Organic produce harvested from small, diverse farms may be fine and good for anyone who can afford to pay $3 or more per pound for tomatoes. But to the hungry masses of the developing world? What’s the heirloom-tomato-and-baby-lettuce model going to do for them? Sating that kind of hunger will take acre after acre packed with staple crops like rice and corn, grown with the aid of whatever chemicals and technology can optimize yields—at least that’s what many think.
A new report published last week by the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development suggests a far different approach, however, one that has more in common with the style of agriculture that produces your favorite tomatoes than a 1,000-acre field of corn in the Midwest. And it might not only be able to feed the world—the authors says it can help mitigate climate change too.
The report is exhaustive, with six full pages dedicated to listing the different acronyms referenced throughout the 321-page document. Topics range from the benefits of locally developed plant varities, to carbon sequestration as social justice, and democratizing access to seeds and other products. Full of sometimes dense, academic writing, it isn’t exactly something you’d want to curl up on the couch with. But the title—“Wake Up Before It Is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate”—comes through like a shout.
The document makes a lengthy case for organic, low-input, small-scale agriculture as the best means for not only feeding the world, but for also managing the stresses of drought, rain and other catastrophic weather brought on by climate change. It’s not a new idea, nor does the U.N. explicitly endorse it—you won’t hear Ban Ki-moon talking about it at the General Assembly this week. But even if the report carries no weight beyond its rhetorical value (the U.N. isn’t making any policy recommendations by publishing it), having the organization’s logo, that top-down view of the globe, stamped on the cover still carries significance.
In the chapter “Strengthening Resilience of Farming Systems: A Prerequisite of Sustainable Agricultural Production,” Miguel Altieri and Parviz Koohafkan offer a lay thesis for the report, one that’s less confrontational than the title. Describing the importance of the various forms of traditional agriculture found around the world, the pair write, “They tell a fascinating story of the ability and ingenuity of humans to adjust and adapt to the vagaries of a changing physical and material environment from generation to generation.”
The approach they and their co-authors advocate for is based on that history of adaptation. “Whether recognized or not by the scientific community, this ancestral knowledge constitutes the foundation for actual and future agricultural innovations and technologies,” the pair concludes.
That’s a very different proscription for the future of agriculture—which will soon be taxed with feeding eight billion mouths—than is often put forward. Last year, for example, the Director of National Intelligence’s Global Trend Report for 2030 singled out biotechnology as the most promising means of managing increased demand and resources diminished by climate change. The report says that GMOs, “hold the most promise for achieving food security in the next 15-20 years.”
“What people are realizing is, first of all, industrial agriculture is not feeding the world,” Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at UC Berkley, said in a phone interview. “Most of what it produces is biomass, which is for cattle, biotech crops, and biofuels.”
What he wants to see instead is an approach to agriculture that does acknowledge the “ancestral knowledge” he writes about, whether it takes the form of drought-tolerant varieties of grains that have been selected over generations or learning more about agroecological (that’s what they call sustainable agriculture in the academy) systems’ abilities to cope with and rebound from catastrophic weather events like hurricanes.
“What we are trying to come up with is a western scientific approach, and people who have been farming for centuries have developed their own ethnosciences and we need to learn from them,” he says. “That’s going to be what helps us in the future.”
“Wake Up Before It Is Too Late” may be passively critical of GMOs, but it directly indicts the Green Revolution, the approach to agriculture championed by Norman Borlaug. In the 1960s, the Nobel Laureate agronomist helped transition farming in Latin America and Asia to modern hybrid wheat and rice varieties grown with the assistance of irrigation and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. “The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to a ‘ecological intensification’ approach,” read the UNCTAD report’s “Key Messages.”
Borlaug, who also advocated for GMOs in the years before his death, in 2009, saw organic farming and criticisms of the Green Revolution as being diametrically opposed to feeding people the world over.
“Some elements of popular culture romanticize older, inefficient production methods and shun fertilizers and pesticides,” he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2009. “People should be able to purchase organic food if they have the will and financial means to do so, but not at the expense of the world’s hungry—25,000 of whom die each day from malnutrition.”
The Borlag Institute for International Agriculture declined to comment on the UNCTAD report.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working to continue Borlag’s approach, but with an eye toward sustainability, and biotechnology—not just hybrid varieties—as the key tool in what some call a second Green Revolution. Addressing the debate over genetic engineering’s role in global agriculture (and not the report in particular), the Foundation’s communications officer Amy Enright wrote in an email, “Essentially, the foundation believes that people in the developing world should have the same access to innovation that benefits the rich world, and we believe that GM crops have the potential to provide benefits to farmers in the poorest parts of the world.”
“Advances in agriculture, just like in medicine, must be guided by regulations to ensure new products (seeds, vaccines or medicines) are safe and effective,” she adds. “We work with many partners across both the public and private sectors to ensure that farmers will have access to seeds that are affordable—so ultimately the farmer can choose what seed or technology is right for them.”
Despite Gates’ clout and cash and the legacy of the Green Revolution, Ben Lilliston of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy gets the sense that the conversation is changing. “I’m optimistic that there is a shift taking place at the global level in the institutions and in the sort of larger dialog,” he says, referencing other reports from U.N. groups that advocate for sustainable approaches to agriculture.
But Lilliston admits that even if there’s a sense that he and like-minded people and institutions increasingly feel like they’re winning the argument, until ag policy and practice follow suit, it’s all academic. “When it come to global changes that are more concrete,” he says, “we haven’t really got there yet.”
Altieri agrees, saying documents like this, “give credibility to the approach, and it has an impact in academia. But it doesn’t change many things. At the end of the day, the debate isn’t scientific—it’s political.” According to him, reports like “Wake Up Before It Is Too Late,” “strengthens the social movements that are going to put the change on the politics.”
Pointing to the debate over Golden Rice trials in the Philippines and protests against GMO crops in India, Peru and parts of Africa, Lilliston believes that those social movements are already being empowered. “All of that is a sort of push back and resistance to the Green Revolution, chemical approach—and monoculture approach—to producing food.”