“We have never received anything so good before.” This is how Eric Holt-Giménez recalls peasant farmers in Mexico responding to a workshop about soil and water conservation. The trainers were members of a Guatemalan farmers’ cooperative. Recalling the moment decades later, Holt-Giménez says this experience of farmer-to-farmer skill-sharing, and many more like it throughout the region, allowed higher yields with fewer purchased inputs for farmers across Latin America; they no longer depended on corporate seeds and fertilizers.
In this time of exploding population, alarming climate change and distressing levels of both food waste and global hunger, experts agree that the functionality of the global agricultural system is necessary to ensuring the health and livelihood of global populations. But ask those same experts how we should tackle these same problems, and the answers differ widely, particularly about how we should grow our food.
Holt-Giménez paints a compelling vision of agriculture as a practice built around community support and self-sufficiency — a bottom-up agricultural revolution that benefits both the farmers and the environment. But others paint an equally passionate vision of bountiful nutritious food and thriving farms, fueled by advanced seeds and next-generation fertilizers and pesticides. The choice comes down to this: advocates for a system with increasing mechanization, researched to optimize yield with carefully bred seeds on the one hand, and proponents of small farms eschewing corporate seeds and pesticides in favor on-farm solutions on the other.
In October, this debate played out in two different lecture halls on the Stanford campus, through two different courses on global agriculture. The two speakers, international agricultural professor Walter Falcon and sustainable food advocate Holt-Giménez have devoted their careers to global food issues. Each cares just as deeply about finding ways to make sure fewer people go to bed hungry while protecting the future of our planet. Yet they come to vastly different conclusions about the way forward. The sense we make of the two worldviews they represent will determine who is hungry and who is not in the coming years.
Holt-Giménez grew up in rural California, on a diet of garden vegetables, fresh seafood and venison. He describes being a part of a food system that evokes a rural way of life outside the modern industrialized approach to growing and processing food. On the other side of this conversation, Falcon comes from a long line of corn farmers in Iowa, rooted in the kind of large-scale, mechanized agriculture that has become more and more common.
Holt-Giménez is the executive director of Food First, a think-tank focused on ending the injustices that cause hunger. Before that, he spent many years in Latin America working with farmers to create networks of skill-sharing towards sustainable practices. Witnessing the moment of knowledge-sharing between Mexican and Guatemalan farmers eventually led to his community organizing role in the Campesino a Campesino movement, a network of over half a million farmers who shared their knowledge with one another. Through workshops and skill-sharing, these farmers grew to be more self-sufficient, Holt-Giménez says, using techniques like composting, cover crops and terracing the hillsides for soil and water conservation. Techniques like these allow farmers to displace expensive inputs they might otherwise need to purchase.
Falcon, meanwhile, is an economist by training. He has spent extended time in Asia, particularly Pakistan and Indonesia, as a trustee of both the International Rice Research Institute and the International Center for Wheat and Maize Improvement, as well as an advisor to governments. In these countries, he saw the changes of the Green Revolution firsthand. This Green Revolution refers to a movement started in Asia in the late 1960s and 1970s, which included the advent of new, higher-yielding crop breeds as well as an initial increase in heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides.
The best of these new breeds allowed farmers to grow significantly more food on the same land they previously used. Indeed, in India, Falcon says, new varieties of rice and wheat allowed farmers to dramatically increase yields, saving the country from what had seemed like certain famine. Thanks to the Green Revolution, Falcon says, “During my lifetime I saw Indonesia go from 75 percent below to poverty line to 15 percent below the poverty line. Same story in India.”
For Falcon and many other development professionals, encouraging new seeds, chemical inputs and irrigation had the goal of increasing harvests and making them more efficient and more reliable. These gains came with side effects, however, including much larger farms with fewer farmers, and an ever greater reliance on the $400 billion agribusiness industry for inputs like seed, fertilizer and machinery. Many also worry about the environmental inputs and toxicity of those new inputs, including the energy required to manufacture fertilizer.
It was these business-related side effects of industrialized farming that worried Holt-Giménez. After setting up the Campesino a Campesino program and returning to the United States, he heard anecdotes that farmers involved in the movement resisted the impact of Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998. The storm was devastating to most farms, but those using Campesino a Campesino sustainable practices suffered fewer losses than conventional farms. In a study with 2,000 paired observations between conventional and Campesino a Campesino farms, Holt-Giménez showed that the farms that had used conservation and restoration strategies had “more topsoil, higher field moisture, more vegetation, less erosion and lower economic losses” in the face of the hurricane than the paired conventional farms. For Holt-Giménez, the conclusion was clear: the future of agriculture ought to lie in the sorts of low-tech, small-scale techniques used on these farms that preserve the health of the topsoil and allowed for a more resilient system.
Having worked with farmers in similar situations, Falcon sees a different story unfolding. Falcon speaks strongly about the way in which birth rates and death rates fell after Green Revolution techniques were introduced in once-impoverished countries. He emphasizes that although we can never quite know the counterfactual, it is likely that population would have grown at even higher rates than today without the increasing incomes made possible by higher yields. The data are clear; as absolute incomes go up, the number of children per family declines. While some poor farmers were certainly worse off after the Green Revolution, many sources conclude that overall, the Green Revolution resulted in an increase in well-being for the poor, measured in terms of increasing absolute income and decreasing hunger. Falcon’s view of a world without the Green Revolution is one of extreme poverty and suffering — indeed, it’s the world he saw in the early years of his development work. He questions critics of the Green Revolution’s reliance on emotional stories; while he agrees that there are heartbreaking stories stemming from industrial agriculture, he says that those do not detract from the decline of absolute poverty that resulted from the Green Revolution.
We’re left stuck between two seemingly disparate and disconnected visions. One vision of this future imagines a world of sustainable, smallholder farms with heightened self-sufficiency. The other paints industrial ag as a necessity, standing between a narrowly escaped recent past of hunger and poverty and a future of efficient, global plenty. Both these views are held with equal sincerity, care and conviction; Falcon and Holt-Giménez both want a world with decreased hunger and increased human and environmental health. The future of agriculture will not be determined exactly according to either of their viewpoints, and that future will not play out in a lecture hall, but in the markets and farms across the world, taking into account the different contexts and histories of each location. Through increased dialogue, perhaps we can discover ways to build on the shared goals and values of these two worldviews — ways to increase yields without displacing small farmers, to raise incomes without also increasing income disparity, to ensure that no one is hungry and no one is poor. Perhaps the two visions have much in common, if only a middle ground can be struck.