Industrial food production, how we know it, is at its end: For a long time, humanity was promised to benefit from large-scale production and high-end efficiency through technological advances in food production. In reality, climate change, rising unemployment, and price instability have proved us wrong. The consequence we draw from this equation: We need to put an end to industrial production and instead chase transformative change to Agroecology. Now.
Let me tell you a story…
Modern supermarkets make our hearts beat faster: The supermarket has become a place of excitement. Shopping is no longer running an errand, but a free time activity with amusement character. Strolling along the corridors we encounter an endless number of foods and products from a variety of brands shouting one message, Buy me! The massive amounts of perfectly shaped vegetables and the happy cows on milk cartons try to tell us one story: Everything will be okay. But it will not unless we twist the plot of this story.
The industry behind the concept of those supermarkets has a name. Industrial agriculture uses modern technology and large-scale production to promote faster growth and reduce failed harvest. Further, it aims at increasing production outcomes in animal farming. Supporters argue, only industrial agriculture can provide sufficient food for the world’s demand at a decent price.
The flaws of large scale production
In reality, industrial production is one of the biggest catalysts of climate change, impoverishment, and mounting inequality worldwide. As large corporations own industrial farms, small businesses are enormously pressured to keep up with their financial bid. Where political protection is weak, land grabbing and illegal logging are direct consequences.
Moreover, scientists have discovered causal relations between the food industry and climate change. In fact, our current food production amounts to 26% of the total of global greenhouse gas emissions (UN, 2020). On top of that, intensive farming directly contributes to the destruction of forests, soil, and biodiversity, it pollutes the air we breathe and the water we drink. This pollution and the heavy use of fertilizers have serious health consequences for producers as well as consumers. Furthermore, maximal production and full utilization automatically promote overconsumption and unprecedented food waste. The UN Development Report 2019 states that nearly 5 % of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by waste management, and mainly food waste.
It is high time to react. Instead of continuing as we do, we need to chase transformative change. The new story is “de-industrializing” the food industry and “re-naturalizing” it. The turn of the story, Agroecology.
Alternative solutions promise to bridge the gap between natural production and the sufficient supply of foodstuff. Contrary to systems of monoculture, these solutions pledge to integrate various agricultural systems. One of its prototypes is agroforestry, which is the cultivation of diverse trees and crops as well as livestock in the same space.
The concept of Agroforestry builds on 3.5 billion years of experience: the experience of nature and evolution. Agroforestry is designed to “provide trees and other crop products and at the same time protect, conserve, diversify and sustain vital economic, environmental, human and natural resources”, the Agroforestry Research Trust points out. It focuses on the diversified use of land and crop yield to improve resilience, increase biodiversity, and build a climate-friendly alternative.
The most important advantage of alternatives to industrial production is its flexibility. Land can be used according to the farmer’s goal, the natural climate, soil composition, and surrounding biodiversity as pilot projects exemplify. In Brazil, macaúba (Acrocomia aculeata). Also known as macaw palm, is being cultivated alongside grains and beans for food, animal feed, and biofuels. In Kenya, new agroforestry and crop-diversification techniques have resulted in the successful survival and monitoring of more than 50,000 trees. Those trees nourish soil, spend shadow and water, and reduce the C02 emissions. Lastly, in Indonesia, the Gerakan Rejoso Kita initiative restores and maintains watershed functions through tree-based intercropping and agroforestry practices.
The benefits of Agroforestry
According to the scientific research conducted by the Agroforestry Trust, the Renature, the FAO and the United Nations, the benefits of agroecology are various. Hunger and poverty can be reduced, women can be empowered, the biodiversity strengthened, diseases controlled, global warming counteracted, and animal wellbeing preserved. Hence, alternative approaches can overcome the very core failures of industrial agriculture.
The challenge now lies in promoting the adoption of alternatives to mass production and mainstreaming those. We also need to be honest with ourselves. Transforming the food industry will have severe implications for us. It starts by restricting the consumption freedom enjoyed in most European countries. The necessary drivers of change are cooperative research, creating political and economic majorities, and adjusting our own consumption habits.
The drivers of transformative change
First of all, institutions and universities worldwide need to encourage analysis of agroforestry practices and interventions. We must gain knowledge on effective land use and under which conditions which agroecological concept thrives best. This needs heavy funding, but also strong cooperation of the research world, particularly beyond national borders.
Second, we need to foster policy change and restrict the power given to large corporations. Instead of monopolizing food sources, we need to decentralize food systems as much as possible. In its initial stage, higher prices and other inconveniences can be direct consequences. Instead of the usual avocado acaí bowl, we perhaps could switch to bread with applesauce. Further, the public hand must encourage investments into small and medium-sized businesses, promote technological advances and support economically weaker groups.
However, despite weighing up the costs we come to the same conclusion. The differences between developing countries and high-income countries and between rural and urban areas have divided our world long enough. It is time to support the truly systemic actors, and these are the ones who can provide us with food.
The greatest change starts with our habits: We need to individually rethink our diet and consumption behavior. Decentralized agroecology can sustain our most necessary needs, but it cannot sustain a high-meat diet of 10 billion people by 2050. With alternative production, seasonal changes, focus on storage foods (beans, potatoes) and regional production instead of international trading are desirable.
Our rethinking must be as holistic as possible. Starting with our purchase decision in the supermarket it by no means ends only on election day.
We need holistic change, now
Why going down this seemingly inconvenient path? The here collected facts speak for themselves. The renaissance of natural agriculture is the only system that operates within the laws of nature, not against them. Our minimized food choice will instead lead to greater health benefits for us, as artificial production, fast foods, pollution of soil and water will be banished. We can also expect a decrease in conflicts over resources and food when food supply is decentralized, regional, and inclusive.
The end of the story?
Back to our visits to the supermarket. Let us imagine ourselves in the supermarket of the future, the local fresh market. Walking in between the small stands, we can find green foods and colorful fruits that are not wrapped in plastic but accurately placed next to each other. Products are labeled with first to consume, not last to expire. Our choice will not be between plenty of brands and masses of diverse and international foods. If we adopt alternative production, we stand up for a different choice: We prioritize holistic and sustainable farming practices over individual consumption freedom. Only in this way, we ourselves become the real protagonists of our food chain stories. Here, the story of the supermarket indeed has a happy end.