Friday, February 2, 2018

Inefficient productivity or productive inefficiency?




New research demonstrates – again – how deceptive the concepts of productivity and efficiency are in agriculture. Huge increases in labor productivity and modest increases in land productivity are gained by a massive increase of use of external resources, while natural capital is depleted. Is that efficient?

There is a growing body of research measuring resource flows to better understand the impact of developments. It is argued that only if economic growth can become substantially decoupled from material use, waste, and emissions, it can be sustainable. By measuring total use of resources, the total social metabolism, of the economy and not just measuring one parameter, one can avoid being distracted by the fact that usage of one resource has declined, while others have increased.

A sub set of the metabolism of society is the agrarian metabolism which refers to the exchange of energy and materials between a given society and its agrarian environment. In the article The agrarian metabolism as a tool for assessing agrarian sustainability, and its application to Spanish agriculture (1960-2008) in ECOLOGY AND SOCIETY, January 2018, Gloria I. Guzman (Universidad Pablo de Olavide) and colleagues assess how the metabolism of Spanish agriculture has changed through the increased use of mechanization, irrigation, chemical fertilizers and massive use of imported animal feed, to mention the most important drivers.



We are told again and again that modern agriculture and the Green revolution are wonders of efficiency and productivity. But when one look closer into the Spanish figures they give a different picture.

The researchers studied the use of external inputs such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), carbon (C), and energy flows, as well as the “fund elements” that they sustain such as soil, biodiversity, and woodland. The results show that the growing use of external inputs has broken the equilibrium between land and biomass uses required by traditional farming and broken or made redundant internal loops of energy and nutrients. On cropland, the relative fall in unharvested biomass had a negative effect on both biodiversity and the soil, which reduced the replenishment of organic C between 1960 and 1990. A sharp increase in imports of animal feed, and corresponding increase in the use of animal manure, hardly contributed to increasing soil organic carbon between 1990 and 2008. The massive importation of N in feed and mineral fertilizers increased the surplus and the losses of N, which has a negative impact on biodiversity, water, and the atmosphere.

There is also the question of the effect of the production of imported animal feed to consider. That is not included in this research, but one can assume that the large scale export of animal feed, mainly corn and soy, from monocultures in Latin America also leads to depletion of soils there. For those not so well informed about Spanish agriculture, we are talking about a massive increase in the breeding of pigs and poultry.  

It is a prerequisite of a sustainable agriculture system that the material basis, the fund elements or the natural and social capital needed, is managed in such a way that it is reproduced and preferably improved. If the farming system leads to the erosion of top soil, depletion of water resources or biodiversity or to the decline of the appeal of farming it is undermining its own foundations. The reduced ability of the system to produce is compensated for with the increased use of inputs of different kinds. In theory, external inputs could be used to improve or replenish the fund elements, e.g. by building fertility in the soil. But the practical experiences is mostly the opposite; increasing use of external inputs and the degradation of the fund elements are often twins in real life.

The research from Spain supports that. Between 1960 and 2008, Spanish agriculture increased the use of external energy more than five times. Meanwhile human labor input decreased to one-fifth, industrial inputs increased five times and the import of biomass, mainly feed from Latin America, rose fifteen times. Despite this massive use of external inputs, the total primary production from the agricultural system increased with only 17% in the period. The total biomass ”socialized” (appropriated, taken, delivered) from the agriculture system increased in the same period with 37%, of which most of the growth was a huge increase in pork meat based on imported feed stuff. It is hard to call such a system “efficient”.

As a result of the intensification and increased importation of animal feed, many different aspects of the production system changed. Big areas of pasturelands and marginal croplands were abandoned, while the remaining lands were used more intensively. A greater share of what grows on the land is taken by humans. Earlier 50% of the biomass remained in the field and provided for soil carbon and biodiversity. This share has now fallen to 38%. This change is a result of the use of herbicides as well as plants and varieties with a higher harvest index (i.e. the share of the total biomass of the plant which is allocated to the parts we harvest, e.g. the kernels in grain). The proportion legumes in the crop rotation as well as the supply of nitrogen from biological nitrogen fixation also fell considerably. The efficiency of the use of supplied nitrogen shrank while emissions and leaching of N20, nitrate and ammonia increased by a factor between two and three.   

