Regulators seem blissfully unaware, especially in Brussels, how much their pandering to the idealistic aspirations of small environmental activist groups affects farmers’ abilities to provide the means for global food security. A common narrative is that organic farming is some sort of policy panacea – a flimsily contrived solution to climate change, questionable claims of improved biodiversity and animal welfare with the added value of a politically-driven virtue tag to be imposed on our daily consumption habits.
Who would not possibly want to promote this? Well, 95.8% of Europeans for starters. Driven by issues of quality, yields and price, only 4.2% of EU agricultural land is organically grown (and most of that is in France, Italy and Austria). And Farm2Fork, the misguided strategy to make EU agriculture more climate-friendly, wants to bump that number up to 25% in the next seven years.
How? What? Why? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?
This is pure madness and beyond stupid in a dangerous way. While Frans Timmermans may feel good about his virtuous aspirational targets masquerading as EU policy, the organic food industry lobby’s man in Brussels is imposing arbitrary handcuffs on European agriculture and creating unnecessary challenges for the global food supply. Organic farmers will continue to cheat the label, goalposts will be moved to accommodate an “organish” classification that will only lower consumer trust. More farmers will abandon their fields and more people in food-resource-scarce countries will needlessly suffer. But Frans is intent on building his legacy (so I suppose Commission officials just have to wait until he finally leaves).
With climate stresses, a growing global population and rising land-use issues, the organic/agroecological policy obsession is a mindless distraction from what is desperately needed: an innovative, evidence-based policy strategy to promote the sustainable intensification of agriculture.
What is Sustainable Intensification?
I once defined sustainable intensification as research into the means “to increase the needed crop yields for global populations that are both growing and affluent while reducing inputs and the impact agriculture has on the environment.” With anticipated ecological stresses and increased food demand, agriculture will need to adapt to the challenges with better technologies and research. Clearing forests or ploughing under more meadows is unsustainable. Land that is less productive should be taken out of agriculture (rewilding) with better practises, better seeds and better technological tools used to take advantage of more fertile land.
Activist groups would prefer to redirect the concept of sustainable intensification, with pure political opportunism, to include improving farmer livelihoods and equity in developing countries (based on their myopic assumption that all technological advances in agriculture would leave smallholders in debt to large Western corporations). Such agroecological handcuffs mean that farmers would never be able to develop the needed yields on less acreage (resulting in more subsistence and further poverty and inequity). Better social conditions, roads and infrastructure will come from better yields and better prices, not from periodic donations from faceless foundations created by benign billionaires. What is needed is better research and technology tools, not louder, vacant short-term political pronouncements.
And in between these intermittent but mind-numbing waves of activist self-satisfaction, economic voids are filled by Chinese extractionists building roads to ports to ensure that any development will never be just or sustainable. Do these agroecology activists understand the extent of the damage and destruction their self-serving, simplistic solutions are imposing on the most vulnerable, on biodiversity and on global development?
Furthermore, without any clear public policy on the sustainable intensification of agriculture, green subsidy abuse means more of Europe’s most fertile farmland is being converted to solar farms. Activist groups like Greenpeace scoff at any attempt to question whether we should carpet the landscape with wind and solar farms. When the British government considered restricting solar farms and other development projects from the most fertile farmland, the activists went into attack mode to make sure no sustainable intensification policy strategy could be implemented. Such common sense land-use legislation would run against their green transition strategy (which led to the policy fiasco presently leaving most European consumers in an energy vulnerable state).
As long as policymakers in affluent, well-fed countries pay lip-service to such activist ideologues, there will never be the conditions for sustainable intensification of agriculture. Just the opposite is likely: more meadows and forests ploughed under for low-yielding organic agricultural practises, lower production and more subsistence farmers. Couple that with the anticipated environmental threats to farming and biodiversity, there will be an increasing number of famines, food insecurity, migration and social strife.
Policymakers, particularly in the EU, need to consider food system and land-use strategies no longer as virtue opportunities but as systemic threats that require responsible risk management. Like the present energy crisis, built upon activist ideological ignorance, the coming food crises will bite EU regulators in the face if they don’t wake up soon. Brussels has to understand that the present Farm2Fork strategy is anything but ecologically sustainable and will only intensify land use dedicated to agriculture – it is the opposite of a clear, rational policy strategy.
What follows is my advice for policymakers to adopt a strategy that will enhance rather than constrain our sustainable intensification opportunities in agriculture.
1. Adopt a Risk-Based Approach to Agricultural Issues
Farming is a risk-based occupation. From the moment a seed is planted, a calf is born or a well is dug, a farmer is constantly battling to reduce exposures to harm from pests, disease, drought, mould, predators and market prices. For regulators to apply arbitrary, hazard-based precautionary rules on the farming process, according to the naturopathic ideals of some dogmatic food cult, reveals an ignorance of the importance of the role agricultural technologies have played in developing this vital profession. These innovative tools were introduced for farmers to manage the risks based on a century of agricultural challenges. By removing any consideration of the benefits they provide (what the hazard-based approach does by ignoring the insignificant exposure levels), sustainable intensification would merely be a pipe dream.
2. Promote Research in Cover Cropping
Cover crops are planted in the off-season to protect from the soil from erosion, revitalise soil biota, add nutrients for the coming crops (to reduce fertiliser demand), sequester carbon, improve biodiversity and prevent water runoff. In my days on the farm this practise was merely to leave a field to fallow (and a lot of tillage) but in the last decade, a group of pioneers have developed complex variations of cover seeds that literally grow the soil. While farmers are sharing their multi-species approaches among themselves, the research community has failed to keep up.
Researchers tend to focus on one or two seed varieties adding value as cover crops while farmers are testing out, often, around ten species at the same time. Could seeds be bred, modified or edited to be more ecologically effective as a cover crop? Imagine seeds designed to prepare the soil for an upcoming crop in place of fertilisers; imagine seeds that could deter potential pests reducing the need for pesticides. But this type of research does not have direct financial benefits to justify such research investments so it would need public funding.
Of course, this practise would be practically impossible without the use of herbicides like glyphosate that the activist community and the organic food industry lobby are campaigning to ban.
3. Make No-Till the Farming Norm
During the recent Australian droughts, several farmers confided to me that their no-till practises helped them weather the crisis better than most, preserving what little moisture they had and preventing topsoil loss. At the beginning of this century, no-till or low-till farming was considered as quirky or experimental but the evidence of soil regeneration and biota, improved water tables, carbon sequestering, erosion protection and fuel savings has made no-till farming a key development in conventional agriculture.
Of course, this practise would be practically impossible without the use of herbicides like glyphosate that the activist community and the organic food industry lobby are campaigning to ban. Without herbicides, organic farmers need to plough more frequently even though tilling the soil releases CO2, leaves soil vulnerable to erosion and biota loss and increases diesel fuel consumption (and further CO2 emissions). This is anything but sustainable.
Tragically there are many farmers who told me personally they are hesitating in investing in the no-till drilling equipment. If the environmentalists succeed in banning glyphosate, they will eliminate the benefits of no-till farming, rendering those investments useless. Regulators need to grow a pair and commit to protecting the means for farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practises and stop pandering to the diktats of the organic food industry lobby (whose farmers cannot compete without similar herbicides).
4. Create an Environment for Food Chain Integration
Today it seems like most food and agricultural decisions are made by corporate marketing managers at large food retail chains trying to read an activist-driven narrative rather than understanding the capacity of farmers to produce an abundant food supply sustainably. The continued fear campaigns against the safety of conventional farming has created the perception that organic food is the future … except that such marketing-driven food demands cannot be produced sustainably without weakening the entire food supply chain.
With lower yields, more land will have to put into agricultural production lowering biodiversity options. Smallholders in developing countries (organic by poverty) will redirect their crops to supply Western markets rather than feeding local markets (if their land is not expropriated by large collectives).
