Perception, reality and Big Agriculture

There is a tendency in some academic circles to be highly critical of something referred to as ‘Big Agriculture’, and to propose that the only ‘real’ agriculture is the traditional and historic model based on small-scale production by near-peasant landholders, who then market their produce direct to consumers. This was the underlying theme of a recent article by Alana Mann of the University of Sydney on The Conversation website, which has been set up to provide Australian academics with an informal mechanism to engage in debates and to expound ideas.

The views expressed by Mann in her article reinforced the extent of the divide between some of the more fashionable academic views of what agriculture should look like, and the reality of the sector both in Australia and globally.

Among the concepts championed by Mann are that food scarcity is a myth perpetrated by Big Agriculture in order to justify increased industrialisation and intensification, monocultural farming systems and increased chemical use.

The issue of global food security is one which has been considered by international forums such as the United Nations (UN), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Bank. All of these are in agreement that global food production will need to increase by around 70% by 2050 in order to ensure sufficient food is available for the anticipated global population at that time.

There is no credible disagreement with that projection, despite the claim made in The Conversation article. In fact, what the author seems to have not understood is that the global agricultural system is very dependent on climatic conditions, and will invariably experience periods when production exceeds demand (as has been the case in grains for the past two years) and when the reverse is true. The long-term production trajectory, however, is what will be critical in ensuring future demand can be met, and it is the sector’s ability to sustain that long-term growth trajectory of around 1.7% per annum over the next 30 years that is raising concerns for international agencies and governments.

The second issue inherent in this discussion is global food distribution. Irrespective of the overall global food balance, it is inevitable that food will be unevenly distributed based on relative wealth. Those in very wealthy countries will have excess food, while those in very poor nations will have food scarcity. This comes about because wealthy consumers can afford to pay more, and the higher available returns for farmers supplying those markets enables them to invest in the capital and technology that makes farm production more efficient.

This is, in effect, the Big Agriculture model that is the subject of so much criticism. However, it does not operate in isolation from global food markets. The technology and production systems that have been developed by R&D investment in rich nations ‘spill over’ to farm production systems in poorer nations, and helps to enhance output. Similarly, excess agricultural production in rich nations is available for export, which ultimately adds to the global food ‘pool’ and makes food more affordable in poorer nations.

While this global food distribution ‘system’ is frequently subject to criticism because of the inequities that arise, there has not been any viable alternative systems developed. It is also the case that this ‘system’ has lead to a steadily decreasing number of people globally that the UN considers to be undernourished, a statistic that has been improving over the last two decades, but which unfortunately rarely garners any media attention.

A further issue touched on in the article but not fully considered is agricultural intensification. The development of large-scale, industrial farming systems is often the subject of criticism, yet almost in the same breath those critics challenge agriculture’s environmental and greenhouse emission performance. The reality is that these two issues are very directly connected.

The development of more intensive (and efficient) production systems such as large-scale intensive livestock farms or glasshouse horticultural facilities enables more efficient production to occur, which has benefits in terms of the feed required for livestock, or the use of fertilisers. It means the land footprint of the agriculture sector can remain more limited than it would otherwise be, and rates of deforestation and water utilisation can be reduced. It has also enabled the development of animal waste recycling and bioenergy systems that are simply not possible in more extensive broadacre production systems.

While intensive and industrial-scale agriculture may not coincide with urban perceptions of agriculture, the vast bulk of agricultural production in developed nations is sourced from the largest 20% of farm businesses.

Those who are sufficiently wealthy can opt to source their food from more rustic and artisanal production systems, and there is room for many different sorts of agriculture in the marketplace. However, it is highly misleading to suggest that these systems are a viable replacement for so-called Big Agriculture.

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