China’s Other White Meat

Tom Philpott cited Feeding China’s Pigs in his article, China’s Other Sleeping Giant Is the Other White Meat, from Mother Jones, June 27, 2012.

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It’s the Pork Price, Stupid!

It’s kind of like the running of the bulls in Spain, but much more exciting. Central authorities in China are gearing up to open the gate on the strategic pork reserve. Considering that in 2010, Chinese people ate, on average, 4.2 million metric tons of pork each and every month, the 200,000 metric tons of meat from the reserve doesn’t quite amount to a stampede. Still, the hope is that this flood of flesh will help reduce soaring pork prices, and cool the rampant inflation that’s causing many households in China to go without, while worrying authorities who are determined to head off social unrest at the pass. Will it work? Doubtful. But that doesn’t mean that food reserves like this are any less of a good idea.

In the meantime, it’s worth discussing why pork prices are rising to such a degree, and what these increases mean for Chinese farmers.

Recall for a moment the so-called “world food price crisis” from 2007-2008. Many analysts at that time chalked the rapid rise in food price up to “a perfect storm” of drought- and weather-induced crop shortfalls, increased demand for meat products in Asia, and declining grain stocks worldwide. Others added to this mix the impacts associated with diverting cropland to biofuel production, commodity speculation, legacies of agricultural trade liberalization in poor countries, and the political and economic power that a handful of transnational agribusiness firms wield in controlling the particularities of the global food system (working in conjunction with the WTO, various state governments, banks, the IMF, etc.). Let’s not forget that those agribusiness giants reigned in RECORD PROFITS during 2007-2008, at the same time that number of hungry in the world surpassed one billion. The food crisis, which never went away, is a systemic crisis inherent in the way that food and agriculture are organized, legislated, controlled, and experienced…and some of these mechanisms are at play in the “pork price crisis” happening in China today.

Food price is a complex beast, described only partially by basic economic theory. Yes, Chinese people on average are eating more pork than at any other time in the country’s history, and yes, national annual consumption accounts for half of all the pork in the world. These trends are labeled as “demand.” At the same time, the pork industry in China is a new frontier for both domestic and international investors, increasing the supply of pigs and pork, and spurring the development of an increasingly industrialized hog sector. Vertically integrated pork packers and retailers are bringing meat to China’s urban middle and upper class consumers in quantities that make the strategic pork reserve seem ridiculous. Increased supply, coupled with the hangover from decades of meat rationing and unfulfilled pork dreams certainly play important roles in the cultural drive for more regular pork dinners. But it isn’t the case that high pork prices are solely the result of supply not keeping up with demand, even if we factor in production shortfalls, rising costs of labour, urbanization, and overall rising production and living costs.

A quick and dirty way of looking at some of the other factors at play in this pork price crisis is to look at rising feed costs[1], and how they are experienced by different kinds of farmers in China. Regardless of production scale, feed is generally the highest production cost for pig farmers. To analyze rising pork prices, then, we have to also have a basic understanding of the dynamics of feed markets. My recent report on Feeding China’s Pigs includes a historical look at the co-development of China’s feed and hog industries, and some of the implications of this “joint venture”. What’s most important here is that we begin to think of pork in China today as “corn on the hoof,” (and “soy on the hoof”), so that meat is properly analyzed as a complex commodity, which embodies the costs (economic and otherwise) and processes involved in producing it. Including globally traded grain in the calculus of pork price means that we’re back to the CBOT, commodity speculation, powerful grain traders, deforestation, smallholder dispossession, massive greenhouse gas emissions, agribusiness profits, and on and on and on. Pork price and grain price are intimately linked, and are not just a matter of more people in China eating more pork, while supplies fall for a number reasons. There’s a politics to it all…

My concerns tend to center on how these kinds of issues affect the lives of the world’s most vulnerable populations, who, more often than not, are rural smallholder farmers. What does the pork price crisis look like for smallholders in China? Recent headlines tell us that farmers are doing well, capitalizing on high consumer prices. We heard that in 2007 and 2008 too. But who are these farmers who are making it big while everyone else complains and suffers from inflation?

