Agribusiness Is the Problem, Not the Solution

Yver here. While this article discusses how agribusiness is not well positioned to addressing the problem of hunger, it fails to acknowledge the advanced crisis in the biosphere – species loss and great contractions in the size of animal and insect populations – due to habitat destruction.

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Senior Adviser with the Khazanah Research Institute and former United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Economic Development. Originally published at Triple Crisis

For two centuries, all too many discussions about hunger and resource scarcity has been haunted by the ghost of Parson Thomas Malthus. Malthus warned that rising populations would exhaust resources, especially those needed for food production. Exponential population growth would outstrip food output.

Humanity now faces a major challenge as global warming is expected to frustrate the production of enough food as the world population rises to 9.7 billion by 2050. Timothy Wise’s new book Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (New Press, New York, 2019) argues that most solutions currently put forward by government, philanthropic and private sector luminaries are misleading.

Malthus’ Ghost Returns

The early 2008 food price crisis has often been wrongly associated with the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. The number of hungry in the world was said to have risen to over a billion, feeding a resurgence of neo-Malthusianism.

Agribusiness advocates fed such fears, insisting that food production must double by 2050, and high-yielding industrial agriculture, under the auspices of agribusiness, is the only solution. In fact, the world is mainly fed by hundreds of millions of small-scale, often called family farmers who produce over two-thirds of developing countries’ food.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, neither food scarcity nor poor physical access are the main causes of food insecurity and hunger. Instead, Reuters has observed a ‘global grain glut’, with surplus cereal stocks piling up.

Meanwhile, poor production, processing and storage facilities cause food losses of an average of about a third of developing countries’ output. A similar share is believed lost in rich countries due to wasteful food storage, marketing and consumption behaviour.

Nevertheless, despite grain abundance, the 2018 State of Food Insecurity report — by the Rome-based United Nations food agencies led by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — reported rising chronic and severe hunger or undernourishment involving more than 800 million.

Political, philanthropic and corporate leaders have promised to help struggling African and other countries grow more food, by offering to improve farming practices. New seed and other technologies would modernize those left behind.

But producing more food, by itself, does not enable the hungry to eat. Thus, agribusiness and its philanthropic promoters are often the problem, not the solution, in feeding the world.

Eating Tomorrow addresses related questions such as: Why doesn’t rising global food production feed the hungry? How can we “feed the world” of rising populations and unsustainable pressure on land, water and other natural resources that farmers need to grow food?

Family Farmers Lack Power

Drawing on five years of extensive fieldwork in Southern Africa, Mexico, India and the US Mid-West, Wise concludes that the problem is essentially one of power. He shows how powerful business interests influence government food and agricultural policies to favour large farms.

This is typically at the expense of ‘family’ farmers, who grow most of the world’s food, but also involves putting consumers and others at risk, e.g., due to agrochemical use. His many examples not only detail and explain the many problems small-scale farmers face, but also their typically constructive responses despite lack of support, if not worse, from most governments:

• In Mexico, trade liberalization following the 1993 North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) agreement swamped the country with cheap, subsidized US maize and pork, accelerating migration from the countryside. Apparently, this was actively encouraged by transnational pork producers employing ‘undocumented’ and un-unionised Mexican workers willing to accept low wages and poor working conditions.
• In Malawi, large government subsidies encouraged farmers to buy commercial fertilizers and seeds from US agribusinesses such as now Bayer-owned Monsanto, but to little effect, as their productivity and food security stagnated or even deteriorated. Meanwhile, Monsanto took over the government seed company, favouring its own patented seeds at the expense of productive local varieties, while a former senior Monsanto official co-authored the national seed policy that threatens to criminalize farmers who save, exchange and sell seeds instead!
• In Zambia, greater use of seeds and fertilizers from agribusiness tripled maize production without reducing the country’s very high rates of poverty and malnutrition. Meanwhile, as the government provides 250,000-acre ‘farm blocks’ to foreign investors, family farmers struggle for title to farm land.
• In Mozambique too, the government gives away vast tracts of farm land to foreign investors. Meanwhile, women-led cooperatives successfully run their own native maize seed banks.
• Meanwhile, Iowa promotes vast monocultures of maize and soybean to feed hogs and bioethanol rather than ‘feed the world’.
• A large Mexican farmer cooperative launched an ‘agro-ecological revolution’, while the old government kept trying to legalize Monsanto’s controversial genetically modified maize. Farmers have thus far halted the Monsanto plan, arguing that GM corn threatens the rich diversity of native Mexican varieties.

