World Food Security in the 21st Century

Talk, South Puget Sound Community College, April 28, 2014



World Food Security in the 21st Century


E. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California, Riverside, CA 92507



The Problem
“DAVOS, 24 January 2014  Up to 849 million hectares of natural land – nearly the size of Brazil – may be degraded by 2050 should current trends of unsustainable land use continue, warns a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  The need to feed a growing number of people globally has led to more land being converted to cropland at the expense of the world’s savannah, grassland and forests.  this has resulted in widespread environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, affecting an estimated 23 per cent of global soil.  Agriculture currently consumes more than 30 per cent of the world’s land area, and cropland covers around 10 per cent of global land.”   (UNEP 2014b, citing UNEP 2014a.  The rest of the agricultural land is largely grazing.)

            World food security is entering a new and troubling era.  At present, the world has plenty of food.  The media sometimes point to the fact that there are stocks sufficient to carry the world for only a few months, but this is expectable and natural; there is little point in stockpiling world food beyond the next harvests.  The fact that three billion people are not eating well, with about one billion of them in serious want (Kuhnlein 2014:13, citing FAO figures), is disturbing, but is balanced out by the fact that about one-fourth of the world’s food is lost to rats, insect pests, spoilage, and waste.  Also, with 1.5 billion overweight or obese (Kuhnlein 2014:13), including almost one billion obese in developing countries (BBC 2014), there is unbalance in food consumption. 

Current world food problems are political, as pointed out often over the years by Amartya Sen (e.g. 1992, 1997, 2009).  Sen showed that famines for at least the last 70 years have been political: a government refuses to provide adequate resources to farmers, or refuses to provide adequate food aid, or fails to set up a food aid infrastructure in a timely manner.  As Sen puts it: “…no major famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy with regular elections, opposition parties, basic freedom of speech and a relatively free media (even when the country is very poor and in a seriously adverse food situation)” (Sen 2009:342).  Sen shows convincingly that famine is a governmental choice, rendered possible by lack of accountability, rather than a natural disaster.

This is now well known in the international community.  The term “structural violence” was coined by Paul Farmer to refer to deliberate inaction leading to mass deaths (Farmer  2004).  A child dies of malnutrition every 10 seconds (Alexander 2013), but these deaths are due to failure of governments and agencies to provide livelihoods for the poor and medical and nutritional education and resources, not to any absolute lack.

In this case the problem is that the governments or agencies in question either do not care about the hungry, or actively want them to die, as in genocide cases (see Anderson and Anderson 2012).  The problem then becomes one of changing people’s minds about the worth and deservingness of the targeted group, and about the need for solidarity in the modern world—a world in which “we’re all in this together” and stand or fall together.  That, however, is somewhat outside the scope of the present paper (see, instead, the world’s religious scriptures).

The concept of “food security” was put in order by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1974, and defined as “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies”(Kuhnlein 2014:14).  A summit in 1996 and subsequent reportrs have added “nutrition security” (FAO et al. 2013; Kunhlein 2014).  The definition has extended, and has recently been phrased as “when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food, which is safe and consumed in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their dietary needs and food preferences, and is supported by an environment of adequate sanitation, health services and care, allowing for an healthy and active life” (Committee on World Food Security 2012, as quoted by Kuhnlein 2014:14).  

Like many UN definitions, including the classic one of  perfect health (“the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,” again Kuhnlein 2014:15, quoting the World Health Organisation in this case), this final definition is clearly unachievable in the real world; it is an ideal to strive for.  It is what I call a process goal: a goal that is unachievable in full, but for which every step toward it is progress.  Other process goals include peace, safety, and ethnic and religious tolerance.  We will never have perfect food security, but every genuine step toward it helps countless people (see e.g. Pottier 1999).


Root Causes


            However, the future will be very different.  Problems are many and complex, and fall under several headings, both environmental and social (a good review is Lester Brown’s book, Full Planet, Empty Plates, 2012).

            Most obvious, but not by any means the most intractable, is population.  World population is now almost eight billion people.  World land area is 57.53 million square miles, or 36,800,000,000 acres (Dave Huckleberry, online, Yahoo answers, 2008).  That works out to about 5 acres per person.  Unfortunately, only 1/10 of land is arable and another one or two tenths can be successfully grazed.  The rest is city, desert, ice sheet, tundra, and mountain.  Thus we are being fed from about 1 ½ acres of land apiece.  This is about the size of a traditional Chinese or Vietnamese rice farm.

            Population is still growing fast.  One hears that population growth has stagnated, but this is true only in Europe and the urbanized parts of East Asia.  The US population is still growing at almost 1% per annum.  Africa and the Middle East are growing at 2% or more.  Egypt has grown from 80 million to 92 million in the last few years.  Egypt depends entirely on the Nile, whose waters are now coveted by Ethiopia and Sudan.  Egypt has succumbed to political instability and religious bigotry, thus making it  impossible for the country to deal at present with long-term problems of food and population.  Pakistan and several other countries are in similar risky situations.

The good news is that the demographic transition is working; people everywhere are having fewer children than their parents did.  I have seen this happen in the major places I have worked:  Hong Kong, Malaysia, and southeast Mexico.  Completed family size dropped from seven children to two just in the time I have been working in those areas.  The bad news is that the demographic transition is not happening, or is happening very slowly, in the areas that still have rapid growth.  The future is not very hopeful in those areas.  If we do not make a full range of health care and birth control and family planning options available, free, and if we do not make them a socially acceptable choice, the consequences in places like Egypt and Pakistan are horrible beyond imagining.  Fortunately, the demographic transition proceeds rapidly when comprehensive health planning and care are done.  The problem is getting such things into the African and Middle Eastern back country.

