According to the ETC Group, a research and advocacy organization based in Ottawa, the industrial food chain uses 70 percent of agricultural resources to provide 30 percent of the world’s food, whereas what ETC calls “the peasant food web” produces the remaining 70 percent using only 30 percent of the resources.
In fact if you define “productivity” not as pounds per acre but as the number of people fed per that same area, you find that the United States ranks behind both China and India (and indeed the world average), and roughly the same as Bangladesh, because so much of what we grow goes to animals and biofuels. (Regardless of how food is produced, delivered and consumed, waste remains at about one third.) Thus, as the ETC’s research director, Kathy Jo Wetter, says, “It would be lunacy to hold that the current production paradigm based on multinational agribusiness is the only credible starting point for achieving food security.” This is especially true given all of its downsides.
As Raj Patel, a fellow at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, puts it, “The playing field has been tilted against peasants for centuries, and they’ve still managed to feed more people than industrial agriculture. With the right kinds of agroecological training and the freedom to shape the food system on fair terms, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be able to feed themselves, and others as well.”
Yet obviously not all poor people feed themselves well, because they lack the essentials: land, water, energy and nutrients. Often that’s a result of cruel dictatorship (North Korea) or war, displacement and strife (the Horn of Africa, Haiti and many other places), or drought or other calamities. But it can also be an intentional and direct result of land and food speculation and land and water grabs, which make it impossible for peasants to remain in their home villages. (Governments of many developing countries may also act as agents for industrial agriculture, seeing peasant farming as “inefficient.”)
The result is forced flight to cities, where peasants become poorly paid laborers, enter the cash market for (increasingly mass produced) food, and eat worse. (They’re no longer “peasants,” at this point, but more akin to the working poor of the United States, who also often cannot afford to eat well, though not to the point of starvation.) It’s a formula for making not only hunger but obesity: remove the ability to produce food, then remove the ability to pay for food, or replace it with only one choice: bad food.
It’s not news that the poor need money and justice. If there’s a bright side here, it’s that the changes required to “fix” the problems created by “industrial agriculture” are perhaps more tractable than those created by inequality.