Consider again rising feed costs, which increase the most important cost of pig production. There are “farmers” who can weather this storm, provided their operation is big enough to take advantage of economies of scale. If they run a vertically integrated firm that has its hands in feed production and animal husbandry at the same time, even better. These big dogs, who are becoming increasingly common and powerful in China, will likely be able to take advantage of high pork prices. They’ll make it. They might even profit handsomely. They’ll be supported by investment, technology, policy, and subsidies. If clenbuterol didn’t ruin Shuanghui (Shineway), high feed costs won’t make a dent.

On the other hand, most of the smallholder farmers I met in China in 2010 (and the millions I didn’t meet) won’t be faring so well. Even the smallest “backyard” farmer who raises only two pigs each year struggle to afford feed when the price increases as it has this year. These farmers are already excluded from cashing in on the booming pork market in a number of ways. They’re often far-removed from urban markets and contractors, and they can’t meet changing industry standards for lean pork. As retail standards in China start to look more like those in the US and elsewhere, fatty pork, though it’s preferred by most Chinese people and lends itself to Chinese cooking, is being replaced by pork with a lower fat-to-lean ratio. This kind of meat can only be achieved by raising pigs on grain, or at the very least, by feeding grain at the right point in the production cycle. For smallholders, if they have to feed grain to meet market standards, and if the price of grain increases even a little bit, they are left out. The central government has been promoting cooperation among small farmers in an effort to help them realize economies of scale, but even these “specialized household farmers” (who raise pigs exclusively) are challenged by rising feed prices and fluctuations in pork price.

In this context, many smallholders give up raising pigs altogether, which can indeed strain pork supplies (today backyard farmers produce about 27% of China’s pigs, specialized household farmers produce 51%, and commercial operations 22%. These numbers are shifting dramatically as we speak, in the direction of larger-scale operations). The real crisis, however, comes when small farmers, who not incidentally account for about half of China’s population (depending in part on how we count migrant workers), give up raising pigs for household consumption and for sale, can’t afford to buy pork in the market even infrequently, struggle to buy other high priced foods, and have nothing to eat but greens and a few other vegetables from their ½ acre farm plots. This is where the idea of food security moves from being an abstract, state-centered political concept to a real life matter of whether or not households having enough food to eat. As one farmer put it, “The things pigs eat now cost more than what people eat.”

We don’t need to worry about whether or not China can produce enough pork to meet domestic demand (demand understood, of course, as a highly unequal construct). We do need to worry about whether that demand, and the supply of food (and feed) diverted to fulfill it, means that hundreds of millions of people are going to struggle to meet even basic dietary and livelihood needs. Income from family members working in factories and on construction sites in cities can help rural households with their food bills, but this is not a sustainable solution.

I shudder when I read this quote from a Financial Times article.

“With pork prices so high, today all we can afford to eat is this stuff,” she says, gesturing to green weeds growing among the debris in her yard.

All I can think of is the image of Haitians eating mud and grass patties in 2008 because rice was too expensive. It’s not the same story, but it’s not as different as we might think.


[1] I’m not arguing that feed cost is THE cause of rising pork prices. I don’t think there is a single cause. For me, it’s primarily a structural problem, but looking at the feed industry in relation to the livestock industry is useful way in to thinking about the problem.

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Report: “Feeding China’s Pigs”

Last fall, Jim Harkness at IATP (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy) asked me to write a piece about pig farming and the feed industry in China. My report, entitled, “Feeding China’s Pigs: Implications for the Environment, Smallholder Farmers in China and Food Security,” (pdf) was just released today. You can find the press release at IATP’s “Think Forward” blog. Here is the executive summary…

Executive Summary

Starting in 1979, pork became the most produced and consumed meat in the world. The reason for its ascent to the top of the global meat heap is simple: China. In 2010 alone, farmers and companies in China produced more than 50 million metric tons of pork, virtually all of which was sold and consumed domestically. This Chinese pork boom, which today accounts for half of all the pork in the world, is the result of a set of policies and trade agreements that liberalized and industrialized Chinese agriculture and enabled enormous production increases. In the quest to feed 21 percent of the world’s population on nine percent of its arable land, Chinese central authorities prioritize ensuring a steady supply of low-priced pork as an important component of food security (China maintains a strategic pork reserve, the only one of its kind in the world). In the more than 30 years since Deng Xiaoping introduced the first major set of reforms to liberalize China’s economy in 1978, policies and investments have worked together to shape and implement a model of agricultural development that privileges industrial agriculture and increased meat production and consumption. While some of these measures have played a role in decreasing the number of hungry in the country, the crises of industrial agriculture are emerging, with serious implications for the environment, public health, smallholder farmers, and questions of food security. This report focuses on the pork sector in particular – including the feeding of swine – as it relates to these pressing issues and challenges.