This research confirms that the current model of farming is not sustainable. The much promoted intensification of farming is a mistake as long as intensification means further specialisation and increased use of inputs.

There is another way to intensify; to increase all the internal linkages and energy loops in a regenerative agriculture system with integration of animals, plants, soils and grassland. And much more human energy, people, and less fossil energy.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Yes we can – feed 9 billion with organic agriculture




It is possible to feed more than 9 billion people with organic production methods with a small increase in the required crop acreage and with decreased greenhouse gas emission. But this assumes considerable reduction in food wastage and in the quantities of feed grown to animals.

Picture: Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen
That is the conclusion in the paper Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture in Nature communications by researchers from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Switzerland, the Institute of Environmental Decisions in Switzerland. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Italy, Institute of Social Ecology Vienna in Austria and the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences in the UK.

The research builds on assumptions of a 25% reduction in yield with organic methods, the continued increase in global population up to more than 9 billion 2050 as well as different scenarios of impact of climate change on agriculture yields. The model doesn’t assume any change in the area used for grazing. The researchers acknowledge that different research show big variation in the ”yield gap” between organic and conventional. It is primarily research from Europe that shows big yield gaps, while other studies show much smaller gaps, if any. In general their assumptions are conservative and could hardly be accused of being biased in favour of organic.

Obviously, if consumption patterns are equal and yields are lower and population increases, more land would be needed with a large-scale conversion to organic agriculture. But if food waste is reduced with 50% and this is combined with a 50% reduction in the use of human-edible crops as animal feed, less land would be used compared to a reference scenario (the assumed population, consumption and production as per 2050 in FAO:s analysis) – still more than today though.

The biggest agronomic challenge for such a large scale conversion to organic would be the supply of nitrogen. On the up-side of that, the reactive nitrogen overload of the whole biosphere, one of the biggest changes in local and global biological cycles, would be reduced and gradually disappear. The researchers acknowledge that recycling of human waste and food waste into the agriculture system could reduce the nitrogen deficiency in agriculture, but they have not included that in the model.

The exclusion of synthetic fertilizers leads to big reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, as both the use and production of nitrogen fertilizers are major causes for emissions. Emissions from ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) will increase somewhat as their total numbers will increase (but less than the increase of population). Similarly, the greenhouse gas emissions from rice cultivation will increase because of more rice being produced.  

The combination of the lower yields and the increase of leguminous plants (beans etc) in order to fix nitrogen makes the availability of animal feed lower. So the decreased use of human-edible crops as feed for animals is rather a production necessity than something triggered by consumption changes. The reduction of animals will mainly be for monogastric animals such as pigs and chicken as they are the ones that mainly eat human-edible crops.

The results of the study coincides with similar results on a national and regional level. For instance, researchers from the Nordic countries concluded that it would be possible to feed between 31 and 37 million people (compared to the current 26 million) in the Nordic countries with organically produced food assuming substantial reduction in meat consumption.

One can claim that the results also show that you can’t convert the agriculture system to organic without increasing the cultivated lands considerably. Because, despite the conclusions of the authors, that is also a result from their scenarios. If nothing else is changed land demand will increase with 33%.  

Ultimately, all this modelling and scenario-building has limited value and the results are very much fixed by the assumptions and input data. The food system is a dynamic system where you can’t change just one or two parameters and keep the rest the same. But models and scenarios can still help us to identify certain critical conditions.

The choice of the authors to change food wastage and the proportion of food fed to animals is a rather reasonable choice and not taken out of the blue. One can assume that food will become more expensive with a large-scale conversion to organic and that will reduce waste considerably. Similarly, using human-edible food as feed for animals will be less interesting from a commercial perspective when they become more expensive. The dramatic increase of consumption of pig and chicken meat is as much a result of cheap grains and soy beans as of consumer demand.  The increased consumption of pulses to compensate for the reduction of meat coincide with a need to increase the cultivation of such crops to adjust to nitrogen shortages.

