is also failing to renew that other renewable resource, water. The state’s agriculture is mainly rain-fed, but the Jordan and Dakota aquifers are being pumped at unreplenishable rates. It takes five gallons of water a day to raise a hog; with 20 million hogs, that’s more than 30 billion gallons of water a year. It takes three to distill a gallon of ethanol from corn; that’s more than 12 billion gallons of water annually. If ethanol and meat production grow at projected rates, those huge aquifers will eventually run dry
Meanwhile, the excessive chemical applications needed for corn and soybeans pollutes drinking water and destroys habitats for those species agriculture needs to grow food. A recent UN report raised alarms about mass extinctions, while another study documented an “insect apocalypse” that includes the loss of key pollinators for crops.
Meanwhile, every part of Iowa’s agriculture is implicated in and threatened by climate change. Industrial agriculture is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses: The excessive fertilizer applied to Iowa’s corn fields emits clouds of nitrous oxide, more potent than carbon dioxide. The state’s factory farms also contribute when concentrated manure is sprayed on farmers’ fields.
The changing climate makes current farming practices all the more self-destructive. NASA modeling for Iowa shows a high probability of more intense storms, like the recent cyclone and continued flooding, with a growing threat of long droughts. A University of Minnesota study estimated that by 2075, Iowa corn yields could be 20 to 50 percent lower than they are today.
It’s not a system that’s working well, and if we’re worried about the overall availability of food, we in the rich world should stop doubling down on industrial agriculture and immediately take two simple measures: First, reduce food waste, which squanders one-third or more of the food the world produces. Second, stop diverting food and land to biofuel production.
In the meantime, let’s stop feeding the illusion that producing more U.S. agricultural commodities will do anything to reduce global hunger.
US AGRICULTURE NEEDS A 21st-CENTURY NEW DEAL
Maywa Montenegro, Annie Shattuck and Joshua Sbicca
These are difficult times in farm country. Historic spring rains – 600% above average in some places – inundated fields and homes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that this year’s corn and soybean crops will be the smallest in four years, due partly to delayed planting.
Even before the floods, farm bankruptcies were already at a 10-year high. In 2018 less than half of U.S. growers made any income from their farms, and median farm income dipped to negative $1,553 – that is, a net loss.
At the same time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that about 12 years remain to rein in global greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Beyond this point, scientists predict significantly higher risks of drought, floods and extreme heat.
And a landmark UN report released in May warns that roughly 1 million species are now threatened with extinction. This includes pollinators that provide US$235 billion to $577 billion in annual global crop value.
As scholars who study agroecology, agrarian change and food politics, we believe U.S. agriculture needs to make a systemwide shift that cuts carbon emissions, reduces vulnerability to climate chaos and prioritizes economic justice. We call this process a just transition – an idea often invoked to describe moving workers from shrinking industries like coal mining into more viable fields.
But it also applies to modern agriculture, an industry which in our view is dying – not because it isn’t producing enough, but because it is contributing to climate change and exacerbating rural problems, from income inequality to the opioid crisis.
Reconstructing rural America and dealing with climate change are both part of this process. Two elements are essential: agriculture based in principles of ecology, and economic policies that end overproduction of cheap food and reestablish fair prices for farmers.
Climate solutions on the farm
Agriculture generates about 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from sources that include synthetic fertilizers and intensive livestock operations. These emissions can be significantly curbed through adopting methods of agroecology, a science that applies principles of ecology to designing sustainable food systems.
Agroecological practices include replacing fossil-fuel-based inputs like fertilizer with a range of diverse plants, animals, fungi, insects and soil organisms. By mimicking ecological interactions, biodiversity produces both food and renewable ecosystem services, such as soil nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration.
Cover crops are a good example. Farmers grow cover crops like legumes, rye and alfalfa to reduce soil erosion, improve water retention and add nitrogen to the soil, thereby curbing fertilizer use. When these crops decay, they store carbon – typically about 1 to 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per 2.47 acres per year.
Another strategy is switching from row crops to agroforestry, which combines trees, livestock and crops in a single field. This approach can increase soil carbon storage by up to 34%. And moving animals from large-scale livestock farms back onto crop farms can turn waste into nutrient inputs.
Unfortunately, many U.S. farmers are stuck in industrial production. A 2016 study by an international expert panel identified eight key “lock-ins,” or mechanisms, that reinforce the large-scale model. They include consumer expectations of cheap food, export-oriented trade, and most importantly, concentration of power in the global food and agricultural sector.
Because these lock-ins create a deeply entrenched system, revitalizing rural America and decarbonizing agriculture require addressing systemwide issues of politics and power. We believe a strong starting point is connecting ecological practices to economic policy, especially price parity – the principle that farmers ought to be fairly compensated, in line with their production costs.
Economic justice on the farm
If the concept of parity sounds quaint, that’s because it is. Farmers first achieved something like parity in 1910-1914, just before America entered World War I. During the war U.S. agriculture prospered, financing flowed and land speculation was rampant.
Those bubbles burst with the end of the war. As crop prices fell below the cost of production, farmers began going broke in a prelude to the Great Depression. Unsurprisingly, they tried to produce more food to get out of debt, even as prices collapsed.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal included programs that directed public investments to rural communities and restored “parity.” The federal government established price floors, bought up surplus commodities and stored them in reserve. It also paid farmers to reduce production of basic crops, and established programs to prevent destructive farming practices that had contributed to the Dust Bowl.
An Agricultural Adjustment Administration representative in his office, Taos County, New Mexico, December 1941. The agency was created under the New Deal to reduce farm surpluses and manage production. Irving Rusinow
These policies provided much-needed relief for indebted farmers. In the “parity years,” from 1941 to 1953, the floor price was set at 90% of parity, and the prices farmers received averaged 100% of parity. As a result, purchasers of commodities paid the actual production costs.
But after World War II, agribusiness interests systematically dismantled the supply management system. They included global grain trading companies Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which serves primarily large-scale farmers.
These organizations found support from federal officials, particularly Earl Butz, who served as secretary of agriculture from 1971 to 1976. Butz believed strongly in free markets and viewed federal policy as a lever to maximize output instead of constraining it. Under his watch, prices were allowed to fall – benefiting corporate purchasers – and parity was replaced by federal payments to supplement farmers’ incomes.
The resulting lock-in to this economic model progressively strengthened in the following decades, creating what many scientific assessments now recognize as a global food system that is unsustainable for farmers, eaters and the planet.
A new New Deal for agriculture
Today the idea of restoring parity and reducing corporate power in agriculture is resurging. Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have included it in their agriculture positions and legislation. Think tanks are proposing to empower family farms. Dairy delegates to the regulation-averse Wisconsin Farm Bureau Foundation voted in December 2018 to discuss supply management.
Along with other scholars, we have urged Congress to use the proposed Green New Deal to promote a just transition in agriculture. We see this as an opportunity to restore wealth to rural America in all of its diversity – particularly to communities of color who have been systematically excluded for decades from benefits available to white farmers.
This year’s biblical floods in the Midwest make any kind of farming look daunting. However, we believe that if policymakers can envision a contemporary version of ideas in the original New Deal, a climate-friendly and socially just American agriculture is within reach.