Organic Sense

Feed the People!

by George L. Siemon  on January 26, 2010

I am saddened more each day as we watch footage on the TV or see heart wrenching front page photos of the devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti. As a country, we are learning more about the problems of our southern neighbor. As a cooperative, we are experiencing the immense barriers of food distribution in the world as we attempt to donate organic milk powder in an effort to help out.

Our cultural advisor, Jerome McGeorge and our CME, Theresa Marquez felt this was the time to dive into this topic from an Organic Sense point of view. Check out their essay below. Join the dialogue. What would a World Food Plan look like? Time to stop wringing hands and try to do something, as it looks like it will take all of us!

— George

Feed the People –or In Quest of a World Food Plan, Part One

By Jerome McGeorge and Theresa Marquez

“The chief characteristic of civilization is the sacrifice of the future for the present.”  William James, Harvard professor, 1890

"Everyone Eats" is but a partial truth among almost 7 billion humans today, particularly as world hunger and associated starvation deaths continue their alarming increase. Over 100,000 starving people die EACH DAY.  A billion people are hungry as we write this essay. Many of us are becoming aware that our neighbors just south of us in Haiti frequently eat mud patties. Starving parents are watching their malnourished children starve to death. As much as this feels like dramatization, it is clear that we are not even close to understanding the misery of a hungry world.

Feeding the world (meaning everyone eats at least once per day), has never happened in the past 5,000 years of civilization.  History shows a permanent underclass experiencing the varieties of hunger’s severity and other deprivations.  Hunger at times was extensive and famines brutal. “Let them eat cake,” is known to us all.  Starvation is not news; it is so common and chronic as to be unworthy of much historic commentary in general.

In our more recent history, world hunger took a turn for the worse in 1990.  There was an interlude of decreased levels from 1950 into the 1980s (the un “Green” Revolution) but then true tragedy – a population explosion, which meant that food demands rapidly surpassed the supply of human food produced. In 1990, the estimated peak of population growth, we produced 93 million new people on the planet, (births exceeding deaths).  In 2009, we expect that we added another 70 to 75 million souls – a lower, yet still alarming rate.

Often we hear posturing about “who can feed the world” like there is only one way, for example biotechnology.  Let us not fall prey to the GMO false mantra that only biotechnology can feed the world. Current USDA data shows that the GMO promise of less water use, less poison use is simply not true as pesticide usage associated with GMO agriculture has increased and abundant water is still required. Food and Agriculture aggregate as the most environmentally destructive of all human activities, including industry, mining, transportation, retail or household. Water crises (aquifers plunging, rivers running dry, lakes disappearing, glaciers melting, ocean dead zones), climate change, air pollution, soils eroding, fertility loss, deforestation, desertification, paving over cropland, energy source depletion, all are contributing to diminishing food production while simultaneously food demand races ahead.

The big question is not who but how can we feed the world.  And if we have an honest dialogue, there will be more than one answer.  As we consider this discussion, the William James quote above becomes especially poignant. It is essential that any Plan to Feed the World must consider the conservation of resources for future generations and preservation of diversity.  As we look toward the future, it is not just about feeding people.  It is, as we know – people feeding themselves. We will need both SHORT and LONG TERM solutions, and they will have different goals, and they are likely to contradict each other. All forms of food production must have a role—even the tiny alternative agriculture sectors such as organic (1% of total agriculture) if we are honestly considering the long term impacts of our food production.

Food economists say it is lack of reliable markets or poor distribution.  They suggest we could simply correct these “market failures” and invest in “modern” agriculture and we will solve the world’s hunger problems. Unfortunately, this model also means farmers will not own their land or their seeds and resources will continue to be depleted at alarming rates.  From our point of view, we are chasing an unsustainable model. It also means that one or two countries (the USA for example) will dominate food production and leave the rest of the world dependent on a few. The “market driven” model has its limitations, driving the culture out of agriculture.

There are models for how to feed a starving population. These models are being demonstrated in China, and they are NOT market driven initiatives. The Cubans are feeding themselves and pioneering urban gardens. The Russians are a nation of gardeners and beat back hunger after the cold war with their government assigned gardens.

The answer to what is the World Food Plan that actually can feed all the people on the planet at this moment is – there is NO WORLD FOOD PLAN (and we have never had one before). It would seem politically impossible to accomplish for a world addicted to marketplace wisdom, where all food fits among commodity categories, and where starvation is a rational outcome for those who cannot pay the price in a world of rising food costs. Therefore, can we talk about feeding the world without approaching the topic of social and economic justice?  