Much of the research for the book was done in 2014-15, when Obama was US president, although the narrative begins with developments and policies following the 2008 food price crisis, during Bush’s last year in the White House. The book tells a story of US big business’ influence on policies enabling more aggressive transnational expansion.

Yet, Wise remains optimistic, emphasizing that the world can feed the hungry, many of whom are family farmers. Despite the challenges they face, many family farmers are finding innovative and effective ways to grow more and better food. He advocates support for farmers’ efforts to improve their soil, output and wellbeing.

Eating Better

Hungry farmers are nourishing their life-giving soils using more ecologically sound practices to plant a diversity of native crops, instead of using costly chemicals for export-oriented monocultures. According to Wise, they are growing more and better food, and are capable of feeding the hungry.

Unfortunately, most national governments and international institutions still favour large-scale, high-input, industrial agriculture, neglecting more sustainable solutions offered by family farmers, and the need to improve the wellbeing of poor farmers.

Undoubtedly, many new agricultural techniques offer the prospect of improving the welfare of farmers, not only by increasing productivity and output, but also by limiting costs, using scarce resources more effectively, and reducing the drudgery of farm work.

But the world must recognize that farming may no longer be viable for many who face land, water and other resource constraints, unless they get better access to such resources. Meanwhile, malnutrition of various types affects well over two billion people in the world, and industrial agriculture contributes about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Going forward, it will be important to ensure affordable, healthy and nutritious food supplies for all, mindful not only of food and water safety, but also of various pollution threats. A related challenge will be to enhance dietary diversity affordably to overcome micronutrient deficiencies and diet-related non-communicable diseases for all.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Here is one paragraph that I took note of-

    “Meanwhile, poor production, processing and storage facilities cause food losses of an average of about a third of developing countries’ output. A similar share is believed lost in rich countries due to wasteful food storage, marketing and consumption behaviour.”

    How about we re-word it so it says the following-

    “Through efficient production, processing and storage facilities causing food savings of an average of about a third of developing countries’ output and a similar share being saved in rich countries due to efficient food storage, marketing and consumption behaviour, all food hunger was eliminated throughout the world and enough left over to form a food reserve for those countries encountering drought, especially through climate change.”

  2. Amfortas the hippie

    I’m again leaning towards antimarket thinking.
    food should be a fundamental human right. feeding the hungry is embedded in the base code of every religion i can think of.
    and the history of farmers being cheated and sidetracked into debt reveals that agriculture…like healthcare…is inimical to markets, and profits uber alles.
    it occurs to me that the parasitic speculators would make decent fertilizer, themselves.
    but let them and the bankers take up the hoe for a season, first.
    and industrial ag., as stated here, is one of the largest destroyers of the biosphere…and also the biggest contributor to antibiotic resistance.
    let those deleterious effects be priced into that 3000 mile tomato, flavorless and shorn of nutritive quality.

    1. JohnM

      “food should be a fundamental human right”

      in a world with infinite resources that would be a noble premise. on planet Earth, with finite carrying capacity, it’s closer to an empty platitude.

      at some point the discussion needs to move from increasing food supply to controlling demand.

      1. amfortas the hippie

        my thing is, increasingly, an aversion to profiting off the suffering of others….not some hippiedippy utopianism. monopoly and monopsony, the efficiency of scale that only works when numerous and obvious externalities are ignored, and the fetishisation of the holy rag(dollar) over the most basic human need… that we cant seem to speak of these things is problematic.

        1. Cal2

          Amfortas, literature illustrates your first sentence.
          In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Cal’s father demands he return the $5,000 he made on bean futures to the farmers who planted at 4 cents a bushel and then saw the WWI Army buying them at 10 cents, with an English intermediary making the 6 cent profit-the value of the futures Cal bought.
          Cal, hopes to buy his father’s love by giving him the money he lost on a scheme to single crop lettuce and ship it east in Southern Pacific* freight cars packed with ice, is despondent and goes off the deep end.
          *See also Frank Norris’ The Octopus about the Southern Pacific’s monopolizing the profits of the short lived Central Valley wheat crop.

