Almost 40 years ago, in our small farm we were packing bags of vegetables to consumers that wanted good food. After a having spent thirty years with development of the organic sector, the entry of supermarkets and multinational food companies in the organic sector, development of certification systems and international trade – I am now back in a small farm packing bags of vegetables to consumers who want good food.
Industrial food and farming have been very successful in producing more food, and cheaper food. But it has come at a very high price as you all know. The practices have disturbed and destroyed important biological systems, in particular bio-diversity and the nitrogen and carbon cycles.
While food is abundant, the distribution system, the market, fails to reach almost 1 billion people which are hungry. Even in the rich EU every tenth person can’t afford a proper meal every second day.
More than anything else the global market fuelled by oil and coal and shaped by merciless competition has been the factor that has determined the whole food system, from the prairies to the supermarket shelf, from the production of grain fed chicken to the emergence of fast food chains. The effects on biodiversity, landscape, rural development, and the quality and culture of food of this transformation is immense.
Agricultural policy in the EU as well as in most other countries has by and large supported this trend by a one-sided focus on competitiveness. The result is that 1 out of 4 farms have disappeared in the EU between 2003 and 2013, and almost 5 million full time jobs were lost, one third of all jobs in the agriculture sector. With current trends we will have 2 farms with 150 000 dairy cows each in Sweden at the end of the century.
Productivity in farming has increased quicker than in most other sectors. Farming has become a very capital intensive business where it often cost 1 million euros to create a full time job. The average Danish farm represent a capital investment of 2.5 million Euros, Dutch farms almost as much.
The combination of high capital costs, constant reduction of number of farms and farm workers and low profitability together explains well why so few young people enter the farm sector. As a matter of fact, in the modern economies many more people work in restaurants and cafés than in farming and food industries.
As a reaction to the development, organic farming, local foods, slow food, fair trade and alike has developed. And they play a very important role, both as agents of innovation and for their actual results.
We have come a long way and should be proud of the accomplishment.
However, these systems are, by and large, still subject to the same market imperatives of competition, profit and constant labour productivity increase. And increasingly so the more successful they are.
This limits their transformational power. Both Thomas Fertl and Nic Lampkin said that organic is more, more than regulations and more than markets, and I think most of you agree. But we have spent most of the sector’s energy in government regulations and conventional markets the last decades. Both are institutions we need to relate to if we want to be relevant and live in the real world. But they don’t carry the soul of organic and they are not fostering innovation. They are reflections of the past and not the image of the future.
A truly regenerative food and farm system will close loops of energy, nutrients and most importantly meaning and culture. It must reconnect people to the land and to farming.
We need to think carefully which are the best paths to reach there.
Let me take an example: The value of the ecosystem services and the external costs of a product can be higher than the commercial value of the product itself. FAO calculated external costs for the four most important crops and found that they were 1.8 times the farm gate prices for the same crops. Full and fair payment to farmers for ecosystem services and inclusion of costs for environmental damage sounds like a good idea. Who could object to that?
I could. For many reasons.
To calculate the real cost of production is not at all simple, and the calculated cost of using one method, say a kg of synthetic fertilizer, will differ enormously in different parts of the world, even within the same country. All valuation of nature is subjective. In a hugely unequal world it will be the priorities of the wealthy that determines the values. It would also require an administrative system and controls which would make the current CAP, and organic regulations, look like a kindergarten.
But the major objection to true cost accounting is that it puts even bigger pieces of nature under the rule of the market, a trend that I believe is contrary to the desired development.
So while the ambition is a good one – to reward good stewardship and discourage harmful practices – we need to think carefully about what we are asking for and how it can be realised. The organic regulation is another example of how a good intention easily can become an obstacle.
Technology and natural science are great and there is still a lot to do there. We need to understand better the whole micro cosmos of the soil, as well as the linkages between the soil and the health of our bodies.
But, is it lack of knowledge that is the main limitation for farmers to produce sustainably? I believe most farmers do know how to farm sustainably. But there are economic and sometimes regulatory hurdles to the best behaviours. Examples are specialisation and dropping rotations.
Some of the major challenges as well as the possible innovations are found in the political, social and economic arenas. It is encouraging to see that there is a lot of such innovation going on, even if many of them are taking place outside of the “certified organic” straight-jacket.
And perhaps we should not be so bothered about that. After all, certification and regulations are tools for the conventional market and they will not be the relevant tools when we seek to develop new relationships.
Organic, regenerative farming is a very important counter narrative to the eco-modernist narrative of GMOs, lab meats and vertical hydroponic farms, where the ideal is a food production that is land-less, sweat-less and dirt-less. In the end it is also soul-less, culture-less and human-less.
IFOAM EU propagates for organic on every table and Fair Play – fair pay and it wants to improve, inspire and deliver. And it promotes the transformation of the food system. Cornerstones for such new food systems need to be:
- Food as a human right rather than a commodity
- Food as culture rather than the intake of prescribed nutrients
- Food producing resources – land, water, seeds and breeds – should be seen as common goods rather than assets which can be traded and speculated in
- New relationships in agriculture and food built on cooperation rather than competition
- Food and agriculture based on local resources and linkages rather than on international trade and global supply chains
- Farming is not only seen as production of food but as much as planetary stewardship
Let us apply the organic principles of health, fairness, ecology and care on the whole food system and not only on the farms.
(Speech at the European Organic Conference in Talinn 6 September 2017)
Teaser photo credit: By Elina Mark – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16751183