Feeding the world’s population is a huge challenge, second only to perhaps climate change. A United Nations report from 2019 expects the world population to reach 9.8 billion in 2050. Our current system is clearly not up to the job, with one in nine people not having enough food to lead a healthy lifestyle. To feed all of humanity, according to the World Resources Institute, we will need to produce 56% more food while avoiding further deforestation. So what will the future of your food be?
To combat this, some innovative solutions are being debated, and worked on, in a small Dutch town which is at the heart of the global food industry.
The Netherlands is not a big place. You can drive across the whole country from the north to the south in under four hours. And yet it ranks consistently among the world’s top food exporting nations, in terms of gross value. The country’s surpluses are mind-boggling; how does the second largest exporter of tomatoes and onions also produce such outsize quantities of dairy and potatoes, and export more eggs than any nation on Earth? The mystery of how this tiny patch of northern Europe does it draws government delegations, multinational companies and agriculture students from around the world to marvel at the nucleus of the Dutch innovation juggernaut: Wageningen University.
The current system of industrial mass production comes with several flaws. For one, it floods global markets with surplus crops at very cheap prices, often of poor quality. Despite the huge amount of food produced, nearly a third of it wasted.
Poorer nations are busy farming cash crops like flowers, tobacco and tea, rather than food to eat. Supply dictates that these crops should make them rich, but nations in Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia do not have access to the high-quality farming tools and methods. This often leaves farmers with low yields and thus reduces their income.
Then there’s the climate crisis, industrial farming accounts for 70% of freshwater consumption and 10-12% of greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture also occupies 40–50% of the earth’s habitable land. As climate change gets worse, farmers will have to deal with temperature rises, floods, droughts and desertification.
The Industry-led Approach
To combat this, Wageningen University in Amsterdam is working on changing the status quo. The University has historically partnered with multiple private sector companies to invest heavily in food science research. Scientists are developing plant-based meat, gene editing technology and vertical farms in the hope of solving the crisis humanity is about to face.
As an example, one of the university’s star scientists Leo Marcellis is pioneering new vertical farming techniques as a possible solution to producing more food without using more land. Marcellis grows plants in tiered shelves inside highly monitored labs. The potential of this innovation is immense, he says, conjuring skyscrapers of herbs and abandoned buildings stacked with vegetable farms. But there is a small-print environmental cost attached, Marcellis admits. His vertical farms require huge inputs of artificial light, and are partially funded by Philips, the lightbulb manufacturer. Marcellis’ land-saving vertical farms, it emerges, will require quite a lot of lightbulbs.
The issue though, is that these solutions are largely industry-driven. They are possible only because of the ability to produce goods cheaply and quickly, such as the lightbulbs required for vertical farming. Such solutions often don’t identify the potential environmental costs till it is too late, such as the source of energy for all of the lightbulbs in Marcellis’ farm.
Driven by profit, corporations can also push for results fast, and attempt to mix scientific fact with corporate fiction. Without a clear line between the two, solutions developed at the University cannot be fully vetted by experts and governments, which could force them to make decisions without understanding the implications.
Such a relationship makes many people, like Dutch investigative journalist Vincent Harmsen from One World magazine uncomfortable. He recently went to court asking Wageningen to release information about scientists’ communications with Syngenta, Monsanto and Bayer, large agrochemical firms. The university denied his freedom of information request, and a court upheld the university’s right to do so, on the grounds that Wageningen University’s funding is partially private.
There’s another approach, championed by a spirited group of students from the University. The young Wageningeners believe that profit-seeking industrial farming has driven the planet to the edge of crisis. The Netherlands’ fantastical food production messaging has hidden modern agriculture’s assault on the environment for years, says Louise Vercryusse, a student at the university.
To reinforce their argument, the students point to how Dutch bees and butterflies are vanishing at astonishing speed, while Dutch children are suffering from pollution-induced asthma at rates higher than any country on the continent. Nitrogen levels, caused in part by hyperproductive Dutch dairy farms, when mapped from space resemble a wound over the country.
