September 19, 2017

FAO’s plan to feed the world

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Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard, co-editor of The Ecologist, critique the FAO’s main policy document, World Agriculture: Toward 2000, and the whole model of capital-intensive, industrialised, export-oriented agriculture which it promotes. See also the critique of Toward 2000‘s policy to promote livestock production: “FAO’s projections for livestock”.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 21 No. 2, March–April 1991.


FAO ‘s main policy document is full of contradictions, half-truths and fallacies. Most importantly, it concentrates on oil increasing world food production without adequately addressing how to make food available to all those who need it. The document basically calls for a continuation of ‘business as usual’ – the continuation of its promotion of unsuitable modern farming technologies, the conversion of tropical forest to farmland, the spread of hugely expensive irrigation schemes, and the export of the produce of the Third World to the well-fed of the North. The policies outlined would inevitably further indebtedness, impoverishment, environmental degradation and famine in the Third World.

FAO’s principle analysis of global agricultural production and trade is contained in World Agriculture: Toward 2000, a report issued for the 1987 FAO Conference. [1] The report “examines world agricultural perspectives and policy issues for the 15 years between the mid-1980s and 2000″. According to its authors, it “represents a global assessment of possible future world and country-group production, trade and nutrition”. [2]

Work on the report began in the mid-1970s, and it has gone through several drafts before reaching its present published form. As such, it may justifiably be seen as FAO’s most definitive and considered statement on world food and agriculture its ‘master plan’ for feeding the world.

A better fed World?

The report is defiantly optimistic. From the outset, it takes the view that, despite technical and political problems, the agricultural policies pursued by FAO and governments over the past quarter of a century have, by and large, been a success.

“The outstanding fact in food and agriculture is that the past 25 years have brought a better-fed world despite an increase of 1.8 billion in world population. Earlier fears of chronic food shortages over much of the world proved unfounded. [3] [4]

Nonetheless, the report acknowledges, somewhat cryptically, that “the problem of hunger was solved only for the majority of the world’s population” and estimates that between 350 million to 510 million people are “seriously malnourished”. [5]

It is understandable that FAO should wish to place a positive gloss on the state of world agriculture but, even allowing for the undoubted gains in production that have been made for certain crops over the past 25 years, one might have expected an acknowledgement that such gains are beginning to falter; that more people than ever before now live in a state of chronic hunger, as opposed to periodic hunger; and that the prospects for world food supplies have rarely looked so dim.

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Falling Yields

Between 1950 and 1985, world grain output increased 2.5 times, growing at 3 percent a year. But since 1985, as Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute points out, there has been no appreciable increase. [6] Indeed, production actually fell in 1987 and again in 1988. The 1989 harvest was only 1 percent higher than in 1988, while the world’s population grew at 1.7 percent.

In effect, grain output per person is down nearly 7 percent. In Africa, the output of grain per person has fallen by 20 percent since the late 1960s. Commenting on the figures, Brown argues:

“Although five years is obviously not enough time to signify a long-term trend, it does show that the world’s farmers are finding it more difficult to keep up with growth in population”

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Increasing Malnutrition

Similarly, World Agriculture: Toward 2000‘s claims on the extent of malnutrition are at odds, with those of other UN agencies – and, indeed, with the data which the report itself presents. Its upper estimate of 530 million people living below the breadline (a figure equivalent to twice the population of the United States) is well below the 730 million which UNICEF estimates as “chronically deprived of the food necessary to enjoy an active life”. [7]

Moreover, the claim in the report’s introduction that the Third World is “better fed” fits uneasily with the statement (tucked away in the body of the text) that

“the numbers of undernourished people in the developing countries (outside the Asian Centrally Planned Economies) were conservatively estimated by FAO to have risen slightly over the 1970s.” [8]

Elsewhere, the report acknowledges that,

“The per caput (sic) food supplies in the low-income countries, excluding China and India, were in, 1983-5 no higher than 15 years earlier.”

and that

“The trend has been for the incidence of undernutrition to rise in Africa and remain nearly stationary in Asia in terms of the absolute numbers affected.” [9]

In fact, the figures suggest that the numbers of malnourished people are growing at an accelerating rate – from an additional 1.5 million people a year in the 1970s to eight million a year in the 198Os. [10] As Lester Brown notes,

“Infant mortality rates – a sensitive indicator of nutritional stress – appear to have turned upward in many countries in Africa and Latin America, reversing a long-term historical trend.” [11]

In India, “over 85 percent of children under five are below the normal state of nutrition”. [12] Although Africa is often portrayed as the worst affected region, a 1987 UNICEF report notes,

“In 1986, more children died in Bangladesh than in Ethiopia, more in Mexico than in the Sudan, more in Indonesia than in all eight drought-stricken countries of the Sahel.” [13]

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FAO’s strategy

Given its uncritical assessment of the “gains” of the past 25 years, it comes as no surprise that World Agriculture: Toward 2000 sees future progress in agriculture lying in a continuation of past policies, albeit with some fine-tuning. Further modernising agriculture, together with more vigorous attempts to integrate rural peasants into the market, forms the cornerstone of the report ‘s development strategy.

