Designing food systems to protect nature and get rid of hunger

Industrialisation of agriculture creates hunger and malnutrition, destroying the food web to which we all belong.

To match Special Report CLIMATE-CROPS
'Industrially produced food is nutritionally empty mass, loaded with chemicals and toxins,' writes author [REUTERS]

Hunger and malnutrition is manmade. It is in the design of the industrial chemical model of agriculture. And just as hunger has been created by design, producing healthy and nutritious food for all can be designed through food democracy.

That is what we do in Navdanya. That is what the diverse movements for food sovereignty and agro-ecology are designing on the ground.    

We are repeatedly told we will starve without poisons and chemical fertilisers. However, chemicals undermine food security by destroying the fertility of the soil, killing the biodiversity of soil organisms which are the real builders of solid fertility, the pollinators like bees and butterflies without whom plant reproduction and food production is not possible, and friendly insects which control pests.

Industrial production has led to such a severe ecological and social crisis, to ensure the supply of healthy food, we must move towards agro-ecological and sustainable systems of food production that work with nature, not against her.

Industrialisation of agriculture creates hunger and malnutrition, yet further industrialisation of food systems are offered as cures for the crisis. In the Indian context, agriculture, food and nutrition are addressed independent of each other, even though what food is grown and how it is grown determines its nutritional value. It also determines distribution patterns and entitlements. If we grow millets and pulses, we will have more nutrition per capita. If we grow food with chemicals, and we grow monocultures, we will have less nutrition per acre and less nutrition per capita. If we grow food ecologically with internal inputs, more food will stay with the farming household and there will be less malnutrition in rural children. If we grow food chemically, with purchased seeds and costly chemicals, less food will be retained by rural producers, more will go out as commodities, leaving rural areas nutritionally deprived.

Root causes

“The objective of food policy cannot be based on promoting industrial processing of food. The objective of nutritional policy cannot be the creation of a malnutrition market.”  

Agriculture policy focuses on increasing yields of individual crops – not the output of the food system and its nutritional value. The food security system is based on the Public Distribution System, which does not address issues of nutrition and quality of food distribution. And nutritional programmes are divorced from both agriculture and food security.

The agrarian crisis, the food crisis and the nutrition and health crisis are intimately connected. They need to be addressed together. The objective of agriculture policy must not be guided by maximising sales of costly seeds and costly chemicals which rob the soil, the farmers, and the people of nutrition. The objective of food policy cannot be based on promoting industrial processing of food. The objective of nutritional policy cannot be the creation of a malnutrition market. The chemicalisation of agriculture and the chemicalisation of food are recipes for denutrification of our food. They cannot solve the problem of hunger and malnutrition.

Hunger and malnutrition begin in the soil, and it is in the soil that solutions to hunger and malnutrition lie. Industrial agriculture, sold as the Green Revolution and 2nd Green Revolution to Third World countries, is a chemical intensive, capital intensive, fossil fuel intensive system. It must, by its very structure, push farmers into debt, and indebted farmers everywhere are pushed off the land, as their farms are foreclosed and appropriated. In poor countries, farmers trapped in debt for purchasing costly chemicals and non-renewable seeds sell the food they grow to pay back debt. That is why hunger today is a rural phenomenon. The debt-creating negative economy of high cost industrial farming is a hunger producing system, not a hunger reduction system. Wherever chemicals and commercial seeds have spread, farmers are in debt, and lose entitlement to their own produce. They become trapped in poverty and hunger.

In poor countries, farmers are trapped in debt for purchasing costly chemicals and non-renewable seeds [AFP]

Biodiversity dysfunction

A second level at which industrial chemical agriculture creates hunger is by displacing and destroying the biodiversity which provides nutrition. Thus the Green Revolution displaced pulses an important source of proteins as well as oil seeds; it reduced nutrition per acre, not increased it. Monocultures do not produce more food and nutrition. They take up more chemicals and fossil fuels, and hence are profitable for agrichemical companies and oil companies. They produce higher yields of individual commodities, but a lower output of food and nutrition.

The conventional measures of productivity focus on labour as the major input (and the direct labour on the farm at that) and externalise many energy and resource inputs. This biased productivity pushes farmers off the land and replaces them with chemicals and machines, which in turn contribute to greenhouse gases and climate change. Further, industrial agriculture focuses on producing a single crop that can be globally traded as a commodity. The focus on “yield” of individual commodities creates what I have called a “monoculture of the mind”. The promotion of so-called high-yielding varieties leads to the displacement of biodiversity. It also destroys the ecological functions of biodiversity.

Nutrient displacement

When the benefits of biodiversity are taken into account, biodiverse systems have higher output than monocultures. And organic farming is more beneficial for the farmers and the earth than chemical farming.

Industrial chemical agriculture creates hunger and malnutrition at a third level – by robbing crops of nutrients. Industrially produced food is nutritionally empty mass, loaded with chemicals and toxins. Nutrition in food comes from the nutrients in the soil. Industrial agriculture, based on the NPK mentality of synthetic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium based fertilisers leads to depletion of vital micronutrients and trace elements such as magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron.

To get the same amount of nutrition people will need to eat much more food. The increase in “yields” of empty mass does not translate into more nutrition. In fact it is leading to malnutrition.

The most effective and low cost strategy for addressing hunger and malnutrition is through biodiverse organic farming. Organic farming enriches the soil, and nutrient rich soils give us nutrient rich food.

Earthworm castings, which can amount to four to 36 tonnes per acre per year, contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus, three times more exchangeable magnesium, 11 times more potash, and one and a half times more calcium than soil. Their work on the soil promotes the microbial activity essential to the fertility of most soils. Soils rich in micro organisms and earthworms are soils rich in nutrients. Their products too are rich in nutrients. Organic foods on average have been found to have 21 per cent more iron, 14 per cent more phosphorous, 78 per cent more chromium, 390 per cent more selenium, 63 per cent more calcium, 70 per cent more boron, 138 per cent more magnesium, 27 per cent more vitamin C, and 10 to 50 per cent more vitamin E & B carotene.

The more the biodiversity on our farms, the higher the nutrition per acre at zero cost. Plants, people and the soil are part of one food web, which is the web of life. The test of good farming is how well it works to increase the health and resilience of the food web.

Activist and author Dr Vandana Shiva is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.