Small Farms, Not Monsanto, Are Key to Global Food Security

, former senior scientist, Food and Environment | October 17, 2013, 3:35 pm EDT
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In the land of humongous farms, the critical importance of small farms for food security is a counterintuitive message. But if we look at what most of the largest farms are growing in the U.S. Midwest, or Argentina and Brazil, it is corn and soybeans to feed livestock and biofuel production. Neither contribute much to supplying food—and especially good nutrition—to the billions who cannot afford meat. Meat is a welcome part of many diets, but besides being expensive, is also an inefficient means to produce protein.

push-pull-graphData from 15 Kenyan farmers over a period of 6 to 8 years, demonstrating that push-pull not only more than doubled yields, but provided consistency over time. From “Stories of Our Success: Positive outcomes from push-pull farming systems“, 2013

Mark Bittman, in a recent article, cites the Etc. Group, which notes that small peasant farms feed about 70 percent of of the global population.

Producing enough food is a necessary, but not nearly sufficient, condition for alleviating hunger. Even though we produce enough food now, 1 billion go hungry. India has more malnourished people than any other country, yet exports food.

Well of course, you may say, there are so many more small farms, it is not surprising that they feed more people than large farms do.

But small farms also tend to produce more per acre than large farms. There has long been debate about this among economists and development scholars. It has perplexed many of them—so much so they have given it a name, “the inverse relationship,” meaning that if graphed, productivity per unit of land goes down rather than up with increasing size. Skeptics have turned the data inside out trying to see if it really holds up.

But a recent paper that carefully looks at the issue using new methods has, once again, confirmed that the higher productivity of small farms does not seem to be an artifact of measurement bias, as has sometimes been suggested.

Recognizing the productivity of small farms has huge policy implications. As the authors note, the productivity of small farms suggests that policies should especially target support to them—the opposite of what we do in the U.S., with our subsidies of a few commodity crops like corn and soybeans that favor the largest farms (small farms should be supported anyway for a number of reasons, but higher productivity can be added to the list). Favoring small farms is also the opposite of what the corporate end of the food system does.

Of course, where small farms have been marginalized on very poor land, and have few if any resources, productivity can be very low. But give them decent land and half a chance and they outproduce large farms under similar circumstances.

Instead of huge land grabs by countries and companies that kick small farmers off their land, we need to get more good land into the hands of more small farms and make sure they have the resources and social support they need.

World Food Prize Comes off the Rails

This situation is yet another reason why the World Food Prize this year is going to the wrong people—developers of genetic engineering that has yet to make a meaningful positive difference, despite providing some small yield increases.

To understand why this year’s prize goes to Monsanto and Syngenta, we may need to look no further than the large money trail that leads from their doors to the WFP organization. Is it a coincidence that a Monsanto scientist is one of those honored with the prize, given the substantial financial support provided by that company (and others)?

Whatever one thinks about the potential of GE to improve food security or availability in the future, it has not done much so far when compared to either the need or the success of other farming methods and technologies.

For example, engineered Bt corn in South Africa, which is a food staple rather than livestock feed, has been reported to provide yield increases of about 17 to 32 percent in one study. That’s good as far as it goes. But it does not go very far. Given the extremely low yields that Bt is building on, these improvements are not very impressive. And they do not improve the general resilience of the crop to withstand the many other problems that can occur from one year to the next, such as other insect pests and disease, drought, floods, and so on.

Only systems approaches, based on agroecology, address the overall resilience of the farm.

Compare the results for Bt maize in South Africa to the push-pull method, based on sophisticated agroecology principles, designed to grow several crops that complement each other. This method often more than doubles yields (see figure) by controlling the same insect pest as Bt, as well as the worst weed of grains in Africa (striga). It also enriches soil and provides high quality livestock fodder. Women grow one of the complementary crops, desmodium, and make income from selling the seed. And all of this comes without the high costs of transgenic seeds and pesticides.

Adoption has been growing steadily, up about 7 fold since 2006, to about 70,000 farmers last year.

Ironically, one of the main developers of push-pull, Dr. Zeyaur Khan, has been considered for the World Food Prize, but was not deemed worthy.

Smarter Methods

Small farms traditionally have grown multiple crops adapted to local conditions (so-called landraces) as intercrops and in rotations (alternating crops by season).

Alternating crops has consistently been shown to improve the yield of each crop compared to growing them in monoculture or short rotations, such as growing corn, soybeans, or alternating corn and soybeans on over 150 million acres in the US. This has been demonstrated over and over again in developing and developed countries alike.

This is so well known that it is also given a name—the rotation effect. One recent review shows that crops in rotation typically produce 10 or 30 percent more than when the same crops are grown in monoculture or short rotations.

Monsanto’s products have done nothing to reverse the trends toward more corn and soy and more monoculture. So in a sense, they contribute to lower yields than could be attained if we used ecological principles to grow our crops. Another reason why this year’s WFP is a travesty.

