Move over, peak oil and global warming. A new crisis is exploding right now across the developing world: peak food.
Rising costs for staples like rice have sparked unrest across Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa this month, including food riots in Haiti that have killed five, strikes in Jordan, and rice-hoarding in the Philippines and Hong Kong.
Exploding fuel prices are largely to blame for a 65-percent jump in the cost of food globally since 2002. But that’s not the main reason for the current crisis. Ground zero is in the world’s rice bowl in Southeast Asia. A nasty epidemic of disease and pests has struck Vietnam, the world’s third-largest rice exporter, sharply cutting supplies of the food staple of half of the world.
The problems in Vietnam have quickly rippled beyond its borders. In neighbouring Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter, the price of medium-grade rice for export has doubled since the beginning of the year. In the Philippines, the world’s largest importer of the staple, the government has deployed soldiers to guard rice stocks, while President Gloria Arroyo has threatened to jail for life anyone who steals supplies.
Some exporting countries have started to limit rice sales abroad in order to build up domestic stocks, and the UN says food riots due to exploding prices for rice and other staples have hit a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, with 37 countries altogether facing food crises.
What caused the disease and pest outbreak in Vietnam? Some rice experts have said that’s unclear. “We’re faced with a lot of unknowns,” said Robert Zeigler—head of the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute, which developed high-yield rice strains in the 1960s—in an Agence France-Presse dispatch. “The fact is, they got taken by surprise and they had some significant yield losses that they were just not expecting.”
Devlin Kuyek begs to differ. He says the cause is no big mystery. It’s monoculture. Kuyek is the author of a book titled Good Crop/Bad Crop: Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada, which came out in December. He says the rice crisis is an example of the food-related calamities we can expect in growing numbers due to a looming “perfect storm” combo of self-imploding crop monocultures and global warming.
Remember the Irish potato famine of the 1840s that wiped out up to a quarter of Ireland’s population and changed the Emerald Isle’s history. It started when the British took over Ireland’s best farmland for beef-grazing pasture, pushing the Irish onto marginal land where they became virtually dependent on the potato for survival.
Today’s rice crisis has disturbingly similar roots. Vietnam was one of the major recipient nations for the monoculture craze that swept the non-Communist world in the form of the U.S.–sponsored “Green Revolution” in the 1960s. The stated goal was to reduce poverty by spreading the economies of scale of U.S. mass agriculture. Monoculture would be to farming what the Model T had been to auto production.
The Green Revolution provoked a sea change in centuries-old farming practices worldwide. It meant dropping millenniums-old farming practices of planting diverse fields of frequently rotated, native-adapted crops that evolved as local soil and environmental conditions changed. Those methods based on diversified seed varieties and varied crops were developed during the earliest days of human farming in order to prevent plant diseases, pest infestations, and soil degradation. Now governments would subsidize farmers to grow vast tracts of single crops from uniformly produced seeds.
The new crops were bred in government labs—and today, by a half-dozen large seed companies that control the bulk of the $30-billion U.S. annual seed business worldwide—in order to maximize yield, not other characteristics, like, say, nutritional value. “They try to do the Coca-Cola or Pepsi of corn: one crop that could be sold everywhere,” Kuyek says. “What you see in corn today is nothing like what you saw before, traditionally. They’ve industrialized that crop to the hilt. It’s quite sad because it had so much nutritional value. You could essentially just live on corn.”
Because the new monocrops were poorly adapted to local conditions, the plants didn’t do so well unless sustained by massive amounts of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Little wonder that almost all of the world’s largest seed companies, including the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont, got their start as chemical manufacturers.
“A lot of diseases that had never been a problem started appearing during the Green Revolution,” Kuyek says. “All of a sudden, instead of adapting seeds to local conditions, the farm had to be adapted to the seed variety.”
The result of all this has been a tremendous loss of biodiversity. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says 75 percent of crop varieties have disappeared since 1900. Nine-tenths of the world’s calories now come from 20 crop species, with four making up half of total calories: rice, corn, wheat, and potatoes.
Soaking farmland with chemicals has had other impacts as well. It meant only a few larger farming operations could afford the astronomical costs of the new type of farming. Small farms were crowded out, making communities less self-reliant. As well, the chemicals produced environmental problems, like the explosion of toxic blue-green algae in Canadian lakes, due largely to fertilizer runoff.
Monocrops also deplete soil of key nutrients and billions of microorganisms that help keep plants disease-free, reducing soil productivity 18 times faster than natural processes can rebuild it on average in the U.S., says John Jeavons, a Willits, California–based author and farming researcher who teaches small-scale food-production techniques. “We’re putting extraordinary pressure on our soil base,” he says.
Jeavons was on Salt Spring Island in February, giving a workshop for local farmers about the looming “peak food” crisis and his sustainable “mini-farming” techniques. He says peak food is actually related to four other intertwined crises: peak farmable land, peak water, peak oil, and global warming.
This unholy gaggle of calamities comes together like this: farmland globally is declining due to soil depletion, erosion, urban development, and the diversion of land to biofuel production. Throw in the depletion of aquifers, rising energy costs for farmers, and global warming flinging unprecedented environmental conditions at poorly adapted monocrops, and Jeavons says it’s just a matter of time before we get a lot more Vietnams.
