Feeding the World without Industrial Agriculture

“American Farmers Must Feed the World!” This popular myth is perpetuated by the “agricultural establishment”[3] in an attempt to maintain public support for their failed system of industrial agriculture. Most agricultural academics and agribusiness professionals seem to have bought into the idea that only a biotech, info-tech industrial approach to agricultural production will be capable of meeting the biofuels and global food demands of the future. Americans are led to believe that farmers in the United States will need to double agricultural production by 2050 to meet increasing food demands from the world’s “developing economies.”[i]

A similar myth is being promoted in the international agricultural arena as well. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO-UN) Climate Smart Agriculture also touts high-tech, industrial agriculture as the key to feeding the world in the era of global climate change. [ii] Genetic engineering of crops and livestock and GPS-controlled “precision farming” equipment are just a couple of technological fixes promoted as essential for future food security. The philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also is a major financial supporter and promoter of high-tech, market-driven agriculture as the key to eliminating global hunger.[iii]

These organizations are supporting, perhaps unwittingly, the economic agenda of transnational corporations to dominate and control global food production. Recent and ongoing corporate mergers will leave three agribusiness corporations in control of 60% of the world’s seeds, 70% of the agricultural chemicals and pesticides, and nearly all of the world’s patented genetic traits for crop production.[iv] A new wave of investor and corporate “land grabbing” is giving industrial agriculture access to vast acreages of farmland in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere—much of which had previously provided food for indigenous farm families.[v] In most cases, control of land also means control of water. Wherever industrial agriculture goes, it inevitably replaces small, multifunctional, diversified, independent family farms with large, specialized, mechanized, corporately controlled agricultural operations.

I understand this myth—perhaps better than most—because I spent half of my 30-year academic career promoting it. I grew up on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri. After high school, I was able to attend the University of Missouri (MU). In those days, a poor farm kid of modest intelligence could still work his or her way through their state university. I earned my BS, MS, and eventually my Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economics from MU. Between my BS and MS degrees, I worked for three years for Wilson Packing Company, the fourth-largest meat packer in the country at that time. My academic career spanned 30 years, including faculty positions at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Georgia, before returning to the University of Missouri, where I retired in early 2000.

I spent the first half of those 30 years as an extension livestock marketing specialist. I helped start the hog industry in North Carolina and worked with the big feedlots in western Oklahoma. During those times, I was a very traditional agricultural economist. I told farmers they had to treat farming as a business, rather than a way of life—if they expected to survive. If theirs was a family farm, “family business” shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with “farm business.” I advised farmers to either “get big or get out.” Farms of the future would need the economic efficiency of large-scale production. I taught the things I had been taught, things I believed at the time.

This was not a popular message in rural America at the time, but I believed the potential benefits for greater economic efficiency outweighed the inevitable inconveniences of losing traditional family farms. Most importantly, I believed that the industrialization of agriculture could provide domestic food security or eliminate hunger. We were going to help farmers make agriculture more economically efficient by reducing production costs. This ultimately would reduce food costs for consumers, making good food accessible and affordable for everyone. The profits made by progressive farmers who reduced production costs would support viable rural economies and communities. It was a noble experiment, and it was well intended—but it failed.

In 2015, the USDA classified nearly 13% of U.S. households as “food insecure,” and nearly 17% of American children lived in food insecure households.[vi] Food insecurity means uncertainty regarding whether enough food will be available to meet the nutritional needs of the household at all times. Nearly all the food-insecure households were relying on food stamps or government food assistance for survival. Five percent of these households had “very low food security,” meaning someone or everyone in these households had to do without food at various times during the year. In 1967, when CBS-TV aired its classic documentary, “Hunger in America,” only 5% of the people in the U.S. were estimated to be hungry. Back then, 5% of Americans going hungry was considered a national emergency, today 13% food insecurity is not even a political priority. Sixty years of industrial agriculture have done nothing to alleviate hunger in the U.S., and contrary to popular belief, neither has it elsewhere in the world.

