SW for EVERYONE
Food and Agriculture
You want to learn more about the issues relating to food and agriculture, express your views and discuss with other SW users (community members)? Here are some important sub-topics to enable you to do just that. It all comes down to us deciding what type of agriculture we want in our world and what we ourselves want to eat!
What kind of agriculture do we want? Some ‘experts’ tell us that modern (industrialized) agricultural methods need to be extended in order to ‘feed the world’. Others claim that it can be done – and be done better – using ‘agro-ecological’ or other methods…?
- What’s the current situation and what are the trends in agricultural production?
- Modern/industrial agriculture: What are its characteristics and effects? Is it sustainable?
- ‘Agro-ecological’ methods: What are their characteristics and effects? Can they meet the needs?
- What is ‘climate-smart’ agriculture? Is it smart enough?
- What is ‘permaculture’? How is it practised? ⇒
- What’s ‘urban agriculture’? What’s its potential? ⇒
What do we want to eat? Marketing and distribution systems for food have changed radically in recent years. How has that affected what we eat and our nutritional health?
- How what we eat has changed, and why? ⇒
- What’s the current situation and what are the trends in food marketing and distribution?
- What has happened to the nutritional quality and value of the food we eat?
- What might we be eating in the future? ⇒
What are the sustainability issues and what does “Transforming our World – Agenda 2030” say about food and agriculture?
What are the opportunities, obstacles and underlying issues?
- What are the opportunities for more sustainable food production? ⇒
- What are the obstacles to more sustainable food production? ⇒
- How do habits, demography and urbanisation affect prospects for sustainable food and agriculture?
- How do the interests and practices of agro-industry affect prospects for sustainable food and agriculture?
- How do politics and regulatory regimes affect prospects for sustainable food and agriculture?
- How do the financial system and accounting procedures affect prospects for sustainable food and agriculture?
What are the particular issues relating to Meat, Fish, Pesticides, and agriculture-related Pollution?
How what we eat has changed, and why?
For thousands of years our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in small communities in harmony with natural ecosystems. They ate whatever nature offered locally, varying with the seasons. Then, about 11,000 years ago, agriculture and livestock production developed (initially in the ‘fertile crescent’ in what is now Iran and then all over the world), based on adapting and then dominating nature, including irrigation. Cereals and other cultivated crops became the staple foods of many people complemented by small quantities of animal products and fish. More …
After the industrial revolution in Europe in the 18th century, agriculture was progressively ’industrialized’ in many countries, further changing the nature of the relationship with the natural ecosystems and reducing the variety of foods available to most people. ‘Traditional’ small-scale farming continued in other areas. More …
From the 1950s (after World War II), the production and use of artificial chemical fertilizers and pesticides increased rapidly, leading to the so-called ’green revolution’ which began in the 1960s in Latin America and Asia. Large areas were cleared and devoted to single crops (‘mono-cropping’) that depended on large-scale irrigation and widespread use of agro-chemicals, and further reduced the variety of foods produced and, therefore, consumed. More …
Emergence of complex ‘food systems’ with long ‘value chains’ and many stakeholders. More …
Globalisation and increasing dominance of major agro-industry and food distribution actors. More …
What is ‘sustainable agriculture’? How sustainable are present agricultural methods?
Sustainability issues include:
- Land use and degradation
- GM crops
- Ecological footprints & planetary boundaries
- Loss of biodiversity
- Water use and pollution
- Climate change (two-way impacts)
- Nutrition and health concerns
- Social exclusion
- Ethical considerations
What does “Transforming our World – Agenda 2030” say about food and agriculture?
All governments committed themselves to a world “where food is sufficient, safe, affordable and nutritious food”; expressed determination to “end hunger and to achieve food security as a matter of priority and to end all forms of malnutrition”; and committed to “devote resources to developing rural areas and sustainable agriculture and fisheries, supporting smallholder farmers, especially women, herders and fishers in developing countries, particular least developed countries [Preamble #7, 24].
The most directly relevant Sustainable Development Goal is SDG#2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.
But all SDGs have implications for agriculture and policies as shown in the table below, and practices in the sector need to take account of all these aspects while meeting the specific ‘agricultural’ objectives if the aims of Agenda 2030 are to be realized.
What is ‘food sovereignty’? Is it desirable? Possible?