Long before “Reform and Opening”, pork was critically important in Chinese agriculture and diets. Pigs were domesticated in China some 10,000 years ago, and for millennia, virtually every rural household in China raised at least one or two pigs each year. Smallholders defined the structure of pig raising in China all the way up until the early 1980s, when industrial forms began to emerge. Today, smallholder farmers struggle to survive in the new market agro-economy, while specialized household producers and large-scale commercial operations are actively supported by policy and investment.  A small number of vertically integrated, and predominantly domestic, agribusiness firms are claiming an ever-increasing share of pork production, processing, and marketing. Changes in swine feeding and China’s feedstuffs imports are at the heart of this shift. The industrialization of pig farming in China has taken place in concert with the development of a multi-billion dollar (US$) feed industry.

Soybean imports are keeping the swine industry in China afloat. In order to overcome the limitations of domestic production for feeding millions of pigs, authorities enacted a series of measures to liberalize China’s soy trade, including those required by WTO accession protocols, starting in the early 1990s. Imports quickly overtook both soy exports and domestic production, and today, China is the world’s leading soybean importer. In 2010, more than 50 million metric tons of soybeans came into China, mostly from the United States and Brazil. These imported beans accounted for 73 percent of soy consumption in China, and were used exclusively in the production of soybean meal for livestock feed and soy oil for cooking (meal and oil are co-products in the soy crushing process). In stark contrast to the pork industry, which a handful of domestic companies dominate, transnational agribusiness firms including Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus (together, ABCD), and Wilmar own about 70 percent of the soybean crushing industry in China. In recent years, measures have been enacted to cool the dominance of foreign firms in support of domestic operations. Whether or not these moves will be effective remains to be seen.

Soy is particularly important in commercial pig feed mixes, but for smallholder and specialized household farmers, corn is the most used feedstuff. Corn is protected as a “strategic crop for food security,” primarily because of its role as a staple food for human consumption. Recently, however, corn is also being used in the manufacture of industrial products, and increasingly in commercial livestock feed. In 2010, China was a net corn importer for the first time since 1995. The buyers, a state-owned conglomerate and a private agribusiness firm, used the corn to produce feed. Authorities claim that 2010 was an anomaly, but 2011 looks to be another record corn import year for the Middle Kingdom.

The consequences of these changes in pig production and pig feeding have wide-ranging impacts. In terms of environmental degradation, agriculture in general and livestock farming in particular, are the most important sources of pollution in China. Livestock farms produce more than 4 billion tons of manure annually, much of which contributes to nutrient overload into waterways and subsequent eutrophication and dead zones. Globally, as more and more land is converted to intensive monocrop production of soybeans and corn (and others in a narrow range of industrial feed crops), pesticide and fertilizers pollute waterways, biodiversity declines, natural carbon sinks are destroyed, and greenhouse gases are emitted in all stages of intensive feed production and transport.

Industrial pig feeding also carries a range public health concerns. China is becoming increasingly infamous as a site of food safety scandals, most of which stem from feed additives such as hormones and growth regulators ending up in meat and livestock products. On top of this, the prophylactic administration of antibiotics confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has resulted in antibiotic-resistant disease-causing organisms popping up in China, just as in the United States and Europe. Other threats to public health include the emergence of so-called diet related diseases of affluence, including Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity, and a range of cancers. At the same time, the current model of agricultural development has failed to close the gap in dietary and income inequalities that continue to plague China, especially in the form of differences between rural and urban populations.

Beyond environmental and health impacts, increased liberalization of agriculture is taking a toll on China’s rural population. Smallholder farmers struggle to access markets, meet new market standards, cover costs of production, and maintain an adequate farm labor force. In the context of mass urban migration, many young and especially male rural residents are flooding China’s cities as migrant workers, leaving the elderly, women, and children to tend their households and farms alone.