            More immediately menacing, and far less tractable, are the problems with current farming practices.  One classic problem, not new and not caused by industry but greatly exacerbated by modern water mismanagement, is salt buildup in farmland.  Irrigation without proper drainage is the cause.  Salt buildup has been going on since ancient times in Mesopotamia and Pakistan, and the Bible speaks of it as a familiar phenomenon.  It has vastly increased in the last hundred years, as more and more dams and irrigation works are constructed, often without proper attention to drainage and flushing out salts.  Such land can be used for salt-tolerant crops for a while, or reclaimed, but ultimately it is too far gone to save.  Many a productive wetland has been drained and cultivated, only to become a salt desert in a few decades.

            Other ancient problems that are now worse than ever are overgrazing and overcultivation leading to desertification.  Millions of acres are lost every year, especially in dryland Africa and interior China.  Soil erosion also continues unabated in much of the world, in spite of well-known remedies.   Over-application of those remedies has its own costs:  The United States and Egypt, among other countries, have now so thoroughly controlled soil erosion that natural replacement of delta lands by silt has been impaired, leading to loss of vast areas of fertile land in the Mississippi, Nile, and other deltas. 

            Another curse that is ancient but has recently become far more serious is urbanization.  Even Babylon and Nineveh sprawled onto cropland, but of course we now urbanize on a vaster scale.  At the rate California was urbanizing before the housing meltdown of 2008, California’s last farm would have gone under around 2050.   China loses almost a million hectares a year to urbanization.

Most current problems, however, are due to unsustainable industrial farming.  The current worldwide crash in honeybee populations is the first real global disaster that can be laid directly at the door of industrial farming.  There have been many local ones, especially in China (Anderson 2012, updated on my website).  Water pollution—river, ocean, and groundwater—by fertilizers and pesticides is the source of the worst local problems.   Even the soil can be too polluted to use.  

A worst-case situation is that of China.  China’s farmland peaked at over 160,000,000 ha in the 1970s.  China’s farmland is now down to 120,000,000 ha—the minimum the government believes it needs for food security.  Much of this land was barely usable and reverted to forest, but by far the major part of it has been lost to the above causes.  China has lost perhaps 12,000,000 ha of farmland to soil and water pollution alone (Anderson 2012 summarizes the sources).  Similar disastrous land loss is observed in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and other dryland countries. 

Into all of this comes climate change.  Global warming is rapidly heating and drying much of the world’s agricultural land, including California, to the point of disaster.  We in California are losing about 20% of our almond acreage this year, for example, and may lose almost 100% of it in the near future.  Worldwide, the effects of global warming will be much worse in future (Elliott et al. 2014).  Some 15% of humanity dwells in areas where water availability is already problematic and will be much more so (Haddeland et al. 2014; Schewe et al. 2014).  Agriculture will suffer enormously from water shortages and heat, with possible loss of 17% of world production (Nelson et al. 2014; Rosensweig et al. 2014).  Probably most of the world’s cropland will be negatively affected by global warming, especially the poorer areas of the world (Wheeler et al. 2013).  The Sahel, for instance, will desertify.  So will the southwestern United States.

The release of the greenhouse gases that cause much of global warming is to a great extent due to agriculture.  Deforestation, land degradation, burning, use of fossil fuels, and other pathologies of badly-done rural land management cause at least 20% and probably over 30% of greenhouse gas release—more than cars or heating, almost as much as power plants.  This wasteful mismanagement is almost entirely the result of large-scale plantation-style farming, especially the clearing of tropical forests for oil palm plantations and cattle ranches. 

One particularly ironic, and dangerous, effect of global warming is that it is selectively destroying the most environmentally fine-tuned farming systems.  They depend on tight adjustment to local soil, water and climate conditions.  They are increasingly losing out, as global warming destroys those conditions.  Large-scale industrial farming has one virtue: it is relatively buffered against such things.  Even so, it is dying in much of California today.

The other big problem for the future is the oil peak, long predicted but always pushed farther into the future by new discoveries and new technologies.  We are currently much more threatened by greenhouse gas buildup from fossil fuel combustion than by the danger of oil peaking.  However, the end must come some time, and the world will have to adapt.  Energy is no problem—wind and solar are already underselling oil on the (virtual) free market.  Oil remains competitive because of the hundreds of billions of dollars of direct and indirect subsidies poured into it by world governments, and the extreme political power of the oil lobby (Juhasz 2008; Oreskes and Conway 2010; Ross 2012).  The oil corporations have successfully fought efforts to move away from oil or to admit the climate-change effects of fossil fuels.  The problem if oil runs out, however, is not lack of energy: it is need for oil to produce fertilizer, pesticides, and most other agrochemicals.  What we will use as feedstock for these chemicals is an interesting problem.  Coal and agricultural wastes are possibilities, but the technology needs development.

