Photo: © Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images

The battle to revolutionise food

For nearly all of human history, the main concern was to cultivate enough food to feed everyone—but now we face a new crucial problem
March 3, 2021

When Stéphane Quere took over his parents’ farm in Brittany 16 years ago, he didn’t have any particular desire to turn it organic. He had grown up seeing his parents labour to grow broccoli and shallots and cauliflower on their 30 hectares, helping out from the age of seven, working through the summer holidays as a teenager. His main thought was: I have to find a different way to farm, one that isn’t so hard.

Stéphane’s dilemma is perhaps the fundamental question of all life since the dawn of time: how can we get enough food to sustain ourselves? In the Anthropocene era, it is a newly urgent question. Climate change is upon us and our dominion on Earth has become the planet’s most determining environmental factor. Agriculture and the food industry account for a quarter of global greenhouse emissions. How do we produce food and eat in a way that is not only sustaining for our own body and soul, but also the planet?

For nearly all of human history, the main concern was to cultivate enough food to feed everyone. But more than two hundred years on from the predictions of Malthus—in a world with roughly eight times as many mouths to feed—we live in an era of cheap and abundant food. Perhaps for the first time in history, we now produce more calories globally than we need per person. (About 800m people worldwide are still considered to be undernourished, but this is mostly as a result of conflict. Hunger is now a problem of distribution, not of production.) The price of food has been falling for decades. In Britain, household food spending now accounts for less than 10 per cent of the average disposable income; in the 1950s it was around 40 per cent.

But this spectacular achievement has come at a cost. The methods that have been so successful in increasing yield—intensive farming and aquaculture, larger and larger fields of monocultured crops, the use of pesticides and herbicides—have proved environmentally catastrophic. Chemical fertilisers degrade soil health and contribute to global warming. Using more and more chemicals creates a vicious cycle: more intensive farming leads to more degradation of productive land. This creates a greater need to push yields to their maximum with chemical inputs. Meanwhile, pathogens and pests continue to plague animals and ravage crops despite the continued development of new pesticides and herbicides to deploy against them. It’s an arms race that the pathogens are always going to win. And along the way small family farms, like Stéphane’s, have been squeezed into penury by falling food prices and falling incomes.

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health, published in 2019, was the first scientific review to ask: can we feed a future population of 10bn people on a healthy diet, and within planetary boundaries? In February of this year Chatham House published a landmark review concluding that agriculture is now the main threat posed to biodiversity. The issue is not only urgent, but mainstream.

The debate, however, has been presented as an almost unresolvable dichotomy: either we continue to eat like ravenous global omnivores and destroy the planet, or we must eat more plant protein than meat and revert to some kind of peasant-paleo diet of beans and gruel, enlivened with the occasional foraged herb.

On one side, the industrialists argue that the methods that were so successful in increasing manufacturing capacity—mechanisation, standardisation, specialisation, scale economies, comparative advantage—have also transformed agricultural production and delivered a stable global food supply. The other side, let’s call them the organicists, maintain that the natural world—the oceans, forests, fields and animals—should not be subject to Henry Ford-style efficiencies, and blame “big ag” for destroying the planet by churning out highly processed foods that also threaten our health.

The organicists seem to hanker for a bygone pastoral Eden, a countryside patchworked by small and medium family-run farms, where flocks of chickens follow cows grazing in pastures. The industrialists roll their eyes and say: you need monoculture efficiencies, you can’t feed billions of people on free-range chickens that cost twenty quid.

Somewhere in the middle are farmers, squeezed out of the value chain by the multinational food companies and supermarkets, and us, the eaters, the consumers, wondering what to cook for supper.

Organic farming was not taught when Stéphane went to agricultural college; he had to pay for supplemental courses after graduating. One of the courses he took was about how to bake bread. His instructor suggested that with about 30 hectares (a good average size for a vegetable farm in his part of Brittany), he could go organic and grow cereal grains for bread as well as vegetables. On a map Stéphane drew a compass circle around his farm to describe a 30 minute-drive radius and toured several weekly town markets. There were few organic producers and he saw that there was a way to sell his produce directly.

His Kerantosfal Farm is now organic and, he laughs, looks much like a farm might have looked at the turn of the last century. It is a mixed operation, growing 40 kinds of vegetable, including 15 varieties of tomatoes in the summer; cereals, several wheats, rye and buckwheat. He also keeps a small herd of reddish long-horned Salers cattle. The grain is milled on site and baked into bread in the farm’s giant stone, wood-burning oven. Hay meadows feed the cows that produce meat to sell and manure to fertilise the vegetables. Every three years or so, when weeds begin to overtake the vegetable patches, the fields are given over to grass for the cows to graze and refertilise.

