Food wars

Declan Allison

09 December 2016

Two competing ‘food paradigms’, industrialized farming and agroecology, are the subject of recent debates about global food security.

Industrialised farming features large-scale monocultures, intensive use of agri-chemicals and mechanisation, GM technology, and integration into global supply chains, dominated by transnational corporations controlling supply of agricultural inputs to farmers, and supply of food to consumers.

Advocates argue this approach is needed to meet the needs of a growing world population, projected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050. They claim food production will need to increase between 70% and 100%. The ‘doubling narrative’, frequently repeated by government scientific advisors and the agribusiness industry, assumes a continuing shift to dairy and meat-based diets in emerging economies, like China.

The ‘meatification’ of diets represents an inefficient diversion of crops, land and other resources from production for human consumption to production of livestock feed, reducing the affordability of staple foods for poorer consumers. It also contributes to increased levels of non-communicable diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, in more affluent societies.  

The introduction of industrialised, export-oriented agriculture in the global South has often led to decreased production for local markets and diminished food security. Small-scale farmers, and their communities, are often displaced, with many forced to join the urban poor or become economic migrants. Some find employment within industrialised agriculture as farm labourers or sub-contracted ‘outgrowers’, dependent on export markets and the supply of agricultural inputs, both of which are controlled by agribusiness corporations.

Industrial farming in the global South is also associated with soil fertility decline, and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The industrial farming and food system is highly dependent on fossil energy for mechanisation and transportation, and on fossil fuel-derived inputs, such as fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics.  It is estimated that industrial agriculture contributes one third of global greenhouse emissions.

The alternative paradigm, agroecology, is practised by peasant farmers in much of the global South. It entails small-scale, labour- and knowledge-intensive farming methods that work with local ecology. It typically integrates mixed cropping and livestock farming.  It goes beyond organic by emphasising self-reliance and minimising external inputs. Pest and soil fertility management is achieved using on-farm and local eco-system resources, such as: livestock and green manures; cover crops to suppress weeds; companion planting; and local predator insects. Agroecology prioritises production for local or national consumption, and equitable access to food. It’s more than a farming method; it’s also a social justice movement promoting the right of farming communities to decide what they grow and how they grow it.

There is growing international support for agroecology, with leading agricultural experts claiming that agroecology outperforms industrialised agriculture in terms of land use efficiency, food security, human health, promoting biodiversity, and climate change resilience. An estimated 500 million smallholder farms in the global South practise agroecology. They sustain the livelihoods of 2 billion people, and produce 80% of food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. What then might agroecology look like in Ireland, and how could it begin to develop here?

Dr. Wayne Foord is a Research Fellow at the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen's University, Belfast.