Biofuels, Land Grabs, and the Right to Food: The Legacy of Colonialism and the Evolution of the Global Food System

The development of biofuels on a global basis has been a direct assault on the food supply of the most vulnerable populations of the world.  But the biofuel scandal is part of a larger pattern of problems.  In reality, the many projects for the  development of biofuels in the “Global South” are only the most recent chapters in a long history of manipulation and abuse of the agricultural systems of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. The historical development of the international trade in foodstuffs during the Atlantic slave-trade and the subsequent re-organization of tropical agricultural production to favor “cash crops” during the periods of “legitimate commerce” and subsequent colonial domination has led to the current stark division of agricultural labor on a global scale.  Briefly put, grains are shipped in bulk to the “Global South” in exchange for tropical “cash crops” shipped to the “Global North” through what was for a long time justified in terms of “the economics of comparative advantage.”

The most recent phase of this global reorganization of agriculture on the Earth’s surface occurred in a remarkably short period of time — effectively less than the life-time of an average adult in the Western World in the post-World War II era.  Because of the innovations introduced by Norman Borlaug and promoted by the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and agricultural organizations that they funded — including the IFPRI and the CGIAR  — the world food system was transformed in essence from a “solar sustainable” system into one that has become entirely “petro-dependent.”  The so called “Green Revolution” has, in this respect, been assessed in radically different ways in the light of the evolution of human agriculture.   On the one hand it represented an historical “breakthrough” and truly phenomenal success story in terms of the gross production of foodstuffs in a remarkably short period of time.  On the other hand, it has been signaled as a breath-taking misunderstanding of the larger ecological context of agriculture and a monumental “wrong turn” in the historical development of human civilization.

The reason for the starkly contrasting assessments of the “Green Revolution” becomes apparent when the “energetics” of agriculture are analyzed in depth.  In the post-World War II era, it seemed to many agricultural “experts” that the costs of the “inputs” to agriculture had been changed — in many cases, by the war itself.  Land was available, but many of the pre-war rural populations had moved into cities or became displaced by warfare.   From these displaced or urbanized populations there was an increased demand for food, but the relative decline in the rural agricultural labor force made it seem attractive to mechanize and motorize agriculture wherever possible to maintain or expand production with both a relatively tight labor force and in many cases a constrained land area.

Beyond land and labor, it seemed that water needed to be “managed” as well, and the expansion of irrigation systems seemed promising as a means of overcoming water shortage constraints.    In these circumstances it seemed at the time that the increased use of petroleum technologies for the motorization of labor-saving processes in agriculture, the development of irrigation systems and the systematic use of petro-generated fertilizers offered an ideal solution to the perceived constraints on agriculture in the post-World War II era.  The so called “Green Revolution” succeeded precisely because it offered the combination of these immediate solutions to what was perceived to be essentially a problem of increased production of food for the world as a whole.

In the final decades of the 20th century, however, it has become apparent that the classic inputs to agricultural production were squandered in the rush to expand immediate production levels as agriculture became a petro-intensive “industry.”  The expansion of human food supplies was truly phenomenal, resulting in a tripling of Earth’s human population between 1945 and 2018.  But while production increased dramatically,  the energy productivity (the ratio of inputs to outputs) actually declined as the entire system came to depend upon 1) non-renewable inputs (fossil fuels, ammonia-based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc.) and 2) the “mining” of renewable inputs that were exploited beyond the point of their capacity to be renewed (fossil water from aquifers, natural topsoil fertility, biogenetic diversity, etc. )

In reality, hidden from view in assessing the “costs” and “benefits” of this transformation was the total miscalculation in the equations of the subsidies provided to the emerging global system from fossil fuels and natural ecosystemic cycling systems that were destroyed in the frantic rush to promote petro-intensive agriculture.  Now that the large-scale and long-term ecological “costs” of this petroleum subsidized agriculture are becoming apparent, judgments about the value of the “green revolution” are shifting.   in terms of its impact on global plant genetic diversity, the destruction of natural soil fertility and its massive greenhouse gas emissions, the current forms of industrialized agriculture fostered by the “green revolution” are now seen as threatening global ecological sustainability. 

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While all the achievements of the Green Revolution were impressive in fueling the fastest growth spurt of the human population in the history of the world,  it now seems that this was accomplished by sacrificing the future sustainability of agriculture on the Earth’s surface.  Civilizations that transform their solar sustainable systems to a permanent dependence upon non-renewable resources cannot — and will not –themselves be renewed.  They will collapse in the future as surely as they have collapsed in the past. 

For further background material see:

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as well as:Food-matters-crd

T.C. Weiskel

Food-matters

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