tractor ploughing a field

5 principles of sustainable food and agriculture

Sustainable food systems are essential for global food security and given the UN now has a set of principles for them; we decided to take a closer look.

Modern farming is all about simplification at scale. Production of a single crop or type of livestock is considered the most effective route to efficiency and profit. Couple a single product with large fields or big herds, and economies of scale add to profitability. 

Operations are easier if the producer just knows about the thousand things to fix to grow a wheat crop and not the thousand different things to keep livestock alive.

The prevalence of single system farms across the agricultural landscapes of most mature economies suggests that this is true. 

Take a look at this image of a wheat field 

photo by Cornelia Schütz on Unsplash

Large field of wheat plants all the same age and size and nearly ready for harvest

Same plant, same size, planted at the same time, same maturity level and nearly ready for harvest at the same time across to the horizon.

The efficiency comes because there is a single objective, the production of a commodity for sale. Nature is harnessed to put all its energy and the vast energy subsidy provided by the farmer into one product, in this case, wheat.

Simples.

A meadow used for animal production is also a managed system, but it looks very different. There are numerous species of grasses along with herbs and forbs. Together with the invertebrate animals, there might be 1,000 species that live permanently in a meadow.

Superficially the meadow looks similar to the wheat field.  But look closely and there is so much more going on.

photo by Andrea Jäger on Unsplash

Many species of plants and animals survive in this pasture

Ecology tells us that when an ecosystem contains a diversity of species, it is more efficient at cycling nutrients, is more productive over a wider range of conditions, and retains that productivity for longer. More diverse ecosystems are also more resistant to disturbance and bounce back after such shocks—they have resilience.

The reason for apparent stability is that nature is very good at using available resources. 

If there is some organic material present, for example, a dead leaf, an organism will come along to exploit it. In a diverse system, resources are partitioned among many species, each slightly different in their use of the leaf.

A consequence of this is a different kind of efficiency. Diverse systems recycle and conserve nutrients far better than simple ones. 

Efficient cycling from diversity is the fundamental premise and the logic behind the five principles outlined by the FAO for sustainable food systems…

  1. improving efficiency in the use of resources
  2. conserving, protecting, and enhancing natural ecosystems
  3. protecting and improving rural livelihoods, equity, and social well-being
  4. enhancing the resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems, and
  5. promoting good governance of both natural and human systems 

The verbs here are instructive. There are verbs for caution—conserve, protect— and then there are development verbs—use, improve, enhance, promote.

As with most UN directives, there is tension between development and sustainability. So would these 5 principles deliver sustainable food systems?

With the diversity paradigm in mind, let’s have a close look at each one.


Improving efficiency in the use of resources.

Arguably intensive agricultural production systems are the most efficient. They have higher yields and generate a huge volume of calories in commodities that can be moved and processed in bulk. Intensive agriculture is profit-driven and looks to minimise inputs costs throughout the production cycle, focusing on efficiency. 

Intensive agriculture is the global source of cheap carbohydrate foods.

And given that producers are price takers due to global supply chain controls, they are always at the margins where efficiency is essential.

The problem with this sustainability principle is not that resource use is profligate—no farmer will throw fertiliser onto a paddock for fun—it is that resource use is essential.

Intensive agriculture is all about fossil fuel energy. Oil builds and drives the tractors. Oil and gas supply and fuels the fertiliser factories. Oil fuels the harvesters and the transportation of the product to processors. 

Intensive agriculture is energy-hungry.

No amount of efficiency gains is enough to satiate such a greedy system. And whilst efficiency gains are essential at all points in the supply chain, efficiency is not a sustainability concept if the production system uses resources.


Conserving, protecting, and enhancing natural ecosystems.

Yes, this is essential. 

Agricultural landscapes must return to a mosaic structure of production interspersed with regenerating native vegetation to maintain future productivity because a wholly artificial input system is not sustainable. Agriculture needs natural ecosystems as the source of critical ecosystem services. 

For example, the control of weeds, pests and diseases will be impossible in the global monocultures should any of the top five grains be impacted. Mosaics are the passive approach that at least offers a chance to repel invasives without compromising the efficient use of resources required by the first principle.

We have explored the idea that rewilding is a way to save the planet and that sharing, not sparing, is inevitable given the food demand projections from 8 billion souls. Although such a paradigm is challenging, it is possible despite many practical and social barriers to success. 

Conserving, protecting, and enhancing is possible, but a global response requires exceptional courage.


