Ending World Hunger: Fertile Ground is Short on Promises, Long on Results

Eric Holt-Giménez | 08.04.2017

Released in English in March of 2017 by Food First Books in partnership with Groundswell International, the Spanish translation “Tierra Fértil: Desarrollando la Agroecología de Abajo hacia Arriba” will be available in September 2017. The French translation will follow soon thereafter.

Bait-and-switch is a tactic in which companies advertise one product, but once you are in the store, sell you another (more expensive) one.

There is a lot of bait and switch going on these days—from campaign promises of economic miracles, to miracle seeds to end world hunger. The point of bait-and-switch promises is to lure you in to a certain position and convince you of a world view. Once that’s accomplished, the promise needn’t be fulfilled, just repeated ad nauseam.

The joint promise by Monsanto and Bayer corporations is that their upcoming merger (that will allow them to dominate the world’s seed industry) will ensure food for 10 billion people by 2050. But since their incursion from the chemical sector to the seed sector over 20 years ago, Monsanto’s and Bayer’s herbicide-resistant corn and soy have fed only automobiles and livestock. They have sold a lot of chemical herbicide, though. The real “product” is not ending hunger, of course, its public acceptance for their monopolization of the world’s seeds—then steadily cranking up the prices to the world’s farmers. (Cut to heavy breathing from major stockholders.)

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Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would just tell the straight story on food and hunger, without making wild promises? What if genuine concern for human life and the environment, (not for billions of dollars in stockholder shares) was really behind the claims to end hunger? What if there was no bait and no switch and we could just hear directly from the farmers who are actually feeding the poor and the hungry in the world?

Well, we can.

In a path-breaking book titled Fertile Ground: Scaling Agroecology from the Ground Up, Groundswell International takes us past the corporate rhetoric directly to the people on the ground who grow the world’s food. I said “food,” not “fuel” or “feed.” It turns out that small farmers—not big corporations—actually feed the world. And far from waiting for the magic seeds of the world’s corporate monopolies, they are stabilizing productivity, building resilience to change, and improving rural livelihoods through agroecology, the science of sustainable agriculture.

The book’s nine chapters are written by farmers, scientists, and rural development practitioners from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States. Without sacrificing technical details, the language is accessible to the broad public. In it, each farmer tells of their journey from low yields and near bankruptcy, to fertile soils, greater resiliency, and savings attained by not buying chemical products.

It’s easy to see why these farmers are not part of the bait-and-switch game… most of these farmers already took the bait and were brought near to ruin as chemical fertilizers and pesticides steadily drove their lush agroecosystems towards sterility, even as the costs of commercial seeds increased and their yields and profits dropped. While it’s common to associate chemical inputs with increasing yields, for most of the world’s farmers (who farm on steep slopes, fragile ecosystems, and in volatile tropical soils) these initial jumps in productivity mask a lurking ecological crash of their farming system.

Commercial seeds require chemical inputs. As fertilizers burn up the soil’s organic matter and herbicides destroy biodiversity, pests increase and yields drop. Farmers typically apply more chemicals… and more, as the farming system deteriorates. They ultimately reach the point of no return (on their investment). This is when smallholders either sell out, migrate, or both, going from being food the providers to the food insecure, and often, the hungry.

The farmers in Fertile Ground speak to the true dilemmas of feeding the world: how can we end hunger if the hungriest people in the world—small farmers—are being driven out of business? For the farmers in Fertile Ground, rebuilding farm economies starts with rebuilding soil, agroecosystems, and smallholder communities. That’s why their deceptively simple agroecological techniques that help them conserve soil, water and biodiversity, and are passed farmer-to-farmer, not only help build resilient and prosperous agroecosystems, they also help farmers organize and build strong social movements. These are needed in order to create political will—the kind that enacts enabling policies to support smallholder innovation while busting the trusts (monopolies) that spread a one-size-fits all agriculture across the planet. An example from the book is the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a “network of networks” of African farmer organizations, NGOs, and consumer groups working in 40 African countries. Writes Steve Brescia of Groundswell International,

[We] must change not simply the methods of farming, but the ways that farming is supported by agricultural ministries, philanthropies, NGOs, and scientists, so that farmers can continue to advance their context-specific processes of innovation. We are talking about a fundamental transition to healthier farming and food systems.

As the pressure from shareholders increases on Monsanto and Syngenta to merge (as well as on the other three monopolies dominating the chemical-seed industrial complex), get ready for more claims to magical, hunger-ending seeds and technologies. Don’t take the bait. Farmers have better options for a healthy, sustainable future.

Released in English in March of 2017 by Food First Books in partnership with Groundswell International, the Spanish translation “Tierra Fértil: Desarrollando la Agroecología de Abajo hacia Arriba” will be available in September 2017. The French translation will follow soon thereafter.