Don't miss a thing!
We regularly provide you with the most important news, articles, topics, projects and ideas for One World – No Hunger.
Don't miss a thing!
We regularly provide you with the most important news, articles, topics, projects and ideas for One World – No Hunger.
Please also refer to our data protection declaration.
Genetically modified bacteria become edible proteins, cows graze on pasture, and no waste is produced in an industrial circular economy. Journalist Jan Grossarth sees a silver lining for the future of world nutrition.
Karl Marx was a visionary. Some of his observations still have great explanatory value in the 21st century (even if the planned economies he inspired have ushered great darkness into the world). Marx predicted the ecological crisis as early as the 1860s. He wrote at that time that artificial fertilisers and resulting urbanisation would lead to a “metabolic disorder” of humans and the earth (Saito 2017).
This neologism has actually provided the metaphors currently used by the social and natural sciences to describe the ecological crisis: Great Acceleration, Anthropocene, Human Age. So what exactly is a metabolic disorder? Nothing other than the oft lamented “disease” or “imbalance” of the biosphere.
Early industrial intuition has become complex mathematical prognosis – sociological description has become biochemical evidence. The urban-industrial society is at a tipping point. The global metabolism of carbon, nitrogen and phosphates is subject to a high-risk dynamic of change. This stems from a number of factors: travel, construction and consumption, resource depletion for agriculture, population growth.
Urbanisation is the inevitable consequence of agricultural industrialisation. According to the United Nations, 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities by 2050 (Grossarth 2018). Hundreds of millions of small farmers will then also be living in cities. They are fleeing not only because climate conditions are worsening. They are also fleeing because their subsistence economies have no prospects for development – because these are shackles of poverty.
The development goals of “food for all” or “a world without hunger” can only be thought of meaningfully in the context of progressive urbanisation. In other words, continued industrial development. At least if the world population should continue to rise – to ten billion, as predicted.
Anyone who says both: reduce urbanisation and fight poverty is either ill-informed, historically blind or cynical.
Unfortunately, we live in a digital media democracy that broods simplistic viewpoints. Unambiguity, argumentativeness and criticality determine news values. This forces parties, non-governmental organisations and even academics to simplify the picture (Post 2018). That is why two camps have emerged among media experts: One cites agricultural industrialisation and the “wrong thinking” behind it as the core problem. The other is pinning all its hopes on digitalisation and technical progress. But it easily falls into the technocratic trap. This means: foolish ignorance of the justified criticism of global power structures, global distributive injustice, cultural-critical criticism of the agro-industrial desolation and the epochal destruction of peasant ways of life, traditions and diversity – even among the remaining farmers.
The digital media – under pressure from quotas and bias – are apparently also compelled to condense differentiated climate change forecasts into apocalyptic scenarios. The forecasts for African harvests are poor overall and explicitly “despite technological developments”, says the IPCC (Njang 2017). But there are wide regional variations. Bleak are the forecasts for those inhabiting the savannahs of Togo, parts of Madagascar, Uganda, Mali and north-eastern Ghana. Positive yield developments are to be expected not far away: in the north of Ghana. And also in parts of Burkina Faso and Nigeria. The dynamics of change in phases of rainfall and drought will be severe – but cannot be predicted with certainty in regard to their consequences. The future is grimly bleak. Both established patterns of interpretation – the “wrong path of industrialisation”
Significant here: it is not politics but international corporations such as Nestlé, Mars or Lidl and Aldi that have been promoting sustainability for years.
They set standards for suppliers, they take over plantations themselves, they do research for more productive cocoa cultivation in their interest. But the food system needs to be radically reformed. This is not a task for Lidl – nor for citizens' councils – but for global politics
An industrial circular economy offers the only realistic and humane future prospects for the entire population. This is essentially free of waste. Neither food nor anything else is wasted. All nutrients and materials are recycled. Not ultimately elitist (and, often grounded in resentment or esotericism) ideals of sufficiency and abstinence are the standard (Scheler 2017). Rather, humans can learn “intelligent waste” from nature in the ecological crisis (Braungart 2009).
That is a planning task. But it does not lead to a planned economy. What needs to be planned is a completely new tax and financial policy that makes waste creation more expensive. Scrap metal, food waste and CO2 are all “wastes” produced by an industrial way of life. A smart, radically different free trade policy must be planned that punishes ecological dumping at external borders with high tariffs. The state must set the rules of the game in such a way that causing waste becomes very expensive. Companies must account for the true ecological costs: harm to water, air, soil and health.
The central areas of intervention have been identified in the articles of the SEWOH evaluation: Governance entails first and foremost prioritising the issue in the media and politically. This is because it easily retreats into the background – where it appears as a marginal and expert topic. The pandemic was a case in point. Innovations are of central importance. But they only merit this name if they serve social and human concerns. Agroecology describes the path to the agronomic future. Yet “along the way” it also formulates a completely new, transdisciplinary understanding of science. Supply chains need to be structured in terms of partnership rather than capitalism. The initiative should come from the developing countries themselves. Flourishing farmers are an important piece of the puzzle.
The state sets the course. But the creative economy solves the real problems.
CO2, genetically modified bacteria and energy will be turned into artificial, edible proteins – an invention from Israel (Israeli Embassy 2019). Carbon-neutral fuel could also be developed in this way. Toxins will become raw materials. And the oceans – where fertilizers and nutrients from 150 years of agribusiness history are stored – will become a source of raw materials. There are edible algae to harvest there
Instead of the wheat monocultures characterising current farming, future agriculture will be small-scale and diverse. Arable fields will reproduce ecological systems and farmers will cultivate well-considered nutrient cycles: with nitrogen-fixing legumes, nutrient-rich manure crops, useful hedges that provide habitats for insects.