The Real Food Prize

Although the WFP has relinquished its claim to relevance, the Food Sovereignty Prize has got it right, honoring the peasant farmers that are the real backbone of global food production. Groups like previous winner La Via Campesina, or this year’s winners, including the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective, deserve such recognition and support.

They are also the stewards of the critical genetic diversity found in the well-adapted crop varieties they developed and grow, and that we will all depend on to provide traits to improve crops everywhere.

For more on the World Food Prize, see my colleague Karen Stillerman’s blog post, Monsanto Scientist Pockets “World Food Prize”…But For What, Exactly?

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  • Lex

    The notion that vast swaths of monoculture GMO crops (with roundup dumped on them from a plane to kill of all other species) are good for biodiversity reminds me of the old adage that “The devil can quote scripture for his own purpose”. How they have the effrontery to stand behind such ludicrous statements is quite astonishing. Oh and by the way, black is officially white, left is now right and (most importantly) destruction is progress.

  • K Swiss

    From my understanding, yields in the US corn belt are around 10.7 ton/ha would that disagree with your premise that smaller farms do in fact produce better yields? Corn is a particularily stingy crop requiring cross pollination between stalks etc so the larger centre mass the better the yield. Ph.D. scientist

    • Doug Gurian-Sherman

      Thanks for your question. As I noted in the blog, small farms produce more when compared to large farms under similar conditions. Certainly, large US farms with access to tremendous resources in highly fertile soil, plentiful precipitation (in most years) or irrigation, and so on, produce more per acre than resource-poor small farms.

      in the US, there are data that show that smaller US farms outyield large US farms as well (in this case, the “smaller” farms are often what we would call “medium sized”).

      But in addition, methods used by many smaller farmers also inherently are more productive than the monoculture typically used on large US farms. This is clear from the review that I linked about the “rotation-effect”, which is well established.

      To some extent, fertilizers and pesticides can compensate for the problems that monoculture causes, but at high environmental cost. And even so, these costly inputs often do not completely offset the yield reductions.

      To your other point, it is true that one needs to have sufficient corn plants for good fertilization. But several rows are usually enough–many fewer plants than would be found on an acre (upward of 30,000 in the US, but less on many small farms).

  • It seems the louder the public complain about the introduction of GM, the more money is thrown at it. I fear any other food philosophy will always be marginalised.

  • Doug – Thanks for this post. It’s amazing how the system works to perpetuate the system at the expense of those of us who have no choice in what the system is. I’ve been particularly dismayed in recent days by both The Scientific American and The Economist publishing articles that unnecessarily endorse GMOs as our way out of the many ecological calamities we are in. Both of these august publications, either of which would be considered to be a reputable authority on any topic you wished to show documentation for, have spoken highly of the productivity of GMO farming. Where is this productivity? I’ve never seen in nor heard of it. You imply that there actually is a little out in the world. Gosh, the economist says that GMOs promote biodiversity by allowing more food to be grown in less space thereby freeing up more land for ‘bio-diversity.’ Do you believe it?

    Thanks again

    Farmer Allan Balliett
    Fresh and Local CSA
    Serving DC Metro Area

    • Doug Gurian-Sherman

      Thanks for the comment Allan, and thanks for all of the great food you produce!

      The issues around GMOs are complex both scientifically and socially, so I have some sympathy for the challenges this presents to journalists. But I do think some of them are making a lot of errors. It also depends on context. Our work (and others) shows some contribution of GE to yield. But in the scheme of things, and compared to breeding, those contributions are small. Much of the what is written about GE and yield ignores this important context. Or it simply takes assertions about yield (without any qualification) and accepts that somehow this means that GE is vitally important for increasing productivity. One does not necessarily follow from the other. In the case of GE, there is little evidence of any vital role.

      As for biodiversity, the few studies that show small improvements in biodiversity for GE crops do not compare it to highly productive systems that use less pesticide, or organic. I have little doubt that they would not look as good if those comparisons were made, because several studies do show or suggest some impact on biodiversity. The biggest may be from glyphosate resistant crops, where the herbicide has largely eliminated food for monarch butterflies in the Midwest, likely contributing to their decline over the past decade. So again, it often comes down to the context that the author chooses to use.

      And finally, the whole notion that higher productivity leads to greater biodiversity is widely challenged by ecologists and global development scholars, for reasons beyond what I can get into here, both biological and economic. Some good studies show that higher productivity can actually increase tropical deforestation and thereby harm biodiversity.

      The basis for the argument you mentioned about biodiversity is that industrial systems are claimed to be more productive, and that is not necessarily true. There are lots of data that show that organic or low-external-input (low pesticide and fertilizer) farming systems that use agroecological principles can be as productive (or more) than industrial high-intensity systems that also are not sustainable in any case. And the ecological systems have higher internal biodiversity.