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Science & Technology

by Pierre Chaillan

To feed the planet, can humanity go beyond industrial-scale agriculture?

Translated Sunday 15 March 2015, by Philippa Griffin

Discussion between Thomas Diemer, president of Jeunes agriculteurs, France’s Young Farmers Association, and Marc Dufumier, agricultural engineer and Emeritus Professor at AgroParis Tech University.

The social, environmental and climatic challenges of the twenty-first century call into question the effectiveness of industrial-scale agriculture. What options do we have?

Thomas Diemer: The concept of productivism, which consists in producing the maximum volume of agricultural goods possible without considering the many associated costs, is long gone. Farmers are the first to express their concern for the preservation of our natural resources and for a rich biodiversity. Despite this, true productivity in agriculture remains a real and substantial challenge given the nutritional needs of our planet. It is therefore crucial that we optimise our factors of production to produce goods of necessary quantity and quality that different markets demand. These days, we deem many global networks to be ‘industrialised’. In fact, some markets demand that rock-bottom prices be maintained, but farmers have not so easily renounced our environmental challenges. The key question is therefore: in light of these challenges, which agricultural model should we prioritise and develop? Les Jeunes, Agriculteurs, The French Young Farmers Association, favour family-based agricultural methods, in which the capital and profit are owned by those who carry out the work. In opposition to large-scale agricultural businesses, such systems are sustainable in the long term since they are often passed down from generation to generation. Additionally, they are the best-placed systems to provide a coherent response to social and environmental challenges. To remain sustainable in the long-term, any agricultural exploitation must be at once environmentally, socially and economically viable, transmissible between generations and allow farmers a decent standard of living.

Marc Dufumier: We are still doing very little to support the development of organic and sustainable agriculture. Advocates of industrial-scale agriculture claim that vast quantities can be produced at the lowest possible cost. The problem, however, is that our cheap food in fact costs us dearly. Although many products may seem to be good value on the supermarket shelves, we are obliged to pay higher and higher taxes to, for example, remove green algae from Brittany’s coastline, purify water to make it drinkable, treat consumers who are impacted by allergies and other illnesses caused by pesticide residues trapped in our food, subsidise the production of biofuels… Added to all this, unemployment in the agricultural sector is continually increasing due to the continual replacement of workers with more and more powerful machines! It would not be difficult to redirect CAP subsidies currently used for intensive farming towards better wages for farmers to allow them to shoulder the cost of less intensive methods. Canteens in schools, colleges and businesses could also play a key role in this approach by purchasing truly local organic products. Since the products would not be transported large distances, their prices would be lower than most organic products that we see today, and local farmers would remain motivated to adapt their techniques to these lucrative local markets.

Numerous studies estimate that by 2050, Earth will have 9 billion inhabitants to feed. Is it actually possible to shift away from industrial-scale agriculture whilst meeting this nutritional challenge?

Thomas Diemer: The combination of 9 billion inhabitants and the increase in global average quality of life will only mean that demand for food will increase. We therefore cannot afford to give up the intensive nature of our farming systems, and we will even see an increase in intensity in certain areas of the world. However, the industrialisation of agriculture is not incompatible with an ecological approach, and this is the key challenge presented to us as Young Farmers – to work out how to reconcile social challenges, environmental challenges and agricultural productivity through, for example, innovation, education and training. Just as we must maintain a certain element of farming intensity, we must not rule out traditional and organic agriculture. Every farmer responds to consumer needs in different ways. Finally, we must remember that another key priority for the twenty-first century is to slash our levels of global food wastage. Young Farmers seek to create projects beneficial for all, productive landscapes and communities, a strong body of agricultural workers and a culture of food which is shaped by meaningful choices.

Marc Dufumier: The fact that far too many humans suffer from hunger and malnutrition is not due to insufficient global food production. The problem lies in the following paradox: widespread poverty in many areas of the world where people are unable to buy or produce the food that they need exists side by side with massive wastage of proteins and carbohydrates, which are also used in vast quantities in factories for livestock products from livestock or biofuels. From a technical point of view, systems exist in the Global North and the Global South which increase production per hectare with no substantial fossil fuel input, nor with excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides. Such measures include: cultivating a range of crop species in the same field to best trap the available sunlight and transform it into nutritional value, introducing legume crops into rotations in order to use atmospheric nitrogen to synthesise proteins and soil fertilization, planting and maintaining shady trees or hedges to protect crops and pollinating insects from strong winds, introducing livestock to the fields, using vegetable byproducts in animal feed, fertilising soil with manure…. Having said all this, we must not fail to remember the importance of allowing governments in the Global South to protect their agricultural sector from the impact of excessive agricultural subsidies here in the Global North. We have a responsibility to help others who are less able to help themselves.

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