The other worldwide curse today is monoculture (for this and much that follows, see Anderson 2013).  Large-scale monoculture is not new.  It was a creation of the royal estates and temple estates of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, apparently the latter in particular.  They grew wheat and barley and very little (if anything) else.  They were owned and run by the government, though necessarily worked on a small-farmer basis.  The giant monocrop estates led directly to the even larger, slave-worked estates of ancient Greece and Rome.   These were more often mixed, since wine and fruit production was important, but extensive fields of wheat or barley were still common.  Medieval Byzantium and the Islamic empires continued this tradition, and western Europe picked it up from them. 

The dreadful climax of monocrop plantations came with the sugar industry in the Caribbean and Brazil in the 18th century.  Some 15,000,000 enslaved Africans were imported to work sugar (and, later, rice and cotton, on a much more limited scale).  Each enslaved person landed in the New World meant another three to ten persons dead—in African slave-capturing battles, or from disease and horrible conditions on the way from Africa to the Americas.  One slaving captain, John Newton, was so horrified but what he saw—and did—that he entered a profound personal crisis, quit his career, and repented for years, finally feeling he had achieved some religious forgiveness, and immortalizing it with the hymn “Amazing Grace”—which became a favorite of African-Americans. 

Thus was born modern monocrop agriculture.  Today, slaves continue to provide a great deal of the work force, in many parts of the world.  More commonly, landless laborers are used.  They can be cheaper than slaves; slaves had to be fed, and had every incentive to shun work, since they were usually too valuable (after the first decades) to be allowed to die outright. 

Quite apart from the social pathologies, so well covered in a vast literature (e.g. Beckford 1972; Mintz 1985, 1996), monocrop agriculture is suicidal as a food production method.  One reason is that it drives out more and more of the old species and varieties.  The world is now fed by a tiny handful of varieties of a tiny handful of species of plants and animals.  Of tens of thousands of species that have been used by humans, only eight plants (wheat, rice, maize, white potatoes, manioc, sugar cane, soybeans and sorghum) and three animals (cow, pig, chicken) supply almost all the world’s calories and meat.  Diversity is collapsing.

Worldwide, the big three grains—wheat, rice, and maize—are spreading rapidly at the expense of  local crops.  Soybeans, potatoes, and barley are spreading too, but important local crops such as rye, sorghum, and manioc are not (Khoury et al. 2014; FAO data), and the underappreciated and local crops are going out.  Soybean acreage has expanded 284% since 1961, oil palm 180% (Kinver 2014).  Almost all this expansion has been at the expense of tropical forest, leading to huge increases in atmospheric carbon as well as the loss of all the diversity in the forests.  Cattle ranching has also increased at the expense of forest.  This is not the result of the market or of competitive economics; these crops are heavily subsidized.

Much of the expansion of oil crops is not for human food, but for animal fodder or biodiesel production.  Biodiesel also now takes a large percentage of the world’s corn and sugar production.  When the biodiesel boom began, there were predictions that it would set rich people’s SUV’s against poor people’s children.  This is exactly what has happened.  Prices of food grains have soared while availability drops.

The other reason is that diseases and pests build up to high population levels, and also to high levels of virulence.  The more individuals of any organism are crowded together, the more density-dependent mortality they will experience (other things being equal).  The more genetically similar they are, the less resistance they will have to a particular disease that targets their particular genetic strain.  Diseases evolve rapidly through natural selection.  The one that succeeds best in spreading like wildfire in a large, crowded population will naturally triumph.  We have seen this with humans, from the Black Death of 1346-48 to the annual flu epidemics of today.

The notorious case of monoculture making history was the great European potato famine of 1846-48.  It is known in the English-speaking world as the Irish potato famine, but actually far more people were involved in Germany, Poland and Russia.  The resulting unrest led to revolutions, and to the success of the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels, 1848).  Still, the effect on Ireland was bad enough: hundreds of thousands dead, and millions—over the next few decades—emigrating. 

What happened was that north Europe had come to rely on a very few varieties of potato, especially one known as the Lumper (on the famine, and potato history, see Reader 2008; Salaman 1949; Woodham-Smith 1962).  The reason was that the potato was originally a tropical mountain crop, and only a few strains could live in a climate with fluctuating seasons an day-length.  These varieties largely derived from Chiloe Island, Chile, where they had been developed by the Mapuche people.  Chiloe is still a sort of genetic material.  The few really high-yield, adaptable strains available in Europe were vulnerable to the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, which was originally described as a fungus but is actually a brown alga.  The cold, wet summers of 1846 and 1847 were ideal for this wetness-loving plague.

More recently, in 1970, one third of the American maize crop was lost to a blight.  Today, a Ugandan wheat blight threatens the world’s wheat.  Several diseases are slowly wiping out the cacao plantations of Africa, and chocolate will soon be a thing of the past unless more is done.  Manioc is subject to buildup of diseases, though genetic engineering and ordinary selective breeding have saved it so far.  Bananas are now subject to Panama disease, strain 4, which is incurable and which has evolved to target the widely-planted existing varieties; it has devastated production in Asia and is now affecting Africa (Fresh Plaza 2013).  Other problems afflict bananas too (Turvill 2014).  Almost all commercial bananas are of the old Cavendish variety.  It has been around long enough to accumulate many diseases that target it.  Corn rootworms have now evolved resistance to Bacillus thuringensis genes engineered into maize (Gassmann et al. 2014), and weeds have evolved resistance to the herbicide glyphosphate (Roundup), so the major defenses of the US maize crop are giving out. 

