If the industrial agri-food system is deadlocked, but alternatives exist.
The Industrial agro-food system is deadlocked
To be durable, it's like the stool, you have to rest on three feet:
- Prosperity (economic sustainability)
- Planet (environmental sustainability)
- People (social sustainability)
But this system is even not efficient
Economic efficiency = Optimal use of resources to meet human needs
- Meet human needs ?
- Yes, in quantity (to the point of excess?)
- Not in nutritional or taste quality
- Optimal use of resources ?
- Waste and erosion of soil, water etc...
- Energy waste: 7 to 10 calories of fossil energy to produce 1 vegetable calorie and 8 vegetable calories to produce 1 meat calorie!
Until the 1950s, most farms were mixed farms combining agriculture and livestock:
- They were quite "circular" from an ecological point of view;
- Their main purpose was to feed the local market.
With the mastery of chemistry, mechanization and cheap oil, the "Green Revolution" applied the three recipes that had worked well in the industry:
- Specialization (between cereal, dairy, meat farms, etc...)
- Economies of scale by extension of size (of fields, herds, henhouses, etc.)
- Mechanization and higher capital intensity
We've gone from a circular system to a linear and extractive system. We've applied an industrial approach to life! This has weakened and degraded a complex system.
1. Dependence on fossil fuels
The viability of the model depends crucially on the abundance and cheapness of 3 production factors: land, (fossil) energy and capital. In many countries, especially in Europe, these factors are massively subsidised.
The non-extendable nature of the first two (and their current waste) suggests that they will become more expensive in the future. This trend will be exacerbated by two factors: first, land degradation will either erode productivity or require more inputs. On the other hand, the absolute need to drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels will make it more expensive in one way or another.
2. Environmental disaster
Mechanization, deep ploughing, the use of pesticides and chemical nitrogen fertilizers, off-ground livestock farming, ... all these practices have led to :
- The soil degradation is massive and leads to an abandonment of the order of 5 to 10 million ha/year on a global scale according to the UN (5 times the agricultural area of Belgium!).
- Massive loss of biodiversity at an irretrievable cost to our societies
- The carbon footprint of agriculture currently represents 13% of GHG emissions (40% of methane)
- Deforestation largely motivated by the expansion of agricultural production (especially palm oil) accounts for 10% more.
- Degradation of surface and groundwater is largely attributable to agricultural practices.
3. A socially unsustainable model
- Drastic reduction of the umber of farms and farmers
- Generalisation of monoculture => loss of knowledge
- The suicide rate of farmers is 20% higher than average (French stats)
- Pesticides => Recognized professional disease .
- Destruction of local productions in the global South by the dumping of production surpluses from the North => rural exodus => abandonment of arable land
- Ethical issues relating to the use of certain products, animal abuse, etc...
4. Which is seriously detrimental to health!
At the other end of the chain, junk food from processed products has a major impact on health:
- Dietary imbalances (Excess sugar, salts, fats; low diversity; excess meat)
- Pandemics: obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers,...
- Intolerances: gluten, lactose, various allergies, ...
- Degradation of the nutritional quality of the products
- Growing need for dietary supplements
- Food standardization and the emergence of a "nutritional desert".
- Km/plate => traffic, environmental cost, traceability?
- Loss of knowledge
- Taste experience
- Culinary skills : increasing share of prepared dishes. In some large cities, accommodation is being sold without a kitchen!.
Everything has pushed farmers in this direction: prescribers, scientists, agricultural policy, ... but above all prices.
Farmers were squeezed between their input suppliers and the buyers of their products. To survive, they increased their size and/or specialized. Those who did not follow the system were ejected.
You want to learn more on this
Numerous scientific studies have been published on these subjects. Discover one of the most recent: