Mark Bittman, famed American food journalist, considers farming to be humanity’s greatest collective mistake. In his latest book Animal, Vegetable, Junk he argues that the beneficial effects of agriculture are apparent. Billions of people can now be fed, but “if you think that’s an advantage… Since the evolution of agriculture more than ten thousand years ago, the quality of life has not increased but decreased.” All the fault of capitalism.
This argument has wide resonance, for example with someone like Al Gore (“a must-read”). However crude and sometimes incorrect, Bittman expresses the social discomfort about food and agriculture. It is about the social acceptance of the sector, the license to produce. This puts the agricultural and food sector in the same waters as others that are viewed with suspicion, such as the oil and gas sector. The court’s ruling on Shell’s responsibility for emissions can be extended to the many players in the food chain with little effort.
See this against the background of the extremely difficult negotiations surrounding the budget for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The introduction has already been postponed until 2023. Apparently it concerns the fair distribution of support to farmers. There are some plans for biodiversity and climate. But there is more at stake. It is inevitable that agriculture will be a prominent part of the broad desire for greening in the EU.
Greening is not the only challenge. The health of people and nature also count. This can be done via the real price and the real costs of production. The harmful effects of agriculture, for example on birds, are now, as it is called, externalized, as is the damage caused by unhealthy food (for example, 2 diabetes). At the same time, the positive effects of healthy food are not reflected in market mechanisms that make this food less available to people on low incomes.
In an open letter, hundreds of organizations have asked for alignment between CAP, the European Green Deal, and the two related strategies of Farm to Fork and biodiversity. The enthusiasm of the European Parliament and the committee to complicate matters with greening is unfortunately declining by the day. In the Netherlands, the SER considers an agricultural agreement promising. This could indeed be the moment to gain support for reforms, whereby the Netherlands could point the way to innovations in Europe with an integrated approach to space, agriculture and food.
If you start to yawn now, remember that the CAP still accounts for over a third of the total EU budget. The sector is essential for the future. Agriculture in the broad sense (including forestry) is the largest manager of the earth’s surface. Restoring biodiversity is not possible without spatial planning for agriculture, both nationally and internationally. Agriculture is the key to the quality of life and the demographic balance between urban and rural areas. On the road to a post-fossil society, non-fossil biological material produced by agriculture is becoming increasingly important as a source of materials.
And most importantly, Mr. Bittman, thanks to agriculture, we have fortunately reached the point where most people’s lives no longer revolve around the daily gathering or production of food. More and more people can count on having access every day to affordable, healthy food that is increasingly produced sustainably. That’s the real contribution of modern agriculture to civilization: the freedom to do all those other things, like writing books.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 14, 2021