Economics must equal Ecologics. So basic a premise so long denied spurred on by progress defined by profits – our market driven model.  If addressing world hunger is a social and economic agenda, then the ecological agenda to understand and transform world agriculture is of great significance.  Since World War II, the triumph of Chemical Agriculture dominates production for markets worldwide. This system condemns us all to the harsher eco-crisis worsening while the food corporations feed us propaganda and lots of GMO HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). “Stuffed and Starved” by Raj Patel says it well. Yet, the current dominate form of agriculture must have the major role in feeding the world today.

Hunger can be healthy for any of us animals…what we eat being the foundation of our vitality. Hunger may even be transcendent for those on intentional fasts or spiritual retreats. Consider what a luxury to intentionally be hungry! Contrarily, chronic hunger becomes life-consuming then life defeating.  If each and every one of us increases our concern, if we stop politicizing hunger like we are witnessing in our healthcare debate, stop using the topic of hunger to disparage alternative agricultural methods, perhaps we can develop the FIRST World Food Plan. It is possible to end hunger in our life time. We have the resources to do so. We all have to care enough, we have to let go of “my way is the only way” and do what we humans are most challenged doing – working together cooperatively for something bigger than our individual selves.

Do you have ideas on how to feed the world and what a World Food Plan would look like?  We know we are not the experts, but we believe a public dialogue is healthy and needed! Here are some of our thoughts: 

1.    Halt desertification. Increased attention on soil conservation.

2.    More land in pasture. (Great for carbon sequestration.)

3.    More gardens everywhere in cities, in the country, and in schools.

4.    A study of models of success around the world.

5.    More learning from the past.

6.    A world wide plan and focus on water conservation.

7.    A strong role for sustainable and organic agriculture.

8.    An understanding of where GMOs have a role and where they do not.

9.    A reduction of poisons used in agriculture.

10. Food crops over fuel crops except where it makes sense to do both.

11. First world change in diet. Less protein!

12. Population control!!

13. Less corporate domination.

14. Increase respect for individual cultures.

15. A world wide look at and acknowledgement of corruption’s role in hunger.

16. Move feeding the hungry beyond market driven models

17. Slow global climate change

18. Increase the value of ecological solutions

19. Put more people back on the land farming

20. Better markets and better distribution systems.

21. More empowerment of women in agriculture. 

22. Get educated on the topic. Let every person find a way to help. 

Share your thoughts and ideas with us.  We think it is imperative that we join in the dialogue; there is simply too much needless suffering.  What do you do personally in your life?  What groups out there are doing a great job feeding the world?  Which groups do you support and why? 

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Glen from from Groth Family Farms Ridgeway, MN on July 22, 2010 at 09:47:50 PM
This first step on creating a global agricultural sustainability is to stop branding certain aspects of modern agriculture as inherently unsustainable. The organic community's condemnation of GMOs, confinement livestock production, hormones, pesticides, etc, is no better of an approach than for conventional farmers like me to lable pasture based, fair trade, chemical free, local food systems as impractical and unethical. A global food plan must truly look at the contribution modern, conventional as well as traditional, holistic farming practices have to offer towards feeding a hungry planet. At the same time the development of such a plan must also consider the real risk associated with complete faith in or absence of modern farming technology.
What i fear from the organic movement is that such an open, honest discussion may become impossible if the consuming public is led to believe that sustainbility can only be had with the organic lable stuck on it.
Susanne from from California on July 2, 2010 at 07:02:25 PM
Excellent Article, I was just coming back from a photgrapy trip in the Palouse, so it really hit a nerve. I incoorporated it into my July conservation tip:
so hopefully even more people will get the message.
Linda from from Central Calif. on March 17, 2010 at 12:19:22 PM
One solution is to help people, who have access to water to plant gardens with herloom seeds, saving seeds from year to year. education is always key. In cities cut back on the lawn and plant your garden.
Aaron from from La Crosse, WI on February 11, 2010 at 04:02:01 PM
I see more and more news about schools taking on gardens. This is great. To see pride in growing food someday equal or surpass pride in athletics would make sense! I seriously think a game of soccer or football or any other sport can be played just as passionately on a basic, no-frills field. Then money can be budgeted to innovation in gardening rather than 'state of the art' athletic facilities!
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