Opinion: Ricardo Abramovay – European Union is on its way to ecological agriculture

Agroecology has become the epicenter of the most ambitious and well-founded plan for the adaptation of the European agrifood sector to the needs of the fight against the climate crisis and the erosion of biodiversity. What was, until a few years ago, the watchword of some social movements and a scientific discipline that was undervalued in agronomy schools is now becoming the axis of orientation for what Europe wants from its agriculture and food.

Ten Years for Agroecology (TYFA) is a robust work published in 2018 and now updated by an international team coordinated by the prestigious Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), a global think tank linked to the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, of Paris, founded by Laurence Tubiana, a researcher who played a decisive role in shaping the Paris agreement in 2015.

IDDRI’s work is directly related to the European Green Deal (European Ecological Pact), the plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 and especially linked to two recent initiatives. The first is the Farm to Fork Strategy (Farm to the Fork Strategy) and the second to Biodiversity Strategy (Biodiversity Strategy) with proposals that Europe will take to the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP-15), of the Biodiversity Convention to be held from 11 to 15 October in the Chinese city of Kunming.

The most innovative aspect of IDDRI’s proposal couldn’t be more surprising: it calls for a 35% drop in Europe’s calorie supply in 2050 compared to 2010. And therein lies its first contribution to the discussions at this year’s global conferences: sustainability it doesn’t just mean doing better. Often the most important and the hardest thing is to do less. It is not just about reducing the use of inputs and increasing their efficiency. It is about adopting productive sobriety as a basic value in the fight against the climate crisis and the erosion of biodiversity.

The proposal is consistent with the Strategy of Fazenda ao Fork, which provides for a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides and a 20% cut in the use of nitrogen fertilizers and antibiotics. At European level, a quarter of European agricultural establishments will be organic in 10 years.

The idea is to make the most of the diversity contained in the life of the soil and take advantage of the nitrogen fixation capacity of several legumes, which inhibits the use of nitrogen fertilizers. And here it is good to remember that pollution from nitrogen fertilizers is one of the planetary frontiers (planetary boundaries) that the economic system has already surpassed, according to the works of Johan Röckstrom.

The models that account for the high productivity of contemporary agriculture are based, in Europe, on the radical separation between crops and animal husbandry. Agroecology proposes management techniques to reduce this distance and, thus, benefit plantations with nitrogen coming from animal manure. The plan also proposes agroecological infrastructure – fences, trees, lakes, habitats to shelter insects – which must cover at least 10% of the cultivated areas. Insects (which play a fundamental role in the health of crops and pastures) are now seriously threatened. Only in protected areas in Germany, biomass of flying insects was reduced by 75% since the early 1990s. In the last 20 years, 20% of European birds have disappeared.

The application of agroecology-inspired techniques will cause land yields to decline, depending on crops, between 10% and 50% by 2050. This raises a decisive question: this drop in supply is compatible with the food needs of a continent that will have 530 million people by 2050?

TYFA’s positive response and its most recent update to this question rest on some assumptions full of lessons about the direction not only of agricultural policies, but of economic management under the climate crisis and the erosion of biodiversity.

The most important of these is the realization that the incessant increase in the productive power of European agriculture is linked to serious and costly public health problems. Obesity in Europe (even without reaching North American levels) and the diseases associated with it are increasing at a frightening rate. According to the European Food Safety Authority, Europeans consume 60% more animal protein than recommended by the World Health Organization. It should also be mentioned that European agriculture is among the most subsidized in the world: hence the importance of the proposal for drastically cut these subsidies, as proposed by the rascunho (first draft) of the document submitted to COP-15 next month.

In this scenario, 58% of cereals and 67% of protein oilseeds in Europe turn to animal feed. The territory’s biodiversity is being destroyed to make way for food that contributes to the exacerbation of the climate crisis and harms human health. And to this total must be added, of course, the soy that the Old Continent imports from Brazil and Argentina.

Recent work published in the prestigious Nature Food shows that the global food system emits 35% of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Of the total emissions from the agrifood system, 57% are linked to animal products (including the crops from which the feed comes). Crops destined for human consumption account for 29% of the sector’s emissions. The other 14% come from plants dedicated to the textile or energy industry.

The reduction in the consumption of animal proteins recommended by the TYFA is also accompanied by a reduction in the consumption of sugar, ultra-processed products and the elimination, by 2050, of all European biofuel production. In addition, IDDRI’s work shows that Europeans consume 33% less fruit and vegetables than recommended.

The most important lesson of these works is that fighting the climate crisis, the erosion of biodiversity and the global obesity pandemic will require changes in the global agrifood system that go far beyond the goal of increasing production and efficiency. The great virtue of IDDRI’s work is the organically articulated approach between agro-industrial production, food and public health. In this sense, the agrifood sector is just one example of a greater challenge: sustainable development will not come only or fundamentally through efficiency gains, however important these may be. Without sobriety in what is consumed and, above all, in what companies offer to social life, our socio-environmental problems will only increase.

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