'Earth-Friendly' Agriculture Unkind To World's Hungry
Activists Have Proven Poor Farmers Can Feed Themselves With Low-Tech Methods
February 8, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.—The world needs a second Green Revolution to correct the problems caused by the first one, which fostered an over-dependence on chemicals and machines that betrayed rural communities and the environment.
So claim three environmental advocates in "The Potential of Agro-Ecology to Combat Hunger in the Developing World," a paper published by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute. It offers examples of small farmers "in partnership with non-government organizations...promoting resource-conserving yet highly productive farming systems."
The paper describes how low-tech activists taught Honduran farmers how to do contour farming on steep hillsides, using grass barriers and rock walls to keep soil from washing away. It also stresses the use of organic fertilizers like chicken manure. Corn and wheat yields tripled, to as much as 1.6 tons per hectare.
SOIL CONSERVATION, contour farming and fertilizer are all good things. Essentially, that's what farmers in Pennsylvania started doing in the 1930s. Today those farmers are producing five times more grain per acre than the Honduran farmers, and losing less topsoil, by utilizing the latest soil conservation system, no-till farming.
No-till farming, which has replaced traditional plowing on over 300 million acres around the world, uses herbicides for weed control and cuts soil erosion by up to 90 percent. With the extra yield, Pennsylvania farmers don't even crop their steepest slopes any more. Those are put into grass for cattle, or reforested for timber and wildlife.
Activists also helped Peruvian farmers in the Andes revive an ancient system of farming, which employed raised fields surrounded by water-filled ditches. These "waru-warus" moderate soil temperatures and extend the growing season, allowing yields of up to 14 tons of potatoes per hectare, against the current regional average of less than 4 tons.
THE PERUVIAN villagers were undoubtedly happy to get help rebuilding the beds and ditches. Hand labor in the thin mountain air is exhausting.
For most of the Third World, however, recovering the crop yields of 3,000 years ago would mean famine. Back then, the world's population was perhaps 50 million, compared with 5 billion today. The reality is that Peru won't grow many of its potatoes in the 21st century with hand labor in the remote Andes. Many of the Inca's descendants have happily moved to better-paying jobs in Lima and other cities.
Increasingly the world is buying frozen french fries from Idaho and the Netherlands, where the growers produce more than 20 tons of frying-perfect potatoes per hectare.
In Cuba, the low-input devotees helped a cooperative farm work out intercropping systems: cassava interplanted with beans and corn; cassava interplanted with tomatoes and corn. The inter-cropping yielded 1.5 to 2.8 times more than the same crops grown separately.
UNFORTUNATELY, nobody will eat cassava if they can afford to live better than the Cubans impoverished by Fidel Castro's communism. Nor will they commit the hand labor for intercropping.
The green manure crops recommended by the non-governmental organizations also pose an environmental problem. Green manure crops take arable land away from food and feed crops. (Conventional farmers get their nitrogen from the air.)
Replacing the Third World's 100 million tons of chemical fertilizer with green manure crops might force the plow-down of 7 million square miles of wild land to make room for clover and other legumes. The world can't afford to lose wild land equal to the land area of the United States and Europe.
The activists say their low-input farming earns enough income to satisfy the small farm families. We can be happy that they're working to help remote farmers not yet touched by high-yield farming or the world's trend toward urban affluence.
BUT THE authors end their paper with a complaint: "With increasing evidence and awareness of the advantages of agro-ecology, why hasn't it spread more rapidly? How can it be multiplied and adopted more widely?" It seems that most of the world's farmers prefer higher yields, more income and less hand labor.
They further demand that world governments make "major changes in policies, institutions and research...to make sure the agro-ecological alternatives are adopted."
In other words, now that low-input activists have proven that a few thousand poverty-stricken farmers in the back corners of the world can feed themselves without modern farming systems, the world's governments should mandate that we all live, farm and eat as the world's poorest farmers.
These well-meaning activists may have achieved a small step forward for a few remote pockets of humanity. We are pleased for their efforts.
But I can think of nothing that would put the world's natural environment and human population at greater risk than government-mandated low-yield farming.
We must hope, instead, that more Third World farmers will join First World farmers in providing plentiful food from the land they already farm.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.