Can sustainable farming feed the world?

Agriculture has a significant environmental impact. Is it time to reform the entire food system?
calendar icon 20 September 2021
clock icon 13 minute read

© Vastavalo

© Vastavalo

Agriculture has a significant environmental impact. Is it time to reform the entire food system?

When we think of the countryside, an idyllic picture from children's books and advertisements comes to mind. However, the reality of agriculture is something entirely different. Today, each hectare is designed to produce as large a yield as possible, while animal production has reached maximum efficiency. This is known as intensive agriculture, a term which Professor of Agroecology Juha Helenius is not fond of.

"Intensity in terms of concentration is good, but modern agriculture is not intensive in that sense. It does produce plenty of food, but also wastes energy and natural resources."

According to Helenius, it is time to completely redesign the food system. The limits of our planet have been reached: the consumption of nitrogen and phosphorus exceeds nature's capacity, endangering biodiversity. The climate impact of agriculture also poses a threat to the environment.

Intensive farming makes the soil poorer and predisposes it to erosion. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, if we continue with the current rate of exploitation, there will not be any fertile soil left 60 years from now.

"Our backs are against the wall. If we want to have food in the future, agriculture must start adopting more sustainable techniques," Helenius says.

A fight against hunger

Intensive agriculture was born out of a specific need. After World War II, food was scarce almost everywhere in the world, and many people were starving. There was a dire need to produce a lot of food fast.

This is where the natural sciences and technology came in. Industrial fertilisers and feed, pesticides, drugs, plant breeding and agricultural machinery kicked food production into gear. Fossil fuels offered an inexpensive way to power the machines and develop fertilisers.

Initially, industrial agriculture was a great success. Maize, rice and wheat crops as much as quadrupled. The architects of the Green Revolution were celebrated as the saviours of millions of people. Few paused to think about the environmental effects.

As yield per hectare and output per animal grew, energy consumption and emissions also increased, causing eutrophication in aquatic systems. Biodiversity began to decline.

"Back in the day, farmers who relied solely on muscle power weren't able to clear all of nature away with their hoes. But the development of agricultural machinery made it possible to do exactly that," Helenius notes.

Over time, the targets of farming grew greater and greater, producing crop yields that a farmer of the 1950s could not have dreamt of.

Will we have enough food?

Since the 1950s, Earth's population has grown from 2.5 billion to 7.7 billion. If we begin to focus on the environment instead of crop size, will there be enough food? Helenius responds in the affirmative.

Population growth is the greatest in Africa, where there is also significant potential for adding to the capacity of food production. In a natural economy, even minor fertiliser and pesticide use multiplies crop yields.

In the Western world, fields are already packed with phosphate fertilisers spread in the past decades. In many places, fertilising no longer generates any yield increase.

"Nutrients put in the field are useful for as long as plants are able to absorb them. If that doesn't happen, the nutrients flow off to eutrophicate waterways. Phosphorus is a non-renewable resource, and there is no certainty about its sufficiency in the future."

Forwards, not backwards

The population of Western countries is not growing, and there are no food shortages. On the contrary, food waste is a significant problem. The people in Western countries also consume twice the healthy amount of animal protein.

Including more vegetables in our diet would reduce the use of arable land, as plants would be grown directly for human consumption instead of animal feed.

Helenius would intensify farming in Africa, while moderating agricultural activity in developed countries. The worst examples of intensive farming can be found in the United States, but the line has been crossed in Finland as well.

"It's not about making farmers feel guilty, because we didn't know about these things before. But now we have to change our ways. The need for transition concerns the system as a whole. There is absolutely no reason to go backwards, only forwards," Helenius explains.

However, something we may have to get used to is slightly smaller crops.

Carbon neutral food

Helenius has been investigating nutrient recycling at the Palopuro farm in Hyvinkää. He believes that the entire food production chain in Finland could be carbon neutral.

Even sustainable farming requires the use of some nitrogen fertiliser. At Palopuro, nitrogen originates in a clover lawn, from which energy is first extracted in a biogas reactor. After processing, the fermented digestate can be spread on any field.

"The farmer keeps their soil in good condition and produces their own energy with a biogas reactor. This is an ecologically superior technique that cuts down greenhouse gas emissions by at least half. As it grows, the clover lawn provides sustenance to pollinators and boosts biodiversity."

Agroecology is the study of the ecological sustainability of agriculture and food systems. Farming methods based on the concept are aimed at good yields without compromising environmental wellbeing.

Agroecological farming is not organic farming, although many of the techniques used are familiar from the latter. At the Haltiala farm, plots experimenting with recycled fertilisers have produced crops that are as good as those generated by conventional means.

Helenius considers organic production a good model that has provided a lot of insights. However, the rules of organic farming are based on agreements between farmers. They are developed with the help of research, but some of the practices required for certification have been adopted through a broader value base, not on the basis of research findings.

What Helenius considers most important is the end result from the perspective of nature. He accepts genetic modification and pesticides, provided they are safe to humans and the environment, something which may be difficult to predict before their extensive deployment.

Inexpensive or expensive?

Spoiling the environment comes at no financial cost. In fact, the low price of food has in many cases been achieved at the cost of the environment. Helenius thinks that the environmental impact of food production should be included in price formation. This is a sensitive and difficult topic.

"Even though food in Finland today is cheaper than ever compared to the median income, there are still people who cannot afford it. This is a matter of social policy. We can't focus solely on ecological sustainability. The price of food, the livelihood of farmers and the cultural significance of food are important too."

Agricultural subsidies can be used to support environmentally friendly production instead of established practices. Farmers' earnings should not decrease any further, as they have already fallen behind the income trends of the rest of the population.

