Monday, April 27, 2020

Do we need farmfree food?

Because of how badly we humans have treated soils and animals and how we destroyed bio-diversity, it is understandable that people are looking for other ways of producing food.  The food tech sector hosts legions of entrepreneurs (mostly with background in the IT sector) seeking venture capital and researchers looking for grants to “disrupt” a sector which they claim is archaic. Most of them are based on the view that farming in general, and livestock farming in particular, is inefficient and wasteful. The environmental journalist George Monbiot writes in an article in the Guardian titled Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet.
“Eating is now a moral minefield, as almost everything we put in our mouths – from beef to avocados, cheese to chocolate, almonds to tortilla chips, salmon to peanut butter – has an insupportable environmental cost. But just as hope appeared to be evaporating, the new technologies I call farmfree food create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet. Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale.“
One of the promising initiatives mentioned in the article is the Finnish company, Solar foods. It claims that it has found a way to commercially produce hydrogen oxidized bacterial protein from electricity. The technology is actually known since the 1960s and has not taken off because of the prohibitive costs. In a research article, co-written by the founders of Solar Foods as late as 2019, it is concluded, that only the cost of energy required to produce microbial protein is higher than the price of soybeans, even if capital and other operational costs are not taken into account. The production of 1 kg of microbial biomass would require 10 kWh of electricity. On an energy basis it will require five times as much energy to produce the bacterial biomass than is contained in the product. The electricity needed to feed the world with this kind of product would be more than the total electricity production in the world according to my calculations. 
An indoor farm in Mongolia, photo: Gunnar Rundgren
Another modern technology promising to feed the world with low environmental impact is indoor vertical hydroponic farms in urban areas. It is possible to produce lettuce in high towers with automated systems. But the fact that it is possible doesn’t mean it is viable on a larger scale, and even less that it will take place in the cities. It can be an interesting architectural and engineering challenge to construct green high rises. It can increase the commercial value of the property to have an indoor farm in the basement and it can of course be a marketing gimmick for a supermarket to grow its own lettuce in a green dome inside the shop. But it has little relevance for feeding the population. This  is also demonstrated by that the commercial application are all about growing lettuce, basil, pak choy or herbs, crops which provide almost no food energy or proteins. The real pioneer of indoor farming was clandestine marihuana growing. Where marihuana is legalized, the production moves into the natural light instead.  

The claims of environmental benefits of bacterial protein and indoor farms are not backed by facts. The main reason is the energy, water and land nexus. In-door production of lettuce requires in the range of 2000 kWh per square meter growing area (more is required for the production of tomatoes or potatoes). Only 1.5 square meter per capita of such production would consume the total global production of electricity, which in itself shows how absurd the idea is that it could “feed the world”. While water and land are possibly “saved” at the site of production, the land and water footprint of energy production is huge. Exactly how big varies considerably between the various forms of energy and how you calculate.

If an indoor farm would be powered by solar energy, at least an area ten times larger than each layer of cultivation would be needed for the solar panels. And this is only for the light. In addition to light one needs energy for ventilation, cooling, water pumping and purification etc. The land use for other energy forms can be bigger or smaller than for solar panels, but in any case the land use is substantial.

The claims of saving water are dubious to say the least. Indoor vertical farms use municipal water which is very clean and very resource demanding. One can’t compare that water to rain falling on a field which proponents of indoor farming do when they talk about how much water is saved. Energy production also requires a lot of water, varying depending on energy source and system boundaries. If one include cooling water for nuclear power and the water in dams for hydroelectricity they use very high amounts of water, otherwise little. With an average water footprint of 20 litre per kWh, the use of water for one single pot of 40 gram of basil grown in an indoor farm in Sweden increases from 2.5 litre to 30 litres.

For lab meat, there is no commercial production and there are only theoretical comparisons with real meat. Still, the environmental impact of fake meat might be in a range close to that of real meat.  

