by Hannes Swoboda
Hardly any other economic sector is in such flux and fluctuates between different futures as agriculture. On the other hand, when we look at consumers, we see many of them “overfed” and susceptible to disease. On the other hand, we find many who are also vulnerable to disease, but because they are malnourished and suffering from hunger. We are also experiencing many wars, including in Europe in recent years, which are destroying important agricultural land – having by laying mines that make it difficult or impossible to produce or transport fertilizer.
In many places, inequality is caused by unequal food distribution and the corresponding resources such as land, seeds and fertilizers. In the industrialized world, for example, an average of 250 kg of fertilizer is used per hectare, compared to 50 kg in Africa. It is now vital to combat these inequalities, not least by producing more food, but without (!) placing an even more significant burden on nature. We must transform agriculture from a carbon emitter into a carbon sink.
The report to the Club of Rome, “Earth for All”, defines the goal of the food transition as establishing a “healthy food system for people and planet”. This requires the “revolutionization of agriculture”, the “transformation of diets”, and the “prevention of food loss and waste”.
The agriculture of the industrial and Western economies has undoubtedly brought about an enormous increase in prosperity in these countries. However, it has only achieved this at great sacrifice. The victims are many farmers who have been unable to keep up with industrial agriculture, the quality of the soil used and biodiversity due to over-fertilization, and farmers in poorer countries who have been driven out of local markets by subsidized food exports.
Bartholomäus Grill, one of the journalists who has dealt intensively with agriculture and agricultural policy for years, speaks in his book “Bauernsterben” (Dying Farmers) of an agricultural war: “The war is directed by the commanders of the agricultural and food sector; the armaments are supplied by chemical, pharmaceutical and seed companies; agricultural politicians, officials of farmers’ associations and lobbyists are responsible for the propaganda—the financial battalions march in the stage. Conventional farmers form the army of foot soldiers. […] The modern farmer acts indifferently, ruthlessly and greedily. […] He is the prototype of our predatory species, Homo sapiens.”
However, he admits that “our food producers are both perpetrators and victims”. And “extortionist cartels of food corporations, supermarkets, discounters, dairies and large slaughterhouses” are pushing down prices to “make the end consumer happy with ever cheaper goods”. We must ask ourselves whether this picture of an “agricultural war” and a farming community being blackmailed by corporations is accurate or to what extent it is a grossly distorted reflection of reality. It is not only Bartholomäus Grill who thinks this way; many fellow citizens at least have similar assumptions. We should also not overlook that some agricultural policy improvements have already been made, especially in the European Union.
But there are constant disputes between different groups with their various interests. But some things, such as meat in the supermarkets, are still cheap given the environmental impact and the work of the farmers involved. Achieving a turnaround here is a Herculean task. However, if we want to preserve the core of the farming structure – and thus also the social structure – we have to face this challenge. New (digital) technologies can help us cope better with agricultural tasks – beyond the idyll we associate with farming life.
The increase in productivity in European agriculture has undoubtedly contributed to Europe’s economic upturn. But it is time to work on how productive agriculture can help reduce malnutrition and hunger globally – but without increasing CO2 emissions. We, therefore, need to take decisive steps towards “sustainable intensification” and “regenerative agriculture”. This involves the protection and development of healthy soils and plant diversity. Preserving or restoring biodiversity is not a hobby for a few nature lovers. The pharmaceutical industry is particularly interested in biodiversity, as plants produce many medicines directly or indirectly. The NZZ recently reported: “Around 80 % of all registered medicines and more than 70 % of all cancer drugs are derived from plants or are inspired by nature.”
It is essential to take a wide range of measures to prevent the “degradation” of farmland or its conversion and reuse. This also includes reducing the unchecked urban sprawl and sealing valuable land, especially in Austria. As far as our neighbouring continent of Africa is concerned, many experts believe that this continent could be a global breadbasket if the unused land were put to ecologically valuable use. After all, Africa has around 60 % of the world’s new agricultural land. In any case, the “Earth for All” report assumes that the necessary “Giant Leap” forward is only possible if 80 % of agricultural land is converted, i.e. sustainably farmed.
Conversion of nutrition
Closely linked to the transformation of agriculture is the transformation of consumer behaviour. At the same time, malnutrition must be combated, and overeating or malnutrition must be reduced. In rich countries, we eat too little fruit, vegetables, sugar, and red meat.
If the populations of poorer countries only want to consume a fraction of the meat that the wealthier populations consume, then meat consumption there would have to fall drastically, or meat would have to be increasingly produced artificially. Many assume this change in consumer behaviour will lead to improvements in artificially produced foods, especially milk, cheese and meat, primarily through precision fermentation. According to the authors of “Earth for All”, the aforementioned giant leap forward assumes that 50 per cent of red meat would have to be produced climate-neutrally.
New forms of cultivation, such as city, vertical, and indoor farming, would also have to be added. The point of all this is not to replace the traditional farmers but to supplement them by enabling individual farming activities. This could strengthen the emotional connection to the farming community.
We all know how difficult it is for many people to change their consumption habits, and this is undoubtedly one of the biggest obstacles to the Giant Leap Forward. The critical attitude of many younger people towards meat consumption certainly gives cause for hope in this respect.
Reducing the loss and waste of food
If there was no waste or food loss, malnutrition and hunger could mathematically disappear. But food is thrown away, especially in wealthier countries and by more affluent population groups, and cannot be transported to poorer countries. Nevertheless, various campaigns, such as “Food for All”, try to distribute leftover food to poorer groups such as refugees and the homeless in wealthier countries.
On the other hand, poorer countries lose some of their food due to inadequate infrastructure, particularly in storage, processing, transportation and distribution. This needs to be remedied. But the only way to do this is to switch financing to cheaper loans.
The report to the Club of Rome, “Earth for All”, is not naive. It also lists the many obstacles to transforming agriculture and nutrition. There are several resistances in consumer behaviour but also among traditional farmers. Resistance also comes from large corporations that produce and sell seeds. Even if – under pressure from some civil society organizations – some companies have announced improvements, there is still room for improvement. There is also resistance from public and private landowners who see too little profit in agriculture. And so, the sealing of valuable soil is also progressing in Austria.
But none of this should discourage us from pointing out the need for sustainable production and consumption – as tricky as some changes are. The behaviour of the economy can also give us hope. Many companies are already adapting to the new challenges. Investments in sustainable soils are being promoted. However, we must be careful that this does not lead to speculation to the detriment of farmers and consumers. It shows us that the journey towards a sustainable agricultural and food industry has already reached many circles. And that is encouraging.
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