Saturday, February 13, 2021

Think inside the right box

Recently, I participated (digitally alas) in a seminar about the future of food and farming in the northern county of Norrbotten in Sweden. Norbotten is a vast county with a small population, 250,000 persons inhabit a land mass the size of Portugal (Maine, South Korea or Malawi). Its economy is dominated by mining, steelworks, forestry, energy (hydro and wind). It is also home of a Sami population with reindeer culture.

The person speaking before me, a renowned scientist, introduced the planetary boundaries and the Eat Lancet global diet “for planetary health” (she was one of the authors of that report). Thus, she made it clear that there are limits and that humanity has already transgressed several of the planetary boundaries (notably re biodiversity and reactive nitrogen and phosphorus). The challenge for humanity is to keep within those planetary boundaries.

You can see the concept of planetary boundaries as a kind of box that defines our operating space. Thinking inside that box forces us to find ways ahead which keeps us inside the box. It is well known that limitations stimulates constructive creativity. There are of course some who refuse to acknowledge that there is any such box, that human creativity can transgress all limits of the planet, bend them to our favor, or simply colonize new planets (Elon Musk, Björn Lomborg and the Breakthrough Institute come to mind). They are certainly also very creative, but not constructive. 

Elaborate wood box Tom Tanaka

There are merits in the concept of planetary boundaries, but I also feel that the scale of that box in most cases is not the right scale. Most people can’t relate to the abstract figures of the global scale. Therefore there are efforts to recalculate the planetary boundaries into individual quotas such as the maximum permissible carbon emission per person, land use per person or a diet based on global resources equally shared. Such calculations can demonstrate the meaning of the planetary boundaries on a personal level.

Still, when people want to develop policy or commandments for individual behavior based on global conditions context is lost and things often go wrong. In addition, it turns the focus to the individual mainly as a consumer, and the identification of people mainly as consumers is part of the problem. The food system is largely driven by the competition between the producers of raw materials, the food industry, retailers and governments rather than by consumers.

Norbotten has only 32,000 hectares of arable land and 2,300 hectares of grassland. That is much less than global average of arable land and it has only 100 square meters of grassland per person compared to some 4,000 square meters which is the global average. In addition, the climate is very harsh. Crops can grow only 3-5 months in the year and even within that narrow window, killing frosts can occur.

Admittedly, it was always hard for the people in Norrbotten to produce their food. The Sami adaptation to the climate and landscape is probably the most sustainable way of producing food. The growing population of people from the South in Norrbotten (to some extent driven by colonial politics) still found ways of farming which, complemented by fishing, hunting and collection of wild edible plants, made it possible to survive. Barley, potatoes, dairy and meat were the staple foods (read more in Swedish). Cattle, goats and sheep were extremely important as grass grew well during the short and light summer and was less susceptible than crops to the vagaries of the weather.  

Around the Second World War, the arable land area of Norbotten peaked at 86,000 hectares and grasslands were of approximately the same size. The actual grazing area was much bigger as cattle, sheep and goats also roamed in the forest. The population at that time was more or less the same as today, and most of them were fed from the land, even though some “import” of wheat, sugar and alike did play a role at that time. Globalization undoubtedly has led to that less food is produced in Norrbotten than earlier. One could hardly say that the Norbottnians take a bigger responsibility for feeding the world now than earlier.

Norrbotten has become totally dependent on global supply chains for feeding its population. For the proponents of globalization this is really not a problem. The people of Norrbotten should continue with mining and buy their food from elsewhere. As the reindeer are increasingly disturbed by mining, forestry and wind power they could/should also go, with small herds be kept for the tourists. In the seminar, many people talked about plant based food as well as indoor farming, landless fish-farming, insect rearing and other ecomodernist solutions to real or imaginary problems. That fits well in the prevailing narratives.

In my talk, I encouraged the participants to think inside the box of Norrbotten for food production. What can actually be produced in a good way on their lands?

Their own history and tradition of land use show how it can be done. Instead of continued abandonment of fields and meadows they could revitalize them. In my view we all take more global responsibility by taking care of the land where we live and adjust our consumption to that rather than trying to adjust our consumption to global averages. That is the meaning of the concept landscape diet. In the case of Norrbotten, it doesn’t mean a diet of nuts, vegetables and beans, but a diet close to the traditional, ecologically well adapted. For sure, there is both space and need to include some more greens or other foods, even imported, in that diet. Also in terms of how to organize production and distribution of food there is a need and space for innovation.

