Most of us have been fortunate to grow up in circumstances where there was always enough – if not more than enough – to eat. The Green Revolution, born in the late 60s, increased food production fast enough to keep up with a burgeoning global population. But that may not be the case for much longer. The increased yields it brought are now beginning to plateau while the global population continues to grow faster than predicted.

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In his book The End of Plenty: The race to feed a crowded world (2015), Bourne explains how and why the world is running out of food. On the demand side, in addition to the increasing numbers of people on the planet, is an expanding global middle class that is adding more meat to its diet and the expansion of biofuels, along with financial market speculation in food commodities. Meanwhile, climate change, depleted soils and loss of arable land are pressing issues challenging supply.

Bourne focuses on farming in The End of Plenty. Its practices sit at the crux of an apocalyptic scenario of environmental collapse, famine and war that may await us further in the century; but it may also be what saves us. In the second half of the book Bourne profiles specific techniques that hold promise for more sustainable food production, along with individual farmers and entrepreneurs working on solutions to feed ourselves and take care of the planet at the same time.

The primary tension at the heart of your book is the scale of our food production in contrast to the scale of the burgeoning human population. In light of that, what are some of the most scalable models of sustainable farming you came across in your research?

Both SRI (system of rice intensification) and microirrigation techniques have enormous potential to be scaled. SRI could be implemented in every rice-growing region in the world. Microirrigation we’ve had for 30 years, but as water becomes more scarce in more parts of the world, it becomes more valuable, and farmers are willing to pay more for irrigation. This incentivises companies like Driptech (a social venture profiled in the book that makes a gravity-powered irrigation system) to produce [the technology] at prices affordable for even fairly poor farmers. The technique of microirrigation itself, which can produce up to 90% water use efficiency (compared to the more common 50% or less) can help farmers trim their water use to renewable levels, thus making their water use more sustainable.

Another aspect of scale is land ownership in agriculture. On one end of the spectrum there are smallholder farmers with tiny plots, while at the other end there are huge corporate farms or landholdings. How does that pattern impact food security?

When you think about arable land and how much is left, it’s an important question. By some estimates we’re losing 33 million hectares a year to development and degradation. Meanwhile small farmers grow 60-70% of the food in the world, but most of it is consumed there on the spot.

Another aspect of the problem in developing countries is the lack of property rights. One of the examples I talk about in the book is a land grab in Mozambique where 20,000 hectares were leased to a Chinese company to grow rice, but in doing so thousands of farmers were kicked off their land. They were just displaced – they lost their livelihood. I asked an agricultural official how the government could do this, and he told me that that one farm had the potential to cut the entire country’s rice imports in half. It’s hard to argue with that; Mozambique has a lot of hungry people.

But must it be all or nothing? Have you seen any examples of corporate agriculture and subsistence farmers working together?

Yes. The middle way, which has proven effective with small-scale soybean farmers and poultry producers in Mozambique, is for corporations to contract with small farmers to grow the goods they need. The company supplies inputs and expertise, guarantees a fair market price (minus inputs provided), and then purchases the harvest at the end of the season. This is a win-win for all, but it depends on trust.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, some of the people I talked to were convinced that mid-sized family farms with 200-500 acres were the country’s future rather than the big corporate farms being operated by foreign investment concerns. That was fascinating to me.

While Big Corporate Ag has economies of scale, it also has a lot of weaknesses, most importantly the fact that managers and employees aren’t nearly as vested in the land or the operation as small family farmers are. They are wage earners. So if planting is late, or the harvest is low, the distant corporation suffers, not them. This is not just a Ukrainian thing. Eastern North Carolina is full of corporate farms that went bankrupt in the 1980s. No one cares for the land as much as a landowner, and the small family unit continues to produce the bulk of the world’s food, whether they are farming 2000 acres in Nebraska or 5 acres in Mozambique. 

How do you disseminate the knowledge and techniques of conservation agriculture, especially in developing countries where agriculture is a mainstay of the economy and local food security?

