If given a chance, small-scale farms could make a difference in solving hunger problem

Contributor November 9, 2011

While the supercommittee deliberated about farms, food and spending, inboxes were bulging with suggested priorities. On Slow Food USA’s wish list was “funding for conservation, new farmers and other programs that support sustainable farmers and ranchers.”

Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, proposed “using the federal tax code to promote gardening through a $1,000/household garden stimulus package.” My own two cents’ worth came in an address at Maine’s Common Ground Country Fair titled “It’s a Cute Little Movement, but Can It Feed the World?” I’d been provoked by a flood of articles declaring that only large-scale, industrial, biotech farms can save our increasingly overpopulated planet. That small farms and gardens cannot do that has become a mantra, self-replicating its merry way to pseudo-truth.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

Plenty of studies prove otherwise, and the one that does the best job of exploding the myth is the massive effort, launched in 2002 by the World Bank, called the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, or IAASTD. Unprecedented in its inclusiveness, it involved 61 countries and more than 400 agricultural scientists. As the work went forward and 500 pages of distilled findings came together, evidence piled up that small-scale, diverse, sustainable farms (and even home gardens) had the most potential to solve the world’s hunger problems while reversing modern agriculture’s devastation of our ecosystems.

The final report came out in 2008, packed full of creative ideas about how to feed the world, fight poverty and address climate change in a way that brings a livelihood to the farmers, not just to the companies selling them products or trying to commandeer their lands.

The authors concluded that “small farms are often among the most productive in terms of output per unit of land and energy.” Also, they wrote, “an increasing percentage of the funding of university science tends to be concentrated in areas of commercial interest or in advanced studies such as satellite imaging, nanotechnologies and genomics rather than in applications deeply informed by knowledge of farming practice and ecological contexts.”


Evidence is piling up that small-scale farms can help solve the world’s hunger problems. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Concerning genetically engineered crops, the report cited “possible risks to biodiversity and human health” as well as the “privatization of the plant breeding system and concentration of market power in input companies.”

When the report was released, all of the participating countries approved it except for three: Canada, Australia and the United States. Among our reservations, expressed in the report: “The U.S.A. does not believe there is sufficient balance reflecting the use/range of new technologies, including modern biotechnology.”

The study was almost completely ignored in the United States by both the scientific and mainstream press. But if you take a look at it, you might feel a little less belittled as a gardener or small farmer, and infused with the power to feed and heal the world, one farm or garden at a time.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

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