More and more people are rejecting the “productionist” strategy that has dominated world agriculture since the 1960s. Is the Agrarian Renaissance already in train?

Olivier De Schutter served as UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food from May 2008 until May 2014 and was elected to the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in 2014. He is co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems whose latest report, From Uniformity to Diversity, beautifully outlines the  main ideas behind Enlightened Agriculture and Agrarian Renaissance.

Fifty years ago, the main challenge facing the food system could be summarized in the most simple of terms: it had to produce enough to keep up with the rise in demand for foodstuffs. The rate of population growth reached its peak in the 1960s, with an estimated 2.5 per cent annual increase in 1965, almost double what it is today. In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich predicted in his best-selling book, The Population Bomb, that under a business-as-usual scenario, entire regions would be facing starvation, as agricultural output would be unable to catch up with demographic growth and the shifting diets linked to urbanization. The world, it seemed to many, was on the edge. In much of the developing world, yields per surface area had been stagnating for decades, and it was precisely there that overpopulation was threatening and that the ability of governments to make up for food deficits through imports was weakest. Indeed, when, in 1972, bad harvests in what was then the USSR, combined with the first oil shock the following year, led the real prices of food commodities to skyrocket suddenly on international markets – as the USSR quietly bought all the grain reserves that they could capture and as the price of fertilizers suddenly peaked – the doomsday predictions of the neo-Malthusians seemed to turn into reality.

Population growth and insufficient productivity growth were threatening the ability of entire regions to feed themselves, and with rising prices, basic food commodities could be out of reach of the poor: the answer was to produce more. This was the mindset that shaped the choices made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, inaugurating a trend that lasted for forty years almost without interruption. The specific responses were different from region to region, but the general approach was similar all over: thanks to a combination of technological advances and public policies, including the use of subsidies to farmers, outputs were raised, and prices driven down. In Europe, this was the vision that shaped the Common Agricultural Policy launched in the early 1960s. In the United States, it was Earl Butz, President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, who launched a massive programme to encourage the production of grain, corn especially, in the American countryside, most notably by introducing direct payments to farmers compensating for the otherwise low payments they would receive for their crops in situations of overproduction (1). Farmers were encouraged to grow more and faster, and told not to worry about the risk of gluts in the markets – if the prices were not sufficient to cover the costs, the government would intervene and make up for the difference.

Though overproduction was initially limited to rich countries, it was in South Asia that the risks associated with overpopulation were considered to be the highest. Countries such as India, Pakistan, or the Philippines have among the highest fertility rates of the world; this moreover was also the region where pro-communist sentiment, it was felt, would grow if no solution was found to the massive rural poverty. The term “Green Revolution” was applied to the attempts launched in 1965–66 to boost agricultural production in these countries, through the introduction of new “high-yielding” varieties, particularly semidwarf wheat and rice varieties, the extension of irrigated land and a massive increase in the use of chemical fertilizers and mechanisation. The significance of the Green Revolution was at least as much political as it was agronomic: the state had decided to make boosting agricultural productivity a priority, and it framed the question of hunger and malnutrition primarily as a quantitative problem – as a mismatch between supply and demand, that technology, combined with public policies in support of farmers, would be able to address.

By their own standards, the revolutions in food systems that were launched in the 1960s and 1970s were a spectacular success. The yields increased massively during the following decades (2). While rates of population growth continued to decline, beginning in the late 1960s, the total output per hectare of agricultural land continued to grow steadily, at about 2.1 per cent per year over the past fifty years. This allowed agricultural production to increase calorie availability per capita without significantly expanding the areas under cultivation: in 1961, the world population of 3.5 billion people was fed by cultivating 1.37 billion hectares of land; fifty years later, when the population doubled to 7 billion people, only 12 per cent more land – a total of 1.53 billion hectares – was used for cultivation.