For its people, environment and penchant for self-sufficiency, a reassessment of the actual impacts of industrial pork production and pig feeding on China’s population and environment is needed. Redirecting research and subsidies from industrial systems to locally embedded systems, while maintaining food reserves, are steps in the right direction toward serving national food security, environment, and development needs.

In other news…

While we’re on the topic of reports, please have a look at the latest from GRAIN: “Food Safety for Whom? Corporate Wealth Versus People’s Health.”

Posted in Agribusiness, Agroecology, Feed, Pigs, Policy | 3 Comments

The Snowmakers

China Daily, 2-10-2011

The snow that graced the city last week amid the rumble of spring festival firecrackers, still lighting up the night sky and contributing intermittent booms throughout the day, was a welcome respite to this excessively dry Beijing winter. The 1 mm of snow that dusted the capital from February 9-10, and the additional 1.7-3.1 mm on February 13, were acts of a central government desperate to combat the worst drought China has experienced in 60 years. Before last week, there had been no precipitation in Beijing for 108 consecutive days, making this the latest first snow since 1950. The entire North China plain is suffering from inadequate precipitation, with potentially disasterous consequences for the upcoming spring harvest of winter wheat.

On February 8, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issued a ‘special alert‘ (pdf) on on this issue, warning that if temperatures in February sink or if the current drought continues into spring, as many as 5.16 million hectares of the total 14 million hectares planted to winter wheat in China could be adversely affected. The drought is particularly serious in Shandong, Jiangsu, Henan, Hebei, and Shanxi provinces, together home to 60% of the area planted to winter wheat in China and two-thirds of national wheat production. A crop failure of this magnitude would be calamitous. Already, farmers are struggling to make ends meet, food prices are rising, and the countryside is strapped for water supply.

The much needed snow was part of a central government policy package to address drought, lurking social unrest from rising food prices, and food security. Authorities announced last week that they would dedicate $1 billion in emergency aid to divert water, dig emergency wells, and improve irrigation systems. Shooting over 1400 silver iodide rods into clouds to make it snow was part of that package. It’s an attempt, but it won’t solve the much more systematic problems of how water is being used and distributed in China today, or how grains are priced, sold, and controlled worldwide. (NOTE: Authorities also pledged about $540 billion over the next 10 years for water conservation and further water diversion projects.)

While Chinese authorities are, of course, primarily concerned with the consequences of drought and the possibility of a much diminished wheat harvest within China, international analysts are focused on what the situation might mean for global wheat supplies and prices. China is the world’s largest wheat producer and consumer, and is largely self-sufficient, with wheat imports and exports paling in comparison. If the spring winter wheat crop fails, or is significantly reduced, China will no doubt import to make up for the shortfall.

Already, wheat prices and futures are increasing both in China and on the CBOT; the same kind of price speculation that played a role in the world food price crisis in 2007-2008. So while farmers in the North China Plain are bracing for crop losses that will squash their already meager annual incomes, 2.57 million people in China are facing drinking water shortages, and the poor around the world are struggling to afford once-again increasing foodstuffs, international grain traders are gearing up for what will likely be another year of record profits.

The food crisis never ended. Drought in China simply adds just one more page to the long, unfolding history of crisis and inequality that defines the current global order and the global food system. All the artificially-induced snow in the world can’t save us now.

Posted in Food Crisis, Policy | 1 Comment

New GRAIN Report: Big Meat is growing in the South

GRAIN just released a report on growing meat production and consumption in the global South in the October issue of Seedling. The authors make the point that, “People around the world are not just eating more meat, they are eating more industrial factory-farmed meat, and the implications of this are huge.” Download the entire issue here.

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Christien Meindertsma: How Pig Parts Make the World Turn

Christien Meindertsma is a Dutch artist who conducted a 3-year research project called “Pig 05049” to find out what happens to all the parts of a pig after it’s slaughtered.  Her results are fascinating, entertaining, and sometimes shocking.

Here is a link to her TED talk from July 2010, and a short description of the project:

Christien Meindertsma, author of “Pig 05049” looks at the astonishing afterlife of the ordinary pig, parts of which make their way into at least 187 non-pork products, from bullets to artificial hearts.

