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

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We Already Grow Enough Food for 10
Billion People … and Still Can't End
Hunger
Eric Holt-Giménez
a
, Annie Shattuck
b
, Miguel Altieri
b
, Hans
Herren
c
& Steve Gliessman
d
a
Food First, Oakland, CA
b
University of California, Berkeley, CA
c
Millennium Institute, Washington, DC
d
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
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10440046.2012.695331
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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
EDITORIAL
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
1
/
2
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
595
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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.
Downloaded by [Mr Eric Holt-Gimenez] at 11:02 01 August 2012
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
REFERENCES
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.
org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20110308_a-hrc-16-49_agroecology_en.
pdf (accessed March 24, 2012).
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2009a. 1.02 billion
hungry. Available from: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/20568/icode/
(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. http://www.agassessment.org/index.
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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
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