Food For Change, A New Agricultural Model – John Ikerd

John Ikerd is a professor emeritus of Agricultural & Applied Economics at the University of Missouri, he focuses on economic and sustainable agricultural studies. He is one of the authors of The Essentials of Economic Sustainability (2008), Crisis and Opportunity (2007), Small Farms are Real Farms (2007) and Sustainable Capitalism (2005). This Terra Madre Salone del Gusto he will present at the conference Just Profit or Sustainability? Comparing Models for the Economy of Tomorrow, alongside the journalist Barry Lynn to speak about an alternative development model based on sustainable farms.

Following Slow Food Nations, we were able to speak with him more about his ideas and thoughts on #FoodforChange.

“I support food for change because I think everyone has a right to enough, safe and healthful food to support active and healthy lifestyles. What we have now is not doing that, so we need to change our food system.”

What is the right agricultural “dimension” – if there is one-, able to guarantee the right profit for those who work and, at the same time, respect natural resources?

John IkerdI think if we were to have what I would call a sustainable agriculture, a sustainable economy or a sustainable society, we have to fundamentally rethink the system of food production but also our economic system as we have it today. If we go back to the fundamental principles of classical capitalism, it’s much more in line with what we need to have in a sustainable economy and in a sustainable agriculture; the economy was understood as a means of meeting our basic material needs. And the economy allowed us to do it more efficiently because we could do it more personally by buying and selling, rather than just trading among ourselves.

There was also, early on, that understanding that everything that was any use to us basically comes from the Earth and there is really no other place to get it, and that ultimately, if we continue to extract and exploit the resources of the Earth, then we would reach a point where we would need to respect the limits of the Earth. So, the economy was to function within the bounds of society, an equitable and just society, but also within the bounds of nature. We’ve lost that, somewhere along the line in terms of focusing on our individual economic self-interest, under the assumption that somehow that would be for the greater good of society and the greater good of humanity.

So, if we want an economy and food system that respects society and gives everyone what they need in terms of basic human rights, what we would call economic rights and one that maintains the integrity of the resources of the Earth – then we have to put the economy back within the balance of society, and back within the balance of nature. But we can do that. there was an understanding of how to do it in the beginning, but it takes the will of society. It takes a commitment on the part of society to say “we want to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to get good food, health care, education  – the things that it takes to meet the basic needs that we consider everyone to have the right to.

And we would have to say the same kind of thing about taking care of the Earth, we would say – this takes priority over our individual economic self-interest, that we protect resources for those of the future. And it takes priority over individual economic self-interest that everyone has an opportunity to see within this economy.

I think that is what the sustainability movement is about. It’s taking us toward the realization that we have to focus now on the sustainability of our food system, the sustainability of our economy and  the sustainability of our society, and that what comes first is protecting the integrity and productivity of the national resource base, of functioning within the bounds of nature, because we can’t change those, no matter how much we vote or what we want. And within that, we can chose to be different, in terms of cultures and societies, as long as we don’t violate those fundamental principles of nature. But the economy then needs to function within the values that we, as a society, determine, that everybody within this society has a right to these basic needs of life: food, clothing, healthcare, education – the things that it takes to lead a successful human life.

Since the Green Revolution, mechanization, pesticide use, and industrialization of agriculture have been hailed as systems capable of ensuring sufficient food for the world population. Today, many scholars believe that it is possible to feed people with agroecology. What is your opinion?

I think we are currently in a major battle for the future of food. If you talk about food for change I think we are in a battle for the future of agriculture and we require change. I think that even the industrial agriculture people, and people promoting it, are realizing that public concern is growing, that it simply didn’t work.

The industrialization of agriculture, as I was trying to explain earlier, I think it was well intended. We didn’t realize the consequences of a chemical and intensive agriculture, we didn’t know the environmental consequences, we didn’t understand the negative social consequences for the people in the communities and for the economy as a whole group, we simply didn’t understand those things. But now that there is a growing realization of these problems, I think that there is a realization, even on the part of the defenders of industrial agriculture, that it is not sustainable, that they have to change.

Now, here is the battle: the battle is between developing new and different technologies to somehow address the social and the environmental consequences of industrial agriculture – like genetic engineering or robotics, and precision agriculture, and climate-smart agriculture, by developing technologies, but all of those technologies are designed to almost separate us and isolate us from the constraints of nature. Industrial agriculture was about saying: rather than relying simply on nature in terms of productivity of the soil, living organisms in the soil, plants and animals, the things in nature, rainfall and things like that; that we will create technologies that will remove our dependence on those basic principles, and resources, and laws of nature. And so one force is saying that we will simply focus more now on environmental issues and maybe some social issues – we are going to feed the world growing rice, or feed the world with genetically modified organisms, or things of that nature, so that’s kind of the social responsibility. The other is saying, the laws of nature are inviolable, you can ignore them for a while, you can cross them over for a while, but nature eventually will respond to whatever you do. Agroecology is about trying to understand and live within the bounds of nature; it’s about a different worldview from the industrial worldview that says somehow “if we are smart enough, if we are innovative enough, then we can escape the bounds of nature”.

Agroecology says no, we are inherently a part of nature, we are an integral part of nature, and there is no way of separating. We are connected to every other living and nonliving thing on Earth and we have to find a way to feed ourselves and to have a thriving economy that would support humanity, we have to discover a way to work with nature, so that we can function in harmony with nature, and our continuing efforts to deny that we are a part of nature will simply lead to more disappointments in the future. Because we are all interconnected and there are always unintended consequences of whatever we do in terms of technology because nature will respond to that in some way and try to protect itself. So we got a battle now for the future of agriculture. Food for change is a battle between these two visions: of conquering nature, of separating ourselves from nature; and respecting nature and learning how to live in harmony with it.