Any concerns today’s agri-food corporations have about providing safe, nutritious food for people extend no further than concerns for their economic bottom lines. Their priorities are production and profit, not nutrition and health. Wealthy people can pay more for food they waste than poor people can pay for food to feed their children. About 40% of total U.S. food production is wasted and another 20% is exported.[vii] However, only one-half-of-one percent of U.S. agricultural exports go to the 19 countries of the world with the highest levels of hunger.[viii] No one else in the world takes U.S. farmers’ proclaimed commitment to “feeding the world” seriously while 40% of the U.S. corn crop is used to make ethanol to fuel our cars.

My first realization that something was fundamentally wrong came during the mid-1980s. I had just moved from Oklahoma to Georgia to take a position as Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics Extension at the University of Georgia. This was during the time many us remember as “the farm financial crisis.” Many farmers had borrowed heavily at record-high interest rates during the 1970s, which was an inflationary but still profitable time for farmers. American farmers were going to “feed the world” back then as well, and farming would remain profitable until everyone in the world was “well fed.” Farmers planted “fencerow to fencerow,” then ripped out and farmed the fencerows. Farms got bigger as big farmers bought out their neighbors at record-high land prices—using money borrowed at record-high interest rates.

But then came the early Regan-era domestic recession, which triggered a global recession. U.S. export markets dried up, farm commodity prices fell, and many farmers couldn’t even make interest payments on their loans, let alone keep up with payments on the principal. Farm foreclosures and bankruptcies were regular fare on the evening TV network news programs, and reports of farm suicides were far from uncommon. Suicides were particularly high in Georgia, where the FMHA had been pushing big farm loans to impress the Carter administration. My department at UGA had the responsibility of trying to help Georgia farmers find some way to survive—pay off their loans, sell out while they still had equity, or at least not kill themselves.

We traveled around the state holding face-to-face meetings with farmers and going over their financial records. During these meetings, it dawned on me that the farmers who were in the biggest financial trouble were those who had been doing what we so-called experts had been telling them they should do –they “got big rather than getting out.” What we didn’t tell them was that for some farmers to get bigger other farmers inevitably had to get out. There is only so much farmland a limited market for food that farmers must share. I knew this was an inevitable result of agricultural industrialization. As a “good economist,” I had rationalized that displaced farmers would find better opportunities elsewhere. However, many farmers who lost their farms had no other opportunities. In depression and despair, some killed themselves. I simply didn’t understand that the farm and the farmer are inseparable on a true family farm. Losing their farm didn’t mean just losing a job, it meant losing an important part of themselves.

Something was fundamentally wrong with the economics I had been taught. I then began to see that forcing families off their farms was also destroying farming communities. It takes people to sustain rural communities, not just production. It takes people to support farm supply dealers and to shop for clothes and cars on Main Street. Equally important, it takes people to fill desks in local schools, pews in local churches, and seats on country boards. I also began to understand what industrial agriculture was doing to the land—the erosion of soil and pollution of air and water with agricultural chemical and biological wastes from factory farms. Industrial agriculture was destroying the ultimate sources of its own productivity; it was not sustainable.

Thankfully, the sustainable agriculture movement was emerging on the national scene at that time. I first understood sustainable farming as balanced farming; balancing the need to make an economic living with the need to take care of the land and to be a socially responsible community member. It’s really quite simple. Everything of value to us, including our food, ultimately comes from the earth, and beyond self-sufficiency, comes to us by way of other people, by society. The economy simply allows us to meet our needs by buying and selling rather than gifting or bartering with other people. If we destroy the productivity of the land and people, we can’t sustain food production. If we can’t sustain food production, we can’t sustain our economy, society, or humanity. Sustainable farming requires balancing the need to make a living with caring for the land and caring about people.

Fortunately, I was able to return to the University of Missouri in 1988 with a USDA grant to work on sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture asks the question: How can we meet the basic food needs of all today without diminishing opportunities for those of the future? I have been working on issues related to sustainability ever since, with an emphasis on economics and agriculture. I retired from MU in early 2000; not because I wanted to quit working but because I wanted the freedom to do what I thought needed to be done. Even though I have been retired for more than 17 years, the Internet has allowed me to remain active professionally. I guess I am still trying to atone for my earlier sins in promoting industrial agriculture.

