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Experts question wisdom that more food production means less hunger

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Increasing food production through intensive farming will not necessarily end world hunger, experts said Thursday — a finding that flies in the face of established policy.

The United Nations has said countries must double the productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers by 2030 to eliminate hunger and ensure all people have access to food.

“The underlying assumption is that this creates food security on one hand and also improves the livelihoods of smallholders, but we really need to question that,” said Adrian Martin, a professor at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

One in 9 people already do not have enough food, and the world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050.

Martin and a team of international researchers reviewed 53 studies on intensive farming in low- and middle-income countries and found few benefits for poor farmers and the environment.

Intensive farming increases productivity through chemical fertilizers and pesticides, among other activities.

The group’s research, published in Nature Sustainability, found “scant evidence” of success and said such methods “rarely” lead to positive results.

“It surprised me how few examples we found that were really positive,” Martin said.

Poor farmers instead face a “double whammy” — least likely to afford new crops and most likely to suffer from environmental damage, he said.

In Bangladesh, investors and large landowners profit from saltwater shrimp production, but poorer farmers suffer from soil salinization that undermines their rice production, he said.

Rwandan smallholders had to switch to government-regulated crops but could not then afford extras such as fertilizer, the paper said.

Intensive farming might increase production in the short term but reduce it in the long run because intensification often undermines vital underlying conditions for growth, Martin said.

It also replaces complex local knowledge with “a one-size-fits-all” approach, the advocacy group Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa said in a statement.

“Experience in Africa shows this path leads to poverty, poor health, a degraded environment, high-risk business ventures, loss of biodiversity, and weakened resilience,” it added.

The latest research “identifies the importance of seeing the bigger picture,” said Phil Stevenson, a professor at the University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute in Britain who was not involved in the research.

“(It showed) that it isn’t just about producing more food … especially if you don’t consider what the fallout of that could be,” he said.

Both Martin and Stevenson suggest instead “an ecological intensification of agriculture” that has fewer chemical inputs and relies more on natural processes, such as pollination.

“The approaches we’ve used up to now, which have largely relied on, for instance, fungicide and pesticides, we’ve reached a point where they’re no longer delivering,” said Stevenson.

“We need to change the way we produce food.”