The messages of the techno-optimists are both deceptive and dangerous as it makes people believe that most problems can be solved by technological innovation which in turn draws attention and resources away from other solutions. While technological development can be useful, by and large we already have the technologies needed to feed the world’s population with healthy food in a sustainable way. The challenges are mainly social, economic and political. For example, a fair distribution of food would eradicate hunger and eating of local, unprocessed organic foods would considerably reduce obesity and malnutrition.

The notion that we best protect the wild by letting it be is mistaken. For sure, there are places which could benefit from the total exclusion of humans but by and large, nature conservation is much more successful when it is managed by local people. In a capitalist economy, it is also naïve  to believe that land that is “saved” by migrating food production into factories in some magical way would be restored to pristine nature. The arable land that has been abandoned as a result of productivity gains in my native Sweden has mostly been converted into monoculture forest plantations. Ninety percent of our semi-natural grasslands have to a large extent been converted from very rich biodiverse areas to monoculture forests. Also this development was caused by productivity gains in arable farming making it more economic to feed cattle and sheep with crops than letting them graze.

In a panel recently (Youtube video), in which I also participated, George Monbiot had adjusted his arguments around farm free foods as being mainly a kind of insurance against an anticipated collapse of food production in the light of the climate crisis. While I totally agree that humanity need to do whatever it can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I don’t think that the “looming food crisis narrative” serve us. It was exactly that narrative that initiated the Green Revolution with all its negative side effects. It is also that narrative which is used by proponents of GMOs, the pesticide industry and all others promoting “more of the same”. I believe the perspectives of Julia Lernoud, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim and myself with an emphasis on local food landscapes, food sovereignty, consumer-producer direct cooperation, and ecological adaptation are more relevant. The corona crisis also demonstrates that such systems are resilient alternatives to a global food system. A diverse localized food production system will also be much better suited to adapt to climate change.

Farm free foods and food tech can also be seen as an expression of a desire to decouple human development from nature. Even if we could fulfill the food tech dream to free us from the limits of nature, it would leave us empty, free from meaning. Instead of de-coupling human civilization from nature, we need to live in and by nature. We are fooling ourselves and betray the rest of the living by pretending we are a species that don't need the rest of the living – after all we are nature.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Build a future outside of the Market

Animal factory farming, endless monocultures, a carpet of chemicals, dramatic loss of biodiversity, obesity, malnutrition, food waste, appalling working conditions for migrant laborers and undermined livelihoods of small farmers and pastoralist. The list of failures of the modern food system is long. Are they caused by evil multinationals, by ignorant farmers and food industries or by consumers shopping for the cheapest? Is the root cause lack of technology? Is there even a root cause?

It is astonishing that so little of the food debate is enlightened by a proper understanding what the main driver of the food system is: Markets or even more precisely, capitalist markets (today, one can hardly find a market that is not capitalist). All the things I mention above are certainly driven by markets even though they are not necessarily uniquely caused by markets - after all, it is quite possible to become fat or destroy the environment also in a non-market economy. Nevertheless, in the world of today the market is defining the terms for both production and consumption. It is one of the mysteries of the modern world how we on the one hand praise ”the market” for all that is good and fail to allocate the blame for all that is not so good to the same market.

Most of the public attention is directed to which technologies are used or which food consumers chose or should chose. By and large these are diversions. Food waste provides an illuminating example: Consumers are told, with moral indignation, that they should stop wasting food. But why are consumers wasting food? Why do they buy more food than they need? 

People in the Sunnansjö pop-up shop

The market economy has made food into products to be bought and sold thereby erasing or reducing the cultural, social and sensual expressions of it. The role of the consumer in the food system is basically to buy. Through the pressure of competition and productivity increases, production and consumption will increase and prices decrease. Consumer spend a lower share of their income on food, they eat more supposedly luxury food and junk food at the same time and eat too much and waste too much. It is all quite simple and totally in line with the logic of the market.

