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We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People … and Still Can't End Hunger

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Journal of Sustainable Agriculture
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We Already Grow Enough Food for 10
Billion People … and Still Can't End
Eric Holt-Giménez
, Annie Shattuck
, Miguel Altieri
, Hans
& Steve Gliessman
Food First, Oakland, CA
University of California, Berkeley, CA
Millennium Institute, Washington, DC
University of California, Santa Cruz, CA
Version of record first published: 24 Jul 2012
To cite this article: Eric Holt-Giménez, Annie Shattuck, Miguel Altieri, Hans Herren & Steve Gliessman
(2012): We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People … and Still Can't End Hunger, Journal of
Sustainable Agriculture, 36:6, 595-598
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Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 36:595–598, 2012
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1044-0046 print/1540-7578 online
DOI: 10.1080/10440046.2012.695331
We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion
People ... and Still Can’t End Hunger
A new a study from McGill University and the University of Minnesota pub-
lished in the journal Nature compared organic and conventional yields from
66 studies and 316 trials (Seufert et al. 2012). Researchers found that organic
systems on average yielded 25% less than conventional, chemical-intensive
systems—although this was highly variable and context specific. Embracing
the current conventional wisdom, authors argue for a combination of con-
ventional and organic farming to meet “the twin challenge of feeding a
growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets,
while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts” (Seufert
et al. 2012, 3).
Unfortunately, neither the study nor the conventional wisdom addresses
the real cause of hunger.
Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past
two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than
the rate of global population growth. According to the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations (2009a, 2009b) the world produces
more than 1
times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s
already enough to feed 10 billion people, the world’s 2050 projected pop-
ulation peak. But the people making less than $2 a day—most of whom
are resource-poor farmers cultivating un-viably small plots of land—cannot
afford to buy this food.
In reality, the bulk of industrially produced grain crops (most yield
reduction in the study was found in grains) goes to biofuels and confined
animal feedlots rather than food for the one billion hungry. The call to
double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the
growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.
Actually, what this new study does tell us is how much smaller the yield
gap is between organic and conventional farming than what critics of organic
agriculture have assumed. Smil’s (2001) claim that organic farming requires
twice the land base has become a conventional mantra. In fact, when we
unpack the data from the Nature study, we find that for many crops and
in many instances, the reported yield gap is minimal. With new advances
in seed breeding for organic systems, and with the transition of commercial
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596 E. Holt-Giménez et al.
organic farms to diversified farming systems that have long been shown to
“over-yield” in comparison to monocultures, this yield gap will close even
further (see Vandermeer 1989).
The longest running side-by-side study comparing conventional chemi-
cal agriculture with organic methods (over 30 years) found organic yields
match conventional in good years and outperform them under drought
conditions and environmental distress (Rodale Institute 2012)—a critical
property as climate change increasingly serves up extreme weather condi-
tions. A major study carried out in Africa by the United Nations Development
Program concluded that organic methods lowered costs and provided more
economic benefits to farming communities than conventional agriculture
(Pretty et al. 2008). Moreover, farming like a diversified ecosystem renders
a higher resistance to extreme climate events, which translates into lower
vulnerability and higher long-term farm sustainability (Holt-Giménez 2002;
Philipott et al. 2009; Rosset et al. 2011).
The Nature article examined yields in terms of tons per acre and did
not address efficiency (i.e., yields per units of water or energy) nor environ-
mental externalities (i.e., the environmental costs of production in terms of
greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, etc.) and fails to
mention that conventional agricultural research enjoyed 60 years of massive
private and public sector support for crop genetic improvement, dwar fing
funding for organic agriculture by 99 to 1.
The higher performance of conventional over organic methods may
hold between what are essentially both mono-cultural commodity farms.
This misleading comparison sets organic agriculture as a straw man to be
knocked down by its conventional counterpart. But for the 1.5 billion sub-
sistence farmers working small plots—producing around half the world’s
food—monocultures of any kind are unsustainable. Noncommercial poly-
cultures are better for balancing diets, reducing risk, and thrive without
agrochemicals. Agroecological methods that emphasize rich crop diversity
in time and space conserve soils and water and have proven to produce
the most rapid, recognizable and sustainable results among poor farm-
ers (Altieri 2002). In areas in which soils have already been degraded by
conventional agriculture’s chemical “packages,” agroecological methods can
increase productivity by 100–300% (Bunch 1985; Natarajan and Willey 1996;
Holt-Giménez 2006).
This is why the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released
a report advocating for structural reforms and a shift to agroecology (De
Schutter 2010). It is why the 400 experts commissioned for the four-
year International Assessment on Agriculture, Science and Knowledge for
Development (IAASTD 2008) also concluded that agroecology and locally
based food economies (rather than the global market) where the best
strategies for combating poverty and hunger.