There are many arguments in favor of this approach, let me mention just a few. To base the bulk of the food* on the local landscape is essential for the creation of a circular food system, as today’s large scale movements of nutrients across the globe makes nutrient cycling impossible. Consumers are told that they should take responsibility for their consumption, but in global food chains that is simply impossible. Not even the retail chains or food industry manage that, so how could a consumer do it? Instead, by localizing food supply, those who eat can get a much more direct feedback of the impact of their choices. We do our part of a much needed planetary stewardship best by taking care of the part of the planet that we can control. Increasingly, the importance of relationship and meaning of food is recognized, but that is certainly easiest and best realized in local scales.    

I am convinced that a localized food supply* and consumption is the only really sustainable way ahead (in addition, external factors will most likely force us that way whether we like it or not). Opponents ask me how the growing numbers of megacities would or could be fed by local food webs. They short answer is; they won’t. This is, however, no argument against local food webs, but an argument against megacities.  



* If we today have a situation where 90% of the food is not local or regional, we could aim for the opposite that 90 % should be local or regional. There is certainly no point in pursuing total self-sufficiency or autarchy. I explore this more here. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Are we reaching yield limits?

We should replace input-intensity with management-intensity and use more diverse biological systems. By mixing crops and by mixing crops and livestock we can use all of the ecological and biological niches in our production system and thereby increase production. In most cases, this requires more careful management and more people – but people can hardly be a limiting factor on an over-populated planet. 

An extract from Global Eating Disorder

From 1700 to 1993 there was an 11 fold increase in human population but only a 5.5 fold increase in cropland area.[i] This was possible because yield per area unit increased rapidly. FAO estimates that, between 1960 and 1999, 78% of the increase in food supply came from higher yields per area unit, 7% from more yields by taking two or even three crops per year instead of one and only 15% came from an in­crease in area. A very important driver of increase in yield is irrigation. On our farm I think putting in an irrigation system was the most profitable investment we ever made and we farmed in an area with rather good rainfall. Increased cropping intensity has also been very important. In slash and burn cultivation land is only used for one or two years in every twenty, in the old European production systems land was used every one or two years out of three. In Asia today many fields give two crops per year, facilitated by a longer growing season than in temperate climates. A major reason for the yield increases in China in recent decades is this higher intensity in land use. In rare cases one can take three major crops per year, and for specialty crops that grow rapidly, such as lettuce, five to six harvests per year can be possible.

Different parts of the agriculture sector claim credit for yield in­creases. In reality there are many interlinked factors within the techno­logical and socioeconomic complex in which access to energy and the integration of farming within markets are key drivers.[ii] According to the World Bank’s Development Report 2008, seed breeding has been central; hybrid rice is sup­posed to explain half of the increase in yields in China from 1975 to 1990 and improved varieties are said to explain 53% of the increased productivity in Punjab (Pakistan). But there can be many other reasons for improved productivity, some of which may not be obvious at first. Roads (!) are said to have improved farm productivity in India by 25%. Better nutrition meant a lot for productiv­ity among African farmers, shedding light on the vicious circle of low yields, low income, little food of low quality, illness, low labor availability, low yields, etc. Twenty percent of the increase in yields is attributed to the use of chemical fertilizers, perhaps a surpris­ingly small figure considering how often they are said to be so important and even more surprising in the light of the tremendous increase in the use of chemical fertilizers in the same period.[iii] One factor which is often overlooked is that when farmers retire their land, such in the set-aside programs of the European Union or the Conserva­tion Reserve Programme of the United States, they will set aside the least productive land: as such average yield will increase even with no progress whatsoever.

It is still possible to increase yields per area unit in many parts of the world. There was, at the end of the last century, a substantial scope for increasing yields in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Hungary, India, Italy, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States. If these countries increased their yields just half-way towards the theoretical optimal, this would generate a 23% increase in the world’s wheat harvest.[iv] In most parts of Africa, small holder farmers harvest 1-2 tons per hectare of maize. They could quite easily double this even without using chemical fertilizers or GMOs.[v] In the article Possible changes to arable crop yields by 2050 researchers from the Rothamstead write “If this [yield gap] is closed and accompanied by improve­ments in potential yields then there is a good prospect that crop production will increase by approximately 50 percent or more by 2050 without extra land.” Interestingly they also project that the yield of most crops will increase by 13% as a result of increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.[vi]

But the picture is complicated. Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute notes that yield increases have tapered off in the more devel­oped parts of the world, and that globally grain yields grew by 2.2 % per year 1950-1990 but only 1.3 % per year in the period 1990-2011.[vii] Three researchers from the University of Nebraska caution us, in an article in Nature Communications, against believing in continued yield increases. In several parts of the world yield increases have reached a plateau, “this seems to be the case in high-yield systems for rice in East Asia (China, the Republic of Korea and Japan), wheat in Northwest Europe (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark) and India, and maize in South Europe (Italy and France).[viii]