The irony of all this is the Green Revolution looks like it was barking up the wrong tree. Evidence is starting to show monocultures aren’t the only way to feed the planet—and aren’t necessarily the most efficient. “I’m quite confident we don’t have to do mass agriculture,” says Mark Winston, a former professor of apiculture at Simon Fraser University.
Winston coauthored a groundbreaking study of monocultures published in 2006 in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and the Environment. It found that canola farmers in Alberta who let some of their land go fallow dramatically improved their yield compared to those who planted their entire farm. The reason: the uncultivated land became an oasis for bees, which, in turn, helped the canola flourish with improved pollination. With 33 percent of land left unplanted, a farmer’s profit would have more than doubled from $24,000 to $65,000 on a 1,400-hectare piece of land.
“The data is very strong: plant less and make more money,” says Winston, now director of SFU’s undergraduate semester in dialogue. “It’s a whole different mindset. Monocultures create pest outbreaks that are greater than natural predators [like ants and wasps] can deal with. In a balanced crop, natural predators balance pest insects.”
A growing movement of farmers, agronomists, and environmentalists is trying to revive traditional farming methods in reaction to the monocrop steamroller. Nestled in the Pacific Coastal Range 220 kilometres north of San Francisco, Jeavons is busy trying to teach the world about his “grow biointensive” mini-farming techniques from his base at the 20-acre spread of his nonprofit organization, Ecology Action.
Author John Jeavons is reviving small-scale farming to counter monocrops.
His book How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine has sold 500,000 copies in seven languages and several editions. He travels worldwide, giving three-day workshops on his techniques, and he is currently hosting seven interns and apprentices at his farm, including some from Africa and Mexico.
Jeavons says mini-farming can feed a person a nutritious vegan diet with 4,000 square feet of land, compared to 7,000 square feet needed for a vegan diet with conventional farming and 30,000 square feet to produce the average American diet.
How does it work? He starts with double-dug, raised beds tilled two feet down in order to create what he calls a “soil sponge cake” or a “living, quadridimensional tapestry in your soil”. Other tips: plenty of compost; close spacing of plants to reduce erosion, the need for watering, and room for weeds; companion planting; and carbon-heavy legumes to replenish the soil so it requires no fertilizer. And above all, no chemicals. “You’re feeding the soil and yourself,” he says.
Jeavons says the approach simply revives techniques first used in China and Greece thousands of years ago. North American farms, Kuyek says, used to be hotbeds of efficiency and biodiversity before the advent of modern agriculture. Agricultural fairs played a central role, with awards showcasing farmers who bred high-performance seeds. “There was a lot of innovation on farmers’ fields,” he says.
Another part of this movement is growing networks of small-scale farmers selling their wares locally. “Small, diverse farms can feed the local population,” says Heather Pritchard of Farm Folk/City Folk, a nonprofit concerned with agricultural issues that encourages consumers, restaurants, and grocery stores to buy food locally at farmers markets or directly from local producers.
Pritchard lives most of the week at the Glorious Organics Cooperative in the Fraser Valley, where she grows herbs and flowers and balances the books. Her group’s idea has caught on big-time, with demand so great that suppliers are struggling to keep up. “We don’t have enough supply. We’ve done our job too well,” she says, laughing.
Other activists are working to create seed banks to save locally grown crop varieties from extinction. One example is the Salt Spring Island–based Seed and Plant Sanctuary for Canada. It hopes to collect, study, and preserve the seed of every edible, medicinal, and other potentially useful plant in Canada before it’s too late and they’re gone.
Apart from its own seed bank of more than 600 varieties of herbs, grains, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic, the sanctuary also coordinates a network of small-scale farmers who preserve “heirloom” seeds—endangered traditional varieties grown for centuries until they were crowded out by monocultures. “It’s kind of a living gene bank spread through the country,” says the sanctuary’s Dan Jason in a phone interview.
The goal of all this is to resupply farmers struck by crop failure, natural disaster, or genetic contamination. “Monocultures have little in-built adaptability, especially with climate change,” Jason says. “We’re narrowing the gene pool to just a few varieties, and they’re pretty shitty varieties. They’re designed not for nutrition but yield.”
One of Jason’s dreams is for every city, town, and country village to have its own seed bank to store locally grown seeds and collect records on them. Another idea he has helped promote is Seedy Saturdays and Sundays—monthly organic- seed fairs for local farmers and small seed vendors. Over 50 Seedy Saturdays are now being held regularly held in places like Salt Spring Island, Kelowna, Halifax, even Toronto. “The only way we’re going to have good food is [by] taking it into our own hands,” Jason says.
Some seed activists are less enthused, however, about the opening in February of a UN–affiliated global seed bank in Svalbard, Norway, that has been likened to a Noah’s ark for plants. Concern has grown that the seed bank could give agribusiness access it has sought for years to seed varieties of the developing world, while farmers will have few rights to their own seeds stored in the vault.
Kuyek notes that the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the international agency that spearheaded the seed bank, accepts private donations from biotech seed giants Syngenta and DuPont. “There is a really aggressive effort by seed companies to patent the seed supply and lock it up,” he says. “If we’re in this monoculture model and we throw in patents, it increases our vulnerability even further.”
If Kuyek is right, it means the very effort of trying to protect our food supply at the seed bank could threaten it like never before.