A Plausible Vision to Feed the Planet

Responding to Chris Smaje on the Future of Agriculture

Is a future in which global food demand is met by small-scale, labor-intensive, and local farms desirable or even possible? Chris Smaje, a British farmer, social scientist, and writer seems to think so, and he wants a great deal to change in order to accommodate his vision.

In Smaje’s recent blog post (a response to several recent Breakthrough pieces) he points out that he and Breakthrough have different visions of what would be a “good” future for global agriculture, and he calls for conversation that acknowledges these fundamental differences. Take synthetic nitrogen, for example. In our recent essay, we argue that synthetic nitrogen is necessary to meet global food demand without converting important ecosystems and forests to new farmland. In Smaje’s perspective, people don’t inherently or objectively need synthetic fertilizer — the “need” for synthetic fertilizer is an artifact of various contextual factors. He envisions a future in which many factors change that make synthetic fertilizer less necessary than it is is today.

We appreciate Smaje’s attempt to clarify our differences at the level of vision, and we agree that radical transformations in our global agricultural system are theoretically possible, and even that small scale labor-intensive farming could meet global food demand sustainably under very specific conditions. The question is whether this scenario is realistically achievable, and even whether it is ultimately desirable.

For Smaje, small-scale labor-intensive farming holds great inherent value, and he seemingly would like a number of robust, ongoing global trends to reverse themselves in order to secure its long term viability. He points to a number of such trends. For example, he justifiably points out that if people eat less meat, far less land would be needed for agriculture and far less synthetic fertilizer would be required. Likewise, he faults “expansionists economic ideologies” for the over-production of food, writing, “If the US reined in some of that $150 billion worth of food exports… less input-intensive and more labour-intensive agricultural approaches may become a little more feasible again worldwide.”

In other words, Smaje’s vision of a “small farm future” is contingent on revolutionary changes. To make small-scale farm life viable on a global scale would require somehow replacing international food imports, changing what types of food people eat, what types of lives (e.g. agrarian vs. urban) people desire, and much more. For instance, with less international agricultural trade, countries would have to either convert more land to farming to make up for the drop in food, or people would have to deal with higher prices, change their food consumption, or go hungry more often. His arguments about the benefits of agrarian living and labor-intensive farming are certainly worth considering. But ultimately his vision is unrealistic.  

In contrast, our vision of scaling up and increasing the yields of many farms is based in part on our view that reversing robust global trends simply isn’t feasible. Instead, we view accelerating positive trends — such as rising yields (which often requires additional fertilizer) and the land use benefits and income it provides — as the best approach to limiting the environmental impacts of agriculture. We are aware that others may see this approach as overly incrementalist or insufficiently radical. But we see the greatest value in changes that are achievable given broader political and economic developments, that in our judgment are far beyond the control of countries and other actors.

We also see our vision of urbanization and agricultural modernization as better for people than a future in which more people live and work on small farms. Historically, the agrarian transition of people moving from rural farming communities to urban centers has greatly improved people’s lives. As urbanization occurs, incomes rise, access to healthcare increases, and population growth slows, among other beneficial changes in social outcomes.

We are not arguing that small-scale farming is without merit and has no future. We agree that small-scale farming does have value and will remain to play an important role where it makes economic, ecological, and socio-cultural sense. But as a broad direction for the future of global agriculture, we believe it is the wrong model.

Given the world today, and where it is headed, we maintain that increasing farm yields — with the additional agricultural inputs, urbanization, and societal changes it often entails — represents a pragmatic and effective vision for sustainably feeding a growing population.