Farming, Population and Hunger

Farming, Population, Hunger and Poverty

Two articles in the May, 2018, issues of the leading national bee journals have a common motif.  In an otherwise excellent article on pollination,  Rusty Burlew writes in Bee Culture : “Modern farms are the antithesis of natural environments.  But far from being a bad thing, modern farms are necessary to feed burgeoning populations of humans.”  And in a surprisingly emotive piece of writing in the American Bee Journal, Jessica Louque defends the use of neonicotinoids on the grounds of cost effectiveness, suggesting that “If neonics are banned from the US, it’s going to be financially more difficult for everyone but the chemical companies.”  


I am not convinced that modern farming techniques are the long term answer to population growth, nor do I believe that funding issues should determine environmental health and policy. It seems short-sighted to allow our planet to degrade further on the grounds that it is too expensive to fix it. 


First, In 1985, in the executive summary of it’s  Farming Systems Trial, the Rodale Institute asserted that  “Organic farming is far superior to conventional systems when it comes to building, maintaining and replenishing the health of the soil. For soil health alone, organic agriculture is more sustainable than conventional. When one also considers yields, economic viability, energy usage, and human health, it’s clear that organic farming is sustainable, while current conventional practices are not.  As we face uncertain and extreme weather patterns, growing scarcity and expense of oil, lack of water, and a growing population, we will require farming systems that can adapt, withstand or even mitigate these problems while producing healthy, nourishing food.”


More recently, two of the leaders of the Regenerative Agriculture movement,   Gabe Brown and Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, in North Dakota and Kansas respectively, have shown practically and persuasively that moving beyond sustainable to regenerative  agriculture can significantly increase yields without the use of chemicals.  Both men are also beekeepers, and the honey bees are integral parts of their system of rejuvenation which focuses on  increased biodiversity,  soil enrichment, improvement of watersheds and enhancement of ecosystem services. 


Secondly, feeding an increasing population is much more complex than simply increasing food supplies; indeed the latter may work for 2050  when the world population is estimated to be 9.1 billion people, a 34% increase over the current figure, most of which will occur in less developed countries. But should we not be thinking further down the road than simply one generation?  A long term solution which integrates a healthy planet with a well fed population requires more elaborate solutions. 


There is an immense amount of material available on possible solutions, stemming from research papers, national conferences and international agencies, and what follows is but the tip of the iceberg, enough hopefully to increase awareness as to what lies below the surface.  The Agricultural Policy Analysis Centre, for example, points out that since 1974, agricultural production has been increasing at a higher rate than population growth. The number of hungry people, however, has not decreased; on the contrary, that number has increased steadily since 2000. 


Such hunger is not due to a shortage of food – the world has enough resources to feed, clothe, house, and employ the entire world. The problem isn’t a lack of resources so much as social inequality (both within and between countries) and inequitable distribution. By some estimates, stopping the waste of food after harvest due to poor storage or transport infrastructure, as well as in our own kitchens, could free up half of all food grown.  Providing the additional calories needed by the 13% of the world's population facing hunger would require just 1% of the current global food supply. That such redistribution has not already taken place is shameful; there is no valid excuse for so many people to die daily in avoidable agony.


International aid, important as it is, is no longer the main story.   As in the ‘give-a-man-a-fish’ adage, the long term need is to provide  small agricultural producers with the research, extension and credit that will enable them to feed themselves and their families. The governments of Ghana and Brazil have taken the lead in doing jus that, whereas  many  countries like India, growing at 8% a year and with a mushrooming middle class, need to take greater responsibility for their hungry masses, both in the short term through effective social services and in the long term via nurturing small scale growers, including urban farming.  


Less than 1% of what the world spends every year on weapons is needed to place every child into school. Increased access to education means not only increased opportunities for income and food, but it also allows for the empowerment of women, including the provision of access to contraceptives that allows for family planning and greater economic choices.  

