Eric Darier  is a senior campaigner on Ecological Agriculture for Greenpeace International.  

Let’s not mince our words: chemical intensive industrial agriculture is a failure. No doubt, future generations will wonder why we were so blind about its destructive impacts and hesitated so long before switching to ecological farming.

Systemic Failures

The jury has deliberated for too long. But the verdict is obvious: guilty. Let us revisit some of the evidence against the dominant and unsustainable industrial agriculture model. An increased dependency on polluting inputs (synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that are also fossil-energy intensive) – too many potential toxic substances from agriculture are now in our air, water, soil and bodies. A reduction of the diversity of seeds and livestock due to increased corporate concentration that favors hybrid and genetically engineered (GE) seeds. A dogma of productivism that values higher production levels in the short-term while ignoring the negative impacts on ecosystems, biodiversity, rural communities, animal and human health.

The other ecosystem services that we all enjoy like clean air and drinkable water have been sacrificed to the alter of this unsustainable agricultural system. Huge public agriculture subsidies (read: taxpayers’ money) that transit via farmers but end up in the coffers of giants multinationals selling chemicals and seeds. Together with various trade agreements, international dumping of food commodities and policies (for instance Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy) depresses local food production in countries where there are so many needs. In some countries, agriculture subsidies result too often in the over-production of food commodities that can worsen the diet.

Despite the so-called (chemical) "Green Revolution," the number of people undernourished recently went up to 970 million despite the fact the quantity of food calories available exceeds what is needed now and in the future. Focusing nearly exclusively on food production, regardless of the direct and indirect costs, is simply irresponsible. Let us remember that: about 70 percent of water use by humans already goes to agriculture, 30-50 percent of food is never eaten; meat consumption is a very inefficient way to provide proteins while increasing pressure on deforestation to grow soya to feed livestock; and 1.4 billion people are now overweight, which can cause more illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and the like.

Increased extreme weather events – for instance drought and flooding – have negative impacts on agriculture, especially on industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture is often less resilient in contrast to ecological farming, as the latter is better integrated into stronger ecological systems. This is one more reason why it is urgent to switch to more resilient and ecological farming. Industrial agriculture also creates conditions for the emergence of potential epidemics caused by unsustainable practices, especially those related to industrial animal farming such as avian flu, resistance to antibiotics and meat scandals (mad cow, horse meat).

No Shortage of Solutions for Feeding the World Ecologically

Feeding the world should be done ecologically in order to guarantee the long term survival of the human race. The entire food system has to be refocused around ecological imperatives. The good news is that we know already what has to be done and what is working. The new ecological food system must maintain food and agriculture systems based on biodiversity of seeds, breeds, soil, micro-flora and fauna, pollinators and diversity of diets. It must reduce food waste at all levels from production to consumption instead of increasing production and promote a more equal distribution of existing food resources. It must encourage balanced and healthy nutritive diets, which means for example lowering animal protein production and consumption to levels that are sustainable. It must reduce inequalities and extreme poverty, which are still the main causes of hunger and disease. It must abolish agriculture subsidies or de facto dumping trade practices that discourage ecological and small-scale farming. And it must encourage ecological farming that can produce roughly 80 percent more food per hectare in developing countries.

Practical policy changes to encourage ecological farming solutions already exist. For example, a 2008 United Nations process that involved 900 experts from 110 countries (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development - IAASTD) identified policy options that Greenpeace welcomes. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food also published several reports that presented solutions to food hunger.

The Transition To an Ecological Food System

While we already know the systemic causes of the problems and their solutions, policy-makers still fail to implement the necessary changes. The chemical industrial food system lobby managed to make us think there was no alternative. So half of the obstacle is to remind ourselves of the systemic failures of industrial agriculture and that ecological solutions are already there. Ecological farming is not only a solution to feeding an ever growing population – it is the only ecologically sustainable long-term solution.

The other half of the obstacle is to shift the money currently invested into chemical intensive industrial agriculture into ecological solutions. This can be done through a number of means. Firstly, by abolishing public subsidies for polluting industrial agriculture and using the funds to assist farmers to transition to ecological farming. Secondly, by changing our personal and collective food habits to organic foods, to low or no meat-based diet, to more seasonal and local produce. Thirdly, by building direct solidarity linkages between farmers and consumers, for instance the network of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Fourthly, by citizens getting involved in actual food production such as urban agriculture and community agriculture. Fifthly, by greater public participation in the growing citizen food movement that fights against some of the worse aspects of the industrial food system. Sixthly, by improving the life of the existing 2.6 billion small-scale farmers already producing the majority of the world’s food to empower them to provide more and better food to some of the poorest in the world – including themselves. 

Finally, we should resist technological based solutions that promise the sky, such as genetic engineering or pesticides that often fail to deliver and create other problems making the situation worse. Our challenge is to re-learn to work with nature not against her. In agriculture, working with nature is called ecological farming. We are all eaters and we all must also reclaim and control our food.

Opinions voiced by Global Minds do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Global Journal.

Photo © Paola Viesi