Do we have to dare a new food system?

Lack of seasonal workers and virus explosion in slaughterhouses, rising vegetable prices, climate crisis – all these things demonstrate what has actually been obvious for decades: our food system is highly productive and (at least for the rich inhabitants of planet earth) guarantees an unprecedented rich and steady food supply ... but it is not resilient.

Indonesia: The base camp of illegal loggers lies in the middle of a devastated landscape. Photo: Christoph Püschner Zeitenspiegel
Indonesia: The base camp of illegal loggers lies in the middle of a devastated landscape. Photo: Christoph Püschner Zeitenspiegel

Dr. Felix zu Löwenstein

Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg is a German agricultural scientist and farmer. He is known as a critic of industrial agriculture. As chairman of the BÖLW (Bund Ökologische Lebensmittelwirtschaft) he helps to promote the development of the organic food industry and to create sustainable framework conditions. He converted the Habitzheim estate, which has been owned by the family for 500 years, to organic. For his many years of versatile commitment to organic farming, he was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2011 his book was published: „FOOD CRASH – Wir werden uns ökologisch ernähren oder gar nicht mehr“, and in 2015 " Es ist Genug da. Für Alle. Wenn wir den Hunger bekämpfen und nicht die Natur "

BÖLW

 

The industrially structured agricultural sector relies utterly on crutches: for example, without artificial nitrogen fertilisers, which are produced with high energy input, the high yields would be unthinkable, even with sufficient water supply. The same applies to soya beans that are produced on land that was previously a tropical rainforest or South American savannah (pampa). Without them, our massive animal husbandry would not be possible. Chemical synthetic pesticides are also an indispensable part of agriculture and it is called ‘conventional’ just because it has become the norm worldwide.

 

Not a single square metre of conventional farmland produces harvest that has not been treated with pesticides against weeds, fungi, insects, etc. In animal husbandry, the use of antibiotics is similarly trivial, i.e. it is not the exception for sick animals but rather the norm in a sick system. These crutches are not only expensive and – especially in the case of synthetic nitrogen – very energy-intensive. They also cause collateral damage, some of which even calls into question the very foundation of agricultural production.

 

Rwanda: A farmer sprays pesticide on his tea plantation. Photo: Wolfgang Langenstrassen/picture-alliance/dpa
Rwanda: A farmer sprays pesticide on his tea plantation. Photo: Wolfgang Langenstrassen/picture-alliance/dpa

It is important to understand that only about 45% of the nitrogen from fertilisers in Germany (worldwide even only 30%) is incorporated into the protein of food plants; a correspondingly high amount remains in the environment. This leads to groundwater pollution, causes ‘death zones’ in river estuaries around the globe and favours natural selection of organisms in ecosystems that prefer to have low levels of nitrogen – all of these effects result in high and increasingly irreversible costs to the general public. The use of pesticides is a major contributor to the decline of species, which, according to the Paris Conference on Biological Diversity, is taking on apocalyptic dimensions similar to those of global climate change – for the latter agriculture and food industry are responsible for about a quarter.

 

The fact that the collapse in species and population size of insects is not ‘the problem’, but rather only a part of it, is clear to anyone who understands how ecosystems work. It can be illustrated by taking a look at comparable developments in birds of the open agricultural landscape. The fact that we cannot yet describe what species extinction looks like in our soils does not mean that it is not happening. But it is hard to imagine that this part of the food chain could be miraculously spared. Rather, the problem is that we know so woefully little about soil life. We humans must realise that we cannot exist without functioning ecosystems. Because we are a part of nature and not just bystanders. That is why the effects of our agricultural system on human health are not only related to the direct effects of chemical synthetic residues of pesticides or antibiotics on our organism, but also with changes in ecosystems.

 

Evidence is growing that declining biodiversity leads to increasing infectious diseases.

 

In February 2020, a Swedish meta-study showed how diverse the evidence is that decreasing biodiversity leads to increasing infectious diseases. Just recently, in May 2020, a study from Kenya was published in ‘nature’ magazine, which illustrates how some causes that look minimal can have unpredictably massive effects: the scientists discovered that in African fresh-waters even minimal trace amounts of pesticides (far below toxicological limits) have an effect on the species composition. This is simply due to the fact that there are species whose chances of survival under such stress situations are lower than those of other species. With fatal consequences: this phenomenon has favoured snails that are intermediate hosts for the pathogen causing schistosomiasis. The researchers found them exclusively in waters that were contaminated with pesticides and eutrophicated with nitrogen.

 

There is no doubt that this agricultural system facilitates a nutritional system in which food is abundant (and enables diets that have made diabetes caused by overeating a pandemic). But it is just as clear that it is destroying the very foundation of this food production – in particular stable climate, biodiversity and fertile soils.

 

Fishermen from the Congolese jungle village of Ntondo pursue their trade. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt
Fishermen from the Congolese jungle village of Ntondo pursue their trade. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt

Moreover, the coronavirus crisis has revealed a fact that has become very clear: global supply chains favour cheap production and create export opportunities. But where they damage local food sovereignty, they lead to hunger. When commodity chains no longer function in crisis mode, labour mobility is restricted or individual countries even suspend their exports, we hardly notice it – after all, we spend only 11% of our income on food. For people who spend 75% of their income on food, the resulting price increases make the difference between having food or not.

