(Un)sustainable agriculture

A new study by the IDDR think-tank shows that if Europe would completely turn green in its farming practices, it would still be able to feed its population. The study was released just one week after the drastic decline of insects was linked to pesticides used in conventional agriculture, and symbolises thus the latest push for Europe to rethink its agricultural habits.

Why do we need to reexamine our agriculture?

Modern agriculture is based on the intensive use of industrial technology, automated processes and techniques that achieve mass-scale production, genetic engineering and the creation of new markets for consumption. But while automated processes lead to higher productivity, this form of agriculture has its downside - and a quite significant one.

The mass-scale production of a handful of crops means the cultivation of extensive monocultures (today most crops that are primarily used in biofuels and animal feed) that are very resource-intensive: they require a lot of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers.

While this has clear advantages for the short-term production of crops, it has devastating effects in the long-term: soil is being increasingly recognised as a non-renewable resource that once degraded is hard to retrieve (it takes more than a human life-span to regenerate!). Conventional farming and particularly monocultures accelerate this process by draining soil's fertility (hence needing chemical fertilisation), making the ground more vulnerable to erosion. What makes it worse is that besides the environmental impact, the use of pesticides also has significant health repercussions: pesticide toxicity and water pollution. Pesticides affect insects, animals, as well as our health - they are associated with acute poisoning and believed to cause chronic illnesses. For instance, glyphosate, a pesticide commonly used by Monsanto, has been discovered to be carcinogenic. To top that off, fertiliser runoffs have often been found to contaminate drinking supplies and causing antibiotic resistance.

Alas, in retrospect, modern agriculture paints a rather bleak picture of our food production.

So what can we do? Stop agriculture and starve?

Luckily not. There are many sustainable agricultural practices that are gaining more and more ground in this sector: nearly 1/3 of global farms have adopted more environmentally-friendly practices. So is agroecology is becoming a reality?

Agroecology builds on small-scale farming that is attuned to the local environment, recycling nutrients and energy and on imitating natural ecosystem processes. Instead of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, crop rotation is used to keep pests under control on one hand and additional plants are being cultivated, on the other hand, that either repel unwanted insects or attract useful ones. Apart from that, there are many different methods on how to grow food more sustainably, methods that have already adapted to our changing environment.

  • Permaculture: is a design system that mirrors natural ecosystem processes and is based on the principle of ’working smarter, not harder’. It concentrates on reducing waste and emphasises the use of perennial crops, such as fruit and nut trees.

  • Hydroponics: basically is growing plants without soil. Instead the crops are nourished with special nutrients that are added to the water - the crops are grown with their roots directly in this mineral solution or gravel.

  • Urban farming: the focus here is on local food production - as more and more people are living in cities, farming has been relocalised accordingly. Food is grown in backyard ’farms’, community gardens (where people share the land they cultivate), indoor hydroponic farms or urban farm towers. One example of urban agriculture is for example the biggest urban farm in Europe located in the Hague, Netherlands. The top of an old empty office building was revamped into a flourishing rooftop greenhouse! Urban agriculture is thus a means to increase the access to locally grown food, while also reintroducing many aspects of food that have been lost in our culture due to the removal of agriculture from our every-day life.

Credit: Ecowatch

  • Agroforestry or food forests: are multi-layered ’edible forests’. A canopy is made out of tall and dwarf fruit and nut trees, herbs, mushrooms and vegetables then are cultivated on the ground level and climbing, as well as root vegetables are planted underground. Yummy indeed!


So back to the question: What can we do?

Encourage change. Be more considerate about where our food comes from and how it is grown. All in all these sustainable alternatives represent a way how we can grow food in greater harmony with nature and more locally, while also not depleting the resources of future generations to come. Soil is important, and so is our health and the environment, let’s make it a priority.

We will discuss the (un)sustainability of agriculture in our series "A different agriculture." You can find more information in the "events" section.

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