Politics of Poverty

The battle for the future of food: A Q&A with author Timothy Wise

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farmer zimbabwe food Farmer Calista Maguramhimga stands on her half-hectare farm in Zimbabwe. Photo: Brett Eloff

His new book explores what small-scale farmers can teach us as the hunger and climate crises converge like never before.

What do you get when rising hunger, devastating droughts and floods, and an industrial agricultural system run amok come together?

It’s a moment of great promise and peril—one that author Timothy Wise takes head on in his new book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers and the Battle for the Future of Food.

Wise, a senior research fellow at Tuft University’s Global Development and Environment Institute and director of the Land and Food Rights Program at the Small Planet Institute, traveled to southern Africa, Mexico, India, and the US Corn Belt to learn more about how we grow our food.

In this Q&A, Wise shares with me who he met and what he learned—and lays out the critical choices we have ahead of us.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

Timothy (T): Many of us hoped that the food price crisis of 2007-8 would be a much-needed wake-up call for our relationship with food and agriculture. But national and international policymakers just rolled over and hit the “snooze” button.

They ignored a new consensus, backed by solid research, that developing countries should grow more of their own food. To do so they should invest in the farmers who were already growing most of it: small-scale producers. Instead, they quickly resumed a business-as-usual approach, which unfortunately favors business over farmers. Specifically, policies favor multinational agribusinesses selling an industrialized agriculture that has proven entirely unsustainable.

I wrote this book because I wanted to understand why leaders were ignoring the sustainable, low-cost solutions all around them offered by their own small-scale farmers.

Q: You cover a lot of territory in Eating Tomorrow–Southern Africa, India, Mexico, the US Corn Belt. What sorts of solutions did you see?

T: They fall under the broad category of ecological agriculture. In places such as Malawi and Zambia, soils are degraded, and they only become more so with the introduction of monocultures of corn fed by synthetic fertilizers, which governments subsidize.

Farmer organizations have taken a different approach. They grow a diversity of crops, with many inter-planted in the same field as their corn. They build the organic content of the soil with composted manure from small livestock such as goats. That means their soils gain fertility and become more resilient to dramatic changes in climate, holding water better in times of drought and keeping topsoil in place during heavy rains.

Crop rotations can have the same effect—stabilizing and rebuilding soil, reducing the need for chemical inputs. That’s as practical in Iowa as it is in Mexico.

Q: You talk a lot about the power of agribusiness, arguing that these companies have hijacked policies to favor their interests. How so?

T: I was surprised by the pervasiveness of their influence. Sometimes it’s just blatant, such as when I discovered that a former Monsanto official in Malawi had drafted the country’s new seed policy. The policy threatened to restrict the widespread practice of farmers saving, exchanging, and selling their own seeds. Monsanto, of course, sells the seeds they would have to start buying.

But sometimes it’s more subtle. Consider those crop rotations in Iowa that have been shown to reduce the need for fertilizer, eliminate water pollution, and limit the overproduction of corn and soybeans. To a fertilizer company that looks like reduced sales. To Iowa’s factory farms, that looks like higher costs for the corn and soy that goes into their feed. Such proposals have gone nowhere, and they won’t come to fruition without strong government policy to mandate or incentivize such practices. But agribusiness has one of the biggest lobbying teams in Washington and in state capitals all over farm country.

Q: The price of food has important ramifications for farmers worldwide. Did any of the farmers you meet benefit from higher prices? Why aren’t higher prices trickling down?

T: Farmers that were growing enough to sell a surplus saw some benefit from higher prices, but most didn’t. Many are at a huge disadvantage come harvest time. Prices are depressed as everyone’s crop comes to market at the same time, they can’t store their surplus effectively, and they have to take whatever the traders offer them. Also, input costs rose as much or more than crop prices in many places, eating away at farm profits.

Increasingly, though, governments are reasserting their role in making markets stable and fair by setting price floors and buying up surpluses. In Eating Tomorrow, I document how India’s National Food Security Program is creating stable, profitable markets for small-scale farmers, undercutting local traders who bid down prices. The new government in Mexico is starting a similar program.

Q: You make a convincing case for what is wrong with US agriculture. What are some of the most promising ways to promote greater environmental and economic sustainability for US farmers?

T: I was struck by how deeply path-dependent the US Corn Belt is on its industrial model of agriculture. Picture corn and soybeans, dotted with factory hog farms and ethanol refineries. It’s hard to see even traces of an alternative path under all that monoculture. But it’s there.

It takes federal government policy to shift us onto a more sustainable path. We desperately need anti-trust action in agriculture. And we need policies to move land out of corn and soybeans. The US is producing about 30 percent more than anybody needs, driving prices down to punishing levels for farmers, destroying the land and waterways with runoff, and dumping surpluses on foreign markets.

And the problem isn’t simply the presence of subsidies. It’s the absence of government policy that ensures farmers get a decent price for their crops and supports them to take some land out of crop production while managing resources more sustainably.

Q: What is needed to develop a stronger, more coherent global architecture to address what are global challenges for agriculture?

T: Here is a small answer to that very big question. I would like to see a reinvestment by the US government and the global community in empowering the Committee on World Food Security at the FAO to play the kind of coordinating role envisioned for it after the food price crisis. It has been sidelined in many ways, which is a shame because it has one of the most democratic and inclusive governing structures in the international system. Civil society and farmers have a formal seat at the table.

I would also like to see the US government and the international community re-commit to the development mandate of the World Trade Organization. It is a shame that rich countries can now renege on their promise to give developing countries more flexibility in their policies to address inequities.

Q: So where do our global food systems stand now? Are they as fragile as they were back in 2008, or are they more resilient?

T: Overall, we may be more resilient to shocks at a global level, mainly because many developing country governments have taken steps to increase their own production, diversify their import dependence, and resume the use of food reserves.

My colleague Sophia Murphy and I did an assessment in 2012 of global policy responses to the food price crisis, calling on governments and international agencies to address its structural causes. Seven years on, there has been some progress but I’d give them a failing grade.

We still lack coherent and ambitious policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and industrial agriculture is a major culprit in climate change. Leaders have made only limited efforts to reduce financial speculation on commodity markets, and I fear that another rise in commodity prices could again drive demand for land and incentivize land-grabbing without community support. Biofuels production is also still expanding, though the rate has slowed, thanks more to EU policies than those in the US, which still heavily favor corn-based ethanol.

Hear Timothy talk about his new book tonight in Washington, DC at BusBoys and Poets.

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