Europe’s quest to confront climate change and achieve carbon neutrality is being undermined by “Big Ag”?
That’s not my claim. It’s the latest in a series of attacks on those who question whether the European Union’s Farm to Fork policy recommendations, cobbled together mostly with input from green activist groups, have any chance of achieving their sustainability goals.
The latest attack comes from openDemocracy, which claimed in a headline on August 20th: “How the agricultural lobby is sabotaging Europe’s Green Deal”. Its basic premise: “Big Farming” is forging nefarious alliances to block agriculture’s necessary role in ‘transforming Europe’ into a ‘climate neutral’ economic bloc by 2050.
These are serious, sweeping charges…and clearly not true. Most politicians on the Continent embrace the goal to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades. Agriculture can play a key role. But thoughtful questions have been raised about how to achieve the broad sustainability goals outlined in the F2F policy, as it calls for dramatically increasing food production while scaling up organic farming and slashing synthetic pesticide use, all without any clear plan as to how to address agricultural pests and productivity challenges. The gap between aspiration and action appears huge.
Getting this right is critical as Europe’s global policy influence is huge. Too much is at stake to turn this serious challenge into a political football. Rather than critics of conventional agriculture offering mostly bromides and broadsides, we would all be better served by applying science rather than innuendo and hyperbole.
Addressing food insecurity
Reading the F2F document, I was struck by one insight. Although we occasionally see scenes on the news of malnourished children in distant countries, most people in Europe and the wealthier parts of the world believe that we are well on our way to solving what has for most of human history been life’s primary challenge: producing enough food for a growing global population.
We are told that we already grow enough food to feed everyone, but much of it is wasted—88 million tonnes of food annually in Europe alone. So, increasing production, food activists say, is itself wasteful. Rather than increasing food production, activists claim, we should create a “sustainable agricultural system.” That claim would be true if people could eat statistics. Green advocates offer no concrete plan as to how we can transport food scraps from western households, restaurants and grocery stores to under-developed countries.
In the real world, capping food production at current levels, which would happen with the spread of organic farming, would work if crops were never lost to pests in the field or spoiled in storage before they got to market, if the massive global challenges of transportation and distribution just magically disappeared, and we assigned a food monitor to every home, farm and restaurant to collect the world’s scraps after we ate our assigned calorie allotment for the day.
Here’s a wake-up call. Food security is emerging as the number one issue of our time. F2F’s central premise is a need to steer farming in Europe and the world away from conventional methods that rely on high technology tools such as pesticides, genetic engineering, key elements of precision farming.
Yet many people who embrace the same sustainability goals say these recommendations, taken as a whole, are a prescription for disaster. They will not only increase hunger, they will undermine the climate change environmental goals as well.
It’s time we got a reality check on food insecurity, and how we’ve managed to reduce world hunger over the last 90 years. It wasn’t until after World War II and the widespread adoption of agricultural technologies, including the genetic manipulation of plants to create advanced hybrid crops, modern chemical pesticides, and synthetic fertilizer, that everyone in Europe—not just the upper classes—had enough to eat. Cultural memories of hunger grow fainter after a few generations, but as late as the early 20th century, malnutrition was still widespread in Europe.
Today, the UN estimates that 821 million people are suffering from hunger. The number was rising before COVID, but the pandemic is making it even worse. An additional 10,000 children every month are expected to die from malnutrition as farms are cut off from markets and food aid no longer reaches hungry populations.
Caption: Malnutrition in India, 2020 Global Nutrition Report
Reckoning on farming and food
The novel coronavirus may seem like a once-in-a-century disaster, but plenty of food and farm crises roil the world. Most frighteningly, the Middle East, much of India and East Africa are being ravaging by a Biblical scale, crop-destroying locust plague. It threatens some 22 million people in Africa alone with starvation. And only the widespread deployment of insecticides have been able to get it under control.