Friday, March 1, 2019

Only possible to feed people sustainably in an equitable society


A recent report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) confirms that the current food system isn’t sustainable neither for the environment nor for our health. Organic agriculture, conservation farming and agro-ecology are key technologies for a transition to a sustainable food system, which also has to shun artificial nitrogen fertilizers. Regardless of how food is produced, an equitable society is essential for fighting hunger and malnutrition.

The report, The future of food and agriculture – Alternative pathways to 2050, analyses three future scenarios that reflect, to varying degrees, the challenges to move food and agricultural systems towards “a world in which food is nutritious and accessible for everyone and natural resources are managed in a way that maintain ecosystem functions to support current as well as future human needs”, as wished by FAO.

The first scenario is “business as usual”, whereby several outstanding challenges facing food and agriculture are left unaddressed. The second scenario, “towards sustainability”, embodies proactive changes towards more sustainable food and agricultural systems. The third scenario, “stratified societies”, outlines a future with exacerbated inequalities across countries and throughout different layers of societies. For all scenarios, the FAO revise the earlier projections made by itself and others that agriculture output need to increase with at least 70 percent to cope with a bigger population and changing consumption patterns. For the “towards sustainability” scenario agriculture output needs to increase with “just” 40 percent, and for the other scenarios around 50 percent.

The results suggest that it is still possible to move food and agricultural systems along a sustainable, equitable pathway that will meet growing demand. A global transformative process and concerted efforts that involve all the stakeholders is needed, however. As “business as usual” is not an option and further “stratified societies” certainly are not desirable, let’s focus on the “towards sustainability and how the FAO understand the meaning of it and how to get there.

In the report the FAO states that there will be a transition towards a more sustainable use of natural resources. Chemical will be restrained:  for example, regulations on nitrate usage or fertilizer quantity and type are in place, which favors precision and/or organic agriculture. Food systems generating low GHG emissions are favored, and fresh food consumption is promoted. Adopting conservation agriculture, agro-ecological approaches, agroforestry, and other environmentally-friendly techniques allows yields to increase against current levels and to converge across countries, while food systems drastically reduce GHG emissions compared with current levels. Greater crop diversification and integrated pest management approaches strengthen resilience to shocks. Agricultural prices will rise worldwide, reflecting both pressure on demand and the adoption of sustainable production practices.

The flip side of that is better income for farmers and considerably less food waste. The flop side is that people depending on cash income to buy food may suffer. Therefore “Ensuring a more equitable distribution of income within and across countries is indispensable in the quest for food security, better nutrition and environmental sustainability of food systems.” The report does note, however, that increased agriculture prices will benefit many of the rural poor as they either are farmers or farm workers and that such a development will reduce the “urban premium”, i.e. change the rural-urban balance. 


Contrary to the EAT Lancet Commission, the FAO doesn’t think that continued use of artificial fertilizers and drastic cuts in meat consumption are necessary for a sustainable food system. The per capita consumption of animal products and vegetables is projected to increase substantially in low and middle income countries, while consumption of animal products will have to go down around 10 percent in high income countries. Despite that agriculture production will expand considerably to cater for a bigger population and livestock herds will expand with 26 percent, the total greenhouse gas emissions are projected to go down. There is a need for a small expansion, less than six percent, of agriculture area, even though the regional distribution varies, in Sub-saharan Africa acreage need to double. The most remarkable feature of the scenario towards sustainability is that nitrogen fertilizer use has to stop.

For those in the food movement or in the agro-ecological, organic or regenerative agriculture movements the messages are hardly surprising, controversial or radical enough. But that FAO publishes a major report that even has a scenario for future agriculture where no artificial nitrogen fertilizer is used is nothing but a minor revolution. According to sources in the agency there was no launch, no press, no printed copies and a message from management to “keep a low profile”, regarding the report.


Friday, January 18, 2019

You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes


So off went the Emperor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, "Oh, how fine are the Emperor's new clothes! Don't they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!" Nobody would confess that he couldn't see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.

"But he hasn't got anything on," a little child said.

The tale of the Emperor’s new clothes of Hans Christian Andersen has an important key to how we can change the world: it is by disclosing the prevailing myths that are the foundations of the current order. This is particularly important for a society with so many forceful feedback loops as the current industrial capitalist culture. A school strike of a fifteen year old might therefore be more important than a NGO-boycott of a multinational or a new international treaty.

There are often vivid arguments between those that argue that consumers, the market, scientists, corporations, governments or international organizations have the main responsibility for climate change (or the deforestation of the Amazon, the use of pesticides, overfishing or cruelty to animals just to name a few others) as well as the transition to a no/low greenhouse gas emission society. 

Often, the allocation of responsibility and agency follows main political lines – neoliberals tend to believe the solution is in the market place, while socialists think the solution is found in more government regulations. But there is also a divide in the view of the possibilities of new technology. A high level of faith in technology is often, but not always coupled with a trust in markets. There is also a moral dimension which tend to allocate guilt to the individual and there are perspectives coming into play. There is of course also the mixing up of who is and who should be; if we think some party ought to be responsible for something we mostly argue that they are responsible.

