Agroecology at The Heart of the European Green Deal
Oliver De Schutterlawyer
The need for a paradigm shift: promoting agroecology and moving from uniformity to diversity
Agricultural markets are volatile by nature. This is first and foremost because food production is highly dependent on unforeseeable phenomena (drought, floods, epizootic diseases, pest infestations, etc.) that can affect harvests. This is also because producers react poorly to price signals. When prices are low they tend to reduce production and focus on other crops. Yet, since all producers react to the same signals, the result is that there is under production the following season, leading to higher prices. Conversely, when prices are high, producers tend to increase production which leads to overall overproduction the following season. This price volatility in agricultural markets makes planning production very problematic.
In addition to the inherent vulnerability of this system are difficulties that amplify structural ones. These include the growing financialization of agricultural markets with increasingly influential financial players introducing a completely speculative approach to many markets (notably wheat, corn, and soybeans), as well as the hyperspecialization linked to the development of international trade which leads to financial speculation that is increasingly detached from the fundamentals of supply, demand, and stock levels.
These difficulties threaten the sustainability of our food systems, including environmental sustainability. The challenge of food production with little environmental impact is one that we all face. Yet the response varies from one region to another. Highly mechanized, large-scale commodity production — as practiced in most European countries, the United States, or Canada — cannot be the future of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example. This is not least because there is a much larger population employed in agriculture, and therefore labor intensive agriculture is much easier to conceive of in these countries. The answers can be found at the level of each region based on local characteristics. What is clear, however, is that paradigms of uniformity and economies of scale must be abandoned everywhere to focus on more local diversity, to promote resilience, but also because greater agrobiodiversity means more efficient agroecology.
It is very important to promote agroecology and it is not a utopic vision to think that we will be able to progressively generalize it. Agroecological agriculture is not organic agriculture that is certified by a label as not using chemical products. It is a more intelligent form of agriculture that relies on cycles that exist in nature between crops, trees, and animals. It focuses on the use of agronomic techniques such as crop rotation, companion planting on a particular plot of land where these crops can protect and support each other, the planting of legumes to introduce nitrogen into the soil, agroforestry, etc.
Agroecological systems are characterized by low input use, little or no pesticides, and little or no nitrogen fertilizers. Farmers can be at differing levels of progress in these agroecological transitions. Agroecology is a direction, not a series of designated practices like organic farming. However, agroecology aims at reducing the use of inputs, reducing the cost of production and the farmer’s dependence on the use of these inputs whose costs have become exorbitant. It is therefore a way to promote a mode of production that uses resources more efficiently.
But is agroecology more productive by the hectare? This is a controversial and complicated question. In general, calculating productivity per hectare is asked as: what, for example, is the volume of corn produced per hectare? In an agroecological crop, corn is grown with other crops. What must be calculated is the output per hectare of all these crops combined. Taking into account the reduced use of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, and therefore energy, the system is very performant. But everything depends on how this performance is measured.
It is inconceivable that we would do without agroecology, especially in light of the increase in input prices and the loss of natural soil fertility due to the erosion of biodiversity. Moving towards this form of agriculture makes sense. Of course, farmers must be satisfied with it. They must be trained and financially supported in this three- or four-year transition. If we succeed, we will have made enormous progress in European food systems.
More precisely, when it comes to the length of the transition, three/four years is the estimated amount of time a farmer needs to transition towards agroecology. During this period the farmer will see revenues fall and they will have to experiment (for example to find new ways to create cycles between the different parts of their land). But it is clear that for agroecology to be supported, there is a need for different marketing channels, local processing capacity, and local distribution channels. It is the entire system that must change so that the evolution taking place at the scale of the individual farmer’s land is supported by the rest of the system’s evolution, which is a complete revolution that will take more than three/four years.
Agroecology is not a return to traditional practices, though they can be a source of inspiration. Agroecology is the science of the 21st century. It relies on the best scientists developing production methods that use less pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers, along with a thorough understanding of how farming systems and nature work. These techniques can be very sophisticated and highly productive, along with being knowledge-intensive and which must be taught.
Presenting agroecology as a return to traditional practices is extremely hard to sell and is not at all attractive to governments in the Global South. This is all the more true because the European Union’s trading partners are convinced that they can only export to member states by charging relatively low prices, and therefore by producing sufficiently large volumes on a sufficient scale. This implies agro-industrial methods that are the exact opposite of agroecological production. The European Union should do more to encourage agroecological production in its trade policies. It has begun introducing stricter environmental standards, notably relating to deforestation and forest deterioration, but more could be done. For example, the EU could generalize environmental conditions for all imports of agricultural products. It could also do more in terms of development cooperation to encourage its partners to make this shift to agroecology.
