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.

Friday, January 24, 2020

To feed or to profit? To eat or to consume?

We can no longer let the distribution method - the market - dictate how we farm and how we eat. We need to develop new tools and institutions in order to cater for the many functions of food and farming.  A process of decommodification should be at the core of the alternative food movement.

Many alternative food schemes want to change how food is produced and try to bring producers and consumers closer to each other. Many challenge powerful actors in the food chain such as agri-business, food industries, supermarkets and governments. A few challenge also globalization.  But very few challenge the market as such even if they often use or promote new ways of marketing.
One of the more interesting arms of the food movement is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The international CSA network, Urgenci, describes CSA like this:
CSA is the name we give to a diversity of approaches that all aim to strengthen direct farmer-eater relationships. This includes sharing risks and benefits. This is the essence of CSA.”
In the master thesis Food: to feed or to profit? - (De)commodification in the food system and Community Supported Agriculture, Emma Vandenbroeck puts CSA in the context of decommodification (the process contrary to commodification). She has interviewed six CSA practitioners, three in Sweden and three in Belgium.  Several of those seem to have thought about their own practice as a decommodification process: “not looking at food production as just a business. It’s actually producing food for people and it’s more than a business” (Joel). Others spoke about taking food out of the economy/market or take people out of their consumer or supermarket perspective.
This is also how the Urgenci network sees CSAs: 
Indeed, for CSA to be more than just another direct marketing scheme, the growers and the eaters, as they sometimes call themselves, need to work together to create local social/economic forms, based on trust, which encourage initiative and self-reliance, share the risks of agricultural production, share information, are human-scale and efficient, charge according to needs/costs (not market) 
Emma Vandenbroeck notes that this, in a Marxist terminology, reflects a shift from exchange value of food to use value: “the aim of feeding people is based on the use value of food, making profits as a business from selling food in the market is based on the exchange value of food.”
In reality, food has not just one use value, but many. Jose Luis Vivero-Pol is one of the pioneers of a narrative of food as commons.* In his article, Food as Commons or Commodity? Exploring the Links between Normative Valuations and Agency in Food Transition in Sustainability 2017 he outline six different dimensions of food. Food is a
  • essential human need and should be available to all;
  • fundamental human right that should be guaranteed to every citizen;
  • pillar of our culture for producers and consumers alike;
  • natural, renewable resource that can be controlled by humans;
  • marketable product subject to fair trade and sustainable production; and
  • global common good that should be enjoyed by all.
The dimensions of food (Vivero-Pol 2017)

The role of food as a tradeable good is just one of many dimensions of food. Even “use value” is somewhat too limiting when discussing food. To the dimensions of Vivero Pol I would add that food and food production is the most important interface between humans and the natural world. We partake in the natural world and it becomes part of us when we eat. This is demonstrated very well by the fact that the number of non-human cells in the human body equals or surpass the number of human cells (the actual proportion is disputed).

Farming, hunting, fishing or gathering are also very important tools for how we manage the environment. In the Anthropocene farming has become the main human instrument for ecosystem management, for the better or (mostly) for the worse). More than half of the biological production in the terrestrial systems of the Earth is taking place in the agriculture landscapes and the management of those agricultural landscapes is our most important tool for managing nature, a nature that we are totally dependent on even in these modern times. This means that farming is essentially an instrument for planetary stewardship, something I elaborate extensively upon in my book Global Eating Disorder (2016).

The commodification of food has gone much further than being a pure transaction or a method of distribution. What has increasingly happened is that the institution developed for food distribution, dominates all other functions and roles of food. That markets don’t give sufficient, or even good, guidance for the management of planet Earth is probably apparent for most readers. And why should they? Markets are mechanisms for distribution of goods and services (in a favorable interpretation) or extraction of wealth (with a more critical interpretation --  I’d say both). Clearly there is no evidence or even theoretical causation that supports the notion that markets are well adapted to other roles, such as ensuring access to food by all – which is the reason that almost a billion go hungry to bed, or taking care of the environment.

To cater for all the other important roles and functions of food and farming, we need to develop non-market mechanisms. There are many such arenas, some new some old: growing (gathering, hunting) food for yourself or for a community, cooking instead of buying food, throwing parties, collective farming, city gardeners (the city of Gothenburg has its own employed market gardener who supplies vegetables to schools), even municipal cattle. Payment for conservation efforts or carbon sequestration on farms are also some kind of non-market food production, even though they can also be transformed into commodities if put into a market context through procurement or auctions. Efforts to reduce dependency of purchased input for farming can also be a step towards decommodification, the less you have to buy in, the less you have to sell. Government controls of food prices or supplies (e.g. the Canadian dairy supply management) are also ways to at least reduce the impact of competition.

As little as the market can be the sole mechanism to deal with all functions there is probably no single tool that can cater for all roles. More likely, there will be many different tools emerging once we enter the path of decommodification of food. Most important is for the journey to begin.

* Jose Luis Vivero-Pol, Tomaso Ferrando, Olivier De Schutter, Ugo Mattei have recently edited a Handbook of Food as a commons. I have also written about food within this narrative, e.g. in the article Food: from commodity to commons.