There are also other assumptions that could be included in models. The total calories produced under the scenarios are far above what people need to eat and as obesity is now a big global problem, one could have reduced calories available and thus be able to show even better results AND an improved health status of the world’s population. Improvements in the utilization of grasslands could also have been a parameter to consider.

Finally, the economic feedback loops are very important. There are several ways to increase yields in agriculture, of which the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are just two. They are admittedly important, but one can increase productivity by deploying more work, other nature resources (e.g. water), by switching crops or taking more crops per year. What is done is mainly determined by economic factors. Very few farms, organic or non-organic, produce at their maximum, but they produce what is optimal given prices of factors of production and output prices. In most cases, production per person has been much more important that production per unit of land. But in a world with limited land resources and 9 billion people, this will sooner or later change.

So yes, we can. If we want to.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Trading away our future?



Early trade was about ecological adaptation, transporting essential food or other essential goods to a places where they were lacking. Very little in present international trade is based on that. Instead, trade in itself creates shortages. Today, Sweden only produces half the beef it consumes. This is not because there is no land or resources available in Sweden. On the contrary, the country has let a million hectares of meadows revert to forest and a lot of arable land is idle – or grazed by horses that people keep for a hobby. International trade can be a safety valve for food shocks by moving food from one part of the world to the other. Yet it has dramatically reduced each region’s self-sufficiency and made all of us dependent on global supply chains for our daily food. Some of the trade is really difficult to understand or justify. More or less identical products are exported and imported by the same countries. As the ecological economist Herman Daly points out: “Americans import Danish sugar cookies and Danes imports American sugar cookies. Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient”.[1]
It is a mistake to conclude that there is a linear process driving farmers into increased levels of commercialization. In times of collapsing markets, natural disasters, unrest or war, self-sufficiency and non-market exchange is bound to play a bigger role. The Roman peri-urban sprawl with agricultural estates, villas, engaged in intensive commercial production went the same way as the Empire. At the fall of Rome the area fell into neglect and finally reverted to extensive pastoralism.[2] The pastoral beauty of this Roman Campagna inspired the painters who flocked into Rome in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was the most painted landscape in Europe.[3]
We can also see the same patterns today. In banana-producing Jamaica food prices soared in the mid 1970s as a result of the first oil price shock. But banana prices were not keeping pace with the cost of food. This resulted in many smallholders reverting to subsistence farming, growing for themselves, or growing food crops for the local market. Interestingly, this coincided with improvements in their children’s nutritional status.[4] When the Soviet Union collapsed, farming in many parts of the fallen empire reverted to self-sufficiency. During Soviet times Armenian producers had supplied the Union with brandy, grapes and fruits, but when the Union crumbled and war broke with Azerbaijan, people ripped out the vines to grow wheat.[5] Commercialization in reverse can also be observed recently in Argen­tina during the economic crisis 2001 and presently in Euro debt ridden Greece, Spain or Portugal or in Detroit where urban farms are being established on the ruins of the automotive industrial culture.
The commercialization of agriculture and food has had profound implications for how we view food and what we eat. As historian B.W. Higman notes in How Food made History: “Only in recent time have consumers in some countries come to think of food as a packaged good, to be obtained almost exclusively by purchase, and come to regard anything taken directly from the well as potentially danger­ous”.