Progress in maize yields in United States have not decreased, how­ever, notes a report from the USDA; “for example, trend growth rates in Illinois maize yields shifted from about 1 bushel[1] per acre per year from 1940 to 1959 to 1.7 bushels from 1960 onward.[2]” But the authors also caution that “extrapolating past yield trends may help to forecast crop yield growth, but trends differ based on starting points and are not necessarily linear over time.”[ix] Many farmers in United States regularly harvest 10 tons maize per hectare. But wheat yields in the United States have not increased so much as maize: wheat yields increased three fold since the 1940s while maize yields increased five fold. This might be because maize has pushed wheat towards colder, drier and less productive lands. Wheat yields in Unites States are lower than in many other countries, less than half that in Germany, the United Kingdom and France and well below China, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Poland and Mexico. And while maize farmers in United States harvest five times more than their Zambian colleagues, Zambian wheat farmers have more than double the yield of the United States.

The discussion about yield increase, often based on agronomic con­siderations, tend to largely overlook the effect of economic conditions on yields. While there are certainly biological limits to yields, in most parts of the world economic factors limit yields more than biological factors. Just look at the pepper greenhouse I discussed in the beginning of the book. They produce 30 kg of peppers per square meter, about ten times as much as the average yield in China, the biggest producer of peppers in the world. They do this because they are good growers but also because they invest massive resources into farming, for example they use natural gas equivalent of one liter of oil for every kg of peppers.[x] Ironically they can barely make ends meet, because the highest yield is not necessarily the most profitable. They are an ex­treme case, but ultimately farmers all over the world are continually making choices about how much to invest. Susan and Fred Mkan­dawire in Zambia sacrifice maize yield by reducing their weeding or by not applying more fertilizers. They do it knowingly. It simply doesn’t pay to increase their investment; or as expressed by scientists in Nature Communications, “such fine-tuning [to further increase yields] is often difficult to achieve in farmer’s fields, and the associated marginal costs, labor requirements, risks and environmental impacts may outweigh the benefits”.

A problem I already discussed is that high yields often come with high energy input and a high price in the form of eutrophication, pesticide use, the depletion of water and phosphorus and increased erosion. And the question is ‘can we afford this in the long run?’ We should not reduce intensity, but we should replace input-intensity with management-intensity and use more diverse biological systems. By mixing crops and by mixing crops and livestock we can use all of the ecological and biological niches in our production system and thereby increase production. In most cases, this requires more careful management and more people – but people can hardly be a limiting factor on an over-populated planet. Ultimately there is not one recipe for all as conditions differ considerably.

[1] 1 bushel of shelled maize is 25.4012 kg.

[2] The reader should be aware that an increase by a fixed quantity per year means a decline in yield increase as the increase over that of the previous yield will be smaller every year. These differences can, to some extent, explain how different experts reach different conclusions–or how their results are reported by media. ‘Stagnating yields’ in this sense means that the rate of increase (in percentage terms) is stagnating.

[i] Trewavas, A. J. 2001 ‘The Population/Biodiversity Paradox. Plant Physiology January 2001 vol. 125 no. 1 174-179.
[ii] Rundgren, G. 2013 Garden Earth - from hunter and gatherers to global capitalism and thereafter Regeneration.
[iii] World Bank 2007 World Development Report 2007 World Bank.
[iv] Rundgren, G. 2013 Garden Earth - from hunter and gatherers to global capitalism and thereafter Regeneration.
[v] Auberbach, R, G. Rundgren and N. El-Hage Scialabba 2013 Organic Agriculture: African experiences in resilience and sustainability United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
[vi] Jaggard, K. W. A. Qi and E.S. Ober 2010 ‘Possible changes to arable crop yields by 2050’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
[vii] Brown, L. 2013 Full Planet, Empty Plates: the new geopolitics of food scarcity Earth Policy Institute
[viii] Grassini, P., K.M. Eskridge and K.G. Cassman 2013 ‘Distinguishing between yield advances and yield plateaus in historical crop production trends’ Nature Communications, 17 December 2013.
[ix] Heisey, P. W. 2009 ‘Science, technology, and prospects for growth in US corn yields’ Amber Waves 7 (4). USDA/ERS.
[x] Meyer von Bremen, A-H. and G. Rundgren 2012, Jorden vi äter, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Oats or milk – it is not the question

Two years ago I made a study on the the health and environmental effects of dairy products and plant-based alternatives, mainly oats and soy, to dairy under Swedish conditions. The report got quite a lot of attention. Now I made a shorter English version focussing only the environmental effect. It is downloadable here.

