Farming needs the best of old and new to avoid disaster

Hunger persists in parts of the world, yet more than 30% of food is wasted
Scorched earth policy: rainforest clearances are part of disastrous food system © AFP

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What does a sustainable food system look like? One that could guarantee that everyone on the planet has reliable physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food and that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life?

The challenge of delivering food security is one of the largest dilemmas facing the modern world.

Agribusinesses tell us they have the answers: more efficiency, more technology, even greater yields, modified crops. In contrast, the agro-ecological movement argues that only their approach can deliver the necessary calories and nutrition for the world’s population, while also nourishing ecosystems and the people who live within them.

There is room for both. To believe that one system will exist without the other is naive. But how will they coexist?

In setting an agenda for both, we need to recognise that seeing food security simply as a challenge of production volumes misses many key problems.

The focus of policy is too often just on tonnages and calories. We have enough calorific output to feed the world but there is too little attention is given to the problems such as food quality, distribution, impact of production on the wider environment, and waste.

We do not currently have a problem of scarcity: more than 50 per cent of all the world’s grain goes to feed animals, who in turn feed us, rather than feeding humans directly. This is a grossly inefficient use of resources: cattle, for instance, can require 15kg of crops for every 1kg of meat. The scale at which we are farming animals means that animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the transportation sector.

We should not be blind to role science can play in ameliorating such impacts. In the near future, is possible that animal products including meat could be grown in laboratories, via cellular agriculture, a scientific step that could undermine industrial-scale animal farming and its myriad threats to food security. This model system would require 90 per cent less land and produce 75 per cent less greenhouse gases than current meat production — and not require the use of antibiotics.

Would such advances be desirable? Personally, I would welcome a world without millions of animals kept on dusty feed lots in Arizona, eking out short, miserable lives between birth and the abattoir.

Ecological campaigns also need to understand that the corporations are not going away. The world will always have huge players in the food sector whose goal is to make a profit. Our food world is dominated by a few big names, which enable us to enjoy food from the other side of the world and bread that lasts for weeks. But such apparent consumer gains that flow from commercial endeavour have wider costs. The quest for gains in yield demands we use more chemicals each year, with adverse effects on the nutritional content of food and the health of the land. Meanwhile, food-related illness is on the rise and, while hunger persists in parts of the world, over 30 per cent of food grown is wasted.

Our current food system continues to be disastrous for the planet’s health. In the UK, soil depletion means that East Anglia now has an estimated 40 harvests left, while farm land is losing 1-3cm of topsoil a year. The rainforests of Brazil and Indonesia release thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere as they are burnt to provide land for palm oil and grains. The nutrient value of food across the globe is declining as our overworked soil can no longer supply the nourishment fruit, vegetables and grain demand. The Chinese are resorting to hand pollinating fruit trees with paint brushes as their flagrant use of chemicals has all but eliminated vital pollinators.

Sustainable food production also has to encompass health. One in three people globally has some form of malnutrition and those with obesity now outnumber those with too little. In China, 120m people now have diabetes — an astonishing figure caused in the past 25 years by the adoption of western-style diets high in fats, sugars and salts. How do we promote healthy and nutritious food in an environment where a frozen pizza is cheaper than a butternut squash?

With market power comes responsibility. There is massive consolidation of the food industry: in the US, 75 per cent of meat produced is controlled by four companies and in the UK the “Big Five” supermarkets have a 70 per cent market share. Such market structures are considered by some as necessary to drive the provision of cheap food for everyone, but it has served to remove us from a connection with real food. According to a report by the Food Foundation, typical British children get about two-thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods. We have a food system that shapes consumer demand rather than vice versa, and supply chains which are so opaque that it is easy for adulterants such as horse meat to find their way in.

At the moment we are moving towards yet greater homogenisation of diets as western fast-food takes over the world. Scarily, today we generate 75 per cent of all the world’s food from just 12 plants and five animal species. Yet we need diversity of production and supply chains to withstand shocks — political, economic and climatic — as well as unwelcome effects on health.

To restore balance, we need to give organic, smaller-scale and diverse farming a proper role within the food system, through subsidies which support high quality of produce and recognise positive environmental impacts. We need to steer the world away from our over-reliance on certain foods such as meat.

Mixed farming, an essentially old practice, can thrive given sufficient backing. Denmark, for example, has the world’s highest share of organic produce, coexisting with intensive, and unpleasant, animal production. In 2014, France introduced a law to shorten supply chains, making clear that seasonal produce and organic are vital for health and security. Some governments are finally recognising that ecologically minded farming has an essential role in delivering food security and that it can live alongside modified industrial systems.

Let us do more. Unless we want a future where almost everything we eat is grown in a Petri dish, we have to act now.

Rosie Boycott is a writer, chair of the London Food Board and adviser to the Mayor of London

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