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FEEDing Frenzy: Corn, Investment, and Agribusiness in China

It’s a FEEDing frenzy out there.  Suddenly, what pigs are eating in China has caught the attention of commentators, reporters, and investment analysts alike.  This is big business that some see as a massive opportunity for investment and profit, while others see disastrous environmental and climate consequences.  I see steady and increasing dispossession of China’s small-scale farmers, further consolidation of market power for trans-national agribusiness, and explosive expansion of Chinese political and economic power in global agricultural markets vis-à-vis Chinese agribusinesses.   Here’s a quick rundown of some of the recent press about corn imports and investment opportunities, and a few comments about the implications…

CORN: Perhaps the biggest news in the past few months is the 1.2 million metric tons of corn that China has imported from the US so far this year.  A combination of strict rules against GM crops and products[1], and an intense focus on grain self-sufficiency has kept China from importing corn in any significant quantity in the past.  So, while the precise reasons for this year’s historic buying spree aren’t yet crystal clear (as the Wall Street Journal reports, Chinese officials are incredibly tight-lipped on corn policy as a matter of national security), the rush to industrialize pork production under the auspices of feeding the growing (urban) middle class’s appetite for pork is certainly at the heart of the matter.

COFCO, China’s top state-owned grain trader, is the major corn buyer.  Because COFCO’s operations are not open to the public, it’s impossible to say for certain where all of the corn shipments are destined.  In May, Bloomberg reported that COFCO had sold some corn inventories to “cool local prices”, and planned to use corn imports to further curb rising domestic prices.  It would seem that COFCO would also use this corn for its own industrial pork production, a segment it has been increasingly investing in over the past few years, even buying a 4.95% share in Smithfield in 2008.  Another 2010 corn buyer is New Hope Group, China’s largest agricultural products supplier.  In May Liu Yonghao, the Group’s president, confirmed that New Hope will use imports in the manufacture of pig feed.

Writing about this issue in a Grist post last week titled, “With the global climate pact dead, China gets hungry for U.S. factory pork”, Tom Philpott argued that China’s recent corn imports signal a boon for agribusiness, especially through the conversion of large tracts of land in Argentina and Brazil to corn production, as well as pending climate disaster for all the reasons commonly associated with globally sourced, or long-chained agricultural production.  He quotes Hanver Li, a Chinese agribusiness executive, who said that the arrival of corn shipments meant that a “new era” had dawned in world corn markets.  A writer at PETA picked up Philpott’s ideas and concerns and (predictably) made them more dramatic and much less nuanced, writing, “How Will China Destroy the World?”. Both of these commentators clearly see recent corn imports as just the beginning of a much longer story.  Investment advisors seem to agree.

INVESTMENTS For the past few months, and especially in the past two weeks, investment advisors are promoting Chinese agribusinesses.  This month, The Motley Fool predicts that Zhongpin, a leading Chinese fresh and frozen pork producer, might well be the next top growth stock.  The CAPS community gave Zhongpin the top rating of 5 stars, as a stock with the potential to outperform the S&P 500.  The Street also lists Zhongpin among the three top Chinese firms with strong internal growth; the other two are Yongye International, a firm that specializes in liquids and nutrient compounds for the agricultural industry, and AgFeed Industries, a leading producer of premix and blended feed and animal nutrients (mostly for pigs).  An analyst at Cabot Wealth Advisory also recommends AgFeed Industries as a low priced stock with great potential for growth.

It’s no coincidence that Chinese agbiz firms are coming on the investment radar at the same time that pork prices have been rising for 8 weeks in a row in China, causing overall consumer price inflation, and as corn imports surge to historic levels.  These investment recommendations rest on the assumption that China’s pig industry will continue to develop along Western lines, and will continue to rely on imported corn (and soybeans, which have been largely left out of recent press, though they make up the significant proportion of China’s agricultural imports and industrial pig feed rations.  Two articles, one from the Washington Post and one from farmlandgrab.org report that Chinese companies are trying to buy land in Brazil to plant soybeans themselves.  Much more on this later.).   In other words, investors assume that agricultural development in China will proceed through a  “business as usual” model, reproducing the players, relations, technologies, and methods of US-style, TNC-led agricultural production.  Anyone with a cursory understanding of development politics understands that the deck is stacked in favor of the agribusiness elite, whose sole purpose is reigning in profits under the banner of improving livelihoods, diets, farming practices, etc.