Even more tragic, the demand for the production of natural-based organic pesticides (like chrysanthemums grown in Rwanda for pyrethrum) needlessly takes land out of local food production in developing countries when synthetic equivalents are more effective and environmentally sustainable.
This catastrophic repositioning of land-use in response to haphazard market evolutions based on activist trends will lead to food-chain disintegration. Policymakers need to take a holistic approach to the food chain, ensuring that production can meet demand in a rational, integrated manner. Promoting policies that create artificial disequilibrium, like those imposed by the European Commission’s Farm2Fork strategy, does anything but promote food chain integration.
5. Move Toward an Ideal of Better Farming
Policy-makers have sat on their hands as the organic food industry lobby has driven an artificial dichotomy between conventional farming practises (synthetic and therefore … bad) and organic techniques (natural and therefore … good). This is purely arbitrary, based more on a dogmatic food cult and a naturalist fundamentalism than on scientific research and evidence. Policy needs to be based on best practices rather than some artificially imposed distinction that irrationally narrows agricultural solutions to some perception of “natural”.
In the past, I argued in a (sadly ignored) opus that we need to concentrate not on random natural v synthetic distinctions but on developing “Better Farming” via the best available practices (much like the Better Cotton Initiative). Sustainable intensification is not about theological doctrines like agroecology or corporate scientism but about improving agriculture following the best tools to develop the best yields on the least amount of productive land.
How does the EU’s Farm2Fork strategy make farming better or promote the sustainable intensification of agriculture?
6. Support Seed Breeding as a Key Agriculture Strategy
I am often bemused watching policymakers talking about increasing farm yields while restricting technologies. Some agritech tools, like pesticides, stop production losses; others, like fertilisers, maintain the mean. But if you want to increase agricultural yields, sustainably, then you need to innovate at the seed breeding level. Studies from NIAB and DTZ have shown that up to 90% of increases in agricultural yields over the last 50 years can be attributed to advances in seed breeding.
If regulators have any intention to promote a sustainable intensification of agriculture, then they would have to put seed breeding at the core of their farm policy strategy. Instead, rabid pro-organic lobby groups, like Corporate Europe Observatory, have vilified seed researchers and tried to discredit their innovations, not at all based on the science but rather on the funding, in their push to have gene editing politically ostracised. The European Commission has to stop bowing to these narrow-minded, polarising anti-industry activists and respect the research and the benefits demonstrated from new seed breeding techniques.
7. Encourage a More Holistic Agritech Research
Too often researchers and policymakers think of individual solutions to isolated agricultural challenges: how to get more nutrients into the soil; how to control weeds or fungal spreads; how to resist pest infestations. Researchers are always focusing on isolating the problem of the day and providing the best technological solutions but farmers face a myriad of challenges every day. A more holistic research approach could provide multiple benefits like herbicide-resistant seeds, nitrogen-fixing cover crops or moisture-protecting intercropping.
What blocks holistic thinking is arbitrarily imposed obstacles. The organic food industry lobby has laid out a series of artificial roadblocks to farmers including limiting crop protection tools, fertilisers and seed breeding to what could be categorised as “natural”. Agroecologists have also poisoned the well of holistic solutions by excluding any innovations developed by corporations or industry groups. Policymakers have to move away from such simple-minded strategies and deliver what farmers need rather than cater to the ideologies of some small group of affluent food fundamentalists.
8. Redirect Farm Subsidies from Volume to Soil Quality
While farmers pay the rent with volume (yield), their main concern should be to protect and develop their soil. Soil threats like erosion, weeds and poor nutrient levels handcuff farming opportunities. But the economics dictating agricultural decisions focus more on higher yields than soil management. There does not seem to be many incentives today for farmers to work to protect and enhance their soil quality. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), for example, has moved from a lower yield (soil development) strategy to a climate mitigation focus (eventually reorienting the CAP to subsidising the Farm2Fork failures). Ideology, again, has taken priority over scientific research.