The importance of achieving better coordination between levels of governance
Food production choices depend on market signals and the liberalization of international trade, leading to an international division of labor and hyperspecialization. This makes each country, each region, increasingly dependent on imports to feed themselves at the same time that they specialize in certain crops for export. These shifts in one sense reinforce efficiency in production, but this happens at the expense of resilience, which requires diversity at the local, national, and regional levels. Recent crises — whether it was the Covid-19 pandemic to the Russian aggression against Ukraine — have revealed the danger of overspecialization.
We are in a paradoxical situation where a growing number of towns and regions are looking to develop more diverse and sustainable territorial agrifood systems but are not receiving support from higher levels of governance, particularly national government. International and European levels of governance do not encourage this diversity and reterritorialization either. On the contrary, they promote hyperspecialization. Our challenge consists of achieving better coordination between the different levels of governance. The local level, where the center of gravity for innovation has shifted, must receive more support from national and regional levels of governance, including in the management of international trade.
Local communities have a very important role to play. A series of social innovations driven by civil society are crucial, especially direct channels between producers and consumers, as well as networks of social and solidarity-based grocery stores. We must take an interest in these innovations which, without the support of local communities and governments, risk having a limited life span and will not be able to grow to a sufficient scale.
Here again it is vital that local levels of governance are supported by higher levels of governance so that a transition towards more resilient food systems — systems which are truly more territorialized, where local seasonal products would be affordable for a significantly larger public, where the distance between producers and consumers, between farmers and consumers, would be shorter — can be achieved.
From a fair food transition to the reconciliation of ecological transformation and social justice goals
The main thing holding back the transition of our food systems is that household food budgets have been steadily decreasing over the past fifty years. Today, in countries like Belgium and France, approximately 12-13% of household budgets go towards food — although this has been increasing dramatically over the past six months. The resulting low-cost foods are facilitated by hyperspecialization, by the takeover of food systems by large players who are able to exploit economies of scale and control extensive supply chains with highly complex logistics, bringing consumers and producers together on extremely large scales. Until now, the low-cost food economy was also a major substitute for social policies which could protect the lowest income and underprivileged households. A change in model means we must question this low-cost system. It is the main obstacle, even more so today with the inflation of food and energy prices.
In May 2020, the European Union launched a very promising strategy, Farm to Fork, which is an element of the Green Deal. This strategy’s main innovation is to move away from this siloed approach regarding food thanks to an improved coordination of sectoral policies which, up until now, were detached from each other — agriculture, environment, health, land use planning, jobs. Even if some of these policies fall more within the responsibility of member states, the European Commission is proposing a much more integrated, coordinated, and cross-sectoral policy for a more sustainable food system.
This is extremely pertinent. Yet the social aspect is missing. Without addressing the issue of low-income households’ ability to access sustainable food, we run the risk of not succeeding in this transformation. More generally, the European Union has not sufficiently taken into account that the fight against inequality is central to the ecological transformation.
The issue is all the more pressing as the Union maintains a mindset that economic growth is the priority which will be the determining factor for resolving all other problems. Yet we can no longer make ecological transformation and reducing poverty dependent on economic growth as the condition sine qua non of all the rest. The EU remains stuck on this obsession with GDP, including in its Green Deal, which is defined as the European Union’s new model of growth. This is problematic given that, up until now, we have not — contrary to what we would like to admit to ourselves — succeeded in separating economic growth from environmental impacts. Consequently, we can no longer pretend that economic growth can be the driver for ecological transition. It is the EU’s mindset which must change.
Moreover, there has long been competition between the goal of ecological transformation on the one hand, and the social justice goal of reducing poverty on the other hand. Two factors explain this competition. The ecological transition requires massive investments in renewable energies, public transportation infrastructure, and insulation of buildings. All these investments will use a budget which will no longer be available to finance public services and social protections.
Secondly, the ecological transformation often entails socially regressive fiscal measures such as the carbon tax. This makes many organizations that are committed to the fight against poverty and defending the rights of the working class and workers wary of the fiscal tools used to achieve these transformations.
Yet eradicating poverty and environmental sustainability are complimentary, and they must be viewed as such. They are complementary because there is a whole series of measures that can be taken in the fields of mobility, energy transformation, food, or even building renovation, which provide a threefold dividend: they create jobs, including for low-skilled workers, they make the goods and services essential for a decent life affordable for low-income households, and they reduce our ecological footprint.
Oliver De Schutter, Agroecology at The Heart of the European Green Deal, Jan 2023, 23.
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