The only hope in this world of monocultures is to preserve and encourage genetic diversity by any and all means possible.  The overwhelmingly most important thing to do is save all existing heirloom varieties, and landraces—the local varieties of crops that are preserved in small-scale and traditional agriculture.  This is being done, most famously in a vault in Spitsbergen, a place so cold that even projected global warming will not melt its deepfreeze.  Spitsbergen has other protection too:  the polar bears are so numerous and ferocious that people are not allowed outside the limits of the one tiny town unless they carry rifles. Other vast genetic resource banks exist, most notably the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, which preserves almost 500,000 varieties of rice.  Landraces of rice are still producing astonishing breakthroughs that can vastly increase world food production (Fujita et al. 2013).

Genetic engineering, meanwhile, can rapidly produce new varieties that are adapted to new diseases.  Genes for resistance to manioc diseases, for instance, have been engineered in from unrelated organisms, including in some cases the disease organisms themselves (Broach 2014).  This is where genetic engineering can come into its own.


Continuing Deterioration


Unfortunately, the world is not facing this crisis very well.  Agricultural research is being devastated by penny-pinching governments.  Now that most people worldwide live in cities, and farmers are down to 1 to 2% of the population in developed countries, agricultural research is simply not a political priority—though subsidies for agribusiness still are popular.  Agrarian and rural-based political parties tend to be conservative—more interested in saving tax dollars than in investing those dollars to save the world.  Annual growth in research and development in agriculture has declined steadily and sharply and is now less than 1% of research spending per year in the United States, as opposed nearly 4% over the 1950-70 period, the years of concern over the world food problem. 

Increase per year in crop yields and in labor and land productivity has tracked this amazingly closely (Alston et al. 2009)—it has slowed down greatly as research is cut. Moreover, research is increasingly related to the needs of industrial farming.  Little attention is paid to serious development of agriculture on small farms and in harsh or tropical environments.  NGO’s do a great deal of applied work in those areas, but little innovative research.  Some of the most important crops get strikingly little research.  Wheat yields have increased only 0.9% a year in the last decade, vs. maize 1.6%, because maize is more profitable to seed companies.  Governments no longer do much research on any crops (Nature 2014).  Even maize yield increase is not keeping up with world population increase.

Land productivity is 2.4 what it was in 1961, labor 1.7 times.  These figures imply that the Green Revolution has had less effect than it might; it increased the yields of major grains by up to 10 times.  Meanwhile, the giant seed and agribusiness corporations, especially Monsanto, have progressively cut back offerings, monopolized seed, and bulldozed the farm sector into cutting back on traditional varieties.  Often, Monsanto can persuade governments to give it and its seeds and chemicals special consideration (see e.g. Imhoff 2012).  The world is addicted to monocropping because of these uneconomic interferences with the market.  The UNEP report cited at the beginning of this paper gives many more details, especially on crop acreage, and many suggestions for fixing the world; unfortunately the suggestions are at a high level of generality.

We thus find ourselves, worldwide, poised on the brink of what could be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.  Diseases are waiting in the wings to take out wheat, rice, potatoes, and the other staple crops, as well as chocolate, bananas, coffee, and our other favorite indulgences.  Wiping out honeybees will eliminate almonds, alfalfa, and dozens of other crops that require honeybee pollination.  Moreover, other bees are just as susceptible to modern pesticides, and we are thus losing bumblebees, which pollinate clover and other crops, and squash bees, which are essential to pollinating squash, gourds and melons.  Pollinators in general have been in decline for decades, with disastrous effects on plants (Burkle et al. 2013).

            At least we do not have to worry as much about GMO crops as many are doing these days.  They are, so far, safe.  America has been a nation of guinea pigs, eating GMO crops for 20 years without reported damage.  The genetic engineering is a natural process, put to work by scientists (see e.g. interviews by Nagy and Bose with my colleagues Norman Ellstrand and Alan McHughen, 2014; unlike most sources, this one has the advantage of drawing on scientists who have studied the questions, rather than advocates with committed positions).  One problem so far has been overuse of pesticides with consequent devastating effects on wild plants and insects.  Possibly more serious for the future is increasing monopoly over seeds, not only of GMO’s but of conventional crops, by Monsanto—which has acted in a way that can only be described as predatory and amoral, as in suing farmers for growing patented seed when the seeds had apparently come up by accident in the farmers’ fields.  Neither of these problems is intrinsic to GMO’s and both are quite solvable. 

On the other hand, the golden promise of GMO’s has not come to pass.  They do not greatly increase yields.  They do not greatly decrease pesticide use (though they should).  They have brought no significant benefits to impoverished nations, though they surely would if proper research were done.  The debate on GMO’s is notably unedifying.  Both sides resort to extreme and flatly dishonest claims.  It is a depressing insight into human political activity.

            In short, many of the problems with food production today are the result of industrial monocrop plantation agriculture.  Industrial large-scale agriculture has several disadvantages. It relies on oil-fueled machinery instead of skilled labor.  It clears vast tracts of land and mismanages landscapes on a large scale.  It uses vast amounts of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers, again in place of skilled labor.  And it is a great lobbying force behind the run-down of aid and research for diversification, good management, and small-scale mixed farming.