The Green Revolution paradigm is powerful. And one reason it’s so sticky is that every extension agent has been preaching it at the top of their lungs from here to Burkina Faso for the last 50 years. We have to change that voice, and start to talk to people about the benefits of soil fertility, for example.

In the US, probably the best example of a model for this would be the Organic Foods Production Act (in terms of establishing standards and processes for organic agriculture). It’s been around since 1990, and we have had double-digit growth in organic food and beverage sales since the advent of rBGH-free milk that kickstarted the organic dairy industry in 1994. Although organic only makes up 4% of the sales of food and beverages in the US today, it is the fastest growing segment and there is a lot of interest in it, so the ball is rolling.

Are the only obstacles to more sustainable methods of farming the old Green Revolution ways of thinking?

Well, there’s no free lunch in agriculture. Many conservation techniques come with a labour cost. The Soils, Food and Healthy Communities project in Malawi profiled in the book, where they are growing legumes to improve soil fertility and enrich the local diet, is a good example: incorporating the crop residue into the fields means a lot of work with a short-handled hoe. Traditionally weeding is the women’s job, but because African women farmers are already working 12-13 hours a day, you have to teach the men to help, and it becomes a cultural thing. And although that programme has been really successful in terms of enriching the soil, increasing yields and improving nutrition through crop diversification, after 6-7 years only half the participants have stayed in.

Is that only because of the labour issue?

It is a sensitive one. It’s one thing to tell a farmer how to grow a better crop, quite another to tell him or her how to divide farm labour with a spouse. But I suspect there are a couple of things going on. First, Malawi farmers, and consumers, love maize. It’s their favourite crop. They eat mzima – corn porridge – almost every day and it provides the bulk of their calories. So there is a cultural hurdle to overcome. And if the government is willing to subsidise fertiliser and hybrid maize seeds, it’s hard [for them] to turn down. Remember, it’s not just money on the line here, but the health and survival of children. So they are understandably risk averse.

It’s not easy to change mindsets. But we just have to keep trying to encourage people to farm in a way that’s better for them and the environment, and have that message echoed by their peers, their universities and their government.

Some of the other conservation methods mentioned in your book include min-till and no-till farming. These systems reduce soil compaction and can help to conserve moisture but the problem comes when trying to control weeds, especially at a field scale. Are there any alternatives to using herbicides?

There aren’t many tools for organic weed control: you’ve got cover crops, mulch or plastic mulch if you can afford it, otherwise it’s cold steel and a tractor. When I visited the Rodale Institute, they showed me a crimper they’re working on to roll over hairy vetch, but you would need a big-seeded crop to use it.

Did writing this book make you feel more worried or hopeful about the future?

If all the current trends continue, we aren’t going to have enough food to feed hundreds of millions of people. But when agricultural scientists say we are going to need to produce 70-100% more food over the next 25 years, we have to ask: what if biofuels didn’t take the same share of food stocks? What if women in the developing world had access to education and the fertility rate drops? All these things come into play, and when the pressures start to bear, especially with climate change, I don’t think humanity will allow itself to get to that point [of total self-destruction].

What are some things we can do to turn the tide?

As consumers and voters we can vote with our wallets by purchasing more sustainably produced foods that are largely unsubsidised. And as the number of more sustainable producers grow, they and their organisations yield more influence on politicians that create agricultural policies. We’re already starting to see a small shift in the US, with some dollars devoted to organic agriculture in the most recent Farm Bill, thanks no doubt to the growing clout of the Organic Trade Association. I’m not opposed to agricultural subsidies. No other person’s paycheck that I’m aware of is dependent on whether it rains or not and no form of production is as important as what a farmer produces. But since subsidies promote or sustain various agricultural systems, we need to make sure they promote those that do more good than harm, such as agricultural research devoted to sustainable farming practices, urban farming centres and distribution hubs in food deserts, among many other programmes that could help wean us off our current monocultures.

Photograph: Oxfam GB Asia

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