The future of agriculture - Who will feed us all?

By Pat Mooney for Oxfam's online-discussion
19 December 2012

If we are to survive climate change, we must adopt policies that let peasants diversify the plant and animal varieties on our menus. Only they have the know-how and patience to find out what plants and livestock will thrive where. A fundamental change in the regulatory machinery is needed.

There has been a Pavlovian conviction that agricultural technology can meet our future food needs - and a pathological denial that industrial agriculture has contributed to today’s food crisis. Now, with climate change, the Global South’s food insecurity has morphed into a shared global challenge. Even soil-rich nations may not have the weather, water and other resources to feed themselves in 2050. 

Policy-makers are conventionally offered two options: the high-tech industrial food chain largely viewed as hyper-productive and efficient; or, the touchy-feely agro-ecological food web – the choice between the eco-foodie/fair traders’ 100 kilometer diet or agribusiness’s belt-busting 100 kilogram diet. The “smart menu,” of course, looks for the illusive middle ground – the best science while trading fairly and feeding sustainably.

I am arguing that we are in a common and continuing food crisis; that the development ‘community’ is at the wrong starting point; that we don’t know very much; and, that we have to espouse the policies and practices of the peasant organizations that, today, provide humanity with at least 70 per cent of the food we eat. 

Is the food web just foodie romanticism? We tried to gather the facts that would prove the contribution of peasant provisioners (to describe both rural and urban food providers who are mostly outside the industrial food chain). But data on farm size and estimates on the number of rural peasants, for example, was at least a decade old and far from convincing. And, of course, farm calculations exclude hunting, gathering, fishing, and urban peasant production. 

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We concluded that at least 70 of the food the world actually consumes every year is provisioned by rural and urban peasants.
We could also conclude that only peasants have access to the technologies and resources we will all need in order to eat in 2050.
Our 70 per cent estimate is inadvertently corroborated by the fertilizer industry who worry that somewhere between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of the world’s food is grown without their synthetic chemicals.