Food sovereignty is different from – and not to be confused with – ‘food security’ or national ‘food self-sufficiency’. Food sovereignty puts the emphasis on recognizing and protecting the rights of peasants (small-scale farmers) to maintain control over their seeds and farming practices. For details concerning the concept of ‘food sovereignty’ see, for example, the Neyeni six principles and agroecologynow.org.
How good is meat for us and the planet?
Livestock production is a major contributor to climate change and air pollution, to deforestation, soil and water degradation, and biodiversity loss . The production of beef uses by far the most land and energy, and has the highest global warming potential, followed by pork, chicken, eggs and milk ? although, globally, pork and chicken are produced in larger quantities. ?
At the same time, processed meats and high levels of consumption of red meat ? may contribute to a number of serious human health problems ? [6, 55, 3, 24] and it has been estimated that halving meat consumption could save 5.1 million lives annually . Contrary to popular belief (and dairy industry publicity), it appears that cows milk shortens our life and is not good for bones . In addition, the large-scale, prophylactic administration of antibiotics to animals raised in industrial systems is contributing to antibiotic resistance that makes human illnesses harder to treat. ? All these problems are set to increase substantially in the coming years as demand for livestock products continues to rise, with incomes, in many countries. ? Although demand for meat products is falling in some ‘developed’ countries (see below), it is rising significantly in emerging economies especially in East Asia.
Eighty percent of all agricultural land is dedicated to grazing and feed-crop production which, alone, occupies 33% of all arable land. ? Expanding livestock production is a key factor in deforestation. ? About 20% of the world’s pastures and rangelands have been degraded, mostly though over-grazing, compaction and erosion created by livestock action. In dryland areas, where livestock are often the only source of livelihoods, 73% of rangelands are degraded. ?
The sector accounts for over 8% of global human water use, mostly for the irrigation of feed-crops, and is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution through run-off, which contributes to eutrophication of rivers and lakes, and to ‘dead’ zones in coastal areas. ? The livestock sector is responsible for 18% of human-induced GHG emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. Cattle represent 65% of these emissions. Feed production and processing, and enteric fermentation from ruminants are the main sources of emissions, followed by fossil fuel consumption and manure storage and processing. ?
It has been suggested that the single most important thing most of us consumers can do to combat global warming and climate change is to reduce our consumption of meat! In some countries, people are already doing that. For example:
- Netherlands – Meat 2x weekly maximum [62, 17]
- Italy – New food pyramid with less animal products due to health and environment. 
- UK – Reduce meat and eat more beans, legumes and nuts. 
- USA Has reduced 10% per capita, per year since 2007 = 400 million less animals consumed per year by 2014 
- …references to be inserted…
Almost all these environmental and human costs are ‘externalized’. They are born not by the livestock sector but by communities living near intensive livestock and feed-crop production facilities and by society as a whole. And enormous quantities of nutritional energy and protein are lost in the conversion of feed-crops into meat in all livestock production systems, while hunger and malnutrition persist in many of the producing areas. ? Meanwhile, evolutions in the livestock sector result in the sector competing ever-more directly for scarce land, water and other natural resources in concentrated areas, marginalizing smallholders and pastoralists, increasing inputs and wastes, and concentrating the pollution created. ? Go further. Make up your own mind!
Pesticides: Why do we use them? What are the pros and cons?
Pesticides are industrially-produced chemical products designed to kill particular insects or other animals that might otherwise eat farmed crops. (Herbicides do the same for other plants that are considered to be ‘weeds’.) The ‘green revolution’ in the 1960-70s introduced specialized, large-scale, mono-cropping of high-yielding plant varieties requiring systematic use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
It led to considerable increases in yields and total production of staple crops…and the use of ever-increasing quantities of fertilizers and pesticides. However:
- Evidence is accumulating of negative effects on human health of exposure to pesticides. Impacts may direct (e.g. industrial workers producing plant protection products and operators applying them) or indirect (e.g. via their residues in agricultural produce and drinking water, or by exposure of bystanders or animals to spray drift when they are applied).
- Massive pesticide use in ‘industrial’ agriculture has resulted in important losses of biodiversity, and the worldwide loss of pollinators (notably bees) now occurring is linked, in part, to the use of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids. ?
- There are growing problems of pesticide resistance, with major implications for long-term productivity. Recourse to additional chemicals to tackle such resistance risks creating vicious cycles of further adaptation and resistance while also increasing costs. ?
- Research now shows that some agro-chemicals may actually harm the plants themselves and, in some circumstances, increase the impact of the targeted pests through ‘pesticide-induced resurgence’! ?