If the world food price crisis in 2008 taught us anything, it’s that the “business as usual” model doesn’t work, and never has.  It’s fundamentally flawed, and is promoted by a group of elites with a singular focus on marketizing food and agricultural systems to create new investment and profit opportunities, all at the expense of small-scale farmers and local food systems (lest we forget that while people were eating grass burgers in Haiti in 2008, Cargill and others were making record profits, or “Making a killing from hunger“, as GRAIN would say) .  The food price crisis was just one instance of a much more generalized and ongoing world food crisis that continues to grip the most vulnerable populations.  As a recent GRAIN report called, “Global agribusiness: two decades of plunder” outlines, TNCs are smack dab in the middle of the food and agriculture issues we find ourselves struggling with today.  China and other countries in the midst of deciding how to invest in agriculture would do well to heed these warnings.  Whatever the case, corn, investment, and agribusiness will continue to be important players in this unfolding drama.


[1] Currently, of the 20 varieties of GM corn in the world, 11 have pass the requisite food safety checks in China and are allowed to enter the country.

Posted in Agribusiness, Feed | 2 Comments

China: agriculture a bigger polluter than industry

Because I think this is an important issue, and because I will likely write more about it in the future, I’m reposting this short piece I wrote for the IATP Think Forward blog.  Here is the original link.

In February of this year, the Chinese government released results of the first ever national pollution census (全国污染源普查). The most startling finding of this nearly 3-year, 737 million RMB investigation was that agriculture is today a bigger source of water pollution in China than industry.  Because agriculture had never before been included in official pollution measures, the finding that farming is responsible for 44% of chemical oxygen demand (COD – the main measure of organic compounds in water), 67% of phosphorus discharges, and 57% of nitrogen discharges was big news.  The New York Times and The Guardian published articles on the census.

In addition to fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide-containing runoff from crop fields, the census found that manure from livestock and poultry farms is a major source of this agricultural pollution.  An article this week in the China Daily further details animal waste problems, citing incidents of blue-green algae outbreaks in lakes and waterways because of excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen from livestock farms.  The photo at right is and example of this phenomenon near a commercial pig farm I visited in Sichuan Province.  Given the lack of effective water treatment methods and facilities, combined with the ever-increasing scale of livestock production, this is indeed a serious problem for the country to address.

In response to the census, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) is promoting biogas digesters as a possible solution to the current “manure problem”.  The Ministry is currently executing and administering a $66.08 million loan from the Asian Development Bank to expand the use of biogas technologies.  By 2020, plans are to construct an additional 80 million household methane digesters and 10,000 large-scale biogas plants.  These projects build on technologies that have been used in China for decades. (Here is a report by Professor Li Kangmin and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho that gives a brief history of biogas use in China, dating from the late nineteenth century.)

The worry in all of this is that of scale.   According to a water expert at the Asian Development Bank, presently less than 1% of the 4.2 million large-scale pig, cattle, and poultry farms use biogas digesters to process manure.  As these commercial farms using CAFO technologies that pack more and more animals into smaller and smaller spaces continue to take an increasing share of production and markets, surely they are the operations to watch…and to regulate.  Biogas digester projects to date have focused on small-scale production, such that the MOA estimates that 35 million of the 140 million rural households were using digesters at the end of 2008.  While digesters can bring certain benefits to rural communities, particularly production of cooking gas and nutrient-rich fertilizer, these small-scale farms are not the ones contributing most to the manure-in-water problem.  The real challenge for addressing manure-based water pollution comes from the rivers of waste running out of commercial livestock farms and directly into bodies of water.  If biogas digesters are to be the chosen path to correct this ill, perhaps the central government should mandate that all new CAFOs (and there are new ones coming into production all the time) must install digesters from the get go, while at the same time, requiring the existing 99% of commercial farms that don’t already use them to do so.

Posted in Agribusiness, Pigs | 1 Comment

The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories

This new and exciting book, The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, just arrived at my doorstep this afternoon.  Edited by Daniel Imhoff, and including essays from some of the better-known food and agriculture commentators of the day, this 462-page volume just hit the market earlier this month.

