David Suzuki: Small farms may be better for food security and biodiversity

We often assume the only way to feed the world’s rapidly growing human population is with large-scale industrial agriculture. Many would argue that genetically altering food crops is also necessary to produce large enough quantities on smaller areas to feed the world’s people.

But recent scientific research is challenging those assumptions. Our global approaches to agriculture are critical. To begin, close to one billion people are malnourished and many more are finding it difficult to feed their families as food prices increase. But is large-scale industrial farming the answer?

Large industrial farms are energy intensive, using massive amounts of fossil fuels for machinery, processing, and transportation. Burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change, and the increasing price of oil is causing food prices to rise. Deforestation and ploughing also release tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing further to climate change. And industrial farms require more chemical inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers.

Agriculture also affects the variety of plant and animal species in the world. According to a review of scientific literature by Michael Jahi Chappell and Liliana Lavalle, published in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, agricultural development is a major factor in the rapid decline in global biodiversity.

In their study—"Food security and biodiversity: can we have both?"—the authors note that agriculture, which takes up about 40 percent of the world’s land surface (excluding Antarctica), “represents perhaps the biggest challenge to biodiversity” because of the natural habitat that gets converted or destroyed and because of the environmental impacts of pesticide and fertilizer use and greenhouse gas generation from fossil fuel use.

Large-scale agriculture also uses a lot of water, contributes to soil erosion and degradation, and causes oxygen-starved ocean “dead zones” as nitrogen-rich wastes wash into creeks and rivers and flow into the oceans.

On top of that, despite the incredible expansion of industrial farming practices, the number of hungry people continues to grow.

Concerns about industrial agriculture as a solution to world hunger are not new. As author and organic farmer Eliot Coleman points out in an article for Grist.org, in the 19th century when farming was shifting from small scale to large, some agriculturists argued “that the thinking behind industrial agriculture was based upon the mistaken premise that nature is inadequate and needs to be replaced with human systems. They contended that by virtue of that mistake, industrial agriculture has to continually devise new crutches to solve the problems it creates (increasing the quantities of chemicals, stronger pesticides, fungicides, miticides, nematicides, soil sterilization, etc.).”

Volumes of research clearly show that small-scale farming, especially using “organic” methods, is much better in terms of environmental and biodiversity impact. But is it a practical way to feed seven billion people?

Chappell and Lavalle point to research showing “that small farms using alternative agricultural techniques may be two to four times more energy efficient than large conventional farms.” Perhaps most interesting is that they also found studies demonstrating “that small farms almost always produce higher output levels per unit area than larger farms.” One of the studies they looked at concluded that “alternative methods could produce enough food on a global basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base.”

This is in part because the global food shortage is a myth. The fact that we live in a world where hunger and obesity are both epidemic shows that the problem is more one of equity and distribution than shortage. With globalized food markets and large-scale farming, those with the most money get the most food.

It’s a crucial issue that requires more study, and the challenges of going up against a large industrial force are many, but it’s hard to disagree with Chappell and Lavalle’s conclusion: “If it is...possible for alternative agriculture to provide sufficient yields, maintain a higher level of biodiversity, and avoid pressure to expand the agricultural land base, it would indicate that the best solution to both food security and biodiversity problems would be widespread conversion to alternative practices.”

We need to grow food in ways that make feeding people a bigger priority than generating profits for large agribusinesses.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Comments (14) Add New Comment
CarlWilliams
Don't you know "the science is over"? Hey, Suzuki, the words "science" and "consensus" are mutually exclusive. Still carrying on with your proto-Marxist Malthusian BS I see.......
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louis allan
It is not a big farm vs small farm problem. It is a capitalist free market problem. As you say - those with the most money get the most food.
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Patrick Mulvany
Good article. Makes sense. It is essential to transform industrial agriculture systems in order to secure future food. Just read the findings of the global agricultural assessment, IAASTD www.ukabc.org/iaastd-securing-future-food.pdf , to see why this approach is imperative, yet, for reasons of defending the powerful, they are not implemented. Also look at the latest (June 2011) CBD CSO's magazine [Square Brackets] which has an article about the threats to and necessity for Agricultural Biodiversity, which can be developed in smaller-scale production systems organised to realise food sovereignty; and another on the damaging impacts of Biofuels: the struggle between climate, economics and biodiversity www.cbd.int/ngo/square-brackets/square-brackets-2011-06-en.pdf
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NoLeftNutter
Meanwhile, one organic farm in Germany has killed more people than the so-called disasters of a nuclear plant in Japan and the Gulf oil spill.
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unknown sample
what is with all the hostility here? while i am not a fan of everything suzuki says, he makes some very good points here.

biodiversity alone is an important point, especially in the era of corporate farms with their self destructing seeds to ensure repeat customers...
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OKTC
So a small farm raise a chicken. then when i buy it for dinner it has to go to a big slaughter house in Vancouver to get butchered... by BC law.
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KTFO
Organic & Natural makes sense as do small farms.