The key conlusion of the report is:

The food system is dynamic and one cannot deduct the full environmental impact of choices of consumption from the results of lifecycle assessments. The choice between milk and plant-based alternatives is less important than how the food system is designed and how they are produced. There are no reasons to position consumption of milk and oats as mutually exclusive.


The report goes through the various impacts such as land use, energy use, water use, biodiversity, green house gas emissions, pollution, soil health. For many of the impacts, the analysis is based on lifecycle assessments. They are useful for analysing a certain production to identify hot spots of environmental impact in order to direct improvements in a strategic way. They can also be useful to compare two different ways of producing the same products, especially in an industrial context. But in complex systems, such as farming, the usefulness of life cycle assessments diminishes.

In the production of soy or oat drink the by-products are used mostly to feed animals. Raising livestock is therefore, in a sense, part of the production of plant-based drink. Along a similar vein, raising calves for slaughter and the slaughter of cows once they no longer produce milk are more or less a pre-condition for the production of milk. While individuals can choose oat drink or milk and not eat meat, at a system level meat consumption, and all its impacts, is embedded in both of them.

Furthermore, it is difficult, and not even desirable, to isolate products from their context. We do not eat a small number of individual products, but full diets. Farming systems don’t, hopefully, produce isolated products. Oats and milk can be, and often are, produced on the same farm. Dairy cows or their offspring can eat oats which is not good enough for the industry, lie on oat straw bedding and eat leftovers from the oat drink production. The oats can be fertilized with cow manure and benefit from a crop rotation including leys for cattle feed. From an agriculture and food systems perspective there simply are no reasons to position oat drink and milk as mutually exclusive alternatives. Each product has its strengths and weaknesses, but how they are produced is mainly of greater significance.

Individuals can have different preferences regarding taste, ethics etc. And the same person can prefer an oat creamer in their coffee while eating oatmeal porridge with milk. Oatmeal porridge and gruel made of oats and milk were staple foods not long ago. From a nutritional perspective, most people in wealthy countries do not have to drink milk or its replacement at all, they can just as well drink water (for many poor people or pastoralists, milk is clearly a very important nutritious food, in particular for children). The environmental and social effects of coffee production is more important than whether the coffee is mixed with milk, cream, or alternative creamers. Furthermore, the chic coffee shop certainly causes much bigger greenhouse gas emissions itself than the coffee and the milk consumed by the patrons.  


Leaving the results of my report, let me also offer a bigger picture. By exaggerating the importance of the choice between oat milk and milk, or between a vegan burger and a meat burger, the transformation of the food system is framed into a narrative of consumer choice. As things stand in Europe today, both milk and the raw materials to the non-dairy alternatives are mostly (in some countries milk production is a final bastion of family farms but mostly the milk of those produceras are mixed with the milk from others in the highly centralized dairy industry) produced in industrialized farms oriented to commodity production. Those farms base their production on the massive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and in most cases they are highly specialized in one line of production. Monculture dairy farming is in most cases better for the soil than monoculture oat growing, simply because most dairy farms grow perennial gras, clover or alpha-alpha. But none of them are sustainable in any wider sense and consumers are not making a good ethical or environmental choice by buying any of them.

The fight between milk and oat drink is also a reflection of competing commercial interests and a struggle over margins between actors in the value chain. When you buy a liter of milk, the farmer gets some 30-40 cents, while when you buy oat milk, the farmer gets 3-4 cents. No wonder that Oatly is heading for the NYSE.

Where does this leave consumers? First, don’t focus on individual products being good or bad, it is all about context. Milk, oats, soy, pork, avocado and oil palm can all be sustainably produced or not. They can be produced where you live or not. They can be produced by someone you know and trust or not. Go for local foods produced in organic, regenerative ways, preferably by a farmer or a community you know, or produced by yourself. If not possible, do the second best or the third best.

But even more important be as little consumer as possible, preferably not at all a consumer: be a food citizen, a food creator, a food producer. Identifying yourself as “consumer” leads to short-term behaviour, looking for the best deal. But the best deal may come with a high price for the farmer, the environment, the cow or agriculture workers. The consumer narrative also cements the illusion that the consumer is in charge, and thus to blame for all the ills of the capitalist economy.

Cook, eat and enjoy, celebrate food! And if you like oat milk: buying organic oats and making your own oat milk is surprisingly easy. Grow on whatever space you can find. Raising a cow is considerably more challenging and equally rewarding. Cooperate with others producing crops and breeding animals. Share surpluses and knowledge freely.

Meanwhile, agriculture policies, trade policies, tax systems and regulations are in many ways determining how food is produced and the conditions for farming and it is essential that citizens also engage in changing those conditions into the better. Admittedly, agriculture politics is very complex and interact with many other policy areas, what we eat is a reflection of the whole society.