 

What we need are stable systems

 

Consequently, we must prioritise the stability of our food systems over their productivity, starting with the stability of agricultural production. It must function independently of the use of unnatural substances, so that ecosystems are relieved of substances for which they were not naturally prepared through evolution. Nutrients must be kept as far as possible in the cycle so that they do not act where they should not act at all. Soils must be alive so that they can build up humus, store water and make it available. This would allow them to provide yield security even under the stress conditions of the climate crisis and avoid being carried away by wind or heavy rain. Animals must be robust enough and kept in good health so that they are usually not ill and only require veterinary treatment in exceptional cases.

 

This also means that their organism should not be subject to performance requirements for growth or milk production that put too much of a strain on them. Additionally, national economies must have the highest possible level of food sovereignty, as must the farming families that live in them. It does not exclude division of labour or global trade, but it does not put all eggs in one basket to avoid getting stuck during a crisis. And it requires that farmers are not robbed of their fields in order to make them available to internationally active companies that produce palm oil for blending with European diesel or animal feed for our insatiable meat industry.

The wide range of these requirements shows how thoroughly these stable systems have to be planned and that they reach beyond the farm gate. It is encouraging to see that there are models for all requirements that show it works. There are organic farms and agro-ecological practices in every country around the world that show that production systems can be stable. Their overarching basic principle is diversity as well as understanding of natural feedback cycles and assimilation of agricultural practices to function as close as possible to natural ecosystems. It is fascinating that such farmers are both economically successful and highly productive.

 

It is a key priority for scientists to take up such systemic approaches, to develop them further in collaboration with practitioners and then make the detailed descriptions available and scalable for others. After decades of investments in perfecting unstable, technology-centred production methods, there is an enormous need to catch up!

 

Zambia: Women farmers in their maize field with improved, climate-adapted cultivation methods. Photo: WWF Germany
Zambia: Women farmers in their maize field with improved, climate-adapted cultivation methods. Photo: WWF Germany

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MarkIrungu /AGRA

Spiritual mortar for the young generation

By Jan Rübel

Fred Swaniker is working building a new era of leaders. And what about agriculture? ‘It needs to be more sexy!’

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(c) Privat

A classroom in the Garden of Eden

By Iris Manner

Deforestation harms people and the environment. With nurseries, farmers can earn money and do good. You just have to know how to do it

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More than just a seat at the table

By Welthungerhilfe

Africa is home to the world’s youngest and fastest growing population. For many young people, agriculture could offer a job perspective. But to improve the living conditions and job prospects of young people in rural areas, political reforms and investments are desperately needed, as these people will be at the centre of agriculture and agricultural development in the future.

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The human finca

Interview with Marvin Antonio Garcia Otero

In Eastern El Salvador, campesinos are cultivating a self-image to encourage rural youth to remain in rural areas. With help from Caritas, they have adjusted the cultivation methods to their soils and traditions - Marvin Antonio Garcia Otero,the deputy director of Caritas of the Diocese of San Miguel believes this is the best way to prevent rural exodus and criminality.

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(c) Christoph Pueschner/Zeitenspiegel

From start to finish: a vision of interconnectivity

By Tanja Reith

At the moment, the agricultural industries of African countries exist in relative isolation. Imagine peasant farmers digitally connected to the value chains of the global food industry. How could this happen? A guidebook.

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Answers from the youth: "Leave or stay? That depends on it!"

GIZ study; conducted by Geopoll

Does Africa's youth want to live in the city or in the country? Which career path seems particularly attractive? And how optimistic are the young people about the future? Young adults from rural areas answered these questions by SMS.

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(c) Privat

How much private investment is the agricultural sector able to bear?

By Pedro Morazán

Small farmers in developing countries must modernise their farming methods, but poorly understood reforms could exacerbate poverty instead of alleviating it.

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Uli Reinhardt/Zeitenspiegel

Enough of being poor

By Marcellin Boguy

In western Africa a new middle class is emerging. Their consumer behaviour is determining the demand for products – home-produced and imported goods, on the internet or at the village market. The people of Ivory Coast in particular are looking to the future with optimism.

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A new attempt at Africa's industrialization?

By Helmut Asche

Afrika is about ready. There are promising approaches for a sustainable industrialization. However, the path poses challenges to the continent.

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"Without peace, there will be no development"

Interview with Karina Mroß 

What contribution does development cooperation make to conflict prevention? What can it do for sustainable peace? Political scientist Karina Mroß talks to Raphael Thelen about post-conflict societies and their chances for peaceful development.

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©WFP/Rein Skullerud

Revolutionising Humanitarian Aid

By Ralf Südhoff

Financial innovations can prevent a crisis turning into a catastrophe. The livelihoods of people in affected areas may well depend on intervention before a crisis – and on risk funds.

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Is the international community still on track in the fight against hunger?

Interview with Miriam Wiemers (Welthungerhilfe)

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2020 shows that the world is not on track to meet the international goal of “zero hunger by 2030”. If we continue at our current speed, around 37 countries will not even have reached a low hunger level by 2030.

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