In 2014, I was commissioned by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) to write one of six regional reports prepared in recognition of the International Year of Family Farming. In preparing and presenting my report, “Family Farms of North America,”[ix] I was able to expand my understanding of the global impacts of industrial agriculture. The negative ecological, social, and rural economic impacts of industrial agriculture are much the same globally as in the U.S.—just less advanced in most other places.

The industrial agriculture approach is promoted globally by the U.S., Canada, Australia, and transnational corporations. They are supported by powerful agencies, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and philanthropies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates and Ford Foundations. An alternative agroecological approach is being promoted by activists, such as Via Campesino, who have rallied in support of a shift in global farm and food policy from food security to food sovereignty.[x] Food sovereignty, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems," [xi] is a direct rejection of corporate domination of the global food system. The agroecology/food sovereignty movement is supported by small family farmers, peasant farmers, and indigenous peoples around the world. These competing visions have created a major controversy within the FAO regarding the future of global farm and food policy.

The agroecology/food sovereignty movement has strong allies in the global academic community. A landmark International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, Agriculture at a Crossroads,[xii] reflected a consensus of 400 scientists from 58 different countries. The 2009 Global Report, observed that all agriculture is inherently multifunctional: “It provides food, feed, fiber, fuel and other goods. It also has a major influence on other essential ecosystem services such as water supply and carbon sequestration or release. Agriculture plays an important social role, providing employment and a way of life. Both agriculture and its products are a medium of cultural transmission and cultural practices worldwide. Agriculturally based communities provide a foundation for local economies and are an important means for countries to secure their territories.”[xiii]

The fundamental question is whether these multiple functions and their ecological, social, economic consequences result in positive or negative net benefits for global society and the future of humanity. As decades of real-world experience has confirmed, negative ecological and social consequences are inevitable whenever farms are managed mono-functionally for the single economic bottom line. When farms are managed multifunctionally, they can be managed for ecological, social, and economic sustainability.[xiv] The IAASTD report called for governments to give more attention to small-scale multifunctional farmers and sustainable farming practices.[xv]

More recently, a 2016 UN study by an International Panel of Experts in Sustainability described the scientific evidence against industrial agriculture as “overwhelming."[xvi] Their report, From Uniformity to Diversity, cited more than 350 studies documenting the failures of industrial agriculture and supporting the need for fundamental change. The study concluded: “Today's food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.”[xvii]

Not only has the industrial food system failed to provide enough food for those who are hungry, it has brought an epidemic of diet-related health problems wherever it has gone. In the U.S., an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and various diet-related cancers is well documented. The rising costs of health care in the U.S. parallels the industrialization of the food system. A 2010 global public health report of 500 scientists from 50 countries concluded that obesity is now a greater problem than hunger. "The so-called 'Western lifestyle' is being adapted all around the world, and the impacts are all the same."[xviii]

The IPES report concludes: “What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversify­ing farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversi­fied agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.”

The rest of the world doesn’t want or need industrial agriculture. Contrary to popular belief, food for 70% to 80% of the people of the world still comes from small family farms, most of which we could call “subsistence farms.”[xix] With a little real assistance, the world’s small family farmers would be quite capable of not only feeding themselves but also “feeding the world.” Permaculture, biodynamic farming, nature farming, and holistic management are some of the alternatives capable of achieving and sustaining global food security without corporate/industrial agriculture. In the U.S., the challenge is not increased productivity but sustainability. Popular farming alternatives in the U.S. include organic, ecological, regenerative, holistic, biodynamic, and traditional family farming. These alternative farmers still produce something less than 10% of America’s food, but they represent the fastest-growing sector in the American food system.

The seeds of change in the global agri-food system have emerged and are growing. The growth of the sustainable, agri-food movement will be hastened or hindered by the economic and political environment in which it grows. The agri-food corporations will continue to be formidable defenders of the economic status quo of industrial agriculture. These corporations gain their economic power through predatory competition and corporate consolidation and then use their economic power to exert political power in shaping farm and food policies. Corporations are masters at defending the status quo by distracting and depleting the resources of their opponents in arguments over rules and regulations. If we are to achieve domestic and global food sovereignty and sustainability, we must fundamentally change the “agri-food system,” which means we ultimately must reclaim political and economic power from corporations.