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Editorial 597
Raising productivity for resource-poor farmers is one piece of ending
hunger, but how this is done—and whether these farmers can gain access to
more land—will make a big difference in combating poverty and ensuring
sustainable livelihoods. The conventional methods already employed for
decades by poor farmers have a poor track record in this regard.
Can conventional agriculture provide the yields we need to feed 10 bil-
lion people by 2050? Given climate change, the answer is an unsustainable
maybe. The more important question is, at what social and environmental
cost? To end hunger we must end poverty and inequality. For this chal-
lenge, agroecological approaches and structural reforms that ensure that
resource-poor farmers have the land and resources they need for sustainable
livelihoods are the best way forward.
Eric Holt-Giménez, Food First, Oakland, CA
Annie Shattuck, University of California, Berkeley, CA
Miguel Altieri, University of California, Berkeley, CA
Hans Herren, Millennium Institute, Washington, DC
Steve Gliessman, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA; JSA, Editor
Altieri, M. A. 2002 Agroecology: the science for natural resource management for
poor farmers living in marginal environments. Agriculture, Ecosystems and
Environment 93: 1–24.
Bunch, R. 1985. Two ears of cor n: A Guide to people-centered agricultural
improvement. Oklahoma City, OK: World Neighbors.
De Schutter, O. 2010. Agroecology and the right to food. United Nations Office of
the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. A/HRC/16/49. http://www.srfood.
pdf (accessed March 24, 2012).
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2009a. 1.02 billion
hungry. Available from:
(accessed 28 June 2010).
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2009b. The state of
food insecurity in the world. Rome, Italy: Economic and Social Development
Department Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Holt-Giménez, E. 2002. Measuring farmers’ agroecological resistance after Hurricane
Mitch in Nicaragua: a case study in participatory, sustainable land management
impact monitoring. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 93: 87–105.
Holt-Giménez, E. 2006. Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s farmer
to farmermovement for sustainable agriculture. Oakland, CA: Food First Books.
International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology
for Development. 2008. IAASTD reports.
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Natarajan, M., and R. W. Willey. 1996. The effects of water stress on yields
advantages of intercropping systems. Field Crops Research 13: 117–131.
Philpott, S. M., B. B. Lin, S. Jha, and S. J. Brines. 2009 A multiscale assessment of hur-
ricane impacts on agricultural landscapes based on land use and topographic
features. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 128(1–2), 12–20.
Pretty, J., R. Hine, and S. Twarog. 2008. Organic agriculture and food security
in Africa. UNEP-UNCTAD Capacity-Building Task Force on Trade. New York
and Geneva: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development/United
Nations Environment Programme.
Rodale Institute. 2012. The farming systems trial: celebrating 30 years.Emmaus,PA:
Rodale Press.
Rosset, P. M., B. Machín-Sosa, A. M. Roque-Jaime, and D. R. Avila-Lozano. 2011. The
Campesino-to-Campesino agroecology movement of ANAP in Cuba. Journal of
Peasant Studies 38: 161–191.
Seufert, V., N. Ramankutty, and J. A. Foley. 2012. Comparing the yields of organic
and conventional Agriculture. Nature DOI:10.1038/nature11069
Smil, V. 2001. Enriching the earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch and the transformation
of world food production. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Vandermeer, J. 1989. The ecology of intercr opping. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.
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... This food regime has been criticised for fueling deepening global inequalities between North and South (Jarosz 2014;Martínez-Torres and Rosset 2010;Tittonell 2013), food price volatility and unsustainability (Collier 2008;Rosset 2008;Shuquan 2018). As a result, there are increasing calls for transforming the neoliberal global food system to ensure a sustainable and equitable food supply (Holt- Giménez et al. 2012;Tripathi and Kaini 2023;Van der Ploeg 2014). ...
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Research scientists predict to feed the growing population an increase in agricultural yields at a lower environmental footprint, what some call ‘sustainable intensification’, is required. Yet, some argue that sustainable intensification fails to address systemic social, economic, or environmental concerns. This chapter reviews the key research and policy goals underpinning this approach considering the novel technologies of agriculture. We highlight four ethical questions: 1) What happens to spared land? 2) What socio-economic cost should increasing protein demand be satisfied? 3) How can basic food needs be met while addressing systemic food security issues; and 4) How do we simultaneously reconcile farmer livelihoods and rural revitalization for sustainable development? We argue for a pragmatic approach to sustainable intensification that clearly articulates ethical questions, negotiates these tensions with agricultural stakeholders on a case-by-case basis, and adopts inclusive and reflexive governance processes to continuously re-evaluate sustainable intensification outcomes.
