The food systems we inherit in the 21st century represent some of the greatest achievements of human civilization. Over the 19th and 20th centuries, major breakthroughs in crop productivity, food processing and distributive capacities drove huge increases in net calorie availability for consumers, bringing more varied diets into reach for those able to access and afford them. Undoubtedly, the greatest positive outcome of industrial agriculture has been the tremendous production increases in several major crops, particularly in the wake of the ‘Green Revolution’ in the post-war period. Today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world. Despite decreases in the percentage of the global population going hungry over recent decades, 795 million people still suffered from hunger in 2015. Those who are malnourished, the failures are far starker. In addition to acute hunger, two billion are afflicted by the ‘hidden hunger’ of micronutrient deficiencies and over 1.9 billion are obese or overweight.
A new report, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’ (PDF) from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems compares the two opposing methods of agricultural systems; looks at why, given the negative outcomes of outcomes of industrial agriculture, it remains in place; and suggests paths for how to move towards widespread adoption of agroecological systems.
"Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides," stated Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and leader of the panel. "Simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates." De Schutter added: "It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. It is the mismatch between its huge potential to improve outcomes across food systems, and its much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms."
Among the factors keeping the dominant system in place, the report notes, is the flawed "feed the world" approach that frames industrial agriculture as the solution while ignoring power relations and poverty. The Number One problem is the distribution system and its allocation by price, the biggest factor by far contributing to famine other than drought. Ultimately, Capitalism is to blame. Decentralized, organic community based farming systems are superior to industrial agriculture and prosper provided production of a cash crop isn't needed--almost impossible to do in cash-based economies. Industrialised agriculture leads to higher profits for a few people, not increased production of nutrition. Industrial agriculture also does not measure costs by the amount of energy, labour, or other resources are required to produce food, but only by the profit/loss balance sheets.