Combining agriculture with ecology

 By Eniday Staff

The alarm bell has been ringing like clockwork for at least the past fifty years, just like the alarms that used to ring out across factories in days gone by, marking the end of one shift and the start of another. It’s telling us that there are too many of us, that we are eating too much, that we are creating too much air and water pollution, that we are using too much energy, that the riches that we have become accustomed to are not a bottomless pit and that, sooner or later, we’ll wake to a different reality…

Those of a more pessimistic persuasion say that we are scraping the barrel – a symbolic image that is open to interpretation as to whether the barrel in question might contain smoked herring or oil. Just like any other warning, these… let’s call them environmental and global warning signs are often at risk of attracting a certain ideological influence as a result of which they lose some of their impact as something that we can and indeed should respond to in a positive manner, instead becoming an ominous prediction and one that very little can now be done about.

Food for everyone

Now, given the undeniable need to reduce all forms of wastefulness, we need to be asking ourselves what forms of energy could power tomorrow’s world and where we can possibly expect to find the resources to feed a growing human population. The former is something we have looked at plenty of times; the latter not so much. Yet both rank extremely highly on the sort of scale of unsustainable predicaments that had already been highlighted as far back as 1972 in “The Limits to Growth” – the famous report produced by Dennis Meadows of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on behalf of the Club of Rome. This fundamental issue (will we all be able to eat?) has always been met with the faltering and still challenging response that we will need to make our agricultural practices more productive if we are to feed what will soon be a human population of some 10 billion individuals. Improving productivity, however, is not necessarily compatible with the most environmentally sustainable agricultural technologies; in other words, we may be able to feed everyone, but they won’t be eating organically. Or might the opposite, in fact, be true? Not in the sense that we might be able to provide the almost 2 billion people who don’t currently get enough nutrition with high-quality certified organic food but rather that there is the potential to be able to give everyone what they need without putting any unnecessary pressure on Mother Nature.

This approach is supported by one of Europe’s most influential agronomists, French author Marc Dufumier, who recently published a book entitled “L’agroécologie peut nous sauver” (Agroecology could save us). Dufumier has clear ideas and is opposed to large-scale intensive farming practices whilst at the same time not supporting a drastically opposing approach that advocates entirely organic zero-mile micro-farming either. As a professor emeritus at the esteemed AgroParisTech, possibly the only agronomic engineering school in Europe, Dufumier likes to discuss figures, looking at the issue on three different yet complementary rather than contradictory levels.

Production, distribution and farming environment

On the one hand, there will be 10 billion mouths to feed on the back of an agricultural industry that differs very little from the one we know today, one that is too intensive in some parts of the world and somewhat underproductive in others. Indeed, as Dufumier explains, it takes the equivalent of about 200kg of cereal a year to provide sufficient food for one person. We currently produce nearly 2,500 billion worldwide, which, divided by the Earth’s population, which currently stands at 7.5 billion, amounts to 330kg per person per year. In fact, even if there were already 10 billion people on Earth to feed, that would still amount to 250kg per capita, so there really is more than enough to go round. Why, then, are there still 800 million people in the world eating less than half than they should be and another billion not getting the nutrition they need? The problem is not how much food we are producing but rather how the food we do produce is distributed. Basically, it is not a matter of agronomics but rather a social crisis.
The second component of the problem, as Dufumier explains, relates to agricultural techniques and to the fact that, in very basic terms, we have focused on increasing production per hectare of land rather than increasing the number of hectares used to farm food, applying increased pressure in terms of yield by creating hybrid species and developing GMOs to the detriment of protecting the farming environment.

A large-scale intensive farming practice with circular crop fields, characteristic of center pivot irrigation (NASA)

Dufumier claims that agricultural ecosystems that have been sustainability modified by man are still extraordinarily complex and able to withstand adverse conditions, whilst such ecosystems have been virtually eliminated from the extensive single-crop areas typical of the Americas, to the extent that single-crop production is now, ironically, showing signs of decline. The French professor believes that greater attention should be paid to the effects of agricultural practices, precisely for the purposes of maintaining the natural functioning of the crop environment as much as possible and limiting the use of fertilisers and plant protection products to the bare minimum.

A matter of meat

The third and final component relates to the fact that a great deal will depend on what exactly it is that we are eating. Meat consumption is rapidly declining in the Western world, and in Europe in particular (with the exception of the French, who are seemingly reluctant to give up their entrecôte), whilst elsewhere in the world, where poverty has been replaced by wealth, meat is still the main component of a meal. There is, however, one problem that cannot be ignored, this being that every calorie we get from animal products equates to between 3 and 10 calories from plant-based sources, leading Dufumier to conclude that the more meat we eat, the more we will need to increase basic agricultural production in order to produce sufficient animal feed, which also generates the least revenue. Dufumier concludes that cultivating larger areas of land using less machinery, fertilisers and plant protection products and more manpower, and taking greater care to maintain balanced ecosystems, will enable us to eat better and, most importantly, to ensure that everyone gets the food they need.

WATCH MORE: Energy Snack: emissions and agriculture by Eniday Staff

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Eniday Staff