 

In one of your articles, we read that the real challenge for American farmers is not increasing productivity but increasing sustainability. Can you tell us more about this statement?

When I started my academic career in the early ‘70s, we really believed that we could get rid of hunger, that if we just improved the efficiency of agriculture, had greater productivity and made good food affordable for everyone, we were going to take care of hunger. Well, we actually succeeded with that industrial model, we actually succeeded in increasing production. Now, as I argue, looking back, with an increased production, I don’t think that we could have some other way, it wouldn’t have been as easy with another way, creating a sustainable agriculture wouldn’t have been as easy, it was easier and quicker to create an industrial one. But the fact was that we increased production, but it didn’t feed the hungry people. We increased production, but what happened is, the focus on the increased production turned out to be just producing cheap raw materials that went into manufactured food products. That not only kept food more expensive, and out of the reach of a lot of people, but also took much of the nutritional value out of it.

So we ended up with what we now call junk food, which are high in calories but lacking in essential nutrients and so we end up with diet-related problems like obesity, diabetes and heart diseases, high blood pressure and a whole range of cancers and things of that nature. So that was the consequence of increasing production, but we increased production and we’re producing more than enough food in the US and more than enough food in the world to feed everybody if we would take the social responsibility of ensuring that everybody had access to enough food to meet their basic needs for a healthy and active lifestyle. So we’ve already got enough food, but certainly in the US we have more than enough food, we are wasting about 40% of our food here, simply because those of us, that can afford to buy food and throw it away just for the inconvenience of not wanting any left-overs, that can afford to buy food and throw it away, when poor people, low-income people can’t afford to buy the same food to eat.

We have been taking 40% of US corn crop, I live in Iowa, which is on some of the most productive agricultural land in the world, we are producing corn on it and 40% of that has been going it to producing fuel for our automobiles. That land could have produced – there is no telling how much real food – and much of the rest of it is feed for livestock, that is a very inefficient method of feeding people. So, we have more than enough production in the US, but we have created an unsustainable agriculture, we are destroying our natural environment, we are polluting our streams, we are polluting the air, we have got these health problems associated with our food system and public health issues associated with antibiotic resistance or livestock feeding operations polluting people’s wells.

We’ve got a whole host of problems that tells us that this agriculture is not ecologically sound, it’s not socially responsible, we’re destroying our rural communities and we have done this in the process of increasing production. So I am saying that we don’t need the increased production, we need to focus on improving the ecological and social integrity of our agricultural system. And even if it reduced production levels, our people would be better fed and our people would be healthier. And there are places in the rest of the world that do need the increase in production, but there is plenty of research available; within the United Nations and in the FAO they have done research in South America, Africa, and Asia, and various other places, that on these small farms, what we would call subsistence farms here, that through agroecology, permaculture, biodynamic agriculture, and natural farming, which is popular in Korea and other places, that they can easily double or triple yields on those subsistence farms that are already feeding 70% – 80% of people in the world. So if you take a kind of agriculture that is, say, producing food for 70% of the global population, if you doubled food production on those farms, that would feed 140% of today’s population! That’s what I have been saying, we don’t really need industrial agricultural at all, we can just close it all down and depend on the small farms. We don’t need the increased productivity of agriculture, and certainly not the US, and in the rest of the world we need to increase productivity, but we need to increase it through sustainable production, agroecology, permaculture, nature farming, holistic resource management, there is a whole range of alternatives that people are working on that can increase production and at the same time maintain the ecological and social integrity of farming operations.

 

What are your thoughts on Slow Food and the importance of relationships?

FarmIf we take the vision of Slow Food, which is about making accessible for everyone in the current and future generations, making good food accessible, in a way that it provides also a good living for the producers, which is the vision, and then you go to the ideas of good, clean and fair. Then what I was saying, in the good areas, the tasteful food, that’s healthy and nutritious, and that sort of thing, and the clean food, that deals basically with our relationship with the Earth, that’s the ecological part, and it also includes humane animal treatment, food that is produced in an environmentally sound and sustainable way, with animal welfare considerations. So the relationships come in an area where we talk about fair food. Fair food, I would argue that to be truly fair, needs to be food for everyone, and the market simply won’t do that. Markets are impersonal ways of meeting our needs and allowing us to buy and sell rather than having to relate directly to the people where we meet our needs from. And also the government programs that we have used over the centuries, have been basically impersonal programs, we rely on the government for food stamps or government food assistance, and our charities are becoming big and impersonal as well. So even in a crisis situation, we aren’t developing direct relations with the people who need relief.

We can’t rely just on impersonal government programs, we’ve got to make government work, but we got to do it at a personal level where we feel a sense of involvement within the communities, and the people within the communities know that their neighbors are making it possible for them to have the food that they need. If you are paying for those programs, you want to support a community where everyone’s needs are met, and we need to establish connections and relationships with the farmers so that we really care whether the farmers can make a decent living and we really care whether agricultural communities are good places to live.

So if Slow Food movement is to meet the condition of having fair food, we got to re-establish those personal connections, those relationships among customers, relationships within communities, relationships between farmers, with people that eat the food and the people that live in that realm.

 

 

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