A breakthrough in the agroecology versus sustainable intensification argument?

A breakthrough in the agroecology versus sustainable intensification argument?

Most people agree that agriculture needs to transform. On one hand, it is a marvel. Our food system provides enough food for us all to eat (and more) at some of the lowest prices in the world. But there is a cost. Global food systems have brought a long list of problems; the leading cause of deforestation, wildlife loss, degrading soils, water pollution and ~37% of global emissions, to name a few.

We agree our food system must change, but lack a consensus on how it must change.

Due to the cost-of-living crisis, the withdrawal of payments to farmers for simply owning land, and Russia’s war on a global breadbasket - the debate about the future of our food and farming system is raging hot as ever. Most recent are the calls to refocus on boosting productivity and delay environmental transformation in our farming – something strongly opposed by environmental NGOs.

A new research paper from Chatham House unpicks these arguments and shines a well-rounded and thoroughly evidenced ray of light on the way forward. It shows that it all comes down to our assumptions about food demand. It goes further, to show that many of these common assumptions are not as strong as we might have thought. Ultimately, it builds the case for a transition to healthy and sustainable diets and agroecology. Below are my key observations.

Making assumptions about food demand changes how you interpret scientific evidence.

You can have all the brilliant scientific studies that you like comparing sustainable intensification models against agroecological - but too often, differing assumptions about food demand guides us to what we conclude is sustainable. Indeed, the empirical evidence at the field, farm and landscape level favours agroecology. But government policy and mainstream farming culture favour intensification as they assume growing global demand will continue and will require more farmland than we have available. However, this assumption is rather weak, as the following points show...

To assume global demand will keep growing is rather defeatist

Our current demand for the foods we consume needs to change, given the terrible impact of unhealthy diets and the high cost to society and the NHS. If we transition to the diets we actually need, the diverse, mixed farming systems of agroecology are both possible and undoubtedly the most desirable. What is more, the combination is the only clear path towards meeting climate, biodiversity, air and water pollution targets. Whilst the radical change to markets and diets is undoubtedly a huge challenge, the last two years have shown us just how rapidly things can change – so we should strive towards optimism, not defeat here.

Increasing productivity won’t necessarily help meet global demand – it will probably drive it up further.

This is a critical bit. Sustainable intensification means higher absolute amounts of a few major crops. The result long term is lower prices, more uses found, more consumption and more waste. For example, through addictive ultra-processed foods, cheap widely available industrial meat, biofuels, excess calories and a throwaway culture due to cheap prices. It's easiest to picture perhaps for intensive chicken. Highly efficient per kg, it creates cheap prices, driving increasing sales of deep-fried chicken across the UK, causing a detriment to human health and increasing food waste. Without market structural changes, market incentives to increase productivity on existing farmland will in practice continue to drive this kind of wasteful demand.

Increasing yields does not mean more land spared

This goes on from the above. This is thanks to this paradox of productivity. But it is also thanks to the fact that there is no governance to ensure a quid pro quo approach to spare land for nature for every increase in yields. Therefore, sustainable intensification has and most likely will continue to instead exacerbate the current expansion and loss of habitats.

Person in shop selecting chicken

We shouldn’t assume voters want government policy to allow unconstrained consumption choices

Research shows that people don’t feel equipped or have the opportunity to express their beliefs in what they buy – and would therefore welcome government intervention to help them do so. Almost all the foods thrown at us are ultra-processed foods, through advertising, crammed shop shelves and highstreets bereft of much else. These foods appear misleadingly cheap as well, thanks to environmental and health costs not being factored in. Worse still, these factors are intrinsic to an intensive food system. Failure to grapple with this, and these ‘unfair buying environments’ only get worse.

The fact that most new ‘technologies’ are focused on productivity and efficiency should be a warning sign to us.

Assumptions about sustainable intensification and the need to get ‘more for less’ takes one to favour precision techniques, such as using drones and big data, and genetic technologies. But the current market pushes the use of these towards productivity and efficiency, with little emphasis on what is grown, which is what matters if we are to reduce overall demand through changing diets. This is in part because these technologies are entrenched in social issues around power and control from the big transnational corporations. These gain from our current wasteful and polluting system. What is critical, therefore, is social, financial and political innovation alongside new tech – and a realisation that farmer-led agroecological innovation, which aims to go beyond just productivity and efficiency – will have the greatest impact.

So what is the big conclusion?

It certainly puts current policy decisions in a poor light. The government’s blind faith in a genetic engineering deregulation bill over a food bill, as called for by the National Food Strategy, smacks of a decision based on many of the weak assumptions laid out here. So does the weak succumbing to lobbying around junk food policy

Overall, if there is a key message, it is that we must unpack the assumptions we are making. When you begin to do this, it lights a way forward in a murky confusion. Recognition for the need for a transition to healthy diets and agroecology builds.

The report does highlight many challenges to overcome. A good example of this is when you consider the urgent yet challenging need for a revolution in our horticulture sector, with global production yet to cover the global population’s need for 5 a day, despite overproducing in other areas.  

But the Soil Association is clear that the way forwards, based on these findings, and the modelling for a transition to agroecology, is to focus on growing what we need to eat for human and planetary health. We also need to treat the systemic issues in farming through agroecological practices, rather than a short term fix. This means building on ways of farming we know work (which do involve ruminants), have proven to decrease pesticide use and reliance on artificial fertiliser, respond to citizens' demand for higher animal welfare and fair systems that rewards farmers properly and that contribute least to the biodiversity and climate crises.