EDITORIAL | Future Foods, part 2

Aphid Eater

Alan Turing, the mathematician and scientist, disdained those who gained a position of power on an inadequate basis of intellectual authority. He applied this attitude to the ivory towers of Cambridge and Princeton in the 1930s. Today flawed intellectual authority is the bedrock for applied science contrary to future sustainable food scenarios in the closed domains of the agri-food and agro-chemical empires. 

On 15 September 2016 Bayer AG of Germany and Monsanto of the USA announced an agreement to integrate their ‘chemistry, biological and data science technology platforms’ with an argument that this expertise would be needed to deliver abundant crops in 2050. Bob Young, chief economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, queried the deal. The merger, he said, was a sign that control of farming and food was passing out of the hands of national regulators.

Liam Condon, head of Bayer’s crop science division, was clear about the intentions of Bayer-Monsanto. ‘The combined company plans to provide growers with integrated solutions based on the smart combination and optimised usage of products, agronomic advice through digital agriculture solutions. In the future we plan to develop integrated systems based on technologies optimally designed to work together. We already have a blueprint for how our combined and complementary product portfolio of solutions will be advantageous for farmers. These all result in significant and lasting benefits for farmers: from improved sourcing and increased convenience in the short-term, to improved yield with optimised inputs in the mid to long-term. And importantly, they support farming in a more efficient and sustainable manner. Together, Bayer and Monsanto will have the capabilities and resources to offer farmers truly integrated solutions by combining three areas of expertise: seeds and traits, crop protection including biologics, and digital farming.’ 

Bayer-Monsanto admitted that they want to dictate the future of farming. They want farmers to plant their seeds and use their chemicals, globally! Yield is their mantra. ‘Ten billion people require a solution. Bayer’s answer is sustainable agriculture.’ They also admitted a desire to influence ‘the next generation of farmers’. Beth Roden, head of communications at Bayer’s crop science division, made this clear. ‘We are committed to helping the next generation of young thought-leaders learn and grow as we drive for a sustainable intensification of agriculture. A new generation of scientists and business leaders have to carry on this essential work. And we looking forward to cultivating this learning.’

For the agronomist and the ethnobotanist, implementing sustainable food security is nothing more than bridging the gap between the logical and the physical, whereas for the anthropologist and sociologist it is about resolving political and societal issues, to avoid the scenario that has emerged in the 21st century, that of an elite activity, one that suits the agendas of corporates, bureaucrats and politicians. Sustainable food security must embrace the logical and the physical and the political and the social and this cannot be done by those who would assume intellectual authority because they have power and money. 

Roden said Bayer-Monsanto wanted to engage in ‘a constructive, forward-looking dialogue about the opportunities of modern agriculture and food production,’ yet that did not happen in the aftermath of the merger. Instead their critics aimed arrows at a target that was never visible. The senior food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe said the giant corporation would ‘lock in industrialised agriculture at the expense of nature, farmers and the wider public’. Jan Pehrke, whose Coalition Against Bayer-Dangers, said they employ ruthless business models. ‘They damage the health of farmers and consumers, they destroy the global climate and biodiversity, and they jeopardise the basis of life and nutrition for all future generations.’ Fergal Anderson of Food Sovereignty Ireland agreed. ‘The kind of corporate, industrial agriculture promoted by these corporations turns farmers into producers of cheap raw materials and subjects them to global forces which don’t relate to their local ecosystems or communities. We need a conversation about what kind of food system we want to support and what kind of legacy we want to leave to future generations. It must be the people, not the corporations who define our future.’

There is no indication that the dialogue is open. The agro-chemical giants have the power and the intellectual authority to dictate the agenda, and it does not include those who believe that sustainable agriculture is incompatible with sustainable food security, who also wonder about the failure to implement practical sustainable food security programmes. 

UNEP together with UNFAO conducted a global survey on the Sustainable Food Systems Programme (SFSP) during mid-summer 2014. This was a public consultation widely disseminated among stakeholders. It included general questions regarding the proposed goal for the SFSP, challenges, opportunities and key issues for making food systems more sustainable as well as an invitation to express interest to participate in the programme. A total of 212 respondents from 70 countries participated in the electronic survey. The survey was distributed in three languages, English, French and Spanish. A mix of 22 closed and open questions were included, with respondents having the chance to provide any additional comments on what they thought were important, to be taken into account in the development of the future programme.

The preliminary findings were presented at an expert session of the Agri-Food Taskforce at the FAO Headquarters in Rome on 11-12 September 2014. In the initial results of the survey, the main barriers to sustainable food systems cited as ‘underlying challenges’ were identified as the following: 

  • Lack of joined-up policymaking;
  • Lack of tools, information, knowledge and best practice;
  • Lack of adequate incentives;
  • Limited understanding of what constitutes a sustainable food system;
  • Lack of available data, methodology and standards.