Ten years ago he took on a partner, a young Breton farmer named Gurvan Raoul. The farm is a going concern that supports their two families and employs one almost-full-time farmhand, plus extra workers in summer. “When I started people thought, ‘Oh he is punk, he’s totally hippy,’” Gurvan told me; granted, he does have blue hair. His forearms are also colourfully tattooed. When I came to the farm, he was splitting wood for the bread oven. “Ten years later we are still here. It’s not a big farm,” he said modestly, “but it is a good one that we are proud of.”

The basic problem with the organic idyll is yield. If you take away the synthetic fertiliser, it plummets. One aggregated data analysis from Nature in 2018 suggests that organic farming yields vary between 2 to 30 per cent less than “conventional” farms. On the Kerantosfal farm, the broccoli are half the size of those on nearby non-organic farms.

Industrialists argue that although organic farming might be preferable, it’s just not practical. In order to grow the same kinds of quantities you would have to clear more wild habitats for agriculture. Dig a little deeper and other paradoxes emerge. The term “organic” is a big umbrella label that can shelter all kinds of unhelpful environmental practices. Run-off from organic slurry is as much an environmental problem as nitrates from chemical fertilisers leaching into groundwater. Big organic farms in California’s Central Valley are draining aquifers.

On the other hand, the industrialist’s monocultures, which produce higher yields of a more uniform product, are also more fragile and susceptible to pathogens, weather and market vicissitudes. They are the proverbial eggs in one basket. The Cavendish banana, one of the most popular fruits in the world, is propagated as a genetic clone and is being destroyed by a new strain of Panama disease. In Florida, citrus greening is threatening a billion dollar crop, despite the efforts of some growers to inject antibiotics into their trees to stop it. African swine flu has been sweeping through Chinese pig farms for the past two years, decimating herds, just as a new variant has recently been detected. The global agri-business is, as it were, devouring its own.

“The basic problem with the organic idyll is yield. Take away synthetic fertiliser and it plummets”

Waste in food systems occurs on many different levels. In the global South, a lack of modernity is often to blame: bad infrastructure can mean food rots before it gets to market. But the consumer and economic culture surrounding industrial food production creates waste of other sorts. In the global North, we often buy too much food and then throw it away—and sometimes perfectly edible produce is binned by supermarkets before we get the chance.

On regular non-organic farms close to Kerantosfal, the vegetables have to be of standard size and shape to be accepted for sale. If the broccoli is too small, the onion too big, the carrot or the parsnip bifurcated—sometimes a third of the crop—they are mulched. “My broccoli may be small,” says Gurvan, “but I sell them all.”

Comparing conventional farming to organic is swings and roundabouts, like comparing antibiotic-injected orange groves to heirloom variety apple orchards. There is no single right way to crunch the numbers: assessing the impact of agriculture on the environment is mazy and fraught and confusing. There is no agreed method, for example, to calculate the global carbon footprint of a single ingredient. More broadly, what metrics are most pertinent? Energy efficiency? Crop value per acre? Calorie yield per acre? What about soil health, carbon sequestration, flood defences, biodiversity?

And it’s not just a measurement issue. Think about the everyday factors that individual farmers need to account for: topography, regional weather, soil conditions, crop type, local consumer and labour markets, all of which are moving parts. Efficiencies and economics are trade-offs toggled together with the varying conditions of different countries and cultures.

There are no general rules, but the overall pattern is becoming clearer. Industrialised farming is reaching a tipping point of diminishing returns. All the topsoil erosion, the addiction to chemicals, the woes of the Cavendish banana and antibiotic-resistant livestock infections are combining with the preferences of increasingly environmentally aware consumers, producing a convergence between the sustainability concerns of the organicists with the “bottom line” fixation of the industrialists. Demand for organic produce is increasing in Europe and the UK year-on-year. Around Kerantosfal, more and more conventional farmers are going organic because they can get a higher price for their produce.

And farming habits are beginning to change. Globally, the use of synthetic fertiliser continues to rise and forests are still being cleared for farmland, but the rate of increase is in both cases slowing. In Europe, these trends have now been in reverse for more than 20 years.

