Should we change our agricultural system for a more sustainable, equitable food supply that will feed the entire world population? This is, in any case, what is suggested by the major study carried out by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food (IPES Food), who advocate the transition to a diversified agro-ecology made up of smaller, less intensive farms with fewer inputs.
The study, published last June, is one of the biggest reviews on the issue of agricultural systems developed to date. It contains nearly 400 studies published by international experts from all walks of life (from FAO to the University of Oxford, UNEP, and the European Commission), gathered and analyzed by some twenty independent experts coordinated by IPES. Its objective is to analyze the problems and weaknesses of the world agricultural and food system (its ecological, economic, and social footprint, world hunger…) in order to better understand how to transform it to feed the planet and not destroy the world’s ecosystem.
The conclusions of this large-scale study are summarized in a few words: the industrial farming system needs to be radically transformed into diversified agro-ecological systems made up of small agricultural structures that cultivate reasoned agriculture, who avoid chemical inputs and value synergies and short circuits. Hence, it would be possible to both end world hunger and practice ecological, resilient, and sustainable agriculture.
The consequences of intensive industrial agriculture
The report first analyzes the positive and negative impacts of the agro-industrial system currently prevailing in the world. This system, consisting of large, intensive, agricultural structures based on the industrial model, has succeeded, since the 1950s, in exploding agricultural yields and thus massively feeding the supply chains of international markets with large volumes of food. However, the study notes that this high productivity and these high yields have been at the cost of many negative consequences, notably from the environmental point of view: general soil degradation, water and ecosystem pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, losses of biodiversity.
Another observation is that, although the food system produced in the world has increased considerably, the current agro-industrial system has not permitted an efficient distribution of these food volumes. While on the one hand, there are still close to one billion people suffering from hunger and undernutrition, and even more suffering from malnutrition and food deficiencies. On the other hand, the inhabitants of developed countries and large megalopolises have seen their health conditions deteriorate with the rapid increase in obesity and nutritional diseases (especially diabetes). And all the while, nearly 40% of the food produced in the world is wasted.
In addition to these worrying findings, IPES Food recalls that the current global agricultural system creates extremely difficult living and working conditions for agricultural workers and farmers, subject to the vagaries of international markets.
According to IPES and the various studies analyzed, these problems are specifically linked to the industrial and intensive nature of modern agriculture. The use of high-yielding monocultures and pesticides has destroyed the organic quality of soil and, over the last fifteen years, agricultural yields have been declining globally. It is the intensive use of pesticides and chemical inputs that results in pollution, loss of biodiversity, and the development of resistant species, and that degrades the health of farmers and consumers. It is also intensive industrial farming and productionist animal feeding choices that result in massive greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector.
Alternatives to industrial agriculture: diversified agro-ecology
To get out of this vicious circle of industrial agriculture, the authors of the report advocate a transition to a more decentralized, more diversified system based on the principles of agro-ecology. In short, it is a system between subsistence agriculture and intensive agriculture, which takes the best of both worlds. The model they propose is to reduce the ecological footprint of agriculture, improve its resilience and long-term yields, and better allocate agricultural production gains is based on the following principles:
- Temporal and spatial diversification of crops (crop rotation, multi-species crops, permaculture principles).
- Diversification of cultivated species (abandonment of monoculture, use of locally adapted species, old species, and/or integration with the existing ecosystem).
- Development of integrated production ecosystems based on natural synergies (developing farms combining crops, livestock, agroforestry, and organic farming so that each agricultural facet can enrich others).
- Return to an agricultural system based on human work and less on machinery and mechanization (in order to revalue agricultural work and employment).
- Application of the circular economy within agricultural systems (use of natural fertilizers derived from livestock farming, for example, instead of chemical inputs).
- Promotion of short production lines (the agricultural system must provide local markets with less homogeneous and more diversified products).
The report highlights that such a system reduces the environmental impacts of agriculture, improves the nutritional quality of food, preserves and develops local ecosystems and general biodiversity, as well as improves the quality of life of agricultural workers, local employment, and densifies the local economic circuits.
And above all, the advantage of this type of farming system is that it would make preserving soil quality possible, as it has been largely degraded by industrial agriculture. In the long term, this would lead to higher agricultural yields than conventional industrial farming. Thanks to smaller and less intensive farms, we could produce better, locally, and ecologically. Almost all the problems related to the agricultural crisis could be solved through a transition to more diversified, more local agricultural ecosystems using less chemical inputs: world hunger, nutritional diseases such as obesity, and even the quality of life of agricultural workers.
Why hasn’t the current agricultural system evolved?
In spite of this, IPES Food notes that several factors prevent the agricultural system from evolving and emerging from its current dynamic: consumers want inexpensive food that is accessible year-round without source restrictions. So, actors reason in the short-term, rather than in terms of resilience and long-term sustainability. An entire economic chain has structured around this system and it is difficult to get out without making a generalized transition…
Above all, the study shows that the current agricultural system benefits very largely from certain actors in the “agro-business” (manufacturers of pesticides and chemical inputs, R&D industrialists in animal genetics, multinationals in international commerce and mass retail). These actors therefore mobilize their common interests to maintain this system, despite the deleterious effects it has on the general population and the environment. For example, IPES Food explains that each year, the big agribusiness and mass distribution companies spend more than 130 million dollars in lobbying members of the US Congress (three times the amount of lobbying for trade union protection at the same Congress).
In this context, it is difficult to imagine that public policies an adapt and emerge from the paradigm of industrial agriculture…
How do we transition to a more sustainable agricultural model?
Despite these obstacles, the study proposes solutions to begin a transition to a more diversified and agro-ecological agriculture. This is particularly the case for public policy, which IPES Food believes must overcome conflicts of interest with the agro-industrial sector and propose new directions. Among the proposals:
- Move public subsidies from industrial agriculture to agro-ecological, biological, and diversified agriculture.
- Create a form of stakeholder dialogue around local agricultural and food systems, made up of politicians, scientists, and civil society representatives who embody the health, local development, or the environment fields in order to democratically create adapted agricultural and food policies.
- Integrate territorial management of agricultural systems, i.e., to think about the possible interactions between the different agricultural and food actors within a given territory (such as a region). Manage agricultural problems at the territorial level, local synergies between producers, consumers, and distributors can be better exploited and global management of the agricultural landscape can be put in place.
- Put agro-ecological practices at the center of agricultural strategies, agricultural research, and training and education programs.
- Promote organic farming, ancient and indigenous seeds, short circuits (i.e. by making local and organic compulsory in schools and public institutions) through public policies.
Nevertheless, in order for such strategies to be implemented, the way in which the agricultural world should be analyzed need to change. For example, new ways of measuring agricultural yields need to be adopted. If we measure the yields of an agricultural system solely on the basis of its annual production, short term industrial agriculture seems to be a viable option. On the other hand, if yields are considered to preserve soil quality and biodiversity, the nutritional and health impact of agricultural practices, and pollution, agro-ecology seems to be the most efficient option. It is then necessary to learn to think about the agricultural world in a synthetic and global way, taking into account all the indicators.
This change of approach is beginning to emerge in certain circles, which advocate local agriculture, adapted to the land and the territory, an agriculture that uses the least chemical inputs and produces healthier and better tasting food. Nevertheless, the road will be long and difficult before awareness spreads to all the actors of the agricultural world.
The IPES Food recommendations, based on exhaustive reviews of all the reference studies on the subject, are clear: the agricultural crisis can only be solved by widely changing the model!