Other, more general, problems include urbanization, pollution, population growth, and water shortages.  But they are not intractable, and recent writers on the world food situation are relatively upbeat and hopeful about the future (e.g. Evans 1998; Smil 2001).  For instance, livestock rearing, currently often unsustainable because it leads to tropical deforestation and competes with humans for grain and soybeans, could easily be made much more ecologically sound—though it would probably mean less meat per human.  Mark Eisler and Michael Lee (2014) point out that we could do a much better job.  This would involve choosing livestock for the land (instead of raising cows everywhere); doing a much better job with animal health and veterinary medicine; using feeds that are not human food and do not compete for cropping space; eating better quality meat (more expensive, to be sure); drawing on local cultures; and being more conscious of costs and benefits of various practices.


Small Farms: the Foundation of Hope


All the above may sound truly daunting, but the beginning of a remedy is simple, clear, and easily available.  Martin Luther, in his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” conjures up a terrifying image of Satan, but then reassures us that “one little word will slay him.”  The same is almost literally true of the world food problem.  The difference is that instead of the Word Made Flesh, our winner today is Small Mixed Farming. 

            There are currently 500 million family farms in the world, supporting 2 billion people (Katz 2014).  They dominate the production of many nutrient-rich crops.  The main problem with shifting toward small-scale farming is the mistaken belief that it is less efficient and productive than large-scale industrial farming.  A program on the banana problem on NPR recently held that people want cheap bananas, so must have monocrop plantations.  This could not be more wrong.  An enormous literature, usefully brought together and summarized (with references) by Robert Netting in Smallholders, Householders (1993) and by Michael Dove in The Banana Tree at the Gate (2011), has proved that intensive, skilled smallholder farming is virtually always more efficient and productive. 

All local systems have enormous resources of knowledge and skill (see e.g. Bicker et al. 2004; Gonzalez 2001; Laird 2002; Lansing 1991; Wilken 1987; many references therein).  Of course the world’s many small farms include many that are mere hobby or retirement farms, or are too desperately poor to function well, or are on marginal land.  But where there is straight-up competition, as in the areas I have done my own research in China, Malaysia and Mexico, well-managed, adequately capitalized small farms literally beat the plantations out of the field. 

In the Maya region I study in Mexico, for instance, no large-scale farming has ever succeeded in the hot, dry, pest-ridden environment.  But the Maya have been succeeding brilliantly for 3,000 years there.  The famous Maya collapse in the 9th-10th centuries A.D. was very likely due in part to their adopting something too much like large-scale monocrop agriculture (Diamond 2005, but his interpretation is somewhat preliminary and is debatable).  

            The belief that bigger is better has led to enormous subsidies, tax breaks, and special favors for agribusiness (Imhoff 2012 provides full details), and to targeting research to the needs of agribusiness—especially since much of the research is done by the corporations themselves.  Agribusiness controls whole nations and whole American states, or more often the agricultural policies of whole states, through heavy campaign donations to political candidates and through heavily funded lobbying.  American taxpayers subsidize agribusiness to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year; that money is then used to influence legislators and legislation, to keep the money flowing and, sometimes, to keep small farmers suppressed (see e.g. Anderson 2014; Imhoff  2012; Nestle 2002).  Several American states actually have laws against criticizing large-scale agriculture.  (These are irreverently called “veggie libel laws,” though many actually focus on banning criticism of industrial animal rearing, which is often cruel to the animals.)  These are ruled unconstitutional whenever challenged in court, but survive because of servile media and high court costs to challengers.

            Recent studies of economic development have shown unequivocally that the best way is to work with people on the ground, which means ordinary people—not giant corporations, agribusiness firms, or millionaire absentee landlords (se e.g Ascher 1999; Bunker and Ciccantell 2005; Daly 1997; Dichter 2003; Easterly 2006; Ellerman 2005; Stiglitz 2003).

            Small farms have several advantages.  First and foremost is the presence on the ground of a highly skilled labor force.  Small farmers are usually the descendants of long lineages of small farmers, who have sharpened their skills dealing with a difficult world.   If they are the owners or have long leases, as is usually the case worldwide, they have every incentive to use every ounce of their skill in maximizing production over the long term.  By contrast, a tractor operator for a giant California agribusiness firm has no incentive beyond getting through the day without being fired.  Efficiency, to him, means only that he would take longer at a given job—to the annoyance of his boss.  Thus it is no surprise to find that about a third of tomatoes produced on California factory farms are lost by careless production and harvesting (a figure I can amply confirm from personal experience).   

Water management is a similar case.  A giant industrial farm is apt to use sprinkler irrigation or open-ditch irrigation.  A small closely-managed farm is more apt to find it economically compelling to move to drip irrigation and water-sparing practices and crops.  Another advantage of skill is knowing how to use “nature’s services” (Daily 1997).  Farmers know how to maximize the benefits of sun, water, and soil, and minimize the risks.  Small farms usually have diversified crops, but even if they do not, they are separated from other farms by at least some sort of field boundary.  If this is a hedgerow or brush or grass strip, it is a haven for pest-eating animals, and retards erosion.

There is no substitute for a skilled owner or long-lease-holder.  As the English proverb says, “the best dung for the land is the tread of the master’s foot.”  That is what is lost with absentee landlordism and giant corporations.  (A minor, but real, exception occurs when a corporation has enough sense to lease out farms and give the lessors control of the operation.)

            One qualification that has to be made, though, is that “small” is a relative term.  A small wheat farm is a couple of thousand acres.  A small ranch may be even larger, especially in desert lands.  A one-acre lavender farm is quite large, and vegetable farms of one-fourth or even one-sixth acre are often highly profitable.  The economics of cropping, especially labor needs, matter more than actual land area.

