Industrialized farms have delivered ever-growing volumes of food and helped feed millions of people. But often they've done it at a big environmental cost. While yields have continued rising, so have the impacts on soil and water quality and in accumulating greenhouse gases.
A new report calls for a fresh approach based around crop diversification, alternative techniques that maintain carbon in the ground, and fundamental shifts in the power dynamics of the agricultural industry. To feed the world in the future, it says, we need to do more than simply intensify the status quo, with all the negative consequences that follow.
The report comes from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), a panel of 20 agronomists and sustainability experts led by former U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. It looks at why high-input farming techniques continue to predominate, despite evidence of harm, and how we might move to a more varied, democratized agriculture.
In particular, IPES criticizes "feed the world" narratives that focus on the need to produce more calories at the expense of other considerations. "Food security is fundamentally a distributional question tied to poverty and access to food," it says. "Achieving food security continues to be framed by many prominent actors as a question of how to ... deliver sufficient calories at the global level." That, in turn, leads to a focus on "energy-rich, nutrition-poor crop commodities" and power being concentrated among a few crop breeders, pesticide manufacturers, grain traders, and retailers.
IPES recommends seven ways to change agriculture for the better, including metrics that take account of long-term ecosystem health, governments sourcing food that meets organic or pesticide-free criteria, and more publicly funded research for agro-ecology, where farmers minimize the use of artificial inputs and rely on holistic techniques (including so-called "carbon agriculture") to maintain yields.
We need "to diversify farms and farming landscapes, replace chemical inputs, increase biodiversity, and stimulate interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems, and secure livelihoods," the analysis says.
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