A farm’s-eye view explains why growing numbers of people are looking to do things differently, and escape the industrialist supply chain. Stéphane’s father sold his produce through one of France’s largest farmers’ co-operatives, Prince de Bretagne, which negotiated the price with big wholesalers and retailers. His vegetables were reduced to standardised commodities, prices floated according to regional and global supply and demand. Stéphane and Gurvan sell about 40 per cent of their harvest to a fancy Parisian restaurant supplier (who has pivoted to box schemes and website sales during Covid), the rest in local markets. They sell at the (less volatile) price their markets will bear, and that organic market is incrementally expanding. They have a good local reputation, and can command a premium. When the market is right and the weather is good, a conventional, non-organic farmer can clean up with a good harvest. But when these factors don’t align, he’s stuck. Gurvan told me a neighbouring farmer stopped at his stall in the market once and expressed astonishment that he was charging €4.50 a kilo for his shallots, telling him, “I can only get 8c at the moment.”

Organic farms might save money by having fewer chemical inputs, although organic manure (if you have to buy it in) is far more expensive than chemical fertiliser, and even then you don’t get the same yield. Smaller farms and food producers also have higher distribution costs—there is inescapable inefficiency in putting too much reliance on small white vans shuttling about, but there is often no alternative. Cereal farmers in Britain, for example, are locked into the size of a lorry load; grow anything less than the 29 tonnes that an average lorry can carry, and it’s not worth the price of the petrol to pick it up. As well as lower yields, organic and artisanal approaches have to cope with increased labour requirements. Stéphane and Gurvan wake up at 4am several days a week to make their bread. It’s hard work, but their partnership means that they can alternate and take days off: they allow themselves five weeks of holiday a year, almost unheard of among small family farms.

How we eat, how we live and our relationship to our environment: these things are, or should be, humanity’s great shared project. But too often discussion congeals along ideological lines. Organicists blame capitalism and consumerism, arguing that the extractive and exploitative degradation of the environment is where the profit motive inevitably leads. Issues like gene editing, animal welfare and meat-eating are emotionally charged. It’s true that our food systems have become increasingly dominated by a few large multinational corporations, but the us-and-them of the language of debate manages to be both polarised and vague, its terms offering no real practical guide: Big vs Small, Global vs Local, Artisanal vs Industrial, Natural vs Chemical.

The threats posed by chemical-based agricultures and aquacultures to ecosystems, soil health, human health and the planet are well documented; solutions however tend to be as siloed as the arguments.

The organicist’s “sustainable farming” has been upgraded to “regenerative farming” which aims not just to grow food in a more responsible way, and mitigate some of the consequences of global warming. Agroforestry, growing trees as a perennial crop for nuts or coppicing, creates protective barriers to wind and pathogens. Planting more trees sequesters carbon and their strong root systems create natural flood defences. Permaculture fosters ecosystems of trees, shrubs, ground cover, soil, fungi and insects. No-tillage methods, sowing seeds into small slits, can protect mycorrhizal health (the fungal networks that distribute nutrients between plants and soil) by not ploughing land into mud clots. “Intercropping” (growing complementary crops like corn and beans in the same field as they have, for example, in Latin America for centuries) fixes nitrogen in the soil.

Industrialists meanwhile look to the example of the Netherlands, a small country that has nonetheless become the world’s second-largest exporter of food (by value) after the US. Twenty years ago, the Dutch government made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture using the slogan: “Twice as much food using half as many resources.” In the Wageningen region, nicknamed “Food Valley,” the landscape is not made of sweeping green fields but rather dotted by the glass roofs of hothouses, many illuminated at night under a growing glow of LEDs.

“No-tillage methods can protect vital fungal networks. Careful ‘intercropping’ of corns and beans can fix nitrogen in the soil”

For industrialists the future of food is more technology: the colour spectrums on those LEDs can be tailored to specific plants, sensors can detect levels of hydration, drones can monitor crops while robots test for ripeness. There will be driverless tractors, automatic dairy operations, complementary farming like fish and vegetables grown together on an urban rooftop so that the fish poo can fertilise the vegetables in an efficient closed-loop system. Hydroponics, aquaponics. Meat substitutes developed from GMO plants or fungal cultures; insects raised for protein in animal feed; algae blooms harvested for nutrients. Constant soil and moisture analysis can allow for targeted irrigation and pest and pathogen control, reducing water use and the over-spraying of pesticides. Gene editing using the new CRISPR technology can develop crops resistant to pathogens, drought and heat or even gluten-free wheat or strawberries that don’t droop on the ground. Precision farming, the industrialists argue, is the solution.