Productionism with the benefit of hindsight

Assessed from the point of view of their contribution to health and well-being, however, the food systems we inherited from the twentieth century have spectacularly failed. Despite the impressive increase in agricultural output per capita, the absolute number of hungry people has hardly been reduced since the early 1970s, always oscillating around 850 million people: we’ve managed to reduce the proportion of undernourished (about 12 per cent of the world’s population today), but certainly not to eradicate hunger (3).

Calorie intake alone, moreover, the indicator for undernutrition in the official data on hunger, says little about nutritional status. Lack of care or inadequate feeding practices for infants, as well as poor health care or water and sanitation, also play a major role. And food intake itself cannot be assessed solely on the basis of its energy content: even where food intake provides a sufficient amount of calories, inadequate diets can result in micronutrient deficiencies such as a lack of iodine, of vitamin A, or of iron, to mention only the deficiencies that are the most common in large parts of the developing world. Globally, over 165 million children are stunted – so malnourished that they do not reach their full physical and cognitive potential – and 2 billion people globally lack vitamins and minerals essential for good health, a phenomenon colloquially known as “hidden hunger”. Scientists have come up with figures showing the huge multiplier effects of providing infants with better nutrition: they calculated that for any dollar spent on reducing stunting, $44.50 US could be expected in returns, as a result of improved earnings in later life. The politicians often looked the other way (4).

This is true of course of low-income countries where undernutrition is the major concern. But it is true also in middle- and high-income countries. In the United States itself, 49 million Americans – one in six – live in “food insecure” households, meaning they cannot afford adequate food for themselves or their families (5). These kids may not be starving, but they are not adequately nourished. Counter-intuitively perhaps, this puts them at risk of overweight and obesity in adult life: children who are poorly fed during pregnancy develop super-enzymes in order to absorb the minimal amount of food they are used to eating. Later in their lives, when they grow up and have regular access to high-caloric foods, those super-enzymes keep on working, resulting in a significant risk of obesity (6). Obesity itself, that we long thought confined to high-income countries, is now of concern to a large range of middle-income countries facing a “nutrition transition” such as Mexico, Brazil or South Africa: changing lifestyles – more urban, more sedentary – combined with a switch to so-called “Western diets” – richer in processed foods that are energy-rich and include heavy doses of saturated fats, sugars and salt. Already today, overweight and obesity cause every year more premature deaths (about 3.4 million) than undernutrition kills children (3.1 million). By 2030, 1.1 billion people (one person in eight) will be obese (7, 8, 9). The evolution of food systems is directly responsible for these health impacts: the sudden availability of vegetable oil (particularly soybean oil) at low prices on the world market led to the rapid increase in vegetable oil consumption (and thus of fats in diets); and the high subsidies going to large grain producers, providing the food processing industry with large volumes of cheap inputs, is directly responsible for the increased reliance on processed foods (10).

Not only did the productionist approach neglect its impacts on health; it also grossly underestimated its environmental impacts. Monocultures were encouraged in order to allow for mechanization. This resulted in a significant loss of agrobiodiversity (11). It accelerated soil erosion. The soils were gradually robbed of their nutrients, forcing an ever greater reliance on chemical fertilizers to maintain yields. This in turn polluted fresh water, and as phosphate and nitrogen water pollution reach the oceans, natural fertilization processes are stimulated, spurring algae growth that absorbs the dissolved oxygen required to sustain fish stocks.

Moreover, industrial modes of agricultural production are now a chief contributor to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture accounts for approximately 15 per cent of total man-made greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of nitrous oxide from the use of fertilizers, methane from flooded rice fields and livestock, and carbon dioxide from the loss of soil organic carbon in croplands and, due to intensified grazing, on pastures. The production of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, the tillage, irrigation and fertilization, and the transport, packaging and conservation of food also require considerable amounts of energy, so that in total, as much as one third of greenhouse gases from human activity is linked to how food systems developed (13). Not only is food production itself threatened by the pressures it exercises on ecosystems, including by the apparently uncontrollable growth of emissions responsible for global warming; it has also developed a huge dependency on fossil energies – the gas needed for the production of fertilizers, the oil needed for machinery and the processing and transport of food – which makes it deeply unsustainable.