The only means of ensuring that the economy will serve even the collective economic interest of individuals is to ensure that markets are “economically competitive.” The classical economic requisites for competitive markets that I learned in graduate school at the University of Missouri have not changed. Economic competitiveness requires a sufficient number of buyers and sellers in any given market to ensure that the actions of individual buyers or sellers have a negligible impact on overall market prices on conditions of trade. In addition, neither sellers nor buyers can be allowed to collude to influence prices or market conditions. Suppliers with better products must be able to gain access to markets and those with inferior products must have reasonable means of getting out. Buyers must also have accurate information regarding whether the products offered by sellers will provide the promised benefits. Finally, buyers and sellers must be sovereign—they must be free to make choices without coercion or persuasion. All of these conditions are necessary to ensure competitive markets, and none of these essential conditions remotely resemble agricultural markets today.

Economic competitiveness initially was sacrificed to gain economic efficiencies or lower costs from larger-scale operations. However, as corporations were allowed to expand, they gained market power. With market power, came economic and political power, and with political power, the ability to continue expanding with little if any government oversight or restraint. Economists defend the abandonment of antitrust laws, reasoning that if large corporations keep producing larger quantities of an endless variety of “cheap stuff” they must be economically efficient. They failed to recognize that dynamic corporate strategies to gain market share don’t look like the strategies of static monopolies in neoclassical economic theory. The only means of ensuring that markets will bring forth the “right stuff,” rather than simply more “cheap stuff,” is to maintain a large number of small, independent, informed, sovereign buyers and sellers.

The corporate defenders of the status quo have far more economic and political power than the advocates of change. In fact, the only power great enough to bring about a fundamental change in the food system is the collective “power of people.” Ultimately, the power of the people must be organized and actualized to wrest political and economic power from the agri-food corporations. However, strategies to restore power to the people must be fundamentally different from the strategies of consolidation and hierarchal control that corporations have used to wrest power from the people. Human societies are living organizations—socioecological systems. Strategies to politically empower people must be consistent with the diverse, dispersed, interdependent nature of healthy living systems. If we are to overcome corporate domination of the global food system, we must speak with voices sufficiently diverse to represent the diversity of the world’s people and places. The movement must be led by diverse commitments to a common cause rather than uniform commitments to a common leader. To feed the world sustainably, we must speak with voices sufficiently compelling to marshal the power of the people in support of a common commitment to ensuring enough good food for everyone.

Natural allies of the Organization for Competitive Markets in this cause would seem to include numerous other organizations opposing industrial agriculture—including those working against “factory farms,” GMOs, inhumane treatment of farm animals, and global climate change. Natural allies also include those working to ensure domestic food security or eliminate hunger and to protect farm workers and public health from agricultural pollution and contamination of air, water, and food with agricultural chemicals and biological wastes. Obvious allies are those working for domestic and global food sovereignty, such as the Family Farm Defenders and the National Family Farm Coalition. Non-agricultural organizations, such as Move to Amend and others advocating an end of “corporate personhood” and those confronting corporations on global climate change also should be natural allies. None of these organizations can achieve ultimate success unless we wrest political power from the large corporations, restore competitive markets, and restore the economy to its rightful, subordinate role within society and nature. The economy must again be seen as a means of ensuring liberty and justice for all, including those of future generations, rather than a means of creating wealth, which invariably transfers power from the people to the privileged few.

Many like-minded organizations are spending time and energy on battles they will lose and will make little real difference if they win. All of these small battles could instead be part of a larger, unified initiative to wrest political and economic power from the corporations. The American rebels lost far more battles than they won in the Revolutionary War.[xx] Together, we have the power to reclaim our collective power to govern—and then to proclaim “enough good food” as a basic human right of all people of all times. Regardless of what collective strategies we might choose, it is simply not very intelligent to continue doing the same things we have been doing for the past 60 years and expecting that somehow this time the result will be different. “Feeding the world intelligently” means feeding the world without, and in spite of, corporate agriculture.