Clearly there must be a middle path, a way to marry innovation with the world’s long lineage of farming culture and knowledge, to use technology in the service of soil health, nutritious crops and healthy animals. If environmental damage is the stick, consumer demand should be the carrot, pushing for change in our food systems. But as much as consumer concern about the ethics and ecology of our food supply has increased during this time of pandemic, lockdown, cooking-every-meal-at-home, walking in the woods and listening to birdsong, it remains fickle. Like many of us, I have a fondness for McDonald’s, I buy farmed salmon because it’s cheap and avocados from South America because I have a sudden hankering for guacamole. Public opinion is divided and confused and, at times, hypocritical. Emotive uproar has kept GMO crops out of European fields even as our industrially farmed pigs are fattened on GMO soy, most of which is grown in Brazil and Argentina with commensurate carbon consequences.

The truth is that much of the price we pay for our industrially produced food is not at the till. The cleanup of chemical runoff from agriculture that pollutes rivers and groundwater, damage from landslides and flooding caused by pulling down hedges and copses to make space for larger fields, the loss of habitat and wildlife, the collapse in populations of insects and bees caused by pesticides, are not borne by farmers or food producers. Nor are the burgeoning health costs of an industrialised diet. All these are real costs paid for by governments and insurance companies and communities and individuals, by people, by us.

If consumers are confused, it’s in part because our governments have done little to communicate or to legislate a holistic policy. There are, in Europe and the UK, subsidies to encourage better stewardship of the countryside, but they are pretty piecemeal. More generally, subsidies further skew the disparity in price between industrial and organic food. While the EU has now retreated from paying farmers to produce more and more—butter mountains and wine lakes are bygones—the Common Agricultural Policy still awards what is known as the Single Payment Scheme, based on acreage, which favours larger operations. In America, cereals and sugar are subsidised but fruit and vegetables are not. It’s why a Pop-Tart costs less than a cabbage.

But at the moment policies in the UK, like the US and Europe, are too often shaped by the lobbying of big agriculture and food than public health or environmental priorities. Away from the stronghold of the European farm lobbies, Britain has a rare opportunity to radically re-orient subsidies and create a healthy food supply. This is exactly the moment to thrash out all of these issues in the UK.

“Post-Brexit subsidies are meant to refocus on ‘public goods.’ But the real decisions will be taken later—out of the spotlight”

And the post-Brexit Agriculture Act does propose to award grants to farmers engaged in activities “such as environmental or animal welfare improvements” that contribute to “public goods.” Specifics, however, remain unclear, with many of the real decisions to be settled quietly in regulations due to be made in enabling powers under the bill. Away from the media and parliamentary spotlight that accompanies primary legislation, it’s easy to imagine the old interests dictating the terms of the new regime. At the same time, ministers have undermined the direction of travel, by signalling that their priority is securing a trade agreement with the US, which will controversially open the gates to cheap American industrial food.

If there is one lesson of the chemical era of agriculture, it’s that there isn’t one single solution. The strength and resilience of nature, we are now understanding—from the microbiomes of our guts to the microbiomes of the soil—lies in its complexity and symbiosis. Stéphane and Gurvan host a small farm sale every Thursday evening where a few local artisans also come and sell their wares —there’s a wood carver, a sheep farmer who makes cheese and a lady who sells crêpes. In the area there are similar farm shops and small markets where local cider makers and people making yogurt or ice cream or honey sell their products. I buy food directly from farms, from village markets, from supermarkets. I recently joined a collective that orders bulk oranges and lemons and olive oil directly from a co-operative in Sicily. There are many different farms, producers, consumers and solutions. We need, more than anything, to embrace the diversity. A healthy food supply is not a chain, it is a network.

We know that the greater the biodiversity the greater the productivity of the land and the sea. There have been attempts to ascribe monetary values to trees and animals and ecosystems, the “natural capital” of our planet earth, but the numbers are trillion-dollar guesstimates and don’t appear on any balance sheets. But a good farmer’s accounting will take a long-term view. Stéphane planted walnut trees 12 years ago; he has only been able to reap a harvest in the last two years. This year at Kerantosfal they plan to plant 3,000 trees, different varieties, some small, some more mature. “Yes I will lose some terrain,” Stéphane told me, “but I will gain quality. Really, it’s my children who will be able to have the advantage of those trees.”