food sustainability

Sustainable farming in a full world

When we think of sustainable farming, what comes to mind? I expect local and seasonal food feature. Organic standards. Free range, grass-fed, outdoor reared. Wholesome, natural foods. More recently, a lot of people would add plant-based to that list.

George Monbiot’s book ReGenesis, which I reviewed recently, complicates a lot of assumptions about this. Not because there is anything wrong with those movements, but because they won’t be enough.

Organic farming, for example, is obviously a better individual choice. It’s a form of farming that uses fewer chemicals and is therefore better for insect life and soil health. It will produce less pollution. It may be better for human health too. But can it feed the world?

Unlikely. While there are some organic farmers who produce high yields through their advanced techniques, generally speaking there is a ‘yield gap’ between organic and conventional agriculture. Yields are somewhere between 20% and 36% lower for organic agriculture. That means that we would need more land if we were to grow food organically, at a time when the footprint of farming is already vast and growing, driving ecological collapse as it goes. Because it needs more land, organic farming doesn’t ultimately lower carbon emissions.

Local food is similarly complicated. Because the majority of the world now lives in cities, local food options are limited. A study in Nature Food looked at what percentage of the world could be fed with staple foods grown within 100km. They concluded that it may be around a quarter, depending on which foods you focus on, and usually less. If you’ve grown your own food at all, you’ll probably already have worked this out. You can source some fruit and vegetables, but you probably still rely on staple foods grown in huge quantities in far away places. Rice, wheat, soy, etc.

Both organic and local food are good things. They remain legitimate choices at the houshold level, but they don’t add up to a global solution. If some imaginary global government were to mandate organic standards across the board, the damage from farming would rise, not fall. Focusing on local food would push most of the world into hunger.

“Passionate debates about how we should grow our food take place in a numerical vacuum,” writes Monbiot. Campaigners advocate organic standards, or urban farming, or whatever their chosen solution might be, without looking at the wider numbers. Can it feed the world? If not, what will?

One reason for this, and this is my theorising now rather than Monbiot’s, may be that those solutions were developed at a different time. The Soil Association, a pioneering organisation in the organic field, was founded in 1946. The world’s population was 2.5 billion. Feeding the world on organic standards looked much more feasible in that context, where there is enough wriggle room to accomodate the wider land footprint and lower yields. It looks a little different at 7.8 billion.

Its origins lie much deeper of course, but the modern environmental movement began in earnest in the 1970s, at which point the global population was half of what it is now. Many of the sustainable alternatives articulated in those earlier days may have been broadly viable then, but aren’t universally applicable now.

Is it too late to feed the world on local organic food? It feels like a forbidden question, but it’s one we should think about seriously, along with any other proposed solutions. Some of them may be best considered paths not taken, rather than serious options today.

These are questions we need to think about globally. Some parts of the world may be able to produce more food locally, some not. Because the world’s population has grown at a time when food has been traded in huge quantities, we now have large numbers of people who rely on imported food – including Britain. That will remain the case for the foreseeable future.

Timing is also important. Given decades to work with, perhaps enough of the world’s farmers could be persuaded to farm differently, learn the very best sustainable practices, and begin the transition towards ideal ways of farming. Time isn’t something we have however. The world needs to reduce emissions quickly, without leaving anyone hungy.

That means we might need some solutions that don’t appeal to us. For example, Vandana Shiva argues passionately against cultured meat, biotechnology and other modern food innovations. Her scepticism of ‘unnatural’ foods will resonate for many, and she’s right to point out the way it may favour big corporations – though that is not inevitable. But her preferred solution is agroecology and smallholder farming, and “it’s impossible to feed the world on low-yield agroecology,” says Monbiot. A nice idea, but not enough.

As always, the future is likely to be hybrid. We don’t need to make one big decision for everybody, and organic and local food should flourish wherever they make sense. Of all the ideas that get batted around, plant based is the one that makes the most immediate difference and that deserves wide acceptance. Elsewhere, we’re going to need to make some compromises, entertain some ideas that don’t fit with previous visions.

If we are to reduce emissions, treat animals well, protect soil and rebuild biodiversity – while still ensuring everyone gets enough to eat – we need to look beyond simple answers. We need to let go of some former dogmas. “What is beautiful is not always right,” says Monbiot. “What is right is not always beautiful.”

6 comments

  1. Aren’t big corporations favoured for most things? It seems we need plant based, cultured meat and possibly insect farming to grow.

  2. Thanks for highlighting these things so helpfully. I feel there’s a lot to process from Monbiot’s book and the issues it covers, and it’s good to see such a good airing.

  3. This argument is flawed! It sounds very similar to the argument that we can’t provide energy for the world on renewables alone. Or that there’s no point in lowering our co2 when China doesn’t.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t be asking these questions. But the agenda of the people stating that these things are not possible is to keep the status quo. Suddenly, they expect us to believe that they care about feeding the entire world and not just themselves!
    Current agriculture is causing poverty and starvation for the people in countries such as Malawi where they are growing luxury foods such as coffee and sugar for richer people in the West.
    Why is no-one saying we should stop current agriculture practices because it can’t feed the world?

    1. Saskia, The LAST thing George Monbiot wants is ‘to keep the status quo’. You can sign up for his articles to see this blatantly.

      1. Absolutely – this is no call to keep everything the same. It’s a call for transformation, and for breaking the power of big agriculture. It’s just that some of the things that environmentalists might have championed might not be enough, and we might need to make room for some ideas that don’t sit particularly well with the traditional green movement.

        1. Yes, @dichasium, I’d be very disappointed if George Monbiot had fallen for these ‘its not possible, we need more big agriculture instead’-tactics.
          @jeremy, sounds like I need to read the book and it’ll be well worth it! I’m just so tired of the argument sustainable farming will not be able to feed the world. I think that’s not true, but more importantly current farming isn’t doing that either. And we know for definite it doesn’t.
          I hope Regenesis brings us something more interesting to add to our discourse.

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