* Peak Oil & running out of it in the next few decades means the current Farming models like trucking, shipping and/or flying Produce from Central to South America or Asia is not sustainable, either economically or for the Environment.

* Bio-Diversity only a moron would argue against it.

* Just because some Organic Sprouts had E-Coli does not mean Organic is Bad, again only a Moron would believe Organic produce is somehow bad.

Only a Moron would believe that Tsunamis & Nuclear meltdown resulted in less deaths than the 24 or so deaths mostly in Germany from Sprouts.

Don't forget E.Coli in Water in Walkerton does that mean all Water is bad? No.

E. coli Outbreaks from "regular" produce..

2006 North American E. coli outbreak
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wikinews has related news: E. coli outbreak kills 1, sickens nearly 100

The 2006 North American E. coli outbreak was an outbreak, in two principal phases, of foodborne E. coli O157:H7, a potentially deadly bacterium that can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration.[1]

The initial outbreak occurred in September 2006 and its probable origin was an Angus cattle ranch that had leased land to spinach grower.[2] A subsequent outbreak, in November–December 2006, was initially attributed to green onions served by two restaurant chains — Taco Bell and Taco John's — but later was determined to have been caused by fecal matter which contaminated iceberg lettuce.[3]

Small Organic type Farms are good for the Economy, Security & Health of everyone.

What happens if some Communist Farmer sprays Chemicals into Milk or Produce to make more "Profit" or tainted produce from Central / South America [why support highly Corrupt Countries that violate Human Rights?] makes it to your plate?

Do you "trust" communist Farmers & their produce from Asia? Good luck with that.

GMO...

Anyone who advocates or accepts GMO Agriculture is simply being ignorant of the facts...

GMO is a way for Giant Agricultural Corporations to "Patent" seeds and make Terminator Seeds so that Farmers MUST buy those Seeds EVERY Year from these Corporations at WHATEVER Price they Set, they OWN the Seed/Crop with their Patents.

Do you trust some for profit Corporation with your Food Security and/or Health? Good Luck with that :)

Do you want some Giant Corporation to Own your Food via Patent rights? No thanks.
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A.Gardener
The existance of the tar sands is all the proof I need that we have passed peak oil.
Without oil how will food be mass produced and transported?
Things got really ugly during the Irish Potatoe Famine.
We are going to need a Lot more local farmers.
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Kevin Searcy
That seems to be the REAL problem we face! People like Suzuki that have the potential to reach millions with the TRUTH are to scared to get off their ass and embrace it. WHY???

Who are Chappell and Lavalle? There is NO "if it is" as they begin their statement. All the points they cover are happening now and are easy to find for anyone, why not them. Another example of mouthpieces afraid to standup for the truth, buck the SYSTEM.

Ask yourself??? What can I do against these big players that will make a difference. HIT THEM WHERE THEY LIVE-------in the profit column. YOU VOTE FOR WHAT YOU BELEIVE WITH EVERY $DOLLAR$ YOU SPEND!!!!!!!!!!
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Goldorak
Flying David Suzuki wears his backpack with a solar panel... but safely rides the airbus... LOL
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Jan Steinman
NoLeftNutter opined: "Meanwhile, one organic farm in Germany has killed more people than the so-called disasters of a nuclear plant in Japan and the Gulf oil spill."

Huh? Rumours and innuendo. At first it was something from Spain. They're in full-blown "blamestorming" mode now, and expect the most defenceless, weakest possible scapegoat to be the one eventually chosen for the honour.
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Jan Steinman
Kevin Searcy writes: "Ask yourself??? What can I do against these big players that will make a difference."

I'll tell you what they're scared to death of. It's what's driven the infamous "Food Safety Modernization Act" in the US, where warrantless search and seizure powers have been granted to the Food and Drug Administration to come in and take your food and even your computers if you use "unapproved farming methods" or even "unapproved seed sources."

And Canada is following in those big US footsteps. The so-called "conservatives" who deride Suzuki better watch out, or they're going to lose their libertarian supporters who help them stay in power with less than 40% popular support.

What they're scared of is the most revolutionary act you can possibly take -- that people will start growing their own food! Imagine that -- being able to say, "Go stuff it!" to the industrial food system. Even if you reduce your food spending by 10%, they will notice.

And heaven forbid if an island or isolated region started producing ALL its food! How could they possibly govern?

That paragon of democracy, Henry Kissinger, wrote: "If we can control fuel we can control the masses; if we can control food we can control individuals." They're working on it, folks -- what 'cha gonna do about it?
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doug maclean
As with any system, such as computers for an example, the small and local approach beat big and centralized long ago... (how many computers do yu have in your house?) ...in fact, big CPUs are are heading down as well. as cheap chips w. hundreds of smaller cpu's are the new thing .. so no doubt, small, organic and local, as far as farming goes, is the coming trend for sure...
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Miles Cobbett
Has anyone read Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher or Cottage Economy by William Cobbett ?
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