As a father of three young children, I want my kids to eat good quality food, now and forever. Nevertheless, the threat of decreased food quality, and its availability in the near future, is eminent. Our current agricultural system is under pressure and might fail to deliver sufficient food in the years to come. It may no longer provide the quality that I, as a parent, desire for my children. Why is that?
Currently, a large part of the agriculture model in, for example, the US and Europe, is astonishingly unsustainable. The amount of energy – mainly derived from oil – needed to produce agricultural products is enormous. In order to yield one calorie of food we are spending 10 calories of energy. Oil is necessary to run the machines which work the land and power the trucks, ships, and airplanes which transport agricultural produce from central production locations to our supermarkets. The production of fertiliser and pesticides, which are used in agriculture, is an oil-intensive process as well.
Besides the energy challenge, industrial agriculture also creates environmental problems: Large acres of land are used to grow a single type of crop (monoculture) and, in order to compensate for the resulting loss of fertility of the soil, farmers are using increasing amounts of fertiliser. Secondly, a monoculture environment is a haven for the insects and weeds which are specialized to live on a single type of crop. As a result, farmers must put a lot of effort in keeping pests away from their produce. And by spraying larger amounts of pesticides they are achieving the opposite result: pests are in fact becoming more resistant to chemicals and difficult to manage.
Industrial agriculture is therefore a constant fight between the farmer and his natural environment. Basically, industrial agriculture is like a modern war; where fertiliser and pesticides are used as the main weapons. A scary thought, as these pesticides, to a large extent, are based on the same ingredients used for chemical warfare during World War II and the Vietnam War.
Where does this leave us? Do we have alternatives? Are we able to feed a growing global population by doing things differently? If you ask the big corporations you will most likely hear, "no." They will say that we can only increase yields and ensure continuous productivity within the agricultural system if we rely on more fertilizers, more potent pesticides and genetically engineered (GE) crops which are resistant to insects and pesticides. This is a cat and mouse game; a game that will never end. Undoubtedly this game benefits large corporations which produce pesticides and GE crops and therefore make large profits. But this agriculture system is not healthy for us. It is not sustainable in the long term. It will not feed the world and it is also not ethical.
So what is the alternative? Can we design a food production system that is at peace with its natural environment, ourselves, and which is able to provide enough food for an increasing global population? The answer to this question is: Yes we can. Although, for this to be successful, we must be willing to adapt our diet to choose products which can be produced locally.
We can shift from centralized, simple monocultures, to localized, complex and diverse agricultural systems. We can end our warfare-based, resource-hungry, oil-dependent agricultural industry and move to a peaceful, low-energy, oil-independent agricultural environment. Nowadays, we are able to very precisely design agricultural systems that require only a small amount of energy, which do not require the use of chemicals and can generate yields which are higher than what the traditional agricultural industry can provide. This approach is part of what we call Ecological Farming; the vision for a healthy and equitable agriculture model we champion at Greenpeace. Permaculture systems, aiming at natural self-sufficiency within communities in regards to food, shelter, water resources and more, are also often part of our ecological farming solutions.
One important benefit of Permaculture is its ability to produce food locally, exactly where it is needed. This significantly reduces the need to transport large quantities of food over long distances, thereby greatly reducing the amount of energy needed to get the food to our tables. One small price which we’ll have to pay for this is that, alas, we can no longer eat strawberries in winter.
More and more people in the West – particularly in urban areas - are starting to realize that our dependence on centralized, industrial agriculture is not only unsustainable in the long run, but it also does not provide the quality of food that we, as humans, need. As a result, people are turning their own gardens into vegetable gardens, or joining forces to convert a nearby piece of land into a local food production system. A system that not only feeds many, but also creates social cohesion and friendships in a neighbourhood which would not have existed otherwise.
This is ultimately a non-reversible process which will allow us to get away from agricultural warfare and move towards a green peace. A green peace where food production is in harmony with the environment and has a high enough yield to feed our families sustainably. This makes me feel more confident that, in the future, my children will have access to sufficient and high quality food. This is why I support food produced by permaculture, because it will help us achieve the dream that all fathers have for their children, healthy and nutritious food for all.
Wil van Egdom is the Information Security Officer at Greenpeace International, and a father.