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Technical Report
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Key messages 1 The current debate around the need to change the way food is produced, valued, and consumed involves a wide range of actors, from civil society and expert groups to corporations, governmental and intergovernmental organizations. 2 Based on numerous scientific studies showing that current agri-food systems do not deliver healthy food for all people yet contribute to many of the world’s sustainability problems, a consensus has emerged that incremental changes are no longer enough and that a transformation of the agri-food system is needed. However, there is not yet consensus on how to achieve this, and a variety of approaches have been advanced. 3 Although the proposed approaches aim for different solutions to the problems, they can all be positioned within the three thematic areas of people, planet, and prosperity. 4 Broadly speaking, the different approaches and transformation pathways can be divided into those that propose structural changes and those that propose technical or technological fixes. 5 There is general agreement among stakeholders that a transformed food production system should deliver nutritious food to people and equity to farmers, but not at the cost of human and planetary health. 6 Several issues that are absent or inadequately addressed in the debate. These include inefficient governance of agri-food systems and transformation processes, polarization of opinions hampering a coherent strategy for transformation, ignoring traditional knowledge and practices, externalized costs, and role of trade dynamics in agri-food systems transformation.
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Numerous reports have emphasized the need for major changes in the global food system: agriculture must meet the twin challenge of feeding a growing population, with rising demand for meat and high-calorie diets, while simultaneously minimizing its global environmental impacts. Organic farming—a system aimed at producing food with minimal harm to ecosystems, animals or humans—is often proposed as a solution. However, critics argue that organic agriculture may have lower yields and would therefore need more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farms, resulting in more widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss, and thus undermining the environmental benefits of organic practices. Here we use a comprehensive meta-analysis to examine the relative yield performance of organic and conventional farming systems globally. Our analysis of available data shows that, overall, organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields. But these yield differences are highly contextual, depending on system and site characteristics, and range from 5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable). Under certain conditions—that is, with good management practices, particular crop types and growing conditions—organic systems can thus nearly match conventional yields, whereas under others it at present cannot. To establish organic agriculture as an important tool in sustainable food production, the factors limiting organic yields need to be more fully understood, alongside assessments of the many social, environmental and economic benefits of organic farming systems.
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Agricultural systems are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of extreme climate events. Yet strategies to reduce risk and vulnerability have not been greatly explored. Here, we examine the vulnerability of coffee agroforestry systems varying in management intensity (e.g. land use) and topographic features to disturbance related to Hurricane Stan in Chiapas, Mexico—a hurricane categorized by heavy rains and mild winds. An approximately 50 km2 area was chosen within a coffee-growing region where data were collected on a variety of topographic and landscape features (aspect, slope, elevation, distance to river) and vegetation characteristics (canopy cover, vegetation structure, tree density) as predictive factors of vegetation, economic, and landslide damage at three distinct spatial scales. At the plot level, we collected vegetation data later compiled into a vegetation complexity index. At the farm level, we collected data to understand the effect of the hurricane on economic damage and farm area affected by landslides. We also recorded number and volume of roadside landslides as a measure of post-hurricane disturbance. We then conducted a geo-spatial analysis to determine which factors contribute most to landslide occurrence at landscape scales. We found no effect of coffee management on vegetation damage or on economic losses at the plot or farm scale. At the farm scale, increasing management intensity (i.e. reduction in vegetation complexity) correlated with increased proportion of farm area affected by landslides (P = 0.014). Additionally, reduction in vegetation complexity was correlated with increased number (P = 0.0224) and volume (P = 0.062) of roadside landslides at the landscape level. Topographic and landscape features, such as distance to river (P = 0.004) and wind exposure/aspect (P = 0.044) strongly influenced landslide frequency at the landscape scale. Forest proximity and proportion of forest cover did not significantly influence the frequency or extent of landslide damage. We created hazard maps using the vegetation complexity index, distance to river, and wind exposure as the heaviest weighted factors to assess areas of the terrain with the greatest vulnerability. These maps present a practical result of this study, and offer a template in which land management policy can develop to lower regional vulnerability to landslide risk. These results show that farmers may be able to reduce vulnerability to extreme storm events by carefully managing their farms. Although farmers may not be able to control negative topographic features of their farms, increasing vegetation complexity within farms may be an efficient strategy to reduce some susceptibility to hurricane disturbance.