Here’s the official description:

The CAFO Reader is a collection of essays by over 30 of today’s leading thinkers on one of the most important environmental and ethical issues of our time: the rise of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, where increasing amounts of the world’s meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and seafood are produced. Contributors include Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Fred Kirschenmann, Anna Lappé, Matthew Scully, Eric Schlosser, Andrew Kimbrell, and Wenonah Hauter. These essays analyze and vividly depict the devastating impacts and current conditions in and around factory farms. The collection also provides a compelling vision of “putting the CAFO out to pasture,” in which food systems become more healthy, humane, and sustainable. The CAFO Reader will quickly become an invaluable educational resource in the battle to reform the tragic state of industrial livestock production. It will also inform and influence the growing public movement of activists, farmers, policy makers, and consumers who are aiming to make our food healthier for ourselves and the planet.
The essays in this volume have been selected from the larger photographic volume CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations): The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.

And here is a link to the Table of Contents at the publisher’s website.

Also, see an interview with Daniel Imhoff at Grist.

Posted in Agribusiness, Pigs | 1 Comment

Agroecology can (and does) feed the world!

Last month, Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, convened a two-day meeting on agroecology in Brussels (press release here).  At the end of the meeting, experts concluded that agroecological farming can feed the estimated 2050 global population of 9 billion people.

This conclusion directly contradicts what proponents of industrial agriculture advocate.  A leading line of argument is that in order to avoid the need for more farmland to feed a growing population, the only useful option is to intensify production on existing agricultural land.  Here intensification simply means yield increase.  This is Green Revolution thinking with contemporary application, and a study out of Stanford’s Program on Food Security and the Environment is one of the most recent examples of this logic at work.  The authors of the report, “Greenhouse Gas Mitigation by Agricultural Intensification” argue that crop yield increases realized over the past 50 years have greatly reduced the need to convert forest into farmland, thereby preventing huge amounts of greenhouse gases from entering into the atmosphere when trees and plants are burned in the process.

Studies like this fuel the fire of investment in an incredibly narrow line of agricultural research, based on the development of an incredibly narrow range of high-yielding crops, mostly grown in monoculture, and largely grown for animal feed.  AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), the campaign to turn Africa into several large plantations that use “improved seeds” to produce commodity grains, is perhaps the best example of this type of ideology in action today.  Eric Holt-Gimenez, Miguel Altieri, and Peter Rosset published a fantastically scathing report in 2006 on AGRA’s prospects for solving poverty and hunger in Africa.

The main point I want to make about agricultural intensification arguments and the projects that carry them out is that they start from a false sense of reality and a limited sense of what’s possible.  The recent Stanford report, for example, draws conclusions based on solid calculations about land conversion and greenhouse gas emissions.  BUT the authors take industrial agriculture, and agriculture based on the international trade of feed grains, as a given.  It’s easy to say that the “intensive” agriculture they use as a model has saved us massive greenhouse gas emissions, only because they are working from the assumption that there have never been viable alternatives, let alone that this form of production is itself an alternative to longer-practiced agroecological farming systems.  If we weren’t cutting down forests to grow feed crops in the first place, imagine all the additional carbon that would have been kept safely in the soil and in the forest canopy.  AND imagine how many smallscale farmers would have been able to survive, instead of being pushed out of production and often off of their land.  On this point, Mr. De Schutter wrote a incisive essay in June called, “Responsibly Destroying the World’s Peasantry” that is a call to develop agriculture in a more socially and ecologically responsible manner.

When we talk about “feeding the world” and “population growth” and how the two shall meet, agroecology must be at the heart of that discussion.  For too many years, commentators and policy makers have focused only on Green Revolution-style agriculture, co-opting terms such as “high yield” and “intensive”, which when analyzed on a per-hectare basis, are much more descriptive of smallholder farming than of large-scale monocultures.  Those in power seem completely blind to the fact that smallholders produce food for most of the world’s population, and do so without expensive inputs or contracts with agribusinesses.  Agroecology has been around for thousands of years, and provides a sold basis for continued innovation and sustainability, but it needs support and attention.  The people who practice agroecology deserve a place at the decision-making table where funds and investment for agricultural research and development are doled out. The conclusions of the UN meeting, and the light Olivier De Schutter is shedding on agroecology and peasants, can help make this high-yielding, intensive agriculture and the livelihoods of those who practice it less invisible.  Of this, we can be cautiously hopeful.  Turning that attention into policies and investments that actually support small-scale agriculture is another thing entirely.

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