Monday, November 15, 2010

Do we engage the mainstream systems?

One of the major observations I had at the Global Food Security Conference at McGill University in Montreal last month was that there is a shift in the international agricultural development paradigm. Earlier, the main focus had been upon large-scale traditional input-intensive interventions designed to boost economic growth by increasing agricultural production through the use of modern technology. More recently, however, small-scale, sustainable grassroots approaches have increasingly gained legitimacy in international development circles. For example, women have become more of a focus, as they are the main agricultural producers in the world. Additionally, local input into projects is now sought and valued permitting those involved with development to learn from local innovations and approaches. The most recent example that I learned about was System of Rice Intensification (SRI)*. The more traditional approaches, however, are still very much present and were referred to throughout the conference with various speakers touting the benefits of the Green Revolution, biotechnology and the mechanization of agriculture.

At a food systems conference this past weekend, It Takes a Region, sponsored by the New England Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) in Albany, NY, this divide was also pointed out by using the example of Wal-Mart announcing that they were going to “double the percentage of locally grown produce it sells to 9 percent.”** As a sustainable agriculture community, do we embrace this decision as a way to bring more people into the movement and create more livelihood for local farmers, or do we reject it because the business model behind Wal-Mart is in many ways in opposition to, and even destructive of, the local food movement.

Although I personally have a very strong persuasion toward small-scale development projects and supporting local food systems and economies, being faced with these opposing viewpoints leads me to think, “Is it possible to take the benefits of each approach while not losing the essence of the more grassroots, “sustainable” approach?” Does such a balance exist? Is it arrogant of me to think that the approach to agriculture and development that I believe in is the best approach and not consider the possibility that biotechnology, chemicals, and the Wal-Mart business model have a place in agriculture? It’s very difficult for me to imagine a way that, over the long run, these technologies and approaches will benefit us, except perhaps using a combination during a transition to natural farming practices and local economies. While I value the importance of being open-minded and working together as much as we can, I see many of these traditional approaches to both development and agriculture as being the cause or the tool of so many of the problems in this world. If this is the case, how can they be embraced in partnership?

If anybody has any thoughts or insight in regard to this apparent dichotomy, please feel free to comment.

* See http://info.worldbank.org/etools/docs/library/245848/overview.html
Initially developed as a result of the observation of “positive deviant” farmers in Madagascar. SRI requires fewer inputs of water and fertilizer, has significantly increased production, and can use any local seeds and organic fertilizers.

** http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/15/business/15walmart.html

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