Eating tomorrow: A conversation with Timothy Wise

For decades, conversations about global agricultural production have revolved around one question: How do we feed the world? Those conversations have often been driven by philanthropies, governments, and companies that share an interest in the industrialization of agriculture. But the introduction of monocropping and agrochemicals has not brought us closer to achieving the goal of food security, according to a new book on how to feed the world’s people in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner.

Timothy A. Wise, senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute and senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, spent four years researching the industrialization of agriculture and the influence of agribusiness on policy creation around the world. His research took him to Iowa, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Mexico, and the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Everywhere he went, he saw how governments and philanthropies have committed to a vision of hunger eradication that heralds industrial, large-scale agriculture. His new book, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, details how this vision has largely failed to bring countries closer to food security even as it has imperiled our water, soil, and farming communities. FERN’s Leah Douglas spoke to Wise last month. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Much of your book traces agricultural industrialization trends that originated in the U.S. How are we in the U.S. “eating tomorrow” with unsustainable agricultural practices?

I was struck in my research in Iowa by how badly the industrial model of agriculture was working for Iowans. Waterways are heavily polluted by agricultural runoff, which only got worse when farmers took some 500,000 acres out of conservation to grow more corn, trying to take advantage of the ethanol-induced run-up in prices 10 years ago. The state has lost half its topsoil, with conservation tillage practiced on only a small share of its corn and soybean acres. When that bomb cyclone hit a few weeks ago, the floods washed away topsoil that was completely exposed.

The constant expansion of factory farms creates the need for excessive manure applications, adding to the water pollution. Those farms are also draining aquifers, since it takes about five gallons of water a day to raise a hog in confinement. Even the nutritional quality of the corn is deteriorating, as starchier varieties, with lower protein content, are released to adapt to declining soil quality and the changing climate. Climate change, of course, only increases the environmental costs of industrial-scale farms. Rains are more inconsistent, droughts are projected to be more frequent. “Hundred-year” floods now happen every 25 years.

What effect has U.S. policy and funding had on the agricultural economies and policies of the countries you visited?

One of the things I wasn’t surprised by was that U.S. funders, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and donors like the U.S. government are promoting the expansion of industrial agriculture in places like sub-Saharan Africa. That’s been U.S. policy in agricultural development for a long time. Many of us hoped that would shift after the food price crisis of 2007 and 2008, when there seemed to be a new consensus that smallholder farmers were important to food production, that food production — not just cash crop production — was a way to food security and out of poverty.

But part of why I wrote the book was I wanted to understand why that shift really didn’t happen. And what I found, which surprised me somewhat, was just how entrenched agribusiness interests were in the development of policy and the promotion of their interests through policy in developing countries.

One theme you return to throughout the book is a shifting emphasis toward increased yields rather than supporting smallholder farmers. What has been the effect of that shift on the communities you studied?

We haven’t known it any other way in the United States for a long time, because we’ve been growing monocultures for many years — even before the Green Revolution and new technologies took hold. But in places like southern Africa, a lot of farmers are still growing a multitude of crops on the same land, and that’s being encouraged by farmer organizations and others who see the dangers of following this Alliance for a Green Revolution [in Africa] path — of more monocultures fed by more inputs.

The evidence is pretty clear that if you measure “yield” as food per acre, the output is higher in intercropped fields. But instead, yield is focused on individual crops in monoculture. So it makes farms that are devoting some of their land to, say, legumes seem less productive.

How have land grabs been used in the countries you studied to shore up the power of agribusiness?

Land grabbing has always gone on. Colonialism was largely a land-grab project. But the recent wave got attention after the 2007 and 2008 food price increases made land a valuable commodity. Africa was a particular target. There was a wave of foreign investment pouring in to procure large tracts of land to grow mostly export crops.

The thing that was most striking to me when I looked at some of these land grabs was that most of them had failed. That was tragic because it left communities that had given up their land, or had had their land taken from them, with good agricultural land that was not being cultivated at all, because the company that took it had failed. The land is very, very rarely given back to the community.

I’ve tried to reframe the land grab as more like a land giveaway. That puts the onus on the appropriate party — the local governments. They’re the ones that are essentially giving away land out from under existing residents and farmers. It’s not like a colonial army is marching through and clearing people off the land — though there’s plenty of violence. It’s generally with the consent and complicity of the national government.

Agribusinesses often defend their actions by saying they are necessary to “feed the world.” How did you hear agribusiness representatives describe their positions?

It varied a lot, how individual representatives of different companies or donor agencies or philanthropies viewed it. There was definitely a strong “feeding the world” narrative that ran through all of the justification for those policies. What was striking was that it seemed impervious to evidence to the contrary. So many farmers in southern Africa are clearly not at any kind of technological or developmental level to afford synthetic fertilizers and commercial seeds. It’s just inappropriate technology for most of them.

And yet these government-funded input subsidy programs, which basically make those inputs accessible and affordable for small-scale farmers, are enticing them to give up their local seeds and what they save year to year and move more toward monoculture cultivation.

And they’re just not getting the returns on that technological investment. The data show that on a lot of farms, the added yield of corn from using these inputs is not enough to cover the cost, never mind generate an input surplus that would allow farmers to become less poor, to invest in their farms, to send their kids to school — all the things that agricultural development and rural development should do.

You write in the book that “we will never restore balance in our agricultural ecosystems if we can’t restore a reasonable balance between family farmers and agribusiness.” What would that balance look like?

You can start with the U.S. — that actually would be a very good place to start if we wanted to reduce the undue influence of agribusiness in policy. In Iowa, large-scale input suppliers like seed companies are even more concentrated with the most recent wave of mergers, and can really set seed prices that raise costs for farmers. And on the back end, farmers have very limited choices about who they sell to, because the Iowa economy is set up to buy corn and soybeans. Restoring some balance in the economic sphere could really make a difference, at least in the U.S., in giving farmers more bargaining power in the marketplace.

The question goes much deeper than that at an international level, because farmers need more than open, competitive markets. What was striking in Iowa was to see these farmers getting prices that didn’t cover their costs for their corn and soybeans. And theres that inexorable logic that tells every individual farmer that to make up their losses they need to keep growing more and more and more. Which just compounds the problem of low prices from overproduction.

There are a lot of different ideas about how to restore balance in U.S. agricultural production by encouraging farmers to take land out of row crop production, which would be a huge benefit to the environment in places like Iowa. It would restore balance in the sense that farmers would actually get a decent price for their crops.

What are the best strategies to ensure that we can eat tomorrow?

The double meaning of “eating tomorrow” is very much intentional. Everyone needs to eat today, and globally we’re not doing a great job of making sure that people enjoy the right to food. Climate change makes the prospect of eating tomorrow all the more challenging.

But we have plenty of food being grown in the world. What’s needed is to look around, particularly in developing countries, and see the low-cost solutions that are all around. And focus policy on scaling up the most promising initiatives that are coming from the small-scale farmers themselves rather than imposing an outside industrial agricultural model that is just not appropriate and will continue to devour the natural resources we all need if everyone is going to eat tomorrow.