Feeding the world

Today, on a personal Facebook page, I received a message forwarded from Food Democracy Now. “We regret to inform you, but late last week Congress succeeded in passing Section 735, aka the Monsanto Protection Act . . . Once again, Monsanto and the biotech industry have used their lobbying power to undermine your basic rights.” The note came with a petition to sign against the provision.

It’s probably a good time to take a look at GMO, biotech, and other tools of industrial agriculture, which many, many people say are the only solution to feeding a world of 9 billion people. “Feeding the world” is a phrase that one hears often among groups of farmers, particularly conventional farmers. In Kentucky, farmers repeat this phrase with the conviction that the responsibility is all theirs.

It is a compelling argument, that American farmers wielding the latest, greatest agricultural biotechnology and farming “efficiently” with thousands of animals in huge barn factories will be the ones who will feed the great throngs expected by 2050. But it is a specious argument all the same.

First of all, American farmers aren’t feeding the world now and there are plenty of hungry people.

According to the FAO
, the world already produces more than 2700 calories per person, yet more than 1 billion people are starving. To rephrase: the world produces enough food; hungry people can’t access those calories because they can’t afford it, or because people prevent them from getting the food.

Dr. Daryll Ray pointed out in a 2011 “Policy Pennings” that because hungry people are often poor, “they cannot afford to import grain, and many of (them) cannot afford to buy it, especially at today’s prices. This situation is what economists call the lack of effective demand.” Ray also pointed out that the U.S. share of exported grains and soybeans has dropped more than 20% from the 1980s. Even if we have the technology to produce food, we are less relevant than ever as world feeders.

As for sustainable agriculture not providing enough food, there are a) countless studies that say it can and b) reminders by many that it’s going to need to.

Kentucky farmer Todd Clark absolutely believes that sustainable agriculture can feed a lot more people than it’s feeding now. Clark rents acreage to grow tobacco and hay, but on the 83 acres he owns (not all of it suitable for livestock), he is building his capacity to produce sustainably by adding layers of multiple species who use the same forage land. Clark is increasing the amount of food he produces and his income, and he believes all farmers in Kentucky and elsewhere can do the same.

Last year during pastured poultry season he produced about 10 cows and 750 broiler chickens per acre on his Fayette Co. farm. The number of cattle will increase to 11 or 12 per acre, he says, as the fertility of the soil improves with the grazing and manure production. “My place is greening up faster than my neighbors’,” he says, of the slow start to the 2013 spring, even though he applies no fertilizer.

Clark moves his cattle to new grazing space once a day, so moving the broilers wasn’t onerous. Last year he finished 75 beef cattle, taking them from 500-pound heifers to 1050 pounds on grass alone, saving a bundle on feed costs, and selling them to a Central Kentucky processing plant that sells grass-fed beef to Chipotle and Whole Foods; he raised 7500 broilers and kept 700 laying hens along with 42 ewes and their offspring. The effort yielded 100 pounds/acre of lamb (live weight), 400 pounds per chicken (finished), and 100 pounds of turkey (finished), in addition to eggs. “I am not maxed out,” he says.

In fact, if all goes well, this growing season Clark may grow 11,000 additional broiler chickens in order to provide Jefferson County Public Schools (in Louisville) with 40,000 servings of drumsticks and wing pieces. Even that will be maximum production for only half of the 30 weeks he could raise broilers on pasture. Adding sheep is also possible as he improves his fencing.

Clark has no doubt that the perennial grasses capturing solar energy in Kentucky could produce much more livestock than it does, and much more income to Kentucky farmers. “As I travel around” rural Kentucky, Clark says, “you see chicken tractors where you’ve never seen them before.” People are beginning to try this low-capital way of earning extra money, a technology that is easily transferable to poor farmers in any country.

Will raising multiple species on the same land feed 9 billion people in 2050? Clark thinks maybe it can, while at the same time reducing erosion and harmful nitrogen runoff, and improving the condition of topsoil. This sustainable system sounds like promising technology to me, offering young farmers a quick cash flow with layer and broiler flocks while building long-term income from slower growers, like pork, beef and lamb. Meanwhile, it replaces some of the fertility Kentucky has lost through years of plowing fencepost to fencepost. Sustainable, but still profitable.

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