On the production side the logic is similar; animals and plants have become commodities to be sold in competition with millions of other producers of the same thing. Economies of scale drive farmers into linear, industrial production systems whereby increasing quantities of inputs are bought. Specialization and mechanization go hand in hand with the competition and economies of scale and orient farmers into monocultures and commodity cropping. Within the global market framework it is incredibly hard to keep up a diversified production. Which is also the reason for why organic and regenerative farmers as well as proponents of agro-ecology and permaculture mostly try to find new ways of connecting production and consumption.

One can see this clearer if one contrasts the global food system with a system of self-sufficiency in food. A self-sufficient small farmer will have a lot of diversity in her system, she will have several kinds of animals and grow many kinds of crops to provide for a diverse diet for herself and her kin. Food waste doesn’t materialize as all the work to get food means that food is appreciated for its real value. Obesity and malnutrition are not likely to occur and agrochemicals are reluctantly used by anyone that grows her own food.

Being self-sufficient in foods have many merits, but also some shortcomings. While such a food system mostly can be biologically and culturally highly productive, the labor productivity is rather low. That means that a big share of all labor in a society where everybody grows their own food will be used for farming, food preparation and preservation, cooking and eating. Not such a bad life if there is no landlord or oppressive state that will squeeze any surplus out of the farmer. But the self-sufficient economy leaves little room for shopping malls, SUV:s, annual holiday trips to a beach thousand miles away. Perhaps not such a disaster? More difficult to accept for most would be that the surplus is not enough for hospitals with intensive care or legions of academics or musicians. Those who practice self-sufficiency can testify that they have problems to ends meet and will contribute little tax money for the government and may not attend concerts or other cultural performances very often. They will rarely afford to buy other people’s services. Total self-sufficiency is not possible or desirable, and cannot be the foundation of human civilization as cooperation is a defining characteristic of humans. But increasing the level of self-sufficiency in food and other essentials is a path away from even further division of labor. 

Most peoples’ minds are stuck in the market paradigm and blinded by a Cold War dichotomy of “free markets” versus Soviet style planned economy. In my view, it is utterly depressing to envision that there would be no other options. And certainly, there is no scientific basis whatsoever for such an idea. It is flabbergasting that those who state that human creativity, and not nature resources, is the source of all development and progress find it impossible to believe that we could have other systems than markets or planned economy. After all, throughout history, the way most people got their food was neither from the market nor from government bureaucracies.

To liberate or withdraw and increasing share of the food we eat from the chains of the market is, in my view, one of the major transformations needed. This can take many forms such as self-sufficiency, community supported agriculture, communal farming, food assemblies and urban farming. It will also lead to a localization of food and communal nature resource management as suggested by the landscape model. Once we enter that path in numbers we will find new ways. When many walk there, local and national governments will have to follow to be relevant. Thereby we can create virtuous cycles where government policies reinforce peoples’ actions and they in turn create both pressure and conditions for even more reformed policies.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Ask a reductionist question and you will get a reductionist answer

Through the narrow product perspective of the life cycle assessments the multiple functions of agriculture are overlooked. The method also fail to capture the indirect and dynamic effects of changes in the agriculture and food system as well as the feedback loops and drivers of the system. In this it mimics the markets where the value of food is expressed only in monetary terms. By sticking to those framings and and methods we are reinforcing them.

In the article “Towards better representation of organic agriculture in life cycle assessments” in Nature sustainability, van der Werf, Knudsen and Cederberg, from France, Denmark and Sweden respectively demonstrate the inadequacy of LCA for comparisons between conventional production systems and agro-ecological and organic systems.* They explain how the concerns of the public regarding the environmental impact of different production systems, through the LCA approach, is transformed into the question how big is the environmental impact from 1 kg of x produced in system z compared to system y.

The narrow perspective that results from this product focus means that the multifunctional role of agriculture is excluded and that vital resources are neglected. LCA focus on negative environmental impacts of production but doesn’t consider positive impacts such as those in the ecosystem function framework (the authors refer to them as “services” but I prefer the term function as services leads the mind towards a narrow utilitarian, market based, view).