Farm animals will no longer be imprisoned in dark mass-fattening facilities – but instead, dwell close to the field in stables that receive architectural awards. Grazing animals have a future. But the resource-efficient chicken from the urban factory has a future too. It will eat insects that were fed on garbage. Yet foolish factory farming has no future.
“Raw materials” will no longer factor into the equation. Products will have multidimensional qualities instead of just price and nutrient. Digital channels will provide excellent information about this. Even human faeces will be processed industrially and returned to the fields. For this to be accepted and for politics not to smile wearily, there must be a general awareness of the problem that the development of a global circular economy needs to take top priority.
Both conservatives playing down the ecological problem and panic communication à la Greta Thunberg distract us from this. The latter focuses on a rigid CO2 avoidance policy and has had some success. The EU and Germany have made CO2 more expensive for other sectors of the economy or intend to do so.
But panic communication also brought radicalisation and ideological hardening.
The risk of “short-circuiting” wrong decisions by political or economic actors is high. If there were fuel from CO2-eating bacteria in the future, even the internal combustion engine would have a future.
Because the path of the circular economy is a global one, it will naturally also be the African one. Neither naïve metaphors of a life “in harmony with nature” nor a “fairer and more equitable world” will help a continent whose population is set to grow to two billion people by 2050 – about a tenfold increase since 1950. African innovation, “business mindset” and the development of a digital circular industry appear to be the path that also seems attractive to the people on the ground – but above all a much stronger integration of peasant production into national and international value chains.
Ideas of a “completely different”, long-term and structurally conservative smallholder path for Africa have to put up with the question of Western paternalism. The idealising, harmonising talk of the “global way” and or “one world” also tends to cloud the view of reality. There are interests of nations and power blocs. Advocacy and conflicts of interest are not per se an ethical disgrace. Only future historians will be able to judge whether in our time China – with its hard-line politics of interests – was more useful to Africa, or European development policy. An answer is not trivial.
Realistic development paths also include urban greenhouses that close material flows. The Netherlands is a leader and successful exporter of such technology. The rediscovery of agronomically efficient allotment gardens in cities is realistic. A common thread running through future agriculture involves cascade use: waste becomes fodder, refuse becomes recyclable material.
This will not be aided by ancient craftsmanship, but by enzymatic separation processes. The 21st century is set to become the age of the bioeconomy (Lewandowski 2018). New genetic breeding methods will play a major role – at least in industrial application, perhaps also in certain fields of agriculture. In the future, nitrogen fertiliser will no longer be synthesised on the basis of natural gas, but solar energy. What an opportunity for Africa! The first plants are under construction. Robots and drones will apply the fertiliser precisely where it is needed.
Diverse and circular agriculture will be climate adapted. Soils will be better shaded and moister. They will come alive with more insects and worms, fungi and bacteria. They will form humus and sequester carbon. Trees and hedges of agroforests will also sequester CO2.
It is not only natural science that determines farming methods. The effect of beauty – the atmospheres created in the new landscapes – on people’s perceptions are also an insight key for “good” agriculture. Wind turbines and solar plants have their place, but do not transform the world into one single power plant landscape. For that too entails “agroecology as a guiding outlook”
To give (local) cultural ideas of the good life, psychology, the poetics of land and food a space of relevance in the canon of sciences – because these are also in danger under the dominance of technical and natural sciences. And people rarely feed themselves on the basis of science anyway – but rather on the basis of culture, pleasure or frustration (Hirschfelder 2018).
Huge risks await the future. A green centrally planned economy would not be adaptable – because the problems and technologies of the day after tomorrow remain unknown.
Only when apocalyptic expectation is accompanied by hope so we shape the future (Schleissing 2020). Disaster forecasts have their purpose in that they awaken people to coming dangers and stimulate human creativity. But if they lead to panic politics – in the course of which products, groups, people and processes are divided into “good” or “bad” – this does not do justice to the ethical complexity characterising the mega-task of “sustainable world nutrition” (Vogt 2021). Then the metaphorical talent of Karl Marx would have been misjudged again.
Braungart, Michael, McDonough, William (2009), Cradle to Cradle. London.
Grossarth, Jan (2019), Future Food – Die Zukunft der Welternährung. Darmstadt.
Hirschfelder, Gunther (2018), Gesundheit und Ernährung: Die Macht der Kultur. In: Biologie unserer Zeit. Weinheim.
Lewandowski, Iris (2018), Bioeconomy. Shaping the Transition to a Sustainable, Biobased Economy. Berlin.
Niang, Isabelle et al. (2014), Africa. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Cambridge.
Post, Senja, Ramirez, Natalia (2018), Politicized Science Communication: Predicting Scientists’ Acceptance of Overstatements by Their Knowledge Certainty, Media Perceptions, and Presumed Media Effects. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. 95, 4.
Saito, Kohei (2017), Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. New York.
Scheler, Max (2017 ), Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der Moralen. Frankfurt.
Schleissing, Stephan (2020), Apokalyptik und Ethik. Der Beitrag des Christentums zum Klimadiskurs, Vortrag in der Evangelischen Akademie Tutzing anlässlich der Tagung „Vor uns die Sintflut – oder: Was will eine aufgeklärte Klimaethik?“, 14. September 2020.
Vogt, Markus (2021), Christliche Umweltethik, Grundlagen und zentrale Herausforderungen. Freiburg.
Israelian Embassy in Germany (2019), Press Release, https://embassies.gov.il/berlin/NewsAndEvents/Pages/Israel-entwickelt-CO2-fressende-Bakterien.aspx