Setting out its specific goals, Toward 2000 gives highest priority to increasing agricultural production in the developing world by 3 percent a year up to the year 2000 – “an improvement of around 30 percent on average on present yields”. [14] Although the report acknowledges that achieving this growth in production “presents mankind with serious challenges”, it sees the task as “surmountable”. [15] The increased yields are to be achieved through:

  • Increasing the amount of land available to agriculture.FAO projects that, for developing countries as a whole, 22 percent of the extra agricultural production required by the year 2000 will be obtained by increasing the area of land in agricultural use by 83 million hectares – equivalent to the total area of arable land in Western Europe. In Latin America, 39 percent of the desired increase in production will be obtained by extending the area under cultivation; in Sub-Saharan Africa, 26 percent; and in Asia, 11 percent. In the Near East and North Africa, there is no new land that can readily be brought into production without “major investments or new technologies for marginal rainfall areas and soils”. [16] 
  • Increasing cropping intensityIn addition to increasing the amount of arable land, the report argues for a 6 percent increase in cropping intensity (the number of times an area is cropped in one year). [17] The amount of harvested land will thus effectively be increased by 115 million hectares. 
  • Intensifying production through the use of off-farm inputs.According to the report, nearly two-thirds of the desired growth in output will be obtained through intensifying production. To achieve that goal, FAO argues for a doubling in the volume of fertilisers used by farmers, a doubling in the use of Improved cereal seeds and a doubling in the number of tractors used in the Third World. Expenditure on ‘plant protection chemicals’ – that is pesticides – is projected to increase at “somewhat less than three percent a year”. [18]

To pay for the programme, FAO argues for an increase in agricultural exports and economic development.

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The extensive solution

FAO’s proposal to extend the land under cultivation suffers from two major flaws. First, there is little land left in the world that can advantageously be converted to agricultural use; and, second, water shortages place a major constraint on any programme of extensification. Though both problems are acknowledged in the report, neither are adequately addressed.

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No More Land

Since 1981, the world’s agricultural base has actually fallen by some 7 percent, primarily due to environmental degradation and water shortages. [19] Indeed, much of the land brought into cultivation since the 1950s has proved quite unsuitable for permanent agriculture and large areas of agricultural land and rangeland are being abandoned every year:

  • One third of the world’s cropland is already suffering from soil erosion.
    • In Africa, according to FAO, soil erosion could reduce agricultural production by a quarter between 1975 and 2000. [20]
    • In India, an estimated 800,000 square kilometres are affected. In many areas, agricultural land is now so degraded that it is being transformed into scrub or desert.
    • According to the Worldwatch Institute, some six million hectares a year – an area twice the size of Belgium – is being lost to such desertification.
  • Deforestation is adding to the problems.
    • In Indonesia, forest destruction has resulted in an estimated 8.6 million hectares being officially classified as ‘critical land’ – that is, land which is so degraded that it is generally unable to sustain even subsistence agriculture. [21]
    • Throughout the tropics, deforestation has rendered vast areas vulnerable to flooding: in India, the vulnerable area has risen from 19 million hectares in 1960 to 59 million in 1984.
  • One fifth of the world’s irrigated land – some 40 million hectares – is conservatively estimated to be suffering from waterlogging or salinisation. [22]
    • In Egypt, 35 percent of cultivated land is affected by salinity and 90 percent by water-logging.
    • In China, more than 930,000 hectares of irrigated land has been abandoned since l980. [23]
    • In India, it is estimated that almost as much irrigated land is now being taken out of production due to salinisation and waterlogging as new irrigated land is being brought into production. [24]
  • Finally, agricultural land is being lost at an increasing rate to homes, factories and roads.
    • A 1980 UNESCO report estimates that in the developing world, “at least 3,000 square kilometres of prime agricultural lands are submerged every year under urban sprawl”. [25]
    • FAO itself admits that the “loss of good agricultural land to non-agricultural uses” now constitutes “a significant constraint to future expansion of food production”.