            The only solution to monocropping is not monocropping.  Small mixed farms can produce plantation commodities such as rubber and bananas more efficiently than plantations do (Dove 2011; my own research confirms this).  Epidemics cannot sweep so easily through the landscape.  Small farms conserve a rich mix of species and varieties.  There are countless banana varieties in Malaysian and Indonesian home gardens that resist Panama disease 4; they should be sought out and propagated. 

            As to global warming:  agriculture could easily turn from producing 20 to 30% of the world’s greenhouse gases to absorbing a much higher same amount.  This would require intensive tree cropping, reforestation, restoration of grasslands and brushlands, care of wetlands, polliution control, and, in short, farming such that the land is improved rather than devastated.  Healthy forests and grasslands are major carbon sinks.  (Claims to the contrary are wrong, and sometimes deliberately dishonest.  Trees increase their carbon takeup exponentially as they age; Stephenson et al. 2014.)  In fact, regrowth of foolishly cleared and subsequently abandoned land in Amazonia is now a substantial sink for atmospheric carbon.

Some of the most threatened and rapidly-vanishing forests are among the most extremely effective at blotting up carbon (e.g. Southeast Asia’s; Yu et al 2014).  If intensive tree cropping were practiced on small farms, with the wood of overaged trees being used for construction or the like and the slash being mulched, an increasingly large carbon sink would develop.  The wood would have to go into some long-term use or it would just rot or burn and release its carbon again.  My furniture-making great-grandfather drew on local aging orchards for his wood.  Today, overaged orchards are simply burned—a huge waste of good wood.


The Best Chance:  Small Farms and Gardens


            The best solution for food insecurity involves intensive small-scale field cropping coupled with home gardens.  In rural areas of the world, home gardens are a well-established tradition.  It has been my good fortune to work in areas of the world where homegardening was a fine art: Mexico and Southeast Asia (Anderson 1993a, 1993b).  Here, traditional households normally lived on lots that could range from a quarter acre to one or two acres.  These they gardened intensively, growing many fruit trees, bushes, herbs, grasses, perennials, and even algae. 

Gardens are typically layered, to take advantage of sunlight at multiple storeys, like a natural open forest.  In Southeast Asia, for instance, a high layer of coconuts shares a canopy layer of durian, mangosteen, rambutan, orange, avocado and other trees, which shades a perennial layer of papaya, bananas, and guavas, which shades a bottom layer of manioc, spices, herbs, and bushes.  Vegetables, however, need more sun, so they are planted separately or at the edgesof the treed area.  The high trees grow their branches over the houses, so that no air space is wasted.  From an airplane, in the old days, one saw only a vast expanse of fruit trees with only a few bits of roof poking through.  Yet the population on the ground could be urban in density.  Unfortunately, modernization naturally means lots of roads, parking lots, and shopping centers, even where they make no economic sense, and millions of acres of highly productive land have been sacrificed.

A garden could have up to 100 or more species of plants.  The record in Chunhuhub, the town I studied in Mexico, was 92 species in one garden.  Other gardens had as few as four or five, but the average was around 25-30 (Anderson 2003).  Gardens in other areas of Mexico, and other tropical countries, can have well over 100 species. 

            An interesting feature is that Southeast Asia and tropical America began to share dooryard garden plants with the very first Portuguese and Spanish voyages.  Today almost everything is shared except for a few hard-to-grow fruit trees.  The Thai lime, that characteristic citrus of Thailand, is essential to Yucatan cooking (Anderson 2013).  Tabasco parsley (Eryngium foetidum) is universal in even remote areas of Cambodia and Vietnam (personal observation), though how it got there I have no idea.

When I was doing research in Madagascar, I found the homegarden tradition to be poorly developed there.  I was there with some students who were going on to international aid work, and for them I wrote up a manual of tropical home gardening.  Unfortunately it has not found a publisher, but it is available online:  “The Tropical Food Security Garden,” at my website  It provides full directions for developing a tropical garden when one has limited space and virtually no money for inputs. 

Strangely, this sort of gardening guide is incredibly hard to find these days.  The best were the old Victory Garden manuals from World War II.  Find them if you can.  My friends Daniela Soleri and Dave Cleveland did a similar manual for dryland gardens, but they could find only a quite obscure publisher for it (Cleveland and Soleri 1991).  Fortunately, Gary Nabhan (2013) has now done a similar work for dry areas, and it is much more visible.

            The United States has its own problems, often following from loss of traditional farming and traditional farm varieties of plants.  These varieties were often hardier and more productive under difficult or special conditions than are modern varieties (though the converse is also often true).  A great deal of effort to salvage these old varieties and re-popularize them is going on now, especially in the southern United States, where old varieties are especially common and well liked (see e.g. Campbell 2014; Lockyer and Veteto 2013; Nabhan and Madison 2008).  The traditional conservatism of the south has social costs, but major dietary benefits.

