ZTwo revolutions have had a particularly irreversible impact on humanity: the Neolithic revolution 12,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens settled down and began farming and animal husbandry, as well as the industrial revolution almost three hundred years ago with its technical inventions and industrial production methods. If it is up to actors like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the World Biodiversity Council, we are facing a third revolution on a very large scale today.
Because four out of nine planetary limits have already been exceeded. Rising food prices on the world market as a result of the war in Ukraine show how vulnerable the economic system is, especially in the food sector. That’s why changes are needed, experts agree. “It’s not enough to patch the food system up a bit here and there,” explains Christoph Rupprecht, professor of sustainability and global environmental studies at Ehime University in Japan. For several years now, scientists from various disciplines have been looking for new answers to the question of how food could be produced.
The yields can no longer grow
Most of the time, people are talking about “sustainable” agriculture. The word looks good in commercials and party programmes. Perhaps also because the term is somewhat flexible. There is often only agreement about its origin in forestry. There, you act sustainably if you don’t cut down more wood than can grow back. While some associate sustainability closely with environmental protection these days, for others it is about doing business sparingly or conserving resources. The latter is actually also a trend in agriculture today.
It was not always like this. More fertilizers and pesticides, new breeds increased yields on the field and in the last seventy years brought us a not inconsiderable part of the prosperity that we enjoy today. But the increases are now reaching their limits. According to researchers at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, yields for staple foods such as wheat can hardly grow anymore. At the same time, fertile farmland is already scarce in many places, and climate change and its side effects will exacerbate the problem in many parts of the world in the future.
The experts therefore call for a change in agriculture towards structurally sustainable solutions instead of changes in small steps. A group of more than thirty scientists from different countries and disciplines, led by Steven McGreevy, Assistant Professor of Urban Sustainability Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, is taking a global approach. In a Perspectives article published last week in Nature Sustainability was published, the team uses around 100 studies to describe where agricultural systems need to develop in order to become truly sustainable. “A food system designed for endless growth without limits cannot produce the food we need without exceeding the Earth’s carrying limits,” says McGreevy.
For this, the authors around McGreevy name five principles for a post-growth exchange of substances, i.e. for a new way in which substances and living beings in the food sector and agriculture could interact. The keywords for this, says Rupprecht, are sufficiency, regeneration, distribution, welfare and common goods. These would mark the departure from a growth-oriented logic in favor of one of efficiency in the sense of lower resource consumption. It is about quality rather than quantity with the aim of reconciling social and economic needs, while at the same time creating a balance between extraction and regeneration in existing ecosystems, distributing resources fairly and caring for each other instead of working against each other. It is also important to clarify food issues in community decision-making structures, as suggested by Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, around ten years ago.
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