By Teresa Martinez
Scientists are analysing the sustainability of agricultural systems, trying to determine the relative energy intensity of domestic fruits and vegetables compared with those produced overseas, based on such variables as seasonality and storage time. i
So what does this mean for someone living in Scotland? Is it more energy efficient to eat an apple from Europe in winter and from New Zealand in summer in spite of the extra food miles of the New Zealand apple? This could be so in some cases, but the shift to consume more local and sustainable food should not be guided only by the contribution to climate change of a specific product.
Urgent and important as it is to move to less oil-hungry food in an era of oil reserves decline, the benefits of local and sustainable food go far beyond the energy debate and are at the heart of initiatives that look to improve our health and nutrition and to create more cohesive and resilient communities.
The Food System is full of contradictions that we need to overcome. The media is crowded with messages of how we need to feed nine billion people by 2050. Scientists, political leaders, the GM industry and conventional farmers are warning us that we need to increase food production by 50% in 2030 and double it by 2050. These statistics are often used as an argument to support the model of intensive agriculture. However a recent report published by the Soil Association has tracked the source of this data, which is based on a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report from 2006, and has proved that the accurate figure is a 70% increase by 2030, which is a considerable difference from 100%.ii
We need to change the discourse. Will we use the same argument in 2050 claiming we need to feed 11 billion? In the same way that the permanent growth of tissue-specific cells in a life system will develop into a cancer, or in the same way that the economic model driven by permanent growth has been proved unsustainable, causing the UK national debt to grow by £102.5 billion in 2010 as a result of the financial sector intervention, iii a global agricultural system based on permanent growth, either for food or for fuel, will not be possible within the limits of this planet and will increase inequality and compromise the earth’s resources.
We could turn the question on its head and ask, could nine billion people feed themselves with the resources we have got? The answer can be “yes” if we aim for a fair distribution of the earth’s resources and follow an alternative path to ‘business as usual’. A scope study published in 2009 claims that we can feed the world by 2050 using free-range farm animal production systems and adopting a lower-meat diet in developed countries.iv However, in the UK we throw away half the food we produce each year at the same time that food poverty is rising in the Global South but also among low-income British families which cannot afford healthy and nutritious food.v Household food waste is costing us £1bn per year and contributing the equivalent of 25% of road traffic emissions to greenhouse gas emissions. Political decisions, such us the EU target of producing 10% of all transport fuel from heavily subsidised biofuels by 2020, will increase competition for land for food production and livestock feed. In this section we will briefly discuss some of the challenges of the complex food system.
Scotland’s ambitious targets for a 42% reduction in emissions of GHG by 2020 cannot be achieved without mitigating the impact of our food production, processing and distribution system and rethinking land use policy. The current food system is responsible for 19% of the GHG emissions produced in the UK, and agriculture alone contributes about half of this figure. Meat and dairy accounts for half of the emissions attributed to the food chain due to the methane generated by ruminants and the production and transport of fertilisers, pesticide and feed in conventional agriculture. This does not take in account the emissions attached to deforestation and other land use changes in other countries as a result of our consumption and animal feed demands. vi Meat production also increases our dependence on global water sources, for example we need 15, 300 litres of water on average to produce 1 kg of beef. vii
Figure 1: Food and its contribution to UK GHG emissions- a consumption-oriented perspective
Source: Adapted from Garnet T, 2008
According to the report Towards a Low Footprint Scotland, if the whole world’s population were to consume natural resources and emit CO2 as we do in Scotland, we would need three planets instead of one, with food consumption being responsible for 27% of the total household footprint (p.15). A shift to a more vegeterian, local, and organic diet based on healthy nutrition recommendations could reduce our footprint between 15-25%. i
The Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) 2030 report goes a step further by suggesting a future scenario for land use in which agriculture could not only be zero-carbon in 2030 but could also reduce the residual emissions of other sectors of the economy by releasing land for energy and carbon sequestration crops. The ‘product shift’ would mean shifting grazing livestock, which is one of the highly emitting-sectors, towards nutritious and less carbon-intensive crops.ii This way agriculture would become the main asset in achieving a ZCB. However, this scenario is focused on carbon reduction strategies and would only be possible under tough and pioneer national and international policies that we are still far away from achieving. For example, would this scenario for agriculture be desirable in other ways apart from carbon reduction? what would the social/political consequences be? how would the scenario be achieved? how would meat/dairy imports be prevented? what measures would be useful (subsidy changes, carbon credits)? ZCB rises many questions and highlights the need for holistic approaches besides the carbon reduction agenda.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which represents four years work by 400 scientists and development experts, stresses the benefits of a holistic or system orientated approach to agriculture to achieve sustainable production and address the complexity of the food system in different ecologies, locations and culture. The IAASTD also concluded that we need to tackle the agriculture-led impacts on climate change but also to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change in agriculture. In order to do this they propose solutions based on adaptation and mitigation approaches (diversification of agriculture, changing crops according to thermal and hydrological variations, improving soil carbon retention, increasing livestock digestive efficiency with better feed, etc).
