UN Report Says Small-Scale Organic Farming Only Way to Feed the World

Nick Meyer, TechnologyWater, May 14, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes

This article is really useful in helping me understand the scepticism people have about the sort of view of learning I espouse. When I looked at the headline my reaction was that there is no way small-scale individual food production could be sustainable, let along feed the world. That's what prompted me to follow the links to the source, rather than dismissing the idea as hooey (yes, even I dismiss some ideas as hooey!). And I think at the core of the UN report (341 page PDF) there is an analogue with distributed online personal learning (which is how I'm thinking of connectivism these days). Here's their take (quoted):

  • The perception that there is a supply-side productivity problem is questionable. Hunger and malnutrition are mainly related to lack of purchasing power..
  • The fundamental transformation of agriculture may well turn out to be one of the biggest challenges (with) mounting pressure on food security and related access to land and water
  • The world needs a shift... toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small scale farmers
  • We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach... which recognizes that the farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also... water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity and recreation
  • Significant governance issues, power asymmetries' problems in food input and output markets as well as current trade rules for agriculture pose considerable challenge
  • Elements: increasing soil carbon content, reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, closed nutrient cycles, reduction of waste, climate-friendly food consumption, reform of international trade regime
  • Need for a holstic understanding of the challenges...

When put this way, the move away from large-scale automated agricultural production begins to make more sense. Many of the gains we see are illusory and non-sustainable. The same is true in learning. We may achieve what appear to be gains through massive-scale outcomes-focused education automation. But this is a misapplication of educational technology, and does not recognize the importance of education in an ecosystem, and the role educators play as stewards of far more than job-readiness in a society. The key to the MOOC (as I've always said, not that anyone listens) isn't the massive scale, though it is scalable, it's the return of education to individual autonomy, of localized knowledge production, of the integration of community-based learning with other social values (diversity, openness, etc.).

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