Feeding the world without destroying it: Part 2

| 23rd June 2020
XR serving food
Extinction Rebellion
We must go beyond 'voting with our pockets'. A truly sustainable food system requires structural reform of our entire food system.

We need something that’s quite a big systemic change to the way we manage landscapes, and that’s a socio-cultural change in the farming community as much as anything.

In the third episode of “Ask A Scientist Live”, Extinction Rebellion scientists brought together four experts in agroecology and food systems to tell us more about the issues facing our food system, and why they believe that agroecology is the solution.

Read Part 1

Professor Alain Peeters is secretary of the organisation Agroecology Europe, which aims to support agroecological research, education, and training. His recent work on commercial agroecological farms in Belgium shows that making the transition to agroecology is difficult, but possible.

One of the issues is that there are numerous barriers to entering farming in the first place. There is a visible desire, in the UK and across the world, for young people to engage with nature and find fulfilment in feeding their communities. But buy-ups of land by multinational corporations puts much of the land beyond reach, while the demand for second homes and small horse paddocks for the wealthy has drastically amplified the cost of small parcels of land.


Schemes that help new entrants gain access to land, and to the training they need to work them, are vitally important for the future of agroecology.

Historically, agroecological research has been very under-funded, and there is still very little governmental support (as training or finance) for these practices. With adequate support, farmers could begin to replace fossil fuel-based inputs with services provided by the agroecosystem.

Peeters says this process is actually very simple. “It means we can replace nitrogen fertiliser by legumes and use of cover crops, develop an ecological network that increases the population of natural enemies [predators of crop pests] and replaces pesticides”.

However, Dicks cautions us that it takes the land a few years to recover from intensive farming. “If you start putting resources back in to support pollinating insects, for example, they don’t immediately respond. It takes three, four, maybe five years for populations to build up … the same goes for soil carbon.

"If you reduce the tillage in a very regularly ploughed field to one that's not being regularly ploughed, it could actually take almost 10 years to get the soil carbon in the upper layers of the soil up to a consistently higher level.” This lag can create financial difficulties for farmers unless they are adequately supported.

To help with this burden, Peeters believes that the current subsidy system, which at present funnels 80 percent of money to only 20 percent of landholders, should be reformed to pay farmers for providing public goods, such as sequestering carbon and fostering biodiversity – de facto outputs of an agroecological system.

We need something that’s quite a big systemic change to the way we manage landscapes, and that’s a socio-cultural change in the farming community as much as anything.


Is agroecology the only way out of our current crisis? Many other possibilities have been floated. Yet our panellists are wary of many of the others, believing they may just put off the inevitable.

One of these potential solutions is land sparing. At a time when a million plant and animal species (and potentially far more invertebrates) are at risk of extinction , the most important thing we can do for nature is to stop our c onto natural habitat and biodiversity hotspots; followed by reclaiming lost habitat.

Studies show that, if we can set aside or ‘spare’ land for nature, species diversity increases - and that closing yield gaps to attainable levels to meet projected demand in 2050 could potentially help spare an area equivalent to that of the Indian subcontinent.

However, even if we figured out how to close the yield gap, Dicks is sceptical about the potential benefits. For one thing, intensifying production this much "Moves everyone in the world to this kind of conventional, industrialised agriculture that we know degrades environments and causes biodiversity loss”. It assumes that intensification can be achieved within these damaged ecosystems, but without the ecosystem services delivered by diverse soils and insects, yields could fall far below targets.

Another issue with land sparing is that, paradoxically, intensifying production does not free up more land. She describes this as a ‘rebound effect’. At its simplest, “no one is planning the world's food production at a global scale … if you intensify you make people richer and when they get a bit richer, they then invest in machinery and they then expand their estate and they then do more agriculture.”