iii I will not go in detail here about the controversy around Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their supposed impacts and benefits on agriculture and climate change. However, it is important to make a distinction between the pros and cons of biotechnology in general, which has been used and accepted by farmers and local communities for decades, and the much more monopolised and untested GM industry. The IAASTD report advocates a holistic approach to cope with the challenges of a complex food system:
“Holistic solutions may be slowed, however, if GMOs are seen as sufficient for achieving development and sustainability goals and consequently consume a disproportionate level of funding and attention. To use GMOs or not is a decision that requires a comprehensive understanding of the products, the problems to be solved and the societies in which they may be used. Thus, whatever choices are made, the integration of biotechnology must be within an enabling environment supported by local research and education that empowers local communities.”
Other voices, coming mainly from the food industry and agrofuel lobby and some governments, promote quick-fix technical approaches which promise to make the trick to feed the world and reduce GHG emissions relying in our current food system, in other words continuing with business as usual. For example, the extension of drought-resistant and high-yield GM crops, the assumption that agrofuels lower GHG emissions, although there is increasing evidence that growing grain for food is much more efficient than growing gain for fuel, and new proposals such as on-farm anaerobic digestion to produce biogas. vvi A recent study also claims that organic farms are worse for biodiversity than conventional ones, when looking at yield per hectare.vii However, we need to look at the long-term yield of organic soils and use other indicators,viii as stated by Lord Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association:
“the productivity of organic farming should be judged according to the total resources used per unit of output, including the oil consumed to produce artificial fertilisers, rather than simply the yield per hectare”
Finally, agriculture has also been identified as the main cause of deforestation. Loss of forest contributes to 20-30% of the global GHG emissions per year. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) subsistence farming is responsible for 48% of deforestation while conventional farming, including commercial crops and large-scale cattle ranching, accounts for 32% . This has led to different proposals to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) in rainforest countries and other regions using incentives based on carbon markets. ixAlthough some of these initiatives are well intended, they also open the way to the privatisation of commons and to carbon-offsetting mechanisms for those polluters that can pay for these environmental services but do not necessarily have to reduce their rate of emissions.x These schemes may also add to pressure on indigenous lands and farmers that have not secured a legal title as territories become more profitable for the States.
The expansion of first generation biofuels as a “green” alternative to meet our energy demands in the West from non-fossil fuels sources is encountering growing criticism, since growing food for fuel has been indentified as one of the main causes of the rise in food prices and a threat to food security.xi Biofuels also contribute to high levels of deforestation in some forest rich countries, which have found a new Pandora’s Box in this heavily subsidised market. One eighth of Malaysia is covered by oil-palm monoculture, with the biofuel industry reaching £12 billion profit last year.xii Brazil is the world largest’s exporter of ethanol and its biofuels based on sugar cane are arguably the most sustainable biofuels to date, especially those grown on abandoned pasture land. However, indirect land-use change, such the expansion of the agricculture and cattle-ranching frontier into the Amazon Basin, could increase deforestation and the overall carbon debt of that country.xiii
“Sugarcane ethanol and soybean biodiesel each contribute to nearly half of the projected indirect deforestation of 121,970 km2 by 2020 (in Brazil), creating a carbon debt that would take about 250 years to be repaid using these biofuels instead of fossil fuels.” xiv
Second-generation biofuels obtained from grasses, paper, wood and waste from food crops could prove to be an efficient and sustainable alternative and different technologies are already being developed by various companies.xv
Increasing ecological debt is also one of the hidden impacts of a carbon-intensive food system, which is the one followed by the majority of Western countries. By using more than our fair share of the earth’s resources – mainly water, land, and oil in agriculture – we are acquring an ecological debt towards countries that use their fair share. In fact, the external debt accumulated by developing countries pales into insignificance in comparison with the ecological debt incurred by Northern countries, especially through the carbon debt.