The Third Agricultural Revolution

In the article “Why Biotechnology and High-Tech Agriculture Cannot Feed the World” Andrew Kimbrell attempts to debunk the “myth” that the widespread use of some form of high output agriculture is human kind’s last resort to try to feed the Earth’s ever growing population. The finished product is made up of roughly half scientific and economic arguments against high-tech agriculture and half environmental / social propaganda aimed at defaming the corporations behind the technological push. These two halves of this article must be defined and separated if we are to gain real insight on the benefits and the costs associated with high-tech agriculture. In his paper Kimbrell cites four “myths” that are spouted by agricultural multinationals on high tech agriculture, the aim of this paper is to analyze Kimbrell’s arguments to try to extract useful information from this propaganda laden piece.

The first myth that Kimbrell attempts to debunk is that “world hunger is caused primarily by a shortage of food with which to feed a growing population.” His reasoning for this is that the spread of industry onto land formerly used for agriculture has increased the amount of people who are food dependant. The severity of the situation is heightened because many of these people cannot earn wages that can buy sufficient amounts of food for themselves or their families. Kimbrell also cites scientific evidence that food production is growing faster than population rates in most of the developing world, yet world hunger overall is rising. Although I find Kimbrell’s argument here completely valid and feasible, I do not believe that it is a problem that is difficult to remedy. Developing economies must balance the need to grow export crops to boost GDP with their need to grow crops for their population’s sustenance.

The second myth that Kimbrell argues against is that “Larger, technology-intensive farms are more efficient for food production.” His argument here starts with the idea that the move toward “factory” farms accelerates the process described in his argument against the first myth. He then shifts to factory farming to increases in unemployment, crime, food-dependency, hunger, and price cutting wars in agriculture. He also spits in the face of free market economic theory when disputing differences in efficiency between small farms and factory farms. He seems to be in favor of having small farms selling crops above their marginal cost of production, which is a market inefficiency, rather than large farms pricing their products at their own (and much lower) marginal cost. It is ironic that Kimbrell is essentially arguing for higher food prices as he is obviously so concerned with the poor and their ability to access food.

Kimbrell’s next myth to be debunked is that low technology farming takes up more land to produce that same output as smaller high-tech farms, and that this trend will increase the threat to wetlands, forests, and other unique ecosystems. He says that this myth is part of a campaign by multinational agricultural firms to stem the growth of organic food producers and the organic food market. Again, Kimbrell tries to cite scientific evidence that medium sized farms are at least efficient as large farms. Although this may be true, farms of equal efficiency are assumed to produce equal amount of food with equal land use. A dozen medium sized farms would then pose the same threat to a nearby unique ecosystem as one extremely large farm.

The last false myth cited by Kimbrell is that “biotechnology will feed the world, with less chemical use, less pollution, and fewer resources.” Kimbrell’s argument here is a combination of ecological conspiracy theory and anti-consumer product rhetoric that contains no supporting scientific evidence whatsoever. Overall, Kimbrell makes several interesting and poignant arguments that are lost all too easily in his all out bashing of high-tech agriculture and its supporters.