The industrial livestock sector, more than any other, stands as a symbol for this kind of productionism – polluting, creating ill-health, and favouring the production of large amounts of cheap calories over everything else (14). In all regions, as incomes rise and as people migrate to cities, they consume more meat. So production in turn must increase. The famous “CAFOs” – the concentrated animal feeding operations – long thought to be a purely American phenomenon, are now mushrooming in all world regions. Every year, larger parts of the corn and soy production go to feeding animals, and the expansion of pastures and feed crops is a major source of deforestation especially in Latin America. Over one third of the world’s cereals are already being used as animal feed, and following current trends, this will rise to 50 per cent by 2050. Yet, meat produced according to industrial processes that feed animals on grain presents a string of problems (15). It results in large volumes of waste that cannot be easily disposed of. Because animals get sick in overcrowded factories, massive doses of antibiotics are included in feed, directives on “judicious use” notwithstanding, so that consumers’ bodies gradually become less resistant to antibiotic treatment (16). And overconsumption of meat in affluent countries – the average US citizen consumes 120 kg per year – is associated with obesity and chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Perhaps many of these problems associated with productionist approaches might be excused if they benefited those who depend on agricultural production for their livelihoods, many of which are poor households living in the global South. Instead, the production patterns are badly skewed against these small-scale farmers, so that the current system results in massive inequities. Production increases during the period 1960–2000 went hand in hand with regional specialization in a relatively narrow range of products, a process encouraged by the growth of international trade in agriculture. The benefits were concentrated in the hands of large production units and landholders at the expense of smaller-scale producers and landless workers. Monocultures not only reward economies of scale and allow for mechanization; they also give a premium to the largest landholders who are better positioned to achieve efficiency gains under this model. Whereas the 1980s encouraged a “liberalization” of food markets (in the form of “structural adjustment” in the indebted poor countries), the process was strongly biased in favour of the North: overproduction in the highly subsidized farming sectors of rich countries put downward pressure on agricultural prices, relegating many small farmers to subsistence agriculture for their own consumption (as they were not competitive on markets), and accelerating rural-to-urban migration.

This is the trap into which many of the poorest countries on Earth (most among the so-called “Least Developed Countries – LDCs”) are caught. These countries are still primarily agricultural, yet, in part because they have to repay their foreign loans in hard currency, they export a narrow range of commodities and therefore find themselves highly vulnerable to price shocks on international markets for these products (17). Their food bills have soared, the combined result of population growth and of a lack of investment in local agricultural production and food processing to meet local needs. When the prices of agricultural products suddenly increased in 2008 in the wake of higher oil prices and speculation, LDCs discovered that they were caught in a vicious cycle. They had failed to invest in their own farmers to satisfy local needs: if there was any investment at all, it went to a narrow range of commodities such as cocoa, tobacco or cotton for export. As a result, to feed the urban poor they had no choice but to depend more on food aid or to import more food products, thus making it even more difficult for their own farmers – increasingly facing dumping of heavily subsidized foodstuffs on their own domestic markets – to make a decent living from farming. In effect, the import of low-priced food products functioned as a substitute for improved wages for workers in the non-agricultural sectors, and for the establishment of social protection floors for all. This was perhaps a convenient solution so long as the prices of basic food commodities remained stable or were declining. However, with higher and increasingly volatile prices, this has now become a recipe for social and political instability. The trap has closed on them.

The growing discontent

From ill-health to environmental degradation and from malnutrition to rural poverty in the global South, the productionist system appears unable to provide solutions to the problems of today. Yet the deeper the crisis, and the more complete the failure, the more widely discontent spreads. New alliances can be imagined that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Environmental groups can team with parents’ organizations, as both share a worry about the impacts of industrialized food production on the planet and on their children. Politicians from all stripes professing to be concerned about public deficits join health care practitioners concerned about the mounting costs of health care linked to diets that make people sick. Development NGOs discover that their concerns about the impact of subsidies, which result in dumping, on local markets in the global South, are echoed by taxpayers’ associations, which complain about the huge sums of public money that go to farmers to grow raw materials – not food, in fact, but raw materials that serve as inputs to the food processing industry. The list could go on.

