Sustainable Agriculture

Its Impact on the World Food Situation

by | Jul 15, 2001

Agricultural terraces, Venezuela.

Famine and undernourishment are not due to lack of food availability. Rather they result from the inability of people to grow their own food or to purchase it from those that grow it. In other words, famine and undernourishment are symptoms rather than the cause of poverty.

There is enough productive capacity in the world to feed all people adequately. However, there is not enough capability or enough political will– to pay for the cost of feeding everyone. The problem of undernourishment is due to the maldistribution of income in the world, both within nations and between nations. In the United States, the average caloric consumption is 3600 Kcal per person daily (Kcal= 1000 calories, a measure of the energy contained in food), approximately 1000 Kcal over the recommended amount. In some countries consumption is below 2000 Kcal per person daily, well below the minimum of 2300 Kcal needed to sustain a healthy body. Undernourished people are unable to work as much as well fed ones, undernourished children are unable to study, undernourished persons are more prone to disease, and have a short life expectancy. No wonder then that with average incomes of less than $500 per person yearly, some countries have average caloric consumption below 2000 Kcal/person/day, life expectancies below 50 years and infant mortality rates in excess of 150 for each 1000 live births!

As we enter the 21st century, we encounter a paradox since there never have been as many undernourished people as today, but it is also true that the world has never been better fed. The answer to the riddle is population growth. Over the last 40 years the human population grew at an unprecedented rate. Consequently the absolute number of undernourished people increased to close to 800 million. Yet food production and consumption grew at a faster rate than population (see the graph), resulting in a diminution of the proportion of undernourished people from 17% 40 years ago to approximately 12.5% today. Nevertheless, the absolute numbers are appallingly high. The only comfort that can be had from these numbers is the steady progress that has been made in reducing the proportion of undernourished people.


The Latin American situation

The food situation in Latin America also has improved over the last forty years. Average caloric intake in the region has gone from 2170 to 2533 Kcal/person/day a 17% increase; protein consumption has increased from 58g. protein/person/day to 66g. protein/person/day, a 12% increase, and fat consumption increased from 47g.fat/person/day to 71 g.fat/person/day, a 49% increase. All this improvement took place in spite of a 137% population increase in the last forty years, one of the largest in the world that saw the population more than double in this period. While the food statistics in the aggregate are encouraging, they hide a great deal of variation between and within countries.

Ten countries (Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Colombia, and El Salvador in that order) out of the nineteen countries analyzed had average calorie consumption above 2500 Kcal/person/day; six had average consumption between 2200 and 2500 Kcal/person/day (Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru and the Dominican Republic), and three (Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Haiti) had average caloric consumption below 2200 Kcal/person/day. Actual caloric needs vary with age, size, gender, and type of work. Most experts feel that 2200 Kcal/day is a minimum need, and that 2500 Kcal/person/day is a more adequate figure. FAO uses 2750 Kcal/person/day as the figure to determine whether a country has a problem of malnourishment. Only five countries (Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile) fall in that category. Yet in 1961 only two countries (Argentina and Uruguay) were in that category; one (Mexico) had average caloric consumption over 2500 but below 2750, three (Chile, Brazil, and Paraguay) had average caloric consumption between 2200 and 2750, while all other republics were below that level. Six (Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and El Salvador) had consumption values below 2000 Kcal/person/day (only one Haiti- has such a low value today). Improvement in the last forty years has on average been significant in spite of a very fast growth rate, but too many countries still have problems. And given the great disparities of incomes within countries, even in places such as Argentina with adequate average consumption values, there are still a large number of poor and inadequately fed persons.


What has changed in the last forty years?

The improvement in the level of food consumption is related to the improvement in economic conditions around the world in the last forty years that increased demand for food, as well as some technological advances in agriculture that have resulted in a significant reduction of food prices. In other words, both the demand and the supply of food have increased over the last forty years.

The supply is directly related to some simple but very important changes in the production of food, what is generally known as the “green revolution.” The green revolution consists basically of the development of high yielding varieties (HYV) of cereals, particularly wheat and rice, capable of responding very favorably to nitrogenous fertilizer. Other advances were the development of chemical insecticides and herbicides, and the mechanization of agricultural practices. The increased yields reduced unit costs and were translated into cheaper market prices. Massive subsidies to farmers in Japan, Europe and the United States also increased production and reduced prices, thereby contributing to the reduction of malnutrition.

Yet the green revolution has come under a great deal of criticism, some of it perhaps justified, much of it not, and most of it based on ignorance. Probably because food is such basic necessity, discussions regarding food are charged with ideological overtones. Let us analyze some of the criticism.

One set of criticisms of the green revolution is social. It is maintained by some that the green revolution has only favored large and rich farmers. It is undoubtedly true that the more progressive and educated farmers, and those with access to capital, were the first to adopt the green revolution and that they benefited handsomely. This is so whenever a new technology is introduced: those willing to take the risk will benefit more than those that are not early adapters, if the technology succeeds. However, the new technology also may fail, and in that case risk takers will suffer more than non-adopters. And it is also undoubtedly true that larger and richer farmers are better situated to take risks than the small and poor farmer. Yet many small and poor farmers throughout the third world who were early adopters also benefited greatly, and in large measure are today bigger and richer farmers. But it is also true that there were many losers: small farmers that were unable to compete and lost their land, as well as landless peasants that were replaced by machinery.

