Why modern agriculture is failing us
The agro-industry is only as strong as our complicity. Transitioning to Agroforestry systems is not only a matter of good and bad, or duty and obligation. It is a matter of enjoying a life of beauty, meaning, and nourishment that nature can provide…
… and it starts with your next meal!
How we are letting ourselves be deceived
Modern Agriculture is deceiving us in many ways.
Given modern agriculture has been successful at feeding an increasing population of humans in the 20th century, it seems the vast majority of people dare not criticize it. Yes, the mission of the industry to feed the world has been, mostly, successful: less people starve than ever before, at least proportionally speaking. For that reason, most of us think criticizing the agroindustry is lacking gratitude and inappropriate.
A key element of deceit is found in its name: almost never do its proponents refer to it the agro-industry or petro-chemical farming. Rather it goes under more flattering names such as traditional or conventional agriculture creating a psychological bond for consumers – even if the names are complete lies.
Last but not least, we have become addicted to cheap and available food from all over the place any time of year. Considering a radical change in our food systems threatens our comfort: can we accept eating new foods that match our local climate? Are we willing to let seasons decide our diet, to eat only local crops, and give up our international treats? This is a threat to our individualistic consumer-centrist mindsets that many people may see as a degradation of their lifestyle.
Fact check on modern agricultural practices
A heavily subsidized industry
One of the facts that is rarely mentioned when doing a cost/benefit analysis of the different agricultural systems is the level of subsidies needed to run them. In Europe we have the Common Agricultural Policy to protect our agricultural system. This is the subsidy system by which nations (and therefore corporations by means of lobbying) control price and production in a completely virtual way: rather than organizing our consumption from what nature grants us, we shape nature and agricultural outcomes to fit our needs. This system relies so heavily on subsidies that most French farmers actually earn their living from them rather than from their work growing food.
Not only does this have deleterious psychological effects on farmers, this subsidy system also creates a strong incentive not to change practices, and makes industrial farming look more productive and efficient than it actually is. Without subsidies, the economic comparison with agroforestry systems would be very different in favor of natural food production systems.
The hidden costs:
Modern agriculture also boasts economic results only because it externalizes so many of its real costs:
- environmental pollution;
- climate change (GHG and soil degradation);
- public health (we are being poisoned by chemicals and GMO);
- social costs: the countryside producing regions are dying, farmers are heavily in debt because of their investments in machinery;
- spiritual costs: farmers have lost their privileged relationship to soil and earth and have been alienated from sacred relationship to plants and life.
Should we internalize all these costs, the industry would simply not survive. If corporations in the agrobusiness had to pay for restoring the environmental, climate, health and social damage, they would go bankrupt immediately. Still, they make billions of dollars on the heritage of our children and future generations.
The energy and transport dilemma:
The whole system of modern agriculture – which is based on David Ricardo’s comparative advantage economic theory – relies on cheap energy: the cost of fuel is largely underestimated, making transport cheap and the use of tractors affordable.
We know the era of cheap fuel is coming to an end: soon, as the resource runs dry, the cost of transport will go up, fast. The repercussions on the availability of food at affordable prices will be drastic and immediate.
Most major cities have about 3 days food security. Most countries import a vast majority of their food. When food prices skyrocket due to a petrol crisis, most countries will not have the time to reorganize their production systems to meet their population’s demand.
Why Agrofrestry systems will have to be adopted everywhere
Agroforestry and other natural farming systems can turn all of the above hidden-costs into collateral benefits.
Local food production
Where industrial agriculture relies on the implementation of centralized systems with complete disregard of local cultural and environmental specificities, agroforestry food systems rely on traditional knowledge and the proper assessment of the local context. It is a dynamic that works bottom-up and empowers the base, aka the people.
By relocalizing our food production we alleviate our dependence on fuel and external factors (the fertilizer and chemical industry), and learn how to best manage our local resources to fertilize the soil and build thriving ecosystems. While it is true that it takes more time, it can also be said that the yields increase every year, whereas industrial yields go down and are increasingly dependent on chemical inputs.
Last but not least, local food systems create immediate food security: this means people’s lives are not subject to market fluctuations and geopolitical ups and downs.
Public Health & nutrition
It is also obvious that the health of people will benefit from a local agroforestry food system. First because it will get rid of all the chemical and synthetic agents we find in industrial food and their related illnesses. Then because organically produced food, when grown in a living soil and diverse environment is more nutrient-rich and thus has a higher value for the body. Finally because by eating local and seasonal crops, we align our metabolism to the patterns and pace of nature and let her heal us deep inside.
Positive climate impact
The positive climate change impact of agroforestry plays out at multiple levels.
Because it is not dependent on fuel, its direct emissions of GHG are largely reduced through the use of little or no tractors and little to no transport. Food is consumed where it is produced.
Because Agroforestry focuses on healthy soils, it restores healthy ecosystems and their natural capacity to store atmospheric carbon into the soil. Instead of increasing global warming, these systems actually clean our atmosphere and, used on a large scale, could help reverse global warming. Many projects are proof of that (Ernst Gotsch and Sebastiao Salgado in Brasil amongst many others).
The restoration of biodiversity on a large scale is likely to produce butterfly effects that we can’t foresee, but that will benefit local and global ecosystems, and the earth capacity to regenerate living systems and her regulations mechanisms.
Recreating local economies and communities: CSA models
On top of these social and environmental benefits, agroforestry systems have the capacity to recreate local circular economies, and thus to regenerate resilient communities.
Agroforestry farms don’t just produce a crop. They produce a range of natural resources upon which a natural economy can be built:
- Diversity of rich food for its people;
- Animal products;
- Community cooking;
- Organic matter (tree branches, fodder, manure, etc.) for composting;
- Educational opportunities;
- Ecotourism opportunities;
Because maintaining these ecosystems and harvesting and transforming all these resources is labor-intensive, local jobs can be created, thus enriching the community and the lives of the people.
The sooner the better
For all the reasons shared above, this transition will have to happen. The agroindustry model is not sustainable, and therefore will come to its end. The question of agroforestry and natural agricultural systems is not whether it’s better than industrial agribusiness: it’s a matter of making sure we can eat when the latter inevitably collapses. The damages done to the earth can still be fixed, and the sooner we engage our collective transition, the better for everyone.
There are many reasons why the transition towards agroecological food systems is taking time: some of it is due to the immaturity of the movement that has yet to find its identity (for example, what should we call ourselves? agroforestry, agroecology, permaculture, natural farming… this is confusing).
Some of it is also due to the inertia of a dying system that does not want to let go. Let’s be honest: there is denial, there is comfort, there is fear… and there is corruption. All of these have to be addressed at an individual level, and at the national and international level if things are to change. Policy makers have to open up and assess what’s going on beyond the reports that the industry writes for them.
But there is one thing we can all do, every day, multiple times a day. A direct democratic system that stands no corruption. We can all decide where we source our food, and through that, what system we support. The industry is only as strong as our complicity. Agroforestry systems and the people that make the effort to develop them need our support to thrive. It is not only a matter of good and bad, or duty and obligation. It is a matter of enjoying a life of beauty, meaning and nourishment that nature can provide.
In short, it is down to us to make the change.
Support your local farmer.
Look for your closest CSA and become a member.