With soaring global food and oil prices, the United Nations’ has released a report urging the world to turn away from modern, industrial farming practices and adopt small-scale, simpler methods. Oliver De Schutter, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on food and author of the report, says, “To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. Today's scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production in regions where the hungry live."
A resident of Belgium, De Schutter is a legal academic and human rights expert. He was appointed UN special rapporteur on the Right to Food in May 2008. He told The Wall Street Journal that promoting natural farming techniques is the only sustainable way to guard against future food crisis.
The UN report, and De Schutter’s comments, raised some eyebrows among many who believe the world’s growing population cannot be fed without the use of available technology. But DeSchutter doesn’t just advocate small-scale farming, he believes those farmers can “double food production in 10 years” by using simple farming methods.
"We set up our farming techniques in the 1920s when we thought there would be a never-ending supply of cheap oil," he said. "Developing farming in a way which makes it less addicted to fossil energy is much more promising."
The UN makes policy recommendations it hopes will benefit people the world over, which includes the 80 million smallholder farms in Africa. Experts agree that increasing output by such small farmers will be crucial to increasing world food output. But there’s plenty of disagreement on how to do that.
Modern technology has helped farmers increase production dramatically the past 50 years, all while using fewer resources. We’ll need to repeat that success in the next 50 years if we expect to feed 9 billion people. And we’ll need to do that with about the same amount of land used for food production that we are using now. That’s a monumental task even if we use every available technology, yet De Schutter and the UN hope to accomplish this goal with low-yield, labor intensive methods.
One high-profile advocate of technology for food production is Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder. Speaking at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, 18-months ago, Gates outlined his vision in his first major address on agriculture, calling on governments, researchers, environmentalists and others to “set aside old visions and join forces” to help millions of farmers. He also announced a $120 million package of agriculture-related grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to nine institutions around the world.
“Environmentalists are standing in the way of feeding humanity through their opposition to biotechnology, farm chemicals and nitrogen fertilizer,” Gates said.
The Gates Foundation has infused more than $1.4 billion into agricultural development in Africa and South Asia over the past three years. He argues that the “ideological wedge” between groups who disregard environmental concerns and groups who discount productivity gains could thwart major breakthroughs that are within reach.
“It’s a false choice, and it’s dangerous for the field,” Gates said. “It blocks important advances. It breeds hostility among people who need to work together. And it makes it hard to launch a comprehensive program to help poor farmers. The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability — and there is no reason we can’t have both.”