To combat this, the students have turned to small-scale community farming. In an abandoned apple orchard in Wageningen, a handful of students are growing a variety of crops. They believe that such a community-driven approach can feed the world’s population in a more environmentally friendly way. The activist students say Wageningen’s curriculum is still prioritising industry over the environment.
They take their inspiration from Wouter van Eck, who champions community-based forest farming. In this system, food is foraged or cultivated in an ecologically diverse forest ecosystem.
The students believe the rational response to ecological crisis is to produce and consume less, even if it causes an economic backslide. This idea is catching fire around the world. Economists like Giorgos Kallis who champion “degrowth”, say western economies have achieved an optimal state, and should stop chasing GDP-driven yearly growth and focus instead on limiting environmental damage.
The degrowth website, which maps global degrowth projects and conferences, says: “The current economic and social paradigm is “faster, higher, further“. This causes acceleration, stress and exclusion. Our economy destroys the natural basis of life. Humanity has to understand itself as part of the planetary ecological system. Only this way, a self-determined life in dignity for all can be made possible.”
The model is based around five ideas:
- Striving for the good for all
- A reduction in the production and consumption in the global North
- An extension of democratic decision making for real political participation
- Social orientation towards sufficiency rather than efficiency
- The creation of open, connected and localised economies
Inspired by this, the students are practicing what they preach. Activist students at Wageningen organise underground seed exchanges, encouraging farmers to bypass the highly regulated, industry-dominated seed market. Some organise events where they throw seed “bombs” into parks and fields to break the monotony of the Netherlands’ controlled green spaces.
The students also bulk order organic produce like cereal and rice and share it between houses to keep costs low. Their primary mode of transport is cycling. They spend their spare time cultivating vegetable patches in their gardens and eat omelettes made from fresh eggs from chickens roaming the area. Solar panels provide their energy. Unwanted clothes, books and scrap are traded in a shed called the “Giveawayshop” to minimise waste.
The degrowth model the students champion comes with its own set of issues. The biggest challenge being that many of their solutions are untested. Van Eck admits in his lecture that his technique of farming is still a pilot project, and that he is not advocating for all farmers to turn their fields into forests. Scientists have raised questions about other alternative farming methods in the past. Many argue, for example, that some organic fertilisers and pesticides, though natural, can be harmful to the environment.
The degrowth model also means that land isn’t utilised to its fullest, so that could lead to more deforestation to create farmland. The students would also like to disrupt the global food supply chain, which may seem noble but comes with potentially devastating consequences. Such a disruption will threaten the livelihoods of millions, not just farmers but industrial packers, shippers and supermarket workers. Such workers already live in poverty, even in developed nations, often living on minimum wage contracts.
Shifting to such a system could wipe out trillions from the global economy, since agriculture represents a huge chunk of global trade. In 2018, the EU’s agri-food trade had a value of €254 billion. This is a carefully crafted system of mass production, preparation and transport to reach supermarket shelves that exists because of the current industrial system. It also ensures that regions that cannot traditionally be farmed, like Alaska, Greenland and the Middle East have access to the global food market. A community-based approach would deprive these communities of the access to food, simply because they cannot be farmed.
Such a system also provides consumers with a wide variety of choice – not just in raw food items but also finished products. If it wasn’t for mass production, ready-made meals, flavoured milk, biscuits and International food items would not be available on shelves.
Thus, revolutionising the current system is a huge risk that almost no nation is willing to take. On the apple orchard, the students agree that their experiments are only a starting point for the questions facing humanity. “I am still figuring out what I think the ideal path is,” said one, as I was leaving. “One thing is clear. The system we have now is not going to feed the planet without completely destroying the Earth.”
The question now arises: what path do we take? Each comes with its own set of issues, but they are the only two viable options for mankind to solve the coming food crisis.
This article is based on one published by The Guardian click here to read the original