            Even more effective, because widespread and targeting the very areas that most need good food, is urban gardening.  A particularly stunning program emerged from Houston, thanks to the work of Robert Randall since the early 1980s (Randall 2013).  Working tirelessly with inner-city residents, he has built up a huge program of vegetable and fruit growing.  The inner city people in question usually had had farming parents or grandparents, but had been raised in the city, with scant knowledge of how to grow food.  Other cities have their own programs; in Los Angeles, public gardens are well established, largely because of the city’s huge Latino and southeast Asian population, whose dedication to growing their favorite foods is unstoppable.  They have launched countless “guerrilla gardens” under power lines, in vacant lots, and in other neglected spaces—usually with the law looking the other way, sometimes with permission and encouragement, rarely with oppressive forced removal.  Seattle’s “P-Patch” program is famous and successful, as I know not only from observation but from many an hour spent working in P-patches. 

Home gardens not only produce a great deal of food; it is usually very nutritious.  Corn is usually the favorite vegetable to raise (Anderson et al. 1973), and it is not a great nutrition source, but the other regular plants—tomatoes, squash, greens, peppers and the like—are extremely valuable contributors to household nutrients. 

            It is possible to do urban gardening anywhere.  A memorable experience of my wife and myself was visiting the worst slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1999, and finding that healthy survival there depended on finding any tiny bit of soil where vegetables and trees could be grown.  Landlords usually made this expensive and difficult, but families who could manage to find bits of ground—sometimes only a square foot—could grow an astonishing amount of food.  They could, for instance, train squash vines over their huts, a practice I have seen all over Asia and Mexico.  I have also seen many a rooftop garden, in pots on the tops of high-rise buildings.  I have also seen perfectly productive, nutritious gardens grown in pots on the verandas of houses built on stilts over water. 

            The real virtue of urban gardens is the high nutritive value of the food.  One is not going to produce many calories, but one can get a full complement of vitamins and minerals from a very small garden, by careful planting.  The highest nutrient values in common vegetables are found in turnip greens and similar dark greens of the cabbage family; chile peppers; parsley and cilantro; and spinach.  Purslane (see below) is even higher.  Highest of all, probably, is the goji berry, a traditional Chinese food now popular in the United States.  It has been grown for thousands of years in China, for medicinal purposes that translate perfectly well into modern biomedicine: its berries and leaves are the richest common source of vitamins and minerals, and it is also rich in protective antioxidants.  It has long been grown in Chinese gardens in the US (personal observation, Los Angeles; observation by my coworkers Paul Buell and Christopher Muench, Seattle and Bellingham).  It is now commercially available from US nurseries.

            This being said, producing a lot of calories in a very small space is possible.  Sweet potatoes, winter squash, and manioc can do it.  Best of all is a trick developed by the Green Revolution workers in Latin America.  One plants potatoes in a normal bed.  Then when the potato plant is well grown, one puts an old worn-out tire around it, and fills the tire with dirt.  The potato grows upward, and also produces more tubers in the tire.  One can build a tower of three or four tires this way, and get a bushel of potatoes out of 30 square feet of land. 

            The area covered by lawns in the United States is estimated to be equal to the area of Pennsylvania (Jenkins 1994; see also Robbins 2007).  Most of this area could be vegetable garden or home orchard instead of useless, water-wasting, poison-drenched lawn.  Our studies showed that people keep lawns for social conformity, and refrain from gardening in them because of local peer pressure; one neighbor of a gardener remarked “He raises vegetables in his front yard.  He must be crazy.”  (Anderson et al. 1973; see also Anderson 1972).  Lawns are to mark status as a proper American and neighborhood citizen, not to be useful (Anderson 1972; Robbins 2007).  They should be converted to a less wasteful future.

            Most hopeful of all is the movement to get schools into vegetable gardening.  This is a very old agenda—it was often done in my childhood, and my friend David Goodward has been doing it in our local public schools for years.  But it became visible through Alice Waters, the great restauranteur who built Chez Panisse from a tiny hole-in-the-wall to the most famous restaurant in the western United States.  Alice Waters has worked with enthusiasm and charm, but has also fought with bulldog tenacity, for this cause; her book Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea (2008)is a must read for all aspiring food security workers.

            Weeds remain a very common and widespread source of food.  They are very often protected in gardens or even semi-cultivated.  They are often deliberately introduced to gardens, with farmers transplanting, trading, sharing, and propagating (see e.g. Anderson 2003; Cruz-Garcia and Price 2014).  They are particularly well known as a food resource in the Mediterranean, partly because of the beautiful literary treatment of Patience Gray (1997), whose accounts of gathering wild foods on remote islands of Greece were very widely read for their outstanding quality, but also for the persistent ethnobiological work of Andrea Pieroni, Manuel Pardo-de-Santayana, and other researchers.  (See e.g. Molina et al. 2014; Quave and Pieroni 2014.) 

I well remember a fascinating moment of truth.  A Mexican botany student of ours, Juan Jimenez-Osornio, who had come from a central Mexican farm,  was taking his oral examination, and was asked by our weed expert, Jodi Holt:  “What do you do with the weeds in your fields?”   He answered:  “Well, we eat them.”  Jodi Holt is hard to astonish, but that stopped her.  All her career had been spent getting rid of weeds.  But in the next few minutes she learned that every weed has its use:  if not as food, then as medicine or pest control source.  I have visited Mexican fields with Juan, who is now a professor in Mexico.  With him I observed the spectacular Mexican marigolds saved because no pest will come near them—they contain powerful pesticidal and fungicidal chemicals.  Often, there is a continuum from weed to cultigen.  In Juan’s fields were growing cultivated varieties of purslane, verdolagas in Spanish (Portulaca oleracea).  The same plant is a wild plant, but gathered for food, in other parts of the world.  But in California it is merely destroyed as a weed.  It is basically tasteless but has a very high nutritional value.  It will grow literally on a brick (it routinely grows in cracks in the pavement at my house), so its future for food security is bright.

