Is sustainable agriculture viable?

November 27, 2010

The debate around the Murray Darling Basin crisis has brought to public attention the need to rethink agriculture in Australia.

Today, sustainable food production is relegated to niche status — squeezed out by methods of farming that are seen to be more efficient. However, the efficiency of the dominant mode of agriculture relies heavily on chemical inputs for fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

This agriculture degrades soils, pollutes waterways and contributes heavily to climate change.

The food system today is not working for many farmers or consumers. In a submission to a government inquiry in 2008, the National Farmers Federation stated that producers receive as little as 5% of what consumers spend at the checkout.

Meanwhile, many households face “food stress” as a growing portion of their income is spent on food.

A study by Flinders University found that to have a balanced and nutritious diet, low-income families must spend 30% of their income on food, the September 26 Sydney Morning Herald said.

It is claimed that only increasing industrialised agriculture can produce enough to feed the world. But the fact that an agricultural system can produce a lot of food does not necessarily equate to people being well nourished.

US NGO Why Hunger’s 2010 statistics show the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone — 17% more calories per person today than 30 years ago, despite population growth — but 925 million people globally remain undernourished.

The core of this problem is that food production is dominated by big players — from agrochemical companies to supermarket giants — that treat food just like any other commodity and the soil that produces it like any other resource to be exploited. Food production and distribution is organised for profitability, not meeting human and environmental needs.

As a result the soil, on which food production depends, is stripped of its fertility. Much less well known than peak oil is what many scientists are calling “peak soil”, where soil is being degraded faster than it can regenerate.

According to the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance in their Understanding Food Miles discussion paper, there has been a trend towards more highly concentrated land ownership in Australia, with the number of farms falling by 20% between 1986 and 1996.

“Trade liberalisation is forcing small farmers off the land as they compete with … big corporations in the farming sector”, the paper said.

More sustainable and fair models of agriculture are not only viable but essential.

The Rodale Institute in the US has conducted one of the world’s longest-running, side-by-side comparisons of organic and conventional farming systems. The organic systems receive no chemical inputs for fertility, weed or pest control and are now outperforming the yield of the conventional systems.

These findings are supported by the Agriculture at a Crossroads report commissioned by the World Bank and the United Nations, which was compiled over four years with input by more than 400 scientists from 80 countries.

At a summit in South Africa in 2008, leaders of 58 countries endorsed the Agriculture at a Crossroads report. Only three countries present refused to support it: the US, Canada and Australia.

In recent years there has been growing concern over the environmental and social costs of food production. Films like Food Inc. and Fast Food Nation have exposed the food system to mass audiences.

This has been expressed through an expansion of ethical consumption — helping the organic agriculture sector to grow rapidly (while remaining a tiny section of the market) — and in the growing interest in community gardens, farmers’ markets and home vegetable gardening.

But there is a lot of change required that cannot be achieved on an individual scale. There are growing calls for a national, integrated food and agriculture plan.

Such a plan could ensure that farmers are supported to make a transition to more sustainable agriculture that prioritises soil health and biodiversity.

Agricultural subsidies could be focused on this transition. It could also guarantee areas are protected as food-producing land rather than handed over to mining companies or developers.

It could also set aside land in urban centres for the expansion of urban agriculture to reduce emissions from transporting food, and a massive boost of investment in research for agro-ecological science and technology.

It could see measures to break the duopoly of the supermarket giants and intermediaries that keep down farm gate prices and push up retail prices.

It could also ensure that Australian exports do not undermine producers in poor countries, but rather introduce policies to support sustainable and fair agricultural development around the world.

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