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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.
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.
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.
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!