Fernandes is particularly wary of the technological fixes touted by agroindustry. Historically, “70 percent of food comes from small scale agroecological peasant farms and only 30 percent of the world's food is produced by the industrial food chain, but they're using 70% of agricultural resources - and there's a competition. It's a competition for land, for water, for resources like subsidy or research and development budgets.”


This competition means that agroecological research has been consistently impeded by lobbying for GM, agrochemicals, robotics, and other ‘silver bullets’ that are sold as a quick technological fix to immediate problems.

All too often, she has seen this industrialisation lead to loss of food security, as traditional farmers are displaced, and land is converted into mass production for export markets. In the long term, none of the root causes of environmental damage are addressed.

Each of us can play a role in encouraging the transition to a sustainable food system. That role, our panellists emphatically agree, is supporting agroecology.

As consumers, we need to go beyond ‘voting with our pockets’. A truly sustainable food system requires structural reform on so many levels, meaning that it is important for us to involve ourselves at all these levels as well.

At the production level, Dicks says, “We need something that’s quite a big systemic change to the way we manage landscapes, and that’s a socio-cultural change in the farming community as much as anything”.


For most arable farmers, planning how to schedule planting and harvesting of multiple crops will require training that has to come from dedicated research into agroecological techniques. Investment in R&D can help to develop the sort of machines that can harvest small fields and mixed crops, assisting rather than replacing farmers.

Success hinges on recognising the importance of a full transition. Bertaglia tells us that “research has proven that if you just stop tilling, but keep everything else the same, then you could lose yield. But if you don’t till, and you use cover crops and use rotations and you have combined polycultures and you do all these things together, then you have a complete complex system.”

He refers to the example of growing rice with nitrogen-fixing species Azolla, which is intended to replace fertilisers but provides numerous other benefits such as weed suppression. These systems can yield as much or more than conventionally fertilised fields, especially if fish and ducks are reared alongside rice in the chemical-free environment.

The panel does not believe that going vegan is necessary for sustainability. Aside from their role in fertility building, livestock are important for many ecosystems, such as conservation meadows and marginal grasslands, which are unsuitable for crop production.

Instead, Fernandes said: “We clearly feel that we need to move away from factory farms and grain-fed livestock … If you're eating pigs and chickens, which are the grain consumers, then think about pigs and chickens that are raised on waste products … If it's cows and lamb, then those should be pasture-fed, and that pasture should be looked after, nice deep soil that sequesters carbon and land that isn't suitable for arable production. And otherwise, cut it out of your diet, because meat from factory farms and grain-fed meat is not sustainable.”


Peeters reinforces that it’s not just an agricultural issue, it's also a food chain issue. After production, “products should be processed at firm and regional level whenever possible, and products should be marketed in short, and local marketing chains, and that provides a better income.” 

Selling directly has many benefits, including increased freshness and nutritional value of food, greater transparency, and increased profits for farmers without increased prices for consumers.

Consumers must be able to make the case for agroecology to politicians and lobbyists worldwide. Extinction Rebellion and La Via Campesina are founded on the same principles of grassroots mobilization. Together with other social movements, we need to demand wide structural change.

We need to demand reform of the subsidy system so that public money goes to public goods; implementation of strict laws that make polluters pay for the damage that they cause; and oversight of trade agreements to ensure that low standard products cannot undercut quality UK production.

As Fernandes said: “Don't just focus on what it is that you eat, focus on the wide systemic change we need to bring agroecology and peasant farmers to the forefront of our narrative. We can speak up and we can make a difference if we all work together on that.”

The urgency of this change cannot be understated. As Bertaglia concluded “Now it's a matter of doing what is necessary. What is necessary when we are heading towards climate disruption and ecological disaster? We are heading for the sixth mass extinction. We have to change.”

This Author 

Ele Saltmarsh has a BA in Biological Sciences from Oxford University and currently is a doctoral researcher in Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Penn State University. The back catalogue of all the episodes of ‘Ask a Scientist Live’ can be found here

Image: The Lightscaper, Extinction Rebellion. 


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