LCA mostly neglects impacts on biodiversity or reduce it to one simplistic measurement. But biodiversity is part of the agriculture system and not only an impact category. The same goes for land, where “land-use” often is part of an LCA, but land is an integral part of the agriculture system and not an input that is used in the production. By not recognizing these relationships LCA can’t deal with soil health, land degradation or agricultural bio-diversity itself. The authors give other examples of shortcomings.

The most important criticism by the researchers, in my view, is that the LCAs can’t take properly into consideration the indirect effects of a shift to agroecological systems (or other systems for that matter). There is a special LCA breed called consequential LCA which supposedly aims to include such impacts, but in reality there are huge controversies on how to apply such an approach.

A general rule of ecology formulated by Garret Hardin is “you can never change one thing”, because as soon as you do that, other things change as well. It is well known that if a product becomes cheaper, consumption will increase. Through the industrialization of agriculture crop production, food is very cheap, but this has also increased food waste tremendously. The increased productivity in crop production has also made it commercially interesting to use crops such as grain and soy beans for animal feed. This has favored the monogastric animals such as pigs and chicken over ruminants that feed on grass (even ruminants get more farmed crops to eat nowadays). Chicken consumption has increased almost 10 times globally over the last fifty years, and apart from lower feed costs this has been driven by industrialization of the production itself. 

Chicken has not mainly crowded out more resource demanding beef and pork but rather the less resource-demanding grains and pulses, and in the process it has lost its role as small scale food residue converter. So, while the environmental foot print of chicken is small compared to beef according to LCAs, in reality, the changes in production and changes in markets and consumption has led to a huge increase in the size of the environmental foot print of human food chains.

A traditonal landscape in Sweden, Photo:Tobias Nilsson
The most important changes of the agricultural system in much of the Western world, and increasingly in most countries, over the past seventy years is the abandonment of small farms, small fields, pastures and marginal lands and the decreasing diversity of the farming systems. There are fewer farms and each farm mechanize and specialize into a few crops or one kind of animals. Not only farms specialize, whole regions do, even countries do. Livestock and crop production has been separated and cycles of nutrients between animals and crops as well as between farms and the rest of the food system have been broken. This has, in turn, been ”solved” by massive application of chemical fertilizers. The simplification of the production system has also led to the use of pesticides. Market orientation, a linear production model with increasing use of inputs, specialization, mechanization and increased production (and thus consumption) are all mutually reinforcing. The resulting changes in the agriculture landscape and consumption patterns are not captured by any LCAs, and even if you read hundreds of life cycle assessments you will fail to understand the driver of development.

In general, LCAs contribute little to the understanding of agriculture systems; on the contrary, when looking into LCAs one can get many mistaken ideas. One example is the comparisons between organic and conventional food systems that is discussed above. Another example are comparisons of environmental impact of diets which disregard the fact that the farm and food system is highly networked and interdependent.  

Already the question asked for the LCA leads the mind and the method into a one-dimensional perspective of agriculture, as a producer of things to be sold. Through this the method becomes reductionist and unable to capture the diversity and multifunctionality of farming systems. To a large extent the LCA is a technological mirror to the capitalist market where the value of a crop or an animal is only expressed in monetary terms. Which, of course, is the reason for why the method is so popular.

For sure, there are situations where a lifecycle assessment has value. It can be a useful tool to analyze production chains to find hotspots for improvements. But it is not, and will never be, an analysis that will answer the questions how our food system should look like as little as the price of a food stuff tells us what we should eat. New scientific methods are of course also welcome, but after looking into loads of various sustainability tools, standards or index I am convinced that there is not one that will give us all the answers. 

Fortunately there are many ways to understand the food system. The best starting point is probably to grow (breed) your own food, prepare, preserve, cook, share and eat. Through those practices you will both understand the food system and shape it.