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.

 

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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Reference values: A building block on the road to social equality

A contribution by Friederieke Martin (GIZ)

A quick and cost-effective method calculates living wages and incomes for many different countries. The GIZ together with Fairtrade International and Richard and Martha Anker have developed a tool that companies can use to easily analyse income and wage gaps.

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Quinoa could have a huge potential in Central Asia, where the Aral Sea Basin has been especially hard-hit by salinisation.

Supermarket Scorecard on Human Rights

A contribution by Dr. Franziska Humbert (Oxfam)

Oxfam’s supermarket scorecard, which is in its third year, shows one thing in particular - it works! Supermarkets can change their business policies and focus more on the rights of those people around the world who plant and harvest food. However, this does not happen without pressure. 

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Ms Rudloff, what are the benefits of a supply chain law?

By Jan Rübel

The Federal Government is fine-tuning a law that would require companies to ensure human rights – a supply chain law. What are the consequences for the agricultural sector? Dr Bettina Rudloff from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) discusses linking policy fields with added value.

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Uli Reinhardt/Zeitenspiegel

Bitter fruit

A contribution by Frank Brunner

Why aren’t bars of chocolate made where cocoa is grown? Author Frank Brunner analyses the industry’s fragile value chain from the plantation to the supermarket

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"Soy can be made into more than just flour"

A report by Johanna Steinkühler (GIZ)

The soybean is a natural crop that can be used to make a lot of food. So, Tata Bi started a small processing business first on her own, then with a few other women, which provides the women with an additional source of income year-round besides selling the soybeans.

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Africa's face of agriculture is female

A contribution by Beatrice Gakuba (AWAN-AFRIKA)

Africa has a huge opportunity to make agriculture its economic driver. However, the potential for this is far from being made exhaustive use of, one reason being that women face considerable difficulties in their economic activities. The organisation AWAN Afrika seeks to change this state of affairs.

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Freed from trade? Towards a fairer EU Trade Agenda

A contribution by Dr. Jan Orbie (University Gent)

‘Fair’ and ‘sustainable’ are key words in Germany’s EU Council Presidency. At the same time, Germany pursues ‘modernization’ of the WTO and ‘rapid progress’ on free trade agreements. Are these goals really compatible? Can we be concerned about fairness and sustainability while continuing with ‘business as usual’?

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(c) Privat

The 'Grey Gold'

A contribution by Maria Schmidt (GIZ)

The Cashew Council is the first international organisation for a raw material stemming from Africa. The industry promises to make progress in processing and refining cashew nuts - and answers to climate change

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“They said: You can do it”

A contribution by Bread for the World

As President of the IABM cooperative in Muhanga, Alphonsine Mukankusi is not simply focused on the figures. She has learned how to deal with people and how to take on responsibility. At the same time, her work helps her to come to terms with the past

 

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No rainforest for our consumption

A contribution by Jenny Walther-Thoß (WWF)

In the tropics rainforests are still being felled for the production of palm oil, meat and furniture. It is high time to act. Proposals are on the table.

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(c) Privat

Small Farms, big money

A contribution by Agnes Kalibata

Agnes Kalibata, AGRA president since 2014 and former minister of agriculture and wildlife in Rwanda, is convinced that Africa's economy will only grow sustainably if small-scale agriculture is also seen as an opportunity.

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The fight against illegal fishing

A Report

The oceans are important for our food supply, but they are overfished. To halt this trend the global community is now taking action against illegal fishing. Journalist Jan Rübel spoke with Francesco Marí, a specialist for world food, agricultural trade and maritime policy at "Brot für die Welt," and others.

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"Agriculture can become a job engine"

Interview with Reiner Klingholz

How can agriculture modernise Africa? And does the road to the cities really lead out of poverty? Dr. Reiner Klingholz from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development in conversation with Jan Rübel .

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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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Africa's rapid economic transformation

A report by T. S. Jayne, A. Adelaja and R. Mkandawire

Thirty years ago, Africa was synonymous with war, famine and poverty. That narrative is clearly outdated. African living standards are rising remarkably fast. Our authors are convinced that improving education and entrepreneurship will ensure irreversible progress in the region even as it confronts COVID-19.

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An opportunity for the continent

A contribution by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Africa’s population is young and ready to take its destiny into its own hands. Agriculture offers amazing opportunities in this regard. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants to support the next generation in this way.

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The Life of Their Dreams - What Children Want

Interview with Gnininkaboka Dabiré and Innocent Somé

Later on you want to become a farmer yourself, or would you prefer to take up another profession? Two young people from Burkina-Faso talked to representatives of the Dreyer Foundation about their parents' farms, the profession of farmer and their own plans for the future.

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School Feeding: A unique platform to address gender inequalities

A contribution by Carmen Burbano de Lara (WFP)

Besides the well known impacts of Covid19 lockdowns for the adult population, the associated school closures led to 90 percent of the world’s children with no access to schools. However, school meals are in often the only daily meal for children. Without access to this safety net, issues like hunger, poverty and malnutrition are exacerbated for hundreds of millions of children.

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Frank Schultze / Agentur_ZS

The communicator

A contribution by Jan Rübel

What do electrical engineering, telecommunications and agriculture have in common? They arouse the passion of Strive Masiyiwa: Thirty years ago, he started an electrical installation company with $75, later riding the telecommunications wave as a pioneer. Today he is committed to transforming African agriculture.

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MarkIrungu /AGRA

Spiritual mortar for the young generation

A contribution 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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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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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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(c) GIZ

Youth employment in rural areas

The world’s population keeps on growing; with this rise comes an increased need for food as well as productive employment opportunities. Offering young people in rural areas better employment prospects is one of the objectives of the sector project. The young population is the key to a modern and efficient agricultural economy.

A project of GIZ

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More than just a seat at the table

A contribution 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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(c) Christoph Pueschner/Zeitenspiegel

From start to finish: a vision of interconnectivity

A contribution 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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A new attempt at Africa's industrialization?

A contribution 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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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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©WFP/Rein Skullerud

Revolutionising Humanitarian Aid

A contribution 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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"Without peace, there will be no development"

Interview with Karina Mroß (DIE)

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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picture-alliance/Zentralbild

Land is Crucial for Development

A contribution by Roselyn Korleh and M. Sahr Nouwah (WHH)

The Liberian town of Kinjor is a picture-book example for what happens, if land rights aren’t protected, and it illustrates how to move forward from there. The keyword: Multi-Actor Partnership

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