Sustainable intensification implies areas with good soil should be properly managed while less productive lands should be re-wilded (returned to nature or used for certain types of agroforestry). A better exploitation of fertile land (with a focus on maintaining soil quality) will allow agriculture to produce more on less land. This should be the focus of subsidy programmes like the CAP (rather than paying farmers with poor soil to continue farming or to take the most fertile land out of production).
And paying green subsidies to convert the most fertile farmland into massive solar panel parks (see cover photo from Google Street View) is pure madness and an indication that rational regulatory policies are urgently needed.
9. Trust Farmers as the Stewards of the Land
You can’t fool a farmer. Most farmers in the West have university degrees in agricultural sciences, chemistry, engineering and biology. They are the ultimate risk managers knowing what it takes to reduce exposures and bring a seed from sowing to harvest. Regulators have to stop believing the activist claptrap that ignorant farmers are indiscriminately dumping pesticides and fertilisers without any regard for consequences. They know how important their soil is, how important a sustainable use of pesticides is and what is needed to bring in a harvest or keep their livestock healthy. If farmers can use less, apply alternatives and innovate, they will.
More than anyone, farmers know what works and what doesn’t (with sound advice from researchers and agronomists). In the EU though, farmers are rarely consulted on important policy issues and agritech regulations. In a world where cosmopolitan zealots feel they know better, the small, rural constituency is better left unheard. Is it any surprise then that European agricultural policy failures have created a food-import-dependent Europe? Policymakers need to consult farmers, trust them and stop ignoring their issues or simply throwing money at them.
10. Disincentivise (Tax) Less Productive Farming Practises
Organic farming is detrimental to the environment, land-use and food security. It offers nothing beneficial but a well-marketed feel-good dogma to an affluent few while putting enormous pressure on global food supplies and consumer access to fresh fruit and vegetables. As a religious-based process that promotes shortage, waste and food segregation, organic produce needs to be disincentivised through a luxury tax. A 40% rate seems appropriate given that, overall, organic farming yields around 40% less than conventional practises.
The organic food industry lobby has done an impressive job to create fear and misunderstanding so a good amount of this “organic food tax” revenue should be earmarked toward awareness raising of food and nutrition facts to offset their misinformation campaigns. It is completely mindboggling how the European Commission’s Farm2Fork strategy is actually supporting this slickly-lobbied bullshit rather than fighting to protect a scientific food-chain strategy. This tax will need to be imposed at the national level in order to counteract the potentially catastrophic destruction of food security and scientific literacy continually coming out of Brussels.
Postscript: A Tale of Two Sustainable Food Policy Approaches
Within one week in June, Europe saw two very different approaches to developing a more sustainable food policy. The European Commission finally revealed the final details of their Farm2Fork strategy while the UK government became a signatory of the Sustainable Productivity Growth Coalition (SPG), a global initiative committed to using technology and innovation to improve agricultural productivity in an environmentally sustainable way.
SPG embodies the sustainable intensification strategy. Curiously, the European Commission has also signed on to the SPG but everything in their Farm2Fork strategy goes against the objective of finding the best means to improve agricultural productivity. Perhaps these Brussels-based functionaries didn’t read the commitments or just signed on out of FOMO.
Farm2Fork does not talk about productivity growth or better technology. Rather it is about trying to continue European agriculture without the use of pesticides and fertilisers, committing to cut use by 50% and 20% respectively by 2030. As part of the Green Deal, Farm2Fork is not about the best science and innovation; it is not about sustainable intensification of agriculture; it is merely about building the legacy of two seasoned European Commission actors.
If you want to talk about sustainable intensification or sustainable productivity growth, do not talk about agroecology or Farm2Fork. They are merely artificially imposed political aspirations with no scientific grounding and no understanding of farming reality or ecological systems. I hope these ten recommendations can help put the discussion on a sustainable agriculture strategy back on a positive track.