          In addition, our foreign policy vis a vis Iran sanctions is influenced by a major political donor who wants to prevent competition from Iranian pistachios.

          “Domestic sales are up 42 percent over the past eight years, but foreign sales have stalled. He blames Iran. Since international sanctions were lifted five years earlier, Iran has been crowding the market with its more buttery-tasting pistachios. The Iranians don’t irrigate their trees. They rely only on rain, which concentrates the flavorful oils. China, for one, prefers the Iranian pistachio. So do the Israelis, who go to the trouble of repackaging the nuts so it doesn’t appear that they’re consuming the product of an enemy. Iranian pistachios show up in Tel Aviv as nuts from Turkey.”

      2. JCC

        I hope you mean “controlling demand” by Corporate Institutional Meal Producers (Stouffers for example) and not end users like me :-)

      3. Rosario

        That is all fine and good if you think that food resources are efficiently and fairly distributed. In addition, that starvation is not used as a tool of economic and/or political warfare (an old trick still being used today in Yemen). IMO, food resources are not utilized very well globally and there is plenty of room for improvement. Population reduction should be part of that discussion, but I am one to think that we’ll simply continue going back to population reduction over-and-over as the only solution to the problem if we don’t start thinking about the utilization and distribution of food resources. That is a boring plan for the future.

        Depending on the political framing, there can be a narrow territory between fatalism/nihilism and (so-called) realism/pragmatism. The breadth of that territory is drawn by what people think is possible, often times those people are the ones with the means/power. If they think nothing is possible, or don’t want things to change, we get precisely that, no change.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      Till recently, most of those 3,000 mile tomatoes were from California. Some are from Mexico or elsewhere nowadays.

      Still . . . . the phrase I once invented for those tomatoes when they were all from California might still be useful. I hereby offer it for free for anyone who wants to use it, if anyone does.

      And here it is . . . . Ahhh — those crispy California tomatoes with the fresh cucumber taste.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          If one can call it lucky . . .

          You know . . . if California weren’t growing all that pleasure-food for people outside California; California could grow a lot of high-resin high-thermal-output fuel-grade marijuana for the power plants of California.

  3. farmboy

    If we understand that the trillion organisms per cu/ft of soil give rise to all of living endeavor, then maybe we can have the perspective to interact symbiotically. Our awareness of the atomic allows us to grasp a world unseen. Every scientific step into the cosmos promotes the bond to the life under our feet. Apologies for preaching. Amen.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Well . . . . some of us can. Some of us already have. You have.

      Perhaps we who already have should start calling ourselves GreenWoke. What can a GreenWoke person do to weaponise this outlook for dissemination and viralization?

      What can the GreenWoke do to support this approach to bio-agriculture where it already exists? How about: buy their stuff even if it is more expensive than the mainstream petro-toxic steriliculture’s product?
      We should start going beyond “follow the money”. We should start to “lead the money around by the nose.”

      Every dollar is a bullet on the field of economic combat.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    For anyone interested in the topic, there is an excellent and very detailed report recently released by a European thinktank called IDDRI on how a sustainable (in all ways) agriculture system can be created in Europe. There is a lot of reading and research in it, but its worth it (unfortunately, its written in research/committee speak, it doesn’t give very clear conclusions – if you want to speed read it, look at the figures and graphs, especially figures 2, 4, 8, 11, 14, 15, 18 and 26). It advocates an agroecology approach – a sort of half way between organic farming and conventional farming, with a particular emphasis on soil protection and the reduction in pesticides and artificial nitrogen, in addition to dietary changes away from meat, dairy, and wheat/soya.

    Long term watchers of European agriculture policy will know that a Directive promoting many of these aims was vetoed by…. the UK. Many Greens are quite happy with Brexit as the UK has long been the great advocate of industrial agriculture in the EU. Unfortunately, the Bayer-Monsanto merger may well mean that Germany may now replace it.