One of the enduring consequences of colonialism is that more people are eating a diet heavy in meat, dairy and eggs. The issue is that the standard Western diet is extremely resource intensive;  we currently produce enough calories to feed 11 billion people worldwide, but the majority of this food goes to feed livestock. One estimate is that those who eat beef use 160 times more land, water and fuel resources  to sustain their diets than their plant-based counterparts.  With the provision of fresh water becoming a significant  issue, we cannot ignore that 70% of our domestic freshwater goes directly to animal agriculture and that one acre of land can produce 250 pounds of beef ,  50,000 pounds of tomatoes or 53,000 pounds of potatoes.

Then there are the global impacts of war and climate change. For millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the latter means more frequent and intense floods, droughts and storms, accounting for up to 90% of all natural disasters annually, and which can quickly spiral into full-blown food and nutrition crises. The push in Europe and north America to reduce dependence on imported oil and gas has led to the introduction of targets and subsidies for biofuels, which compete directly with endowments for food production and result in  increased food prices for the poor. Greenhouse gas emissions in wealthy countries drive climate change at a pace that outstrips even the most pessimistic projections of the climate modelers, and there are few signs of governments agreeing to the kinds of reductions needed to avoid catastrophic temperature rises that will harm tropical agriculture in particular, thus countermanding the efforts towards small scale sustainable farming. 

Globally, social and political instability are on the rise. Since 2010, state-based conflict has increased by 60% and armed conflict within countries has increased by 125%. More than half of the food-insecure people identified in the U.N. report (489 million out of 815 million) live in countries with ongoing violence; more than three-quarters of the world’s chronically malnourished children (122 million of 155 million) live in conflict-affected regions.

The number of refugees and internally displaced persons doubled between 2007 and 2016. Of the estimated 64 million people who are currently displaced, more than 15 million are linked to one of the world’s most severe conflict-related food crises in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria, northern Kenya and Somalia. While migration is itself uncertain and difficult, those with the fewest resources may not even have that option. Research from at the University of Minnesota shows that the most vulnerable populations may be trapped in place, without the resources to migrate.

War makes the poor poorer in many ways. It’s the working-class, who struggle to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families in the best of times,  who pay for the war, both financially and with their lives. Violent disruptions to food systems and economies spill over to countries bordering such conflicts. Refugees might devastate livestock, trees, and other natural resources as they move. Once forcibly settled or self-settled, they compete for land and resources and affect local markets for food and livestock. Their additional demand creates scarcities that drive up prices, while their need for cash drives down prices of livestock and other assets when they enter markets to sell them to get the money to buy food. Such distortions interfere with local coping mechanisms that ordinarily allow people to respond effectively to drought and avoid destitution, and turn food shortage into famine, as is painfully evident in much of the Middle East and North Africa today. 


If we are sincere in our determination to resolve world hunger in a growing global population, surely we would focus as much on working for international peace and justice, the reversal of climate change, building and protecting reliable lines of communication and distribution, universal economic growth, better diets, the revival of small scale agriculture, and increased educational opportunities, as we do on providing food for the hungry at the  expense of the health and longevity of our own resources. Hunger is both a cause and a symptom of poverty and, like so much else, it is underscored by issues of power, control,  money and self-interest.  According to recent data from the UN, some 850 million people (one in eight of the world's population) go to bed hungry every night. Many of them are children, for whom malnourishment leaves a lifelong legacy of cognitive and physical impairment. Damaged bodies and brains are a moral scandal most of all, as well as a tragic waste of economic potential. 


We work hard to provide for the nutritional well-being and longevity of our bees, and pride ourselves on acknowledging and absorbing the complexity of their society.  We admire their constant business and their long term objective of the continued survival of the species in as strong and as healthy a form as possible.   When we fail to challenge simplistic statements that eschew such complexity in our own world, not least when they emanate from organizations that have a financial stake in obscuring the deeper issues,  we  deny extending to our fellow beings the courtesies we offer to our charges in the hive. 



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27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

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