One is thus bound to ask: Where will the 83 million hectares which FAO seeks to bring into production be found? Toward 2000 is candid: “Most of this land will have to be transferred from tropical forests”. [26] The implications for tropical deforestation are devastating. Rangelands, too, will be brought under production, despite their ecological fragility. [27]

Although FAO recognises that the bulk of this new land is “only marginally suitable for annual crop production”, it is adamant that adverse ecological effects can be avoided. Where tropical forest areas are to be opened up to agriculture, FAO recommends sites being “carefully selected, cleared and prepared”. [28]

The very scale of the intended expansion, however, makes it highly improbable that “careful site selection” will take place. The roads to the newly opened-up land would encourage forest encroachment by the landless, and the number of settlers who would be likely to gravitate to “specially selected sites” would make further expansion into surrounding forests almost inevitable.

Significantly, Toward 2000 does not even mention that much of the forest and rangeland that FAO seeks to open up for agriculture already belongs to forest or pastoral peoples, who may be less than happy to see it developed for agriculture.

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Water Shortages

Land shortages apart, a second constraint on the expansion of agricultural land is the growing shortage of water. As Toward 2000 notes,

“it is water rather than land which is the binding constraint for almost 600 million hectares of potentially suitable arable land. It is only when this water constraint is released that other technical constraints such as nutrients and pests become Important.” [29]

In many areas, natural water shortages have been exacerbated by the introduction of irrigation. In Tamil Nadu, India, water-tables have dropped by up to 30 metres in a decade as a result of irrigation. In Maharashtra, some 23,000 villages are now without water, whilst in Gujarat, the figure is 64,500. 20 percent of the irrigated land in the US is irrigated by pumping water in excess of aquifer recharge. In Texas, for instance, water tables have been falling by some 15 centimetres a year on over 1.5 million hectares of irrigated land.

Nevertheless, Toward 2000 calls for a 16 percent increase in the area under irrigation, from 110 million to 170 million hectares, projecting that this should contribute 50 percent of the desired increase in yields. In the Near East and North Africa, “Irrigation of rain-fed and desert lands will be the sole source of expansion of harvested land”. [30]

Again, one is bound to ask: where will the water come from? [31] Leaving aside the overwhelming social and ecological arguments against building large-scale dams to provide irrigation reservoirs, the number of dam sites that can be economically and safely exploited is limited. [32] Dams are thus unlikely to provide the necessary water. Groundwaters, too, are already over-exploited and, given the rates of abstraction required for FAO’s programme, would only provide a temporary solution.

The only other major source of water is that ‘saved’ through the more efficient management of irrigation schemes. The report rightly notes that “water wastage in irrigation is a serious problem” – but argues that such wastage can be reduced through “high technical and managerial skills”, recommending in particular that higher water charges would discourage the overuse of water by farmers. [33]

At no point, however, does the report address the social implications of raising water charges – notably squeezing small farmers out of production. [34] Nor does the report even attempt to respond to the growing consensus that the problems of water wastage are intrinsic to the bureaucratic nature of large scale irrigation schemes – the rules governing water allocation are invariably designed to make life easier for government officials, with no knowledge of local conditions, rather than to meet the needs of farmers. [35]

The net result of FAO’s plan to extend the amount of land under cultivation is thus likely to be a massive increase in environmental degradation – principally as a result of deforestation – combined with increasing pressure on water resources. As a strategy for increasing food production, it is hopelessly flawed.

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Increasing cropping intensities

Increasing cropping intensities – the second plank in FAO’s strategy – is equally wrong-headed. Toward 2000 acknowledges that the soils underlying tropical forests “are quite poor in structure and in plant nutrients” and explicitly recognises that “long fallow periods during which natural vegetation can be re-established” have historically provided the key to successful forest farming in the tropics. [36] It goes on:

“The danger is that pressure on land is causing the fallow periods to be shortened and natural vegetation is not being re-established for long enough to replace the nutrients removed during the cropping cycle.”

Nonetheless, the report urgently recommends that fallow periods be shortened in order to obtain higher yields. Indeed, according to the report,

“much of the increase in harvested land, will stem from reduced fallow periods in areas of sedentary agriculture and of shifting cultivation.”

It admits that this could have “grave environmental consequences”, but insists that the use of organic manures and mineral fertilisers would solve the problem. [37]

Even assuming that fertilisers could indeed compensate for the loss of nutrients due to reduced fallow periods – and this is far from proven – the long-term result of intensifying cropping patterns can only be the progressive degradation of the forest and eventually of the land itself. High rainfall is likely to cause the rapid run-off of fertilisers; moreover, the longer that an area is cropped, the greater the stress placed on the structure of the soil, reducing its capacity to store water and increasing the risk of erosion.

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