    One key policy you will note from the report is the vital importance of going as far as possible in stopping the use of tillage for feeding farm animals. It is by far the most unsustainable of activities. Feeding animals on grass only, or surplus/waste foods is the single biggest step that can be taken to making agriculture more sustainable.

  5. Earwig

    Having just read Malthus, his main point was that as we increase food production humans will reproduce accordingly and even overshoot the new carrying capacity, thus there will always be hungry people.

    1. Susan the Other

      It’s the same model as capitalism – keep expanding. The best way to reconcile being horrified by what is looking like obscene overpopulation with a healthy sustainable planet is to promote awareness. It works in advanced economies. Our birth rate is down, so is Europe’s, China’s, etc. Where poverty is the only option for people, having more children is a form of security. Just another of the extreme consequences of neoliberal capitalism. I don’t think, being a human myself, that people actually rejoice in having children anymore. Life is becoming too harsh. But if they have no choice, that’s what they do. Legally adopting the creatures on the planet and nurturing them (I wish we had that law), along with all our close cousins, would be a very good start. And being brave enough to state the obvious: Climate change and overpopulation and environmental devastation are going to take a century to fix. At least.

  6. Jerry B

    I have mentioned it on NC before but there is an excellent French documentary called Tomorrow. The english version can be streamed on Amazon. The documentary does focus on areas of the US as well such as Detroit with their growing communal food culture and Oakland and their community involvement.

    In the documentary there is a section on agriculture where they are talking to an organic farmer and he states”

    “The goal of industrial agriculture production/agribusiness is not to grow food but to make money”

  7. Rosario

    Agreed, though I have to say the margins are slim in any model of transition away from the prevalent agricultural system. That is why agribusiness is such a monster and I think they have been working to make it that way for that very reason. “You can’t live without us…” Unless we are willing to accept potentially astronomical mortality rates as a result of famine and disease we’ll have to move away from large agribusiness in a very measured way.

    Cuba, IMO, did an excellent job transitioning to more sustainable agricultural models post SU collapse. See “Special Period”, Somehow their economy managed to keep everyone fed while not requiring that every citizen work a shovel or hoe for 90% of their working life. Impressive if you ask me. Note that Cuba is not a low density population country by any means ( There is plenty to critique on Cuba, but their work on quasi post-oil agriculture is something to appreciate.

    1. amfortas the hippie

      aye. the cuban ag revolution gets too little notice. amazing.
      and resulted in a global shortage of mules,too….which plays into my recent chorus re good manure

  8. Oregoncharles

    “as the world population rises to 9.7 billion by 2050”
    People keep saying this, but it calls into question their grasp on reality. It isn’t even qualified with “if present trends continue.” This guy is talking about food shortages now, and we’re being told that fertility rates are falling worldwide; but he talks about 2 billion more people as if it’s going to happen.

    It isn’t going to happen, and assuming that it will only makes the situation worse. The remaining question is HOW it doesn’t happen: the hard way, or the right way? Falling fertility rates, below replacement in much of the developed world, are rare good news.

  9. Rosario

    Another thing came to me reading this over. I recalled discussing land use in Kenya’s Lake Victoria region years ago with a Kenyan professor at my college. He told me about a European multinational hoping to utilize some “unused” land for the growing of tropical flowers. He tended more toward the market solution side of things. I wasn’t so convinced it was going to be good.

    Anyway, at the time that situation had me thinking about the relationship between the restrictive nature of property and boundaries (borders) and the exacerbation of famine in times of drought/flood. It would be interesting to see how more flexible utilization of arable land could decrease the effects of crop adverse weather events. Mobility of farmers within regions, unrestrained by property claims or national boundaries, could allow those regional populations to naturally adjust to adverse weather. I have a suspicion we would find many famines are actually quite avoidable when controlling for the restrictive nature of national boundaries and land use restrictions vis-a-vis property. Probably not universally applicable, but I can topically think of two examples where political and economic rigidity compounded existing climate related crop failures, Ethiopia 1983-1985 and Somalia 1991-1992.

    1. Cal2

      And the lake itself…

      See “Darwin’s Nightmare

      A documentary on the effect of fishing the Nile perch in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria. The predatory fish, which has wiped out the native species, is sold in Europe.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        That’s the Corporate Globalonial Plantation way to feed the hungry people of Africa. Exterminate the fish the hungry people used to eat before the fish they used to eat were all exterminated. Then sell the introduced exterminator-fish to Europe instead of permit the poor Africans to eat it. And that is how we feed the hungry, the Neo-Liberal way.

