If the industrial agri-food system is deadlocked, but alternatives exist.



To be durable, it's like the stool, you have to rest on three feet:

  1. Prosperity (economic sustainability)
  2. Planet (environmental sustainability)
  3. 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.

The agri-squeeze
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: 


Among others, three very different models are being developed:

Organic farming often remains very close to the mechanized industrial model, but in principle without chemical inputs. The organic label says nothing about the carbon footprint, short or long circuit. Organic farming can remain very damaging to biodiversity and soil life, by practicing monoculture, deep ploughing, etc... However, some more virtuous organic farmers also practice so-called "conservation agriculture" which implies no ploughing, covered soils, the establishment of hedges, grassy strips or the use of agroforestry.
Conservation Agriculture

Conservation Agriculture (CA) is a farming system that can prevent losses of arable land while regenerating degraded lands. It promotes maintenance of a permanent soil cover, minimum soil disturbance, and diversification of plant species. It enhances biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground surface, which contribute to increased water and nutrient use efficiency and to improved and sustained crop production (FAO definition).

Urban "vertical" farms are beginning to develop in several metropolises, targeting the short circuit in the heart of cities. They operate in a completely controlled environment (closed environment, artificial light (led), constant temperature, synthetic supports, nutrients provided). As their cultivation is "above ground", they do not have access to the " Organic " label.

The agro-ecological approach and permaculture (urban or rural) is the opposite of industrial agriculture. Instead of trying to tame nature by inflicting chemical or mechanical damage on it, it is based on careful observation of the spontaneous behaviour of nature, particularly in the forest environment. This observation, which is increasingly covered by scientific research, brings two good pieces of news:

  1. a natural forest environment produces much more biomass per hectare than a field of wheat, without input and without labour .
  2. on "living" soil, there is a tendency towards an equilibrium that spontaneously limits pathogens and pests. Pests and pathogens generally attack when there is an imbalance in the environment. In short, it works a bit like the macrobiota in our intestine.

Agroecology and Permaculture will imitate nature by taking care of soil life, by playing on the complementarities of species, crop auxiliaries (pollinators, pest predators,...) and more generally ecosystem services, which will work for us for free.

The taste and nutritional quality of products grown on a living soil will be exceptional. Indeed, we know that it is the life of the soil that will allow a whole series of nutrients to become available to plants and therefore to us.


Agroecology is an agricultural technique that can be applied to both micro and large farms, often reintroducing the crop/livestock complementarity that existed on mixed farms.

Permaculture uses agro-ecological farming techniques, so far mainly in small market gardening. But permaculture is much more than an agricultural technique. It is a complete conceptual system covering all human constructions and activities as an ecosystem integrated into the natural environment. This system was first theorized about 50 years ago by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia.

The answer is yes. But in any case, the sustainability of the diets of nearly 9 billion people presupposes a less meaty diet as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), also for health reasons. This implies the abandonment of cereal production for animal feed or the production of agrofuels, the use of short circuits (more local and seasonal food) and a wide dissemination of skills.

More on this topic

Currently, PERMA-PROJECTS is launching two micro-farm projects. Discover them!

Next to the Poney Club de la Papelotte in Waterloo, we are developing for you a micro-farm for market gardening in permaculture.

In the beautiful region of Condroz, in Achet, on the Commune of Hamois, we develop for you a micro-farm of market gardening in permaculture and many other things