Protecting and improving rural livelihoods, equity, and social well-being

Some form of social development is in the DNA of the United Nations and the FAO. The global reality is that inequity grows by the day. Aggregate metrics may have the global poor improving their livelihoods, but inequity grows as the rich continue to appropriate wealth via a nefarious financial system.

Food systems cannot be sustainable unless they deliver on these social metrics. Growing enough food is just the start. The right type of foods that are accessible to all is another matter.  

In the chase for cheap food that initially was a profit grab but is now a social necessity, we cannot increase food prices until people can afford them or risk the destabilising effects of hungry people. Note that this is not a problem hidden in the developing world.  

For example, before the pandemic, two Vinnies soup vans handed out about 12,000 meals in inner city Melbourne, Australia; a thoroughly modern city of 5 million people with average wage near $200 per day. Then Covid hit and demand exploded. In the 2020-21 financial year, Vinnies soup vans handed out 373,000 meals, and now run nine separate vans.

Hunger is a growing problem with the irony that obesity from excess cheap, processed foods is now just as acute. Cheap foods are not always healthy when they are the only foods you can afford to buy.

The challenge to closing the equity gap is that either food must be cheap or livelihoods must improve. 

After a cursory review of the facts, protecting and improving are laudable principles that invite ridicule.

‘Feeding everyone well’ is the tagline of sustainably FED, but we are the first to acknowledge that motherhood around rural livelihoods and social well-being are not helping. 


Enhancing the resilience of people, communities, and ecosystems

We always say that feeding everyone well is a people problem. 

Sure, there is plenty of ecology and nature in there, but people are using resources, managing land, and converting primary production into food and fibre. It is people who eat the food and choose or not what food they eat.

The thing is that people are already really good at resilience. They routinely survive war, famine, and conquest. Even death is beaten in the aggregate—around 10% of the humans who have ever lived are alive in 2022. 

We are good at being flexible, surviving harsh conditions and living from hand to mouth if the needs must. Humans are extraordinary survivors. 

So much for horsemen.

Ecosystems are less resilient than humans. They cannot move to new regions (the great expansion), appropriate new energy sources (the subsidy from fossil fuel) or invent technologies to buffer against the weather (the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). 

Ecosystems respond to changing conditions through a turnover of species (ecological succession) where organisms unable to tolerate new requirements are replaced by another that can. Replacement implies source populations or rapid evolution of the species present. This has worked well for the entirety of life on earth. Disturbance unsettles an ecosystem, and it changes to accommodate the changes.

The problem for humans is that a changed ecosystem may not provides all the goods and ecosystem services that we need or want. The ecosystem is resilient in its own time, but we need it to get back to help us out today.

It is strange to lump humans and ecosystems under the same principle. 


Promoting good governance of both natural and human systems

Perhaps this is the only principle that matters in this shortlist of five.

None of the others has any chance unless there is a paradigm shift in human attitude towards resources, the environment, and our place in it. 

We are energetically animals. We are subject to the laws of nature just like all the other wild beasts. Our physiology generates a remarkable hold on entropy so that we persist long enough to reproduce. This sets up a resource requirement for clean air, water, food and shelter that we cannot escape.

But this is not the human belief system. Religions involving deities, our cultures and the religion of money all tell us humans are above nature, better than it, and separate at the pinnacle of evolution. As the bible tells us, we have dominion

There are now so many people that all that dominion has produced resource depletion and pollution of the planet. The risk of collapse is real and present.

Our governance needs an overhaul.

colourful Greenland houses covered in snow
Photo by Visit Greenland on Unsplash

57,000 people live in Greenland even though maximum temperatures are below freezing in winter and only reach 10C in the height of summer—they rely on energy subsidies


What sustainably FED suggests

Humans solve practical problems in an instant. We are endlessly adaptive and create amazing innovations in a heartbeat. One of the advantages of so many people alive—some 10% of all humans that have ever lived—is the brainpower and ingenuity available to solve intractable problems.

Except when it comes to people.

People have issues we are not so good at resolving, at least in the aggregate. Technology in the hands of skilled humans can fix a faulty valve in an engine or even in a heart. Not so easy is to transcend the paradigm of dominion and resource use that we see as a right. 

Intensification of food production systems through energy subsidies and technology has created near-endless cheap food that has become more and more people. Now that so many people are here, sustaining them is a priority. No surprise the FAO promotes sustainable food systems.

Our take is that the principles outlined to achieve sustainability for food are laudable but they miss the point—it’s a people problem.


Science source for this post 

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2019. The ten elements of agroecology – guiding the transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems.


Hero image modified from Photo by Sharon Rosseels on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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