  10. nihil obstet

    One of the great pieces of Cold War propaganda was that the commies had these huge collectivized farms that could produce enough food. We, on the other hand, have the family farmer who can outproduce anyone. For once, I have to say, the Cold War propaganda was right — the family farmer can beat the huge centrally managed agricultural unit. The family farmer is no longer praised for production — she’s simply pulled out as a front for subsidies to agri-corps.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      USSR had their Soviet Socialism, and Ruling Class America had ( still has) its Corporate Socialism.
      They had Sovkhozes and Kholkhozes, and we got ( still have) Corpokhozes.

      The more GreenWokes who make a point of buying more food from more family farmers, the more money and power the family farm sector will attract in order to grow itself bigger at the expense of the Corpokhoz sector.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Buying more food from more family farmers.

        Here, whom to buy from is a choice. The consumer can make a difference.

        The same with buying from/patronizing corporations employing those who are here not through proper channels* (see commetns in today’s Links).

        *It’s not just the corporations (when that happens) committing an offense. The customers too…many of us…because there are other choices.

        And we can’t just say, it’s due to all those greedy corporations, though it is easier or tempting to see it that way. But let’s remind us, the consumer can make a difference. Buy more from those (in whatever field) we want to support, and less (or nothing at all) otherwise.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          I would agree. Every tiny little action makes a tiny little difference. Below a certain tipping-point threshhold number of politically-motivated customers it may seem as if such people are just Living their Witness. But if that tipping- point number of people is exceeded, a visible and indeed social-economic evolution-altering difference may be made in certain citizen-targeted sectors.

          For example, I and by now others have sometimes mentioned here the paper ( now a Magazine) called Acres USA. It has about 12,000 subscribers and prints 22,000 copies per month overall. Now . . . WHAT if Acres USA had a MILL-ion subscribers? What kind of more reporting and stuff could they do with that kind of money? What kind of Eco-Agronomy Research and Applied Deployment Institute could they establish and operate? Or assist others to?

          1. Deplorado

            I will check it out and sounds like I might be interested in subscribing.
            Thanks for mentioning it.

            Btw there is an institute in Minnesota
            (don’t have the name ready) that does research
            on making crops like wheat into perennials.
            Think about the enormous effect on that on
            reduced tillage, seed, etc, etc. I keep forgetting
            but I should go and donate. Please seek them out and

  11. TG

    One is reminded that Malthus was correct.

    Malthus never ever predicted a global catastrophe. Malthus never predicted anything. Malthus only pointed out that exponential growth is so powerful, that for those specific societies where people try to double their population every 25 years or so, unless they have an open frontier, they will soon fail – and of necessity, the average person will be crushed to a miserable subsistence-level existence. This is true. It is true today in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh and India, where chronic malnutrition (NOT generally famine) is so extreme that something like half the worm are growing up ‘stunted’ – and they are not going to be able to have seven kids each.

    Malthus was correct, but there has been a massive propaganda campaign against him – mostly by misquoting what he said – because for the rich, nothing is more profitable than a vast impoverished and desperate class of workers.

    What is different now is that ‘globalization’ is set to inflict the sort of poverty that in the past was limited to specific countries, to the entire world – and perhaps even to threaten global climate. But the rich want cheap labor, se we are obliged to parrot that the path to prosperity is that people breed without restraint so that we don’t ‘run out’ of workers…

  12. Duck1

    The cafos are a vast propaganda network of cheap meat. Starting in the GMO fields of round-up ready corn and soybeans through the sterile halls of pig and chicken life the stuff is cheap. 88 cents / lb for pork and chicken this week. Argue against the man or woman feeding their family. Argh.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The people to carry the argument to are the people . . . . and there still are some such people . . . who make enough money that they can afford to feed their family with “less” shinola-meat instead of “more” sh*t-meat for their family’s health and safety . . . and for a livable ecosystem for their children to grow up in. The poor and the desperate are not the people to taunt with an argument with an argument for doing something which they can do precisely nothing about.

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