New varieties

Food prices do not have much leeway. If they increase, consumers may choose a cheaper foreign product that has been produced without considering the environment.

According to Helenius, food production can be made ecological without spiralling costs. However, sustainable farming does require a little more effort.

Fertilisers packed in bags are popular, as these contain nitrogen and phosphorus in the form of nutrient salts, easily utilised by plants.

For years, cereals have been bred with an emphasis on productivity. As a result, certain cereal varieties are no longer able to establish symbiosis with soil fungi, which help extract insoluble phosphorus from the organic matter in the soil. In other words, new varieties must be bred and the breeding goals need to be changed.

Exploiting waste in the field

Helenius is a proponent of carrying out the further development of food products close to primary production. This would make it possible to return the waste generated by food factories to the fields as nutrients. The energy gained from converting waste into biogas would be enough to both produce and transport the food. This would bring about new jobs and local food cultures.

"The food industry employs more people than the forest industry. In rural towns, people are wondering what to do about the neighbouring municipalities that are becoming depopulated. I think they should try to attract food processing operators to these locations. That would kick off a recovery of the countryside and rural centres."

Helenius is about to launch a new research project, which investigates the potential of a food sector that uses bioenergy and nutrient recycling. He believes that the food industry should take up this opportunity to achieve energy independence.

Helenius estimates that, at some point, the transformation of the food system could even result in the dissolution of metropolises. After all, metropolises can never produce all of the food that they require.

"Food constitutes a tangible and fundamental link to nature. We are eating solar energy originally absorbed by green plants. There are no magic tricks to produce food from nothing."

Ruby potatoes

Potatoes can be grown without soil even in the basement of an apartment building. However, this consumes an enormous amount of energy. According to Helenius, it is like eating rubies. This kind of farming has no chance of competing with a potato field.

Helenius has calculated that it would take 42 nuclear plants to produce the amount of energy consumed by Finnish fields every year in food production.

"We have at our disposal this huge green solar panel that we have to use ecologically. If that is not bioenergy, I don’t know what is."

Helenius believes there are already signs of change in the air.

"When I started as a professor of agroecology in the 1990s, I was seen as a green fanatic. Some researchers considered fields substrates instead of ecosystems. Today, the problems associated with agriculture are so evident that all of my colleagues understand the situation and are looking for viable solutions."

The effect of subsidies

The environmental friendliness of agriculture does not come down solely to the choices that farmers make. It is also affected by international agreements, agricultural subsidies and consumer pressure.

When the EU concludes free trade agreements, it lowers its agricultural tariffs to gain access to the other party’s markets for its industrial products. This lowers the price of food in the EU, which is a benefit for citizens but harmful to producers.

At the moment, World Trade Organization agreements do not allow for favouring or discriminating against certain goods on the basis of environmental friendliness. The EU has the ability to influence such agreements through the WTO, but it is unlikely to get all participating countries to accept any restrictions.

Thanks to subsidies awarded to producers, higher environmental standards can be maintained within the EU. The bloc's agricultural policy is currently under reform, with the Commission proposing a greater freedom for member states to make decisions pertaining to their agricultural activity. This enables the establishment of both more ambitious environmental standards and those that barely pass muster.

"Is it time for Finland to take a bold step and start making its agriculture more environmentally friendly?" asks Jyrki Niemi, research professor at Natural Resources Institute Finland.

The granting of EU agricultural subsidies could be more closely linked with the fulfilment of environmental requirements. These concern aspects such as fertiliser use, buffer zones, biodiversity protection and animal welfare. In Finland, the subsidies compose roughly one-third of all agricultural revenue, making them a significant factor.

Niemi points out that consumers should also be prepared to pay a slightly higher price for environmentally friendly food. Finns have kept their appreciation for domestic food up to now, with 70% of the money spent by Finns on food staying in the country.

Meat without animals

The climate emissions generated by beef is a hot topic. What if, instead of coming from animals, meat was grown from cells in a bioreactor?

Hanna Tuomisto, associate professor of sustainable food systems, has studied the environmental impact of cellular agriculture, the production of goods from animal cells as well as goods produced by cells, such as milk protein produced by microbes.

The upsides of this field include the preservation of land area and biodiversity, while the downside would be energy consumption, potentially even greater than in animal production.

"What is crucial for the environment is whether there is enough renewable energy available for cellular agriculture, as that is also needed to replace fossil fuels."

Tuomisto has drawn up an estimate in which a fictional farm relinquishes its dairy cattle and starts to produce cell-cultured milk and meat in bioreactors. The energy consumed by the reactors comes from biogas produced at the farm by converting a lawn into fertiliser. The plants needed as nutrients in the cell culture are grown on the farm.

"In this estimate, the climate emissions per protein unit were reduced to a fraction of the original figures."

However, cultured meat has a long journey ahead before it arrives on the plate. What remains uncertain so far is what amount of nutrients will be needed by the cells, what kind of solution is suitable for their culture and how the price could be sunk to a sufficiently low level. Meat culture has not been experimented with at the University of Helsinki, but Tuomisto has visited the laboratory of cultured meat pioneer Mark Post in Maastricht.

"I saw a piece of meat worth €40,000. I asked the researcher exhibiting it whether they had ever tasted the meat they had cultured. They hadn’t. That tells you where we are at right now."

Artificial milk and other goods produced by microbes may arrive at the store shelf before cultured meat. The technology and processes are already there; the only thing is missing is the authorisation to market them as food in Europe. And, of course, the consumers' desire to purchase them.

University of Helsinki

© 2000 - 2024 - Global Ag Media. All Rights Reserved | No part of this site may be reproduced without permission.