The future of our food: endless crisis or transformation revolution?

by Fritz Hinterberger

Video can be watched here.

Andreas Breitenfellner opened the event on behalf of the OeNB as host and referred, among other things, to the concept of regenerative agriculture, which is regarded as a new key concept in sustainability. The OeNB is concerned with financial market stability and inflation and these are also influenced by processes in the food sector. Breitenfellner cites a study which shows that weather extremes influence inflation (albeit to a lesser extent). 

Club of Rome – Austrian Chapter President Hannes Swoboda began by thanking Gertrude Suschko, who had been instrumental in preparing this event. He began by referring to hunger, which is currently also caused by various wars, such as in Ukraine or Gaza. About a third of harmful emissions come from the food complex (including agriculture, fertilizer production, transport and waste disposal), Swoboda quotes the Earth4All report and explains the “turnaround in nutrition” described there with its three levers: (1) conversion of agriculture, (2) conversion of nutrition and (3) reduction of food waste. His statement can be read here.

Gertrude Suschko then explained the basic consensus on which the Earth4All concept is based: “In all the topics covered in the report, we consider three interlinked systems – the economy, society and the natural environment. We want to look at this in all its complexity and also include science. “Our aim is to bring these players together,” says Suschko.

Marianne Penker works “inter- and transdisciplinary on transformative solutions” for rural areas and has worked on the status report for the European “Farm to Fork” strategy, among other things: “Food for all has become affordable thanks to technological means and the availability of fossil fuels”. She referred to the EU, which in its “Farm to Fork” strategy – in which it is pointed out in the introduction that despite abundance, Europe is not succeeding in protecting the climate – is distributing benefits fairly and ensuring a healthy diet.

While a tenth of our income is spent on food, in the Global South it is more like half. As a result, there is a coexistence of overnutrition and undernutrition, food waste and serious negative impacts on the environment. Half of the grain produced in Austria goes into animal feed production, 30% into fuel and only 20% directly into food, explained Penker. Regenerative agriculture improves soil quality and stores CO, but this takes many years. 

It takes about 100 years to build up one centimeter of humus.

In her lecture, Marianne Penker also makes it clear that we should not see agriculture as just a tool for food production. That would be far too short-sighted. Using the example of cattle, she shows the various aspects that must also be included in our overall view: because this is also about the preservation of the cultural landscape and the biodiversity associated with it, it is also about identity and the attractiveness of our natural area for tourism. 

Kurt Weinberger, Chairman of the Board of Hagelversicherung and President of the International Association of Natural Catastrophe Insurers, began his keynote speech with a quote from US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack: “Everyone who eats is part of agriculture”. 

Weinberger sees climate change and soil consumption as the biggest challenges. In 2023, hail insurance had to pay 50% of indemnity payments for drought. Two major global insurance companies will soon no longer offer the risk of drought at all, says Weinberger. In Austria, the drought damage compensated by the insurance amounted to €1 billion in the last10 years.

The cause of the excessive land consumption (11 hectares per day) is above all wrong decisions in spatial planning. In contrast, the EU’s goal is zero net land consumption. In Austria, the “road length per capita” is 15 meters, in Germany half that at 8 meters. In Austria there are 60 supermarkets per 100,000 inhabitants, in Germany only 40 – that is 50% more in Austria – and that with 40,000 hectares of vacant land. Austria is the European champion in this respect: 130,000 hectares have been built on in 20 years – and that with declining food self-sufficiency. 3000 m2 of arable land is needed to feed one person; in Austria, however, only 1600 m2 is available. At the same time, the consumption of land also contributes to the disfigurement of the landscape, which in turn has a negative impact on tourism. 

Weinberger sees solutions in a bundle of spatial planning guidelines, fiscal instruments and other measures. Examples based on suggestions from experts include more direct democracy (because people in their regional environment are more likely to oppose construction measures) – in other words, it is better to redevelop than to build over with concrete. According to Weinberger, the municipal tax is steering in the wrong direction, as it rewards the destruction of natural spaces in fiscal terms. When asked, Weinberger advocated financial compensation for small businesses, the strengthening of regionality and a vacancy tax.

In the final panel, journalist and moderator Birgit Schaller asked Marianne Penker about her biggest concern. “That we won’t get it done quickly enough,” replied Penker, because it is a distribution issue, not a production issue.

“How are you doing with the changes I mentioned?” Schaller asked Georg Strasser, President of the Austrian Farmers’ Association. Austrian agriculture and forestry are continuing to change, he said. However, the required speed is a problem. “Straw pigs are being demanded, but only bought very cautiously”. Austrian and European politics exert strong constraints that are difficult for farmers to meet.

“Austria has the highest proportion of vegetarians in the EU,” says Rainer Will, Managing Director of the Austrian Trade Association, as an example of the major changes that Austria is also undergoing on the part of consumers.

According to the Austrian Federal Competition Authority, trade is not to blame for the higher prices compared to Germany, but the industry. Markus Mühleisen, CEO of Agrana, replies as a representative of the food industry at the interface between agriculture and trade – including as the world’s largest producer of apple juice concentrate. Mühleisen “thinks it’s really good” that the Club of Rome has put together this panel.