Many of these alliances remain virtual, however, and were they to emerge, the obstacles they would face would still be formidable. The system passed on to us from the twentieth century is composed of a set of inter-related elements, that have evolved together (“co-evolved”, as scientists say), and that have become mutually supportive. From storage facilities to processing plants and to communication routes, infrastructures have been built in support of large-scale production, rewarding economies of scale. They are in the hands of large agrifood companies – the commodity traders, the large food processors, the increasingly concentrated retailers – whose dominance breeds dominance: since they have the logistics, control the networks and capture the subsidies, they can easily crush the competitors in the low-cost food economy that has developed. These large actors in turn have all the reasons to oppose a transformation in the food system, and they have the means to do so: their economic dominance allows them to veto change. They flood the markets with processed foods, manufactured from the mountains of soya and corn that government subsidies lead to be produced. This may be neither very healthy nor sustainable at all, it nevertheless caters rather well to the lifestyles that have developed in affluent societies – hurried and stressed, with little time to cook and even less inclination to do so, and with families who have often given up on the family meals that the generation past still enjoyed. How to unlock a system that seems so well-established, in which the different pieces strengthen one another?

The food sovereignty alternative

To a growing number of groups in all world regions, the answer is summed up in two words: food sovereignty. The idea of food sovereignty emerged twenty years ago, from the mobilisation of small farmers (the “campesinos”) in Costa Rica and from the protest marches of small farmers in the Indian state of Karnataka. The message was simple: policies in the areas of food and agriculture, they insisted, should not be made hostage to the exigencies of international trade. This idea was central to the establishment in 1993 of the Via Campesina, which was soon to grow into the largest transnational social movement in existence, now spanning 164 local and national organizations in more than 70 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and representing an estimated 200 million farmers. This movement was initially rural, and focused on the needs of small-scale farmers, who took pride in proclaiming themselves “peasants”. It was also very much a product of its time. The Uruguay round of trade negotiations launched in 1986 was nearing its conclusion, and at the request of major developing countries, agriculture had been placed at the centre of the table for the big bargain to be struck: food, it was becoming clear, was set to become the next frontier of the great mill of commodification, and farmers from the world over were asked to compete against one another – and never mind if this meant that the least competitive would disappear.

By challenging the role of international trade in shaping food systems, the early food sovereignty activists of the Via Campesina were hitting at the heart of what had been guiding productionism as a way of understanding the food problem. They were accused of denying the benefits of trade, and the efficiency gains that can result from each region specializing in what it is comparatively best at producing. They could easily point to the fact, however, that trade over long distances, controlled by the companies who own the logistics and control the networks, and have the ability to source their bananas or their soybean from farmers located thousands of kilometers away, is not the only trade there is; that local and regional markets have been neglected and insufficiently supported; and that this neglect has not simply allowed the expansion of long-distance trade, but to a large extent has also resulted from long-distance trade being given priority in public policies. Following the food price crisis of 2008, moreover, they could even more easily note the considerable risks that countries take when they depend on imports for their food, as global markets undergo regular shocks and prices regularly spike. Resilience requires diversity, including a diversity of markets; uniformity breeds the exact opposite.

The food sovereignty claim has now grown into something else – bigger, more diverse, and altogether more promising. It may be seen as a quest to reinvent food systems from the bottom up. Indeed, in all world regions, groups of ordinary citizens are developing new ways to produce and to consume food, to move towards more sustainable solutions and to bypass the (still dominant) industrial food systems. Theirs is a claim for autonomy: they want to recapture the food systems, or to reinvent them. This is visible at both ends – at the end of the producer and at the end of the consumer.