            The crux of the matter is changing worldwide priorities from support of large-scale industrial agribusiness to support for small-scale, intensive, skilled, diversified farming.  This does not mean going with the current fads for locavory, organic farming, or the like.  We will, instead, have to draw on every possible technical advance: new pest controls, genetic engineering, new storange and transportation systems.  We will have to widen the scope of world trade.

Above all, though, we must seriously support the existing small-farming sector, from Thailand to Mali, from Bolivia to California, from Finland to New Zealand.  The vast majority of the world’s farmers are still small-scale operators.  Many still follow traditional practices and maintain traditional crops.  Where they are supported with subsidies and research comparable to those lavished on industrial agribusiness, they prosper and flourish. 


Deeper Cure:  World Justice


            This, however, is not the end of the story, or perhaps even the beginning of it.  We must return to the initial observation of this paper:  hunger and food insecurity in the modern world are the result of politics, not lack of food.  As Amartya Sen pointed out, sometimes the government is so corrupt and incompetent that it cannot take care of its people, but usually it has simply abnegated the responsibility.  Often this leads to ecological collapse and the failure of the whole food production system (see e.g. Diamond 2005 on Haiti).  Often, government irresponsibility is the result of hate.  Two kinds of hate primarily concern us:  first, hatred and contempt of the poor and the weak; second, ethnic, political, gender-based, and religious hatreds.  Both are rampant worldwide.  The really deadly case occurs when they are combined—when a powerful, rich government looks down on the less fortunate and keeps itself in power by appealing to group hate. 

Unfortunately, the vast majority of food producers worldwide are small-scale local people, many of them impoverished and uneducated, and many of them members of minority groups or oppressed castes or classes.  Also, many are women, and gender bias is far too common worldwide.  In fact, a large percentage of the problems with both food production and food security in today’s world are straightforward matters of hatred and discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, class, caste, political orientation, and other group identities.  This is not often stated and still less often addressed.  Sometimes whole groups are deliberately excluded, but more common is inadvertent exclusion based on sheer ignorance.  My wife Barbara Anderson and I have repeatedly seen, in many parts of the world, literature and workshops aimed at and delivered to me—in places where women do the farming and gardening work.

Moreover, sadly, most of the literature on world food production deals with technological fixes that would help large-scale agribusiness but would do nothing to alleviate the real problems.  Relatively little available material is aimed at ordinary small farmers.

            Thus, farmers tend to suffer disproportionately from unfair and violent treatment.  This may appear in the forms of war, genocide, repression, withholding of aid to the poor, or overall injustice.  These all impact the food system. 

More immediately deadly are direct attacks on the food production system itself.  Sometimes this takes the form of displacing local food producers through violence, urbanization, or simple theft.  Sometimes it takes the form of insecurity of land title—a huge problem especially for minorities including Indigenous groups.  Sometimes it comes through irresponsible development schemes, such as big dams.  I have even heard anecdotally of a proposal (presumably not very serious) to throw African farmers off their lands and bring in American and Chinese agribusinessmen—presumably thought to be more successful.  Of course, quite apart from social injustice, this would not work, because the farmers would have no idea how to cope with the harsh African landscape. 

One of the saddest manifestations of environmental injustice is displacement of local food producers in the name of environmental conservation (Brockington, Duff and Igoe 2008; West, Igoe and Brockington 2006).  Throwing productive, successful people off their land does not successfully conserve.  It is more apt to turn them into poachers and wasters.  It leaves the land unprotected and unmanaged.  I have seen this in Mexico (Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005) and friends have studied it there (e.g. Martinez-Reyes 2004).

            New grassroots NGO’s, such as La Via Campesina, have now seen the necessity to deal with food security, political structures, and oppression through hatred as one problem that has to be addressed as one problem.

            Whether corruption, incompetence, or hatred is the problem, governmental failure is clearly the biggest factor in hunger worldwide, as Amartya Sen has shown.  Only through the success of real democracy and justice can food security exist, whether at local or national or worldwide levels.  Democracy means not only majority rule and minority rights, but a climate of honesty, tolerance, and valuing diversity.  It is a system in which each individual has value; no one is devalued because of poverty or ethnic or religious minority status, or because of gender or personal identification.  People have to be the ends of all action, not mere means to achieve “economic growth” or some other abstraction.  The environment, too, needs to be treated as an end in itself, worthy of preservation for itself.  Only by giving it an absolute right to exist, undamaged, can we protect even a minimum of ecosystem services.

            Religion has tried to teach these things throughout history, but has been bent to the service of evil and psychopathic persons in all times and places.  We need ecologically aware and morally engaged religion, uncontaminated by the evil (see Sponsel 2012; Taylor 2010).  We also need a more general and basic system of morality. 

I have recently been struck by the very widespread use of concepts that translate as “respect” as the basis for the morals of environmental and food security.  Of languages my students and I have worked in, I can mention shuteekh in Mongolian, isaak in Nuu-chah-nulth (Atleo 2004), and taaqheeq-e in Akha (a minority language of China; Wang 2013).  This may provide the real hope for the future: a morality based on respect for all life and all people.











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