A second kind of criticism comes from ecologists. They point out that the green revolution led to monocropping, and resulted in increased soil erosion and chemical contamination of soil and water. Furthermore, the use of genetically uniform HYV reduced genetic diversity and resulted in the loss of genetically diverse land races.

The new technologies, especially the use of chemical fertilizer, permit farmers to grow a smaller set of crops and to grow them year after year. Market prices will determine which crops are the most lucrative ones in each region. There is no doubt that monocropping is detrimental to the soil and increases the pest and disease load. The response of farmers to this problem is often to increase chemical warfare, which only makes matters worse. Yet as problems developed, farmers and agronomists became aware of the dangers involved. This has resulted in the development of a number of new technologies, collectively known as “process technologies.” Examples are direct seeding (also known as no-till agriculture) that significantly reduces soil erosion; the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) a technique to combat insect pests by using natural predators; reducing the use of fertilizers and using slow-release pellets rather than liquid fertilizer; increasing crop rotation; and drip-irrigation to conserve water. Farmers are increasingly adopting these technologies, and they should improve and hopefully correct the ecological problems. New varieties obtained by non-conventional means (biotechnology) are resistant to particular insect pests and diseases, and will help reduce the use of pesticides significantly. Other issues, such as the loss of genetic diversity are being addressed by international organizations through the building and maintenance of seed banks.

Agriculture and livestock raising both conventional and high input– are the human activities that most affect the natural environment. The vegetation and the fauna are drastically reduced, hydrological patterns are disrupted, and soil is modified. Ecologically, agriculture is equivalent to moving the natural succession to an early stage, characterized by higher productivity, but also less stability and less resilience. In a natural situation, as the ecosystem matures, nutrient leaching is reversed; stability and resilience increases, and productivity is reduced. To maintain the high productivity of agriculture while increasing stability of the cropping system, farmers invest in energy demanding activities such as irrigation, fertilization, and herbicide and pesticide applications. The only way to avoid these inputs is to revert to a traditional agriculture such as was practiced two centuries ago. The problem then is yields: modern agriculture is ten times more productive than the traditional kind; productivity is defined as the amount of edible crop per unit of surface.

It also uses very little labor. American agriculture employs only 2% of the US labor force, releasing most of us to be employed in more lucrative industrial or service occupations.

We therefore cannot revert to a gentler type of agriculture without increasing undernourishment. Modern high input agriculture is necessary in order to feed the world and it is succeeding as we have seen. It has been pointed out that small, traditional peasants are sometimes able to be very productive using less fertilizer (and much of what they use being organic), minor amounts of pesticides and no herbicides. They replace these inputs with labor. This approach does not necessarily increase ecological stability but may produce acceptable yields. Each farmer cultivates a small plot and many more persons are required for the same area of land compared to the present system. Furthermore, peasant farmers benefit from the assistance of large urban populations and their activities: cheap tools, transport, and market. If a majority of the population were to go back to the land, and become traditional farmers, who would provide the needed modern infrastructure? And where would the market be? Let us also remember that being a traditional peasant is backbreaking work that leaves little time for other activities, especially education and culture.

The challenge then is to find ways to make modern high input agriculture more sustainable. We also must remember that farmers are in business, and that their objective is to maximize profits, by reducing unnecessary costs and making investments to increase yields. Most farmers are interested in protecting their land and feel very strongly in favor of conservation agriculture. Yet they cannot afford compromising the income stream on which they and their families depend. Process technologies, biotechnology, and genetically modified crops all cost money and will be adopted only if they increase profits. The challenge is therefore as followed: to find new technologies that are more profitable and also more environmentally friendly. Finding such techniques will not be easy, but not impossible as the success of no-till agriculture shows.

Farm on the Venezuelan plains.

Finally, sustainability is not only an ecological and agronomic issue. It is above all else a social issue. In order to be sustainable, the new technologies must be socially acceptable and improve equity. The benefits of sustainable agriculture must be equitably distributed and must benefit the society at large. Otherwise, society will eventually repudiate a system that favors only a small elite.

As the agricultural world gets ready to feed an additional two billion persons in the next 35 to 50 years, the challenge will be to find ways to keep increasing yields so as to feed the growing population; to increase the profits of farmers so that they can stay in business and enjoy the fruits of their labor; and to find meaningful employment for all the rural population.

Spring/Summer 2001


Otto T. Solbrig, Harvard’s Bussey Professor of Biology, is co-author of Globalization and the Rural Environment, recently published by the David Rockefeller Series on Latin American Studies/Harvard University Press. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and served as the Acting Director of the Center in 2000. His research includes population ecology and natural resource use, especially renewable resources in Latin America.

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