Rhetorical devices in feeding the world

Recently there were two food events here, a university run Food4you series of events and a series organised by critical student organisations Boerengroep and Otherwise called Food for All. The very different approaches to food are captured in their titles. The latter series finished yesterday on World Food Day with the Dutch premiere of the film Crops for the Future.  An instructive film about agroecology practices and food sovereignty from all over the world. Examples from the field were backed up with interviews with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food , with an author of the Agriculture at a Crossroads report and others. The message; we urgently need to move to another paradigm, the coming century is one of biology/diversity instead of chemistry. Still, it seems that the protagonists of a gone-by era are capable of organising a stage for themselves, the PR machine of Louise Fresco seems overheated. What are their rhetorical devices?

1. Playing with Malthusian fear that we have to follow the industrialisation of agriculture to avoid the doom of scarcity. ‘We have to feed the world’ whereas actually most people feed themselves. And if helped with agroecological techniques based on local species, their productivity rises spectacular leading to surplus which can be sold. No need for ‘us’ to develop their ‘value chain’.

2. Focussing on crop productivity in simplistic calculations of land needed for monoculture (organic crops are less productive, more scarce land needed). That’s actually old-fashioned clinging to monoculture which cannot be sustained in the future when oil-based inputs cease to exist. Monoculture and building/keeping soil fertility are each other’s opposite. Hence, it does not make sense to look at crop productivity as such, the real progress is made on farm-level productivity. The amount of calories/energy produced on an agroecological farm where the nutrient cycle is closed and where intercropping is used to improve soils and diminish pests is a factor 10 higher.

3. Projection of future food needs and the doom of potential scarcity based on current levels Western meat consumption. ‘If the rest of the world develops, they all want the meat we eat’ is the reasoning for which land is obviously going to be scarce since two-thirds of the land is used for fodder production. This is non-sense and rather wishful thinking of the meat industry. Current Western levels of meat consumption are first of all unhealthy leading to ‘welfare diseases’. Current Western levels are not static, research shows that a third of the Dutch population is busy reducing meat intake, it soon will be hip to go without. Current Western meat consumption is part of a historical meat and dairy based food culture and does not necessarily have to have the same effect in vegetable based food cultures such as the Indian cuisine.

4. A religiously colored legacy of dualism in ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ also comes in handy. Such as ‘irrational’ citizen wishes for cows in pasture (see previous blog) that delegitimize the citizen and legitimizes the rational scientist. Or the de-legitimation of animal welfare concern in society as ‘anti-livestock clubs who are angry at the facts’.

2 thoughts on “Rhetorical devices in feeding the world

  1. Great blog Petra- keep going! This week I saw predictions that this year’s grain harvest (at least wheat and maize) will be 10-15% below normal. This will have mixed effects. It will increase the price of food in the developed world (where we only spend 7-10% of average disposable income on food) – which I guess is a good thing (except for the poorest 10%). In countries where people spend 50%+ of their income feeding themselves it is likely to have devasting effects on hunger and children’s development. The world is so complex!

    But its not food production that matters as much as access to food. Conventional scientists (some of whom – not to name names – are based at, and highly influential in, Wageningen) and policy makers don’t seem to understand this point. How do we convince them?

    And wanting livestock in pasture rather than in sheds may have started as a ‘romantic’ animal welfare issue, but actually is the only ecologically viable way to produce animal protein. In agriculturally marginal areas (whether the uplands of Wales or the Kenyan savannah) the livestock makes use of otherwise non-productive land. Compare this to the Dutch agricultural system – which has access to 2m hectares of domestic land and draws feed stuff from a further 16m. Cheap milk, cheese and meat is bought at a considerable cost elsewhere!

  2. A very good summary of concerns a lot of professionals have with the continuing focus on feeding the world throug agro-industry.
    I think it is important – and rhetorically interesting – to take a step back and admit that we don’t know for sure what the future will bring or what shape agriculture will take, but that exactly from this uncertainty comes the obligation to seriously explore a range of new promising paradigms from ‘green-tech’ and ‘appropriate-tech’ to agro-ecology. In this light the single focus of Wageningen on agro-industry and green-tech is irresponsible, as there are clear indications that agro-ecology is succesful in areas where agro-industry isn’t. In Dutch practice there are still very few initiatives focusing on agro-ecology, even in potential fields of experimentation such as multi-functional agriculture (where other activities sometimes do no more than support unviable versions of the old paradigm) or urban agriculture (where the idea of serious food production is often dismissed in favour of goals like social cohesion and raising awareness).
    A more balanced approach in budget and focus on different paradigms (and possible hybrids) is most likely to offer the building stones for a sustainable future agriculture.

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