On the production side, farmers are increasingly embracing agroecology as a way out of the fossil fuel-based type of agriculture their predecessors had been taught (18). Biological control, through the use of the right combination of crops on the same field, replaces the use of pesticides. Leguminous plants serve to fertilize the soils, reducing the need to use nitrogen-based fertilizers. Trees, which in the past had been banished from the fields in the name of maximizing yields, are being planted again, alongside crops: their roots allow the soil to capture moisture better and their shade reduces evaporation, making it possible to save water for irrigation. Integrated cropping and rotating crops allow soils to be replenished that monocropping has been quietly destroying over decades.

As a set of agronomic techniques, agroecology aims to reduce the use of external fossil-based inputs, to recycle waste, and to combine different elements of nature in the process of production in order to maximize synergies between them. At heart, it is a certain way of thinking of our relationship to Nature. Whereas conventional agriculture sought to simplify Nature, standardizing the work of farmers in the process, agroecology does the very opposite: it embraces the complexity of Nature, seeing such complexity not as a liability, but as an asset. The farmer, in this view, is a discoverer: he or she proceeds experimentally, by trial and error, observing what consequences follow from which combinations, and learning what works best – even though the ultimate “scientific” explanation may remain elusive. One reason why this is so attractive is because it is empowering: the farmer is put in the driver’s seat, she constructs the knowledge that works best in the local context in which she operates.

On the consumers’ side, the progress of claims related to food sovereignty has been even more impressive. It is invoked today by food policy councils in North America, from Toronto to Oakland. It is the rallying cry behind the impressive growth of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture. It is a slogan heard in food banks or in social groceries, such as the famous Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, that seek to reconnect people to their local farmers and to the food systems they depend on more broadly. It is referred to by those who want to produce their own food, through vegetable gardens in their urban neighbourhoods or in the schools to which they send their children.

How can this diverse set of initiatives be interpreted? First, they seek to build bridges between urban consumers and local farmers, by inventing different ways to rebuild local food systems. This is in part a change in strategy: the front line was the World Trade Organization ministerial summits in Seattle or Hong Kong; it is now the local school board, the company canteen, or the local farmers’ market. Alliances are now being built, at local level, between citizens, farmers, and municipalities. Food sovereignty was accused of placing the interests of farmers above those of urban consumers: by some magic, it is now the urban middle class, often joining forces with low-income communities claiming more food justice, that is the most dynamic part of the movement.

Second, the claim to democracy is central to these various innovations that form food sovereignty today: people were passive consumers, responsible ones at best; they’ve now become active citizens, seeking to reclaim control over their food systems and to exercise their right to choose. It is not simply that the act of consuming has become political. It is more than that: people seek to co-design food systems, to participate in shaping them, to recapture them. We were familiar with the slogan of workplace democracy; we now must open up our eyes to food democracy.

Third, resilience is increasingly favoured over efficiency. The various social innovations that are emerging are guided by the realization that we have entered an uncertain world – and that the pathway to recovery is largely uncharted. Peak oil, the imbalances in the cycle of nitrogen, genetic erosion as a result of the spread of monocropping schemes, soil degradation, the repeated shocks that result from climate changes, the logistical nightmares associated with the congestion of cities – these well-documented threats will mean in the future more instability, more volatility, and the need to invent more solutions and to do so faster.

The coming food revolution

The keywords connecting the various food sovereignty alternatives are relocalization, diversity and (as an implication of both) reduced dependency. The more that solutions can be designed locally, using local resources (in addition to outside resources rather than simply instead of them, for these outside resources may remain available as a back-up solution should local systems break down or prove insufficient), the less vulnerable any local system will be to outside shocks – such as a sudden increase in energy prices, a breakdown of supplies, or an economic crisis that places basic items out of reach of the poorest. And the more diverse these solutions will be, the better the local system will be equipped to deal with contingencies, unpredictable by definition in the form that they will take, but that we can predict with assurance will happen.