My own take on this is that on the one hand we live in a networked economy and society and in such a society it is futile to point finger only at one part of it, as they are all interdependent. On the other hand there are interests and drivers which strongly influence the development in a particular direction. To disclose those is very important

When it comes to the use of fossil fuels and machinery to replace human labor in farming and industry, the energy in one barrel of oil corresponds to the energy of 25 000 hours of human work. One person can now do the work of five, ten or even hundred persons through the use of ingenious machinery powered by fossil fuels. The remaining workers often gets an easier job (but tiring in new ways), controlling a machine instead of working the land with a hoe or pounding iron with a sledgehammer. So it can’t be very surprising that those technologies have taken over our society. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that capitalism and the market economy have been major drivers for the transition to a fossil fuel economy.  For companies, regardless if they wanted to or not, it has been impossible not to mechanize if they want to stay in business. And mechanization led to specialization and bigger scale, which in turn led to linear production processes, a fundamental break from an economy that earlier was sustainable and largely regenerative. Competition also pushed producers to externalize as many costs as possible, be it social, cultural or environmental.

Governments have also been keen on growth oriented policies, “international competitiveness” to keep corporations happy to invest and operate in their country. This gives the governments more tax revenue to spend (perhaps also money into their own pockets). The power of corporations has also increased with globalization and de-regulation, to some extent the result of intentional politics and to some extent the result of the capitalist take-over of more and more of society.

By and large, citizens, consumers and workers have of course also benefitted from this, at least as long as growth continued and the elites (economic, political or technocratic) didn’t abuse their powers by taking too big a share of the pie. Calls are now made, however, that “consumers” shouldn’t waste so much food, eat less meat, stop driving the car and don’t fly. Oddly enough no one makes the same call for people in their role as workers – are we to consume less we also need to produce less, shouldn’t we? No calls are made for companies to produce less or countries to shrink their economies.

There are huge limitations for what a person can do in her role as a consumer. Accounts from Sweden makes clear that -- despite a very high rate of renewable energy -- almost no activities, goods or services come under the limit of 1 gram CO2e per cent spent, which is, roughly, the rate under which we need to come to manage the 2 degree target.  Not the electrified rail traffic, not going to the theatre and clearly no consumer goods at all make it (link in Swedish). In addition, almost 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the average Svensson’s consumption are about investment (building factories, roads, houses) and public sector (schools, hospitals, military, police) -  things that you have absolutely no influence over as a consumer. Even for the remaining 60 percent of the emissions the real influence of consumers is limited.  

For sure, stop flying and driving that car, recycle and buy organic foods! However, as an individual, it is rather by cutting down on your income and thus total consumption as well as tax payments, and spend less, all categories, that you can take full responsibility. That choice is no longer the choice of a consumer but of a human being or a citizen. By that you choose to opt out of the consumer culture and move away from the market paradigm and the growth paradigm.

One strategy is clearly to “be the change you want to see” by getting together with others to build up operative attractive local communal alternatives, things practiced by the transition movement and alike since a long time.    

As a citizen you can – and should  - also take political action to reduce the total metabolism of the society and change all the drivers which are pushing for more growth. Strong candidates for change are the basic capitalist institutions or practices, such as so called free markets, the right to own nature and information (private property), rent extraction, free movement of capital, externalization of costs, the right to pocket profits and socialize costs (i.e. the limited company), inequality and money. Some of these can be dealt with by the introduction of taxes, such as carbon dioxide taxation or other economic instruments. Other reforms are cutting out perverse governments subsidies for fossil fuels and dysfunctional pension systems built on the premises of eternal growth. Policies that facilitate resilient localized economies can have many shapes and forms, but most also requires protection from international competition etc. Other changes may need much more profound reforms.  

In general the approach can be informed by Donella Meadows´ perspective on leverage points. ”These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” In view of her analysis one realize that the real influence of opting out of the consumer culture or growing your own food is not the actual reduction of emissions and resource use you can accomplish by that, but the challenge of the “goals of the system” and the “prevailing paradigm” which the action reflects. Those are the two leverage points that Donella Meadows considered most powerful.

It is the prevailing myth of the invisible hand; that markets are the best way to allocate wealth, income, production, consumption, status and resource use, that keeps us in its grip. We are threatened with all sorts of disasters (unemployment, inflation, or loss of income) and damnations (North Korea) if we dare to question this modern religion (or ideology you prefer). To call the bluff and show that the emperor is naked, like the child in H.C. Andersen’s tale, is probably the most powerful thing you can do. You can do that culturally through art or literature, you can do it politically by screaming it in the street or writing articles like this. You can do it scientifically or you can do it practically by demonstrating in or through your own life. No method is uniquely best, and often they need combinations to be powerful.
Sometimes, one event or action can trigger a cascade of events which will bring down even the mightiest empire. The school strike of 15-year old Greta Thunberg can be such an event, even if we will not know until later.