John Ikerd


[1] Prepared for presentation at the 19th Annual Food and Agriculture Conference of the Organization for Competitive Markets, Kansas City, MO, August 11-12, 2017. [2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO – USA; Author of, Sustainable Capitalism-a Matter of Common Sense, Essentials of Economic Sustainability, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, Crisis and Opportunity-Sustainability in American Agriculture, and A Revolution of the Middle-the Pursuit of Happiness, all books available on Amazon.com: Books and Kindle E-books. Email: JEIkerd@gmail.com; Website: http://faculty.missouri.edu/ikerdj/ or http://www.johnikerd.com . [3] The agriculture establishment includes the large agribusiness corporations, farm commodity associations, American Farm Bureau Federation, USDA, and most State Departments of agriculture and Land Grant Universities.

[i] High Level Expert Forum, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “How to Feed the World – 2050,” October 2009. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf . [ii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Climate Smart Agriculture,” http://www.fao.org/climate-smart-agriculture/en/ . [iii] The Gates Foundation, “Helping Poor Farmers, Changes Needed to Feed 1 Billion Hungry | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” https://www.gatesfoundation.org/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2012/02/Helping-Poor-Farmers-Changes-Needed-to-Feed-1-Billion-Hungry . [iv] The Guardian, “Farming mega-mergers threaten food security, say campaigners,” Sept 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/sep/26/farming-mega-mergers-threaten-food-security-say-campaigners [v] GRAIN, The global farmland grab in 2016: how big, how bad?, June 16, 2016 https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5492-the-global-farmland-grab-in-2016-how-big-how-bad# . [vi] Economic Research Service, USDA, Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2015, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics/ . [vii] USDA-ERS, “Frequently Asked Questions,” https://www.ers.usda.gov/faqs/ [viii] Share World Resources, “Think U.S. Agriculture Will End World Hunger, Think Again?’, http://www.sharing.org/information-centre/reports/think-us-agriculture-will-end-world-hunger-think-again#sthash.qnWMlVhz.dpuf [ix] John Ikerd, “Family Farms of North America,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth of the United Nations Development Programme Empowered lives. Resilient nations, Working Paper 152 December, 2016. http://www.ipc-undp.org/pub/eng/WP152_Family_farms_of_North_America.pdf . [x] Nyelini Forum on Food Sovereignty, “Declaration of Nyeleni,” February 27, 2007, http://nyeleni.org/spip.php?article290 . [xi] Nyelini Forum on Food Sovereignty, “Declaration of Nyeleni,” February 27, 2007, http://nyeleni.org/spip.php?article290 . [xii] International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology For Development: Agriculture at a Crossroads, (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2009), http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/est/Investment/Agriculture_at_a_Crossroads_Global_Report_IAASTD.pdf [xiii] IAASTD: Agriculture at a Crossroads, 2. [xiv] Ikerd, “Family Farms of North America,” FAO-UN Working Paper 152 December, 2016. http://www.ipc-undp.org/pub/eng/WP152_Family_farms_of_North_America.pdf . [xv] IAASTD, Agriculture at a Crossroads. [xvi] Andrea Germanos, “'Overwhelming' Evidence Shows Path is Clear: It's Time to Ditch Industrial Agriculture for Good Common Dreams, Thursday, June 02, 2016, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/06/02/overwhelming-evidence-shows-path-clear-its-time-ditch-industrial-agriculture-good?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork [xvii] IPES – Food, International Panel of Experts on Sustainability, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, June 2016, http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/UniformityToDiversity_FullReport.pdf [xviii] Danielle Dellorto, CNN News, “Global report: Obesity bigger health crisis than hunger,” December 14, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/13/health/global-burden-report/index.html . [xix] Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, State of Food and Agriculture, 2014, http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4036e.pdf . [xx] Central Piedmont University, “Battles in the American Revolution,” https://sites.google.com/a/email.cpcc.edu/the-american-revolution/brief-history/result---war-table .