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Agroecology has played a key role in helping Cuba survive the crisis caused by the collapse of the socialist bloc in Europe and the tightening of the US trade embargo. Cuban peasants have been able to boost food production without scarce and expensive imported agricultural chemicals by first substituting more ecological inputs for the no longer available imports, and then by making a transition to more agroecologically integrated and diverse farming systems. This was possible not so much because appropriate alternatives were made available, but rather because of the Campesino-a-Campesino (CAC) social process methodology that the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) used to build a grassroots agroecology movement. This paper was produced in a 'self-study' process spearheaded by ANAP and La Via Campesina, the international agrarian movement of which ANAP is a member. In it we document and analyze the history of the Campesino-to-Campesino Agroecology Movement (MACAC), and the significantly increased contribution of peasants to national food production in Cuba that was brought about, at least in part, due to this movement. Our key findings are (i) the spread of agroecology was rapid and successful largely due to the social process methodology and social movement dynamics, (ii) farming practices evolved over time and contributed to significantly increased relative and absolute production by the peasant sector, and (iii) those practices resulted in additional benefits including resilience to climate change.
The industrial synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen has been of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight, or television. The expansion of the world's population from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to today's six billion would not have been possible without the synthesis of ammonia. In Enriching the Earth, Vaclav Smil begins with a discussion of nitrogen's unique status in the biosphere, its role in crop production, and traditional means of supplying the nutrient. He then looks at various attempts to expand natural nitrogen flows through mineral and synthetic fertilizers. The core of the book is a detailed narrative of the discovery of ammonia synthesis by Fritz Haber -- a discovery scientists had sought for over one hundred years -- and its commercialization by Carl Bosch and the chemical company BASF. Smil also examines the emergence of the large-scale nitrogen fertilizer industry and analyzes the extent of global dependence on the Haber-Bosch process and its biospheric consequences. Finally, it looks at the role of nitrogen in civilization and, in a sad coda, describes the lives of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch after the discovery of ammonia synthesis.
Two experiments are reported in which a line-source irrigation system was used to study the effects of a range of moisture regimes (S1 to S5 in order of increasing stress due to insufficiency of moisture) on sole crops of sorghum, millet and groundnut, and intercrops of 1 row sorghum : 2 rows groundnut (SGG), 1 row sorghum : 3 rows groundnut (SGGG), 1 row millet : 1 row groundnut (MG), 1 row millet : 2 rows groundnut (MGG), 1 row millet : 3 rows groundnut (MGGG), and 1 row sorghum : 1 row millet (SM). The dry matter yield advantages of intercropping compared with sole cropping ranged from 8 to 30% for the millet/groundnut systems, 0 to 19% for the sorghum/groundnut systems and 5 to 15% for the sorghum/millet system; moisture stress had no consistent effect on these dry matter advantages. For reproductive yields, all the intercropping systems showed some increase in relative advantages with increase in stress because of higher harvest indices in intercropping than in sole cropping. Largest advantages were 93% for SGG at S5 moisture regime and 78% for MGG at S4 moisture regime, both of these being significantly greater than advantages at S1. The level of stress giving peak advantages depended on crop combination and crop proportions.It is emphasised that all intercropping treatments were of ‘replacement’ type in which the plant population of each crop was only a proportion of that of its sole crop and total population was equivalent to that in either of the sole crops. It is suggested that if total populations in the intercrops are higher than in the sole crops then, under stress conditions, intercropping yields could well be less than sole crop yields because of increased competition for moisture.
Throughout the developing world, resource-poor farmers (about 1.4 billion people) located in risk-prone, marginal environments, remain untouched by modern agricultural technology. A new approach to natural resource management must be developed so that new management systems can be tailored and adapted in a site-specific way to highly variable and diverse farm conditions typical of resource-poor farmers. Agroecology provides the scientific basis to address the production by a biodiverse agroecosystem able to sponsor its own functioning. The latest advances in agroecological research are reviewed in order to better define elements of a research agenda in natural resource management that is compatible with the needs and aspirations of peasants. Obviously, a relevant research agenda setting should involve the full participation of farmers with other institutions serving a facilitating role. The implementation of the agenda will also imply major institutional and policy changes.
A study using a participatory research approach and simple field techniques found significant differences in agroecological resistance between plots on “conventional” and “sustainable” farms in Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch. On average, agroecological plots on sustainable farms had more topsoil, higher field moisture, more vegetation, less erosion and lower economic losses after the hurricane than control plots on conventional farms. The differences in favor of agroecological plots tended to increase with increasing levels of storm intensity, increasing slope and years under agroecological practices, though the patterns of resistance suggested complex interactions and thresholds. For some indicators agroecological resistance collapsed under extreme stress.
Contenido: 1) El nitrógeno en la agricultura; 2) Caminos tradicionales del nitrógeno; 3) Nuevos caminos de los nutrientes; 4) Un descubrimiento brillante; Creación de una industria; 6) Evolución de la síntesis del amoníaco; 7) Fertilizantes sintéticos; 8) Nuestra dependencia del nitrógeno; 9) Consecuencias de la dependencia; 10) Nitrógeno y civilización.