We cannot deal with food mainly as a marketable commodity – very few societies ever have. If things get rough, governments, civil society and groups of people will step in and regulate, distribute and produce outside of the market system. The market system also has very few levers that guide it to supply food that is nutritious.
The market in food is totally dysfunctional for shaping the farming system in the best way for its role of planetary stewardship, a role that is increasingly important as agriculture occupies more and more of the surface of the planet and natural resources are under immense pres­sure. There are almost no market mechanisms in place for undertaking this important task, and there is a limited potential for them to emerge. Even if they did they will never reach the extent required, considering that the value of agricultural ecosystem services might well be as high as the total value of agricultural production. At present the market is still driving farmers the other way; into more and more specialization and monocultures and less stewardship of nature resources. Already today massive government interventions are directed to compensating for market failure. We need to look in other directions if we wish to sustainably manage the agriculture landscape.
‘Agriculture and food systems, with their associated nature and landscapes, are a common heritage and thus, also a form of common property’ according to Professor Jules Pretty[i] at the University of Essex. Stepping away from market imperatives frees our minds and thinking about food and farm production. This of course has implica­tions for land and other resources needed for farming and food production. The more food is viewed as a public good, the less appropri­ate it is that the productive factors needed to produce foods, seeds, land, water etc, are provided by the market. When food is a right, and the production and distribution of food takes place in the commons instead of in the market, new ways of addressing the unfair distribution of food can emerge.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 already defines food as a human right: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” (Article 25). The right to food has been re-asserted ever since, for example at the 2009 World Summit on Food Security in Rome. There, world leaders agreed on ‘the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food’.[ii] The new constitution of Kenya, approved by a popular referendum in 2010, states the right of every person “to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality” and imposes a duty on the State to respect, protect, promote and fulfill that right. A study in 2011 identified twenty-four countries in which the right to food was explic­itly recognized, many of them in Latin America.
Of course, it is one thing to proclaim a right and another one to enact it. Rights need a guarantor, duties and obligations, and an enforcer of some kind. Increasingly courts are using the constitutions or international treaties as a basis to safeguard people’s right to food.[iii] The Special Rappor­teur on the Right to Food for the United Nations, Olivier De Schutter, writes in the report to the General Assembly in August 2013: ‘The right to food has come to the fore as Governments realize that their efforts to combat food insecurity and hunger have been failing and realize the urgent need to strengthen national legal, institutional and policy frameworks’.[iv]
Brazil has been successful in the fight against hunger and in pro­moting the right to food. The Fome Zero (zero hunger) program was initiated during Lula’s presidency. Its most important component is Bolsa Família, whereby poor families get a basic income tied to condi­tions such that the children go to school and are vaccinated. The cost of the whole program is just 0.5% of Brazilian GDP but it reaches 44 million people, more than a fifth of the population. Malnutrition in Brazil decreased from 13% to below 2% between 1994 and 2006. The program also includes the purchasing of local food, often organic, to schools and other support measures to small farmers.[v]
Rethinking food as a right, farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons necessitates the building of new institutions fit for these purposes; Jose Luis Vivero Pol, a food governance researcher describes these as “a third force of governance and resource management by the people as a compliment to the market and the state”.[vi] This will require experimentation at the personal, local, national and international levels. This doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribu­tion, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies, and rejects the view that market forces are the best way of allocating food producing resources, such as land, water, knowledge and seeds.

The texts above are extracts from Global Eating Disorder 

[1]           Daly, H. 1993 ‘The Perils of Free Trade’ Scientific American Magazine November 1993.
[2]           Morley, N. 1996 Metropolis and Hinterland Cambridge University Press.
[3]           Wikipedia 2014 ‘Roman Campagna’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Campagna.
[4]           Pelto, G. H. and P.J. Pelto 1983 ‘Diet and delocalization: Dietary changes since 1750’. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol 14 No 2, pp. 507-528.
[5]           Rundgren, G. 2011 Organic Agriculture, A step towards the green economy in the Eastern Europe. Caucasus and Central Asia region. United Nations Environment Programme.

[i]            Pretty, J. 2002 Agri-culture: Reconnecting people, land and nature Earthscan.
[ii]           United Nations General Assembly 2013 The Right to Food, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 7 August 2013, A/68/288
[iii]           Ibid.
[iv]          Ibid.
[v]           Sanchez-Montero, M. and N. S. Ubach 2010 ‘Undernutrition, What Works?’ ACF International Network.
[vi]          Vivero Pol, J.L. 2013 Food as a Commons: Reframing the narrative of the food system 23 April 2013 Centre for Philosophy of Law, Université Catholique de Louvain.