(The title of the blog post is a quote from Greta's speech to COP 24)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A regenerative food system is both a means and an end


The land-sparing argument is mostly flawed when it promises to save land for wildlife or for carbon sequestration. Continued intensification of the food system will lead to increased pressure on nature as well as the continued erosion of food culture. A regenerative food system and landscapes with multiple  uses are both means and ends by themselves.

Since 1960 the global population has more than doubled, but the total production of crop farming increased three and a half times, measured in calories. Meanwhile, agriculture area increased with less than ten percent and grasslands even less (grasslands are now shrinking quite rapidly according to FAOSTAT). The increase of production has been driven by irrigation, multiple cropping and the green revolution technology packet of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and new varieties. By far, the most spectacular development in farming is not yield per area unit however, but the increased productivity of farm labor. Instead of catering for the need of the family and a smaller surplus extracted by lords of various sorts, a farmer or farm worker today often produce food for hundreds of people. If we look at staple foods in the most mechanized farm regions, one worker may actually “feed” thousand person.


Through this extraordinary increase in land and labor productivity, cost of grains, oilseeds and soybeans have plummeted while production has quadrupled. The net effect is a great increase in food energy available to humans. In addition, the rapidly increasing use of crops as animal feed and biofuel feed stock have swallowed an even larger share. Meanwhile, the continued intensification of farming is the root cause of the huge environmental impact from the food system, the destruction of habitats, the broken cycles of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus and the huge effect on the climate.


Some (such as the Breakthrough Institute) are using the land use efficiency argument to promote a continuation of the increased intensification of farming. By doing so we could spare land to “wild nature”. Lately, some researcher concluded that organic farming was much worse for the climate than conventional. Again, land use was the key argument. In his view all land has an alternative use for natural carbon sequestration, which means that land that has a low yield will be very damaging for the climate.


Undoubtedly, humans are outcrowding other species at an alarming pace. Superficially, the land-sparing argument has some appeal. However, there is very limited evidence, if any, that intensification of land use actually saves land, neither locally nor globally. Some marginal agriculture lands have been converted to conservation purpose (such as in the US Conservation Reserve Program), but as long as land is productive enough it will be used for commercial purposes, be it for animal feed, biofuel or industrial feedstock or forest monocultures (a common fate of abandoned agriculture land).


In addition, humans demand land for many other things than farming and farm land will often be used for highways, electric grid, hydro dams, lawns, golf courses, malls, urban sprawl, logistic centers, mines or oil wells. So even if our modern civilization limits its use of land for agricultural purposes, the whole system of which it is part is constant putting a bigger share of land into our direct use.


To allocate land uniquely for carbon sequestration means that we will just increase our demand on the rest of nature, and give us yet another excuse not to tackle the root cause of our predicament, the burning of fossil fuels and the constantly increasing consumption of nature resources, living or dead. Maximized carbon sequestration within the industrial paradigm will most likely mean that even more ecosystems will be devastated and reduced to productive factors.


Food and farming are examples of Jevon’s paradox; increased efficiency leads to more consumption, not less. It has provided the masses with more calories and a huge increase in consumption of luxury foods such as meat, exotic fruits and soft vegetables. Global chicken consumption increased 13 times between 1960 and 2017, and chicken is now the most consumed meat in the world. Access to cheap staple feeds and the successful industrialization of chicken breeding combined with its short life span – perfect for quarterly capitalism – were key factors for success. The author surveyed the cost of various protein sources in the Swedish retailers and came to the conclusion that the only source of protein that could compete with chicken in price per gram of protein were dried beans. Cheap food has also caused increasing waste and waists.


The intensification is part and parcel of a globalized and homogenized food system and the transformation of whole landscapes into uniform production of soybeans, wheat, asparagus, corn or palmoil. It is the cause of a tremendous loss of local food culture, meaning, biodiversity and nutrient cycling. It also has devastating effects on rural landscapes which no longer are places to live, love and die for and in, but just commodity deserts.


Of course, if we really want to be “efficient”, we can easily feed 10 billion people on a diet of monoculture soy, palm oil, sugar, wheat and rice, on the existing agriculture land. To make the whole chain even more efficient we mill them into a powder or process into a liquid which we distribute to the households according to subscription (it is already happening you know!). In this way we can save a lot by reducing peoples’ cooking, their expensive private kitchens and household appliances. Perhaps solar powered drones can deliver? There are alternatives of course. Instead of looking into one commodity or one “ecosystem service” at a time we need to develop the food and agriculture system so that we combine the production of good and nutritious food with carbon sequestration, soil fertility, bio-diversity, human relations and culture in the same regenerative landscape. Such a landscape can host vibrant rural communities instead of being a supplier of raw materials to the cities or a dump. A re-localized food system will become both the means and the end in such a bright future.