by Gianna Compagno
Modern-day agriculture is unsustainable, accounting for 25% of global greenhouse emissions and failing to adequately distribute food to meet the needs of the global population. Around 30% of food produced is wasted or lost, and over 800 million people worldwide are hungry while over two billion are obese or overweight . Current industrial agricultural practices have caused many commercial farmers to become heavily dependent on the seeds and agrochemicals of “big agribusiness companies”, giving these corporations disproportionate influence over the agricultural industry . In addition to these challenges, the climate crisis poses a growing threat to the agricultural sector, increasing the frequency of floods, droughts, abnormal rainfall, cyclones, and landslides, and causing sea levels to rise throughout the world . A just transition towards a more sustainable type of agriculture is required which must both help to create and upkeep optimal living standards and meet the needs of the global population.
Climate action in agriculture tends to either focus on “sustainable intensification to increase agricultural yield while maintaining the ecosystem integrity or agroecological farming to restore agriculture’s ecosystem services” . Sustainable intensification involves using new agricultural technologies, such as modern crop varieties, and ensuring efficient water, chemical, and nutrient usage. Some people fear that this method may create the same environmental challenges as current industrial agriculture while failing to address problems in food distribution and consumption discussed above . The alternative, agroecology, aims to meet the requirements of a growing global population “in socially, morally and environmentally responsible ways” . As the Agroecology Fund explains, the goal of agroecology is “improving soil and plant quality through available biomass and biodiversity, rather than battling nature with chemical inputs”. Agroecology therefore aims to mirror natural processes in the agricultural industry .
One way to mirror natural processes in agriculture is through maximising the natural immunity of agricultural animals by avoiding livestock overcrowding and stress. This provides an alternative to the antibiotics and other veterinary drugs used in industrial agriculture which contribute to antibiotic resistance and encourage animals to be treated in ways that harm their health and well-being. . To address food waste, agroecology involves feeding animals crop and grass residues that humans cannot eat rather than using intensive, environmentally damaging monocultures to feed agricultural animal populations. Furthermore, agroecology uses animal manure to fertilize crops and takes advantage of integrated pest control techniques, such as when chickens consume cutworms.
Such practices minimise the feeding of human foods (such as cereal crops) to livestock, decrease the use of polluting synthetic fertilizers, and improve biodiversity by being less disruptive to local ecosystems . Together, this integrates crops and livestock into a circular economy, mirroring natural processes as they would exist without human interference . That said, agroecology requires more land than industrial agricultural practices . Regardless, the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land from August 2018 stated that agriculture needs to move towards agroecology and a focus on fewer, better quality meat products .
Workers and Transition
Central to a just transition in agriculture is the well-being of global populations and agricultural workers. The International Labour Organization describes the “four pillars of the Decent Work Agenda – social dialogue, social protection, rights at work and employment” . To achieve this, policymakers and corporations must listen to the voices of those who will be most affected by changes in policies and practices . Excluding farmers, workers, and other groups most at risk of being marginalized by changes in practices and policy will cause those currently earning a livelihood from industrial agriculture to feel demonized, defensive of their practices, and ultimately disadvantaged by changes made .
A just transition in agriculture which meets the needs of the world’s population is both possible and necessary, illustrated by previous societal transitions, such as the shift in employment from coal to alternative industries in the USA and the UK . A “just transition” in agriculture presents the opportunity to alter the food system in a way which not only addresses the climate crisis but also provides all people with sufficient, nutritious food and provides farmers and workers with fulfilling, stable jobs .