Is this revolutionary? Perhaps not if we think of revolutions as events in history when a group takes power and overthrows a regime. That, however, as Hannah Arendt remarked, sounds more like a coup d’état. Changing society without seizing power is what these movements are about. The revolution they propose is a silent one. It is gradual. But it is happening all around us.

Olivier De Schutter, 10 June 2016


  1. Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2006, 51–53).
  2. See Keith O. Fuglie, Sun Ling Wang, and V. Eldon Ball (eds), Productivity Growth in Agriculture : An International Perspective (CAB International, 2012).
  3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), International Fund for Development, and World Food Programme, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013: The Multiple Dimensions of Food Security (FAO, Rome, 2013).
  4.  J. Hoddinott et al., Hunger and Malnutrition, Copenhagen Consensus 2012 Challenge Paper.
  5. The Adequacy of Diets and the Right to Food: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Olivier De Schutter, presented at the 19th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, 2011 (UN doc A/HRC/19/59) para 7.
  6. D. Stuckler and K. Siegel, Sick Societies: Responding to the Global Challenge of Global Disease (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  7. T. Kelly, W. Yang, C.S. Chen, K. Reynolds and J. He (2008). “Global burden of obesity in 2005 and projections for 2030”, International Journal of Obesity, vol. 32 (2008): 1431–37.
  8. R.E. Black et al., “Maternal and child undernutrition and overweight in low-income and middle-income countries”, The Lancet, vol. 382, no. 9890 (2013): 427–51.
  9. M. Ng et al., “Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013”, The Lancet, vol. 384, no. 9945 (2014): 766–81.
  10. C. Hawkes, “Uneven dietary development: linking the policies and processes of globalization with the nutrition transition, obesity, and diet-related chronic disease”, Globalization and Health, vol. 2 no. 4 (2006).
  11. The First FAO Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources, based on more than 150 country reports, prepared for the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources held in Leipzig, Germany, 17–23 June 1996, concluded that “the main cause of genetic erosion in crops … is the replacement of local varieties by improved or exotic varieties and species. As old varieties in farmers’ fields are replaced by newer ones, genetic erosion frequently occurs because the genes and gene complexes found in the diverse farmers’ varieties are not contained in toto in the modern variety. In addition, the sheer number of varieties is often reduced when commercial varieties are introduced into traditional farming systems” (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (FAO, Rome, 1997) at 33). This was confirmed in the updated report, published in 2010 (Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (FAO, Rome, 2010) at 15–16).
  12. H.W. Paerl and V.J. Paul, “Climate change: links to global expansion of harmful cyanobacteria”, Water Research, vol. 46 (2011), 1349–63.
  13. High-level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, Food Security and Climate Change, HLPE Report No 3, Committee on World Food Security, Rome, June 2012. Later confirmed by more recent estimates: see Sonja J. Vermeulen et al., “Climate Change and Food Systems”, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 37 (2012): 195–222.
  14. See Joyce D’Silva and John Webster (eds), The Meat Crisis: Developing More Sustainable Production and Consumption (Earthscan, London and Washington DC, 2010); and Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott, Farmageddon, The True Cost of Cheap Meat (Bloomsbury, London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney, 2014).
  15. Arnold Tukker et al., “Environmental impacts of changes to healthier diets in Europe”, Ecological Economics, vol. 70, no. 10 (2011): 1776–88.
  16. The recent 2013 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals shows that from 2009 to 2013 sales went up by 17%. Sales of medically important antimicrobials for use in livestock increased by 20% from 2009 to 2013.
  17. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), The Least Developed Countries Report 2010: Towards a New International Development Architecture for LDCs (UNCTAD, Geneva, 2010): iv and 8.
  18. See Olivier De Schutter and Gaetan Vanloqueren, “The new Green Revolution: how twenty-first century science can feed the world”, Solutions, vol. 2, no. 4 (2011): 33–44.