Sustainable food security is seen as a complex sustainable development issue, linked to health through malnutrition, and to sustainable economic development, environment, and trade. The debate has become polarised around the global perspective when it should be localised around the sustainable perspective. If all food production is localised, distribution is no longer the issue. Unfortunately food is a commodity and control of the global trade of food is very lucrative. Therefore the perspective is wrong. It should be about sustenance when it is about wealth.

Winged Wonders

Sustainable food security has its origins in the 1950s when genuine concerns about the ‘environmental’ issues we now call biodiversity, climate change, global warming and soil depletion began to appear amidst the rise of agro-chemical farming, the decline of artisanal and family food production and home cooking, the loss of food cultures that treasured and recorded indigenous ingredients and traditional cooking methods, the relative failure of organic farming, the intensive farming and fishing. 

Small groups of people from diverse backgrounds worked collectively in the 1980s to address the issue of food security in the context of an eco-social paradigm, which was largely dismissed and hugely marginalised, shaped by a combination of selfishness and stupidity.

While some people saw the benefit of organic farming and went off to live in their personal eco-topias, others saw the need to develop a sensibility based on the practical application of their theories on a global scale, with a model of sustainable food production that benefitted everyone, of all ages in all societies, everywhere, that was not part of a profit nexus.

Gradually the new sensibility began to infiltrate society, Europe in particular where different movements of people promoted small-scale food production and distribution, with the emphasis on organic farming allied to eco-sensitive methods that preserved the integrity of ecosystems prepared for climate change. Artisanal, family, small-scale food and community-based food production and distribution, particularly the use of food box schemes, food coops, food fairs and festivals and food markets were promoted in the content of ‘local produce’ or, as some described it, ‘people, place, produce’.

Then, after the euphoria of the 1980s and 1990s, there was a generational hiatus, and some continuity was lost. This was seen as a failure rooted in bureaucracy and in resistance from those with vested interests. Two conflicting paradigms emerged – one profit-based, one people-based. It was noticed. 

Bread is Life!

The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security to exist ‘when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life’. The concept of food security included economic and physical access to food that met dietary needs and food preferences. 

There was, it appeared, enough food to feed the world. The problem was distribution and economic models that preferred the twin system of food exports and food imports to the detriment of local food supply, which became more expensive than the imported produce. Another problem was climate change and its sub-text — denial!

IPES is an independent panel supported by the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation ‘comprising environmental scientists, development economists, nutritionists, agronomists and sociologists, as well as experienced practitioners from civil society and social movements’. 

In February 2017 IPES co-chair Olivier De Schutter and Slow Food president Carlo Petrini said in an op-ed in Politico that as long as the discussion is centred on agricultural policy – designed to serve agricultural priorities, shaped by the interests of agricultural lobbies and ultimately decided by agriculture ministers and committees – the broader social and environmental objectives will always remain peripheral.

‘Sustainable food systems can underpin a new economic vision, one in which creative solutions are provided to long-term problems, in which a circular economy and green jobs are more than just rhetoric, and in which the costs of supporting decent jobs and public health are weighed up against the price of inaction.’

‘Surely, there is no greener job than farming, when it is based on building diversified systems that sequester carbon and provide a habitat for wild species to thrive – not least pollinators. Instead of relying on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, agro-ecological systems use natural diversity and the synergies between different crops and species to foster long-term soil fertility and sustain yields. Resource efficiency is paramount: water is recycled instead of running off the fields, and waste products like manure can be put to good use.’

‘There is also no better way to secure the economic future than to sustain and strengthen the patchwork of sustainable small-scale farms and diverse landscapes. Redesigning food and farming systems can also help tackle the public health crisis. Agricultural diversity can be translated into dietary diversity by taking steps to reconnect local suppliers of fresh, nutritious foods with individual consumers and institutional purchasers – particularly school canteens.

‘Local authorities too can play a role. They are often best-placed to improve access to healthy diets, through urban planning and public procurement practices. Indeed, the ‘food policy councils’ springing up in municipalities across Europe are already leading the way in putting sustainable territorial food systems in place.’

The rhetoric of IPES and the experience of Slow Food might yet change the European attitude to the implementation of sustainable food security systems. Unfortunately Europe is not the world and whatever the EU decides to do will be determined by those with power – especially power outside Europe. 

Without food security there is food poverty.

What’s the Beef?

Future food needs can be met by current levels of production. This is a flawed argument. It is not relevant to sustainable food security. National food security, say the agro-chemical industry, is no longer necessary because of the global trade. On the contrary, say those who do not share the corporate agenda, national food security is paramount. Unfortunately there are many countries where sustainable food security is not understood by those who make policy and by those who control agriculture. Globalisation will continue to contribute to the persistence of food insecurity and food poverty and the antidote is obvious. Remove the global element, introduce the local element, and implement practical sustainable food security programmes and systems.

Meanwhile the environmentalists sit in their little rooms and make gestures, the corporates sit in their large rooms and plot strategies and the bureaucrats and politicians stroll the corridors of power and avoid the eyes of the lobbyists – for different reasons. And despite enough food in the world to feed everyone, one in ten goes to bed each night without sustenance.