We have posted a summary of an important report from a European think tank — “An agroecological Europe in 2050: multifunctional agriculture for healthy eating. Findings from the Ten Years For Agroecology (TYFA) “. This report that lays out a concrete plan — and path — toward a safer, sustainable agricultural system that promotes human and animal health, and lighten agriculture’s environmental footprint.
Our summary of the IDDRI report ends by saying —
“It is hard to imagine the U.S. agriculture sector and allied industries taking seriously the direction and mechanics of change of this magnitude, despite the compelling evidence that major changes are both needed and inevitable.”
There are big differences between U.S. and European Union agriculture. Problems differ, as does readiness and willingness to change. But in time on both sides of the Atlantic, change is going to come.
It will happen, because people will demand it and support it via their food dollars. Those farmers and food companies that figure out how to deliver quality food with a lighter public health and environmental footprint will profit and grow, and those that drag their feet, or are too stubborn to even try, will fade away, much like several of today’s iconic processed food brands and companies.
There are many reports floating around sharing visions of the Future of Food, indeed so many we have started a special section to keep track of them.
One of the recurrent, entrenched arguments voiced by agricultural and food industry leaders who are resistant to change is that the U.S. must stay the course to retain the ability to produce enough food to meet consumer needs, and at least retain our share of global food exports. The inherent assumption behind such assertions is that widespread adoption of any other way to produce food — whethere it be so-called sustainable, organic, agroecological, in vats, or on top of buildings — cannot possibly produce enough to meet our caloric needs.
This argument is both deeply flawed and dangerous. Deeply flawed because it simply is not true — multiple other configurations of farming systems can produce as much, or more high-quality human food, acre for acre, year in and year out (here’s an example).
Dangerous because this argument has successfully put off for a few decades a long overdue reckoning over aspects of “modern agriculture” that are obsolete, damaging to the soil, eroding the efficacy of antibiotics, undermining the economic and cultural vitality in rural communities, and eroding public health by fueling chronic disease and reproductive problems.
If “modern agriculture” is going to remain relevant, the technologies and systems it promotes and rewards will have to change. The things farmers pay money for will change. The targets of private sector R+D and infrastructure investments will evolve, and in some respects, change dramatically.
E.g. the major players like Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva Agriscience, ChemChina/Syngenta, and BASF will spend much more bringing bio-based products to market that enhance the productivity of complex cropping-animal systems, and a lot less on discovering and selling toxic products designed to kill something or treat a disease healthy animals rarely are plagued by.
An incrementally greater share of beef and dairy products will come from farms emphasizing year-round, or nearly year-round forage-based feeds and grazing as the primary method of forage harvest for as many months during the year as the weather allows. Incrementally smaller shares of beef and dairy products will come from CAFOs that push animals to produce or grow beyond their capacity to sustain health, and at the expense of meat and dairy product quality.
Americans need not reduce meat, poultry, and dairy consumption by 40%, nor are they likely to do so. But the systems and strategies used to feed and care for animals will have to change, and these changes will do much good for farmers, the soil, the climate, water quality, animal welfare, food nutritional quality and safety, and public health.
Ultimately, the weight on farmers, the economy, and public health imposed by failing pillars of “modern agriculture” will become too much to bear. The time for change will come. The sooner it begins, the better. Incremental, systematic change over one to two decades is much more likely to achieve positive and sustainable progress, compared to change driven by, and adopted in a climate of crisis and conflict.
One last, important point about yields. The IDDRI report projects modest (i.e. 10%) to sizable (50%) yield reductions across crops after the shift to agroecological farming systems across Europe.
This conservative estimate assumes that farmers will not become more skilled at the science and art of agroecology, just as they have every other farming system and technology they have adopted.
It fails to credit future farming system productivity — and total annual yields –for the much more complete use of the solar energy falling on each hectare of farmland across the continent. Today, the typical European crop farmer is growing something on his or her land for 4 to 6 months a year, when the sun and available moisture would support plant growth for 7-9 months.
Without doubt, the shift to agroecology will enhance soil organic matter content and promote plant health. Soils higher in organic matter will take in and store more water during heavy spring and summer rains, and mitigate the reduction in yields in those years when rainfall patterns poorly match crop water needs.
In fact, with smart investments in the infrastructure needed to support agroecological systems and practices, ten-year average food production per hectare in the EU will likely increase above today’s levels, despite the occasional lower yield of a particular crop within a farm’s diversified mix of crops, livestock, and other solar-driven enterprises.
Hopefully as European agriculture explores the various paths to agroecology, new confidence will grow that there are many win-win-win opportunities waiting to be pursued. Success across the EU over time will likely help lower the resistance to comparable innovation here at home.
And stay tuned for another blog highlighting important new research from Europe, by way of a special food marketing co-op in a city by the sea. This new science should super-charge consumer demand for change, and for a very good reason.