Half of the world’s habitable land is used to produce our food, while the other large areas are contaminated by fertilizers, pesticides and sewage. How can we feed the world without causing harm to the planet?
Alice McCrum, Emma Heiling and Sébastien Treyer at the fourth Ecologues meeting, 27 April 2023. (Photo: Emilie Biggs, American Library in Paris)
We’ve got the food system wrong
George Monbiot, columnist, filmmaker, and author of Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet, kicked off the meeting to a full house in-person at the American Library and online by emphasizing the gap between widely accepted claims about our food system and the scientific findings that contradict them.
“Just about everything we think we know about the food system is wrong and more than any other system it’s surrounded by myths, by wishful thinking, by gut instincts understandably enough and by a total failure to really grasp what the science is telling us,” Monbiot said.
Monbiot further explained that land is a crucial environmental resource and that the vast majority of the Earth’s ecosystems depend on wild areas. However, agriculture takes up 38% of the planet’s land surface, with animal farming occupying most of that land. Grazing livestock alone uses more land than all other human activities combined. Monbiot debunked the misconception that eating pasture-fed meat is more ecologically friendly than other types of meat.
People want to reduce their meat consumption
Emma Heiling is the Founder & CEO of ClimaTalk, a youth-led nonprofit organisation demystifying climate policy and empowering young people in the fight for climate action. She recently completed her Master’s thesis at Sciences Po Paris, where one of the most controversial topics in her research was food.
“I found particularly interesting the potential for change once people are educated in a manner that is inclusive,” Heiling said. “All of the [policy] recommendations included demands for changes in the agricultural system that were a lot more ambitious, a lot more progressive than what is currently happening in governments.”
In Denmark, 55% of people voted that meat consumption should be reduced whereas in Germany, almost 80% of people agreed that you should shift to a diet that is as plant-based as possible.
Heiling cited the example of the European Union’s Amendment 171 and the influence of the dairy lobby. The amendment would have been extremely restrictive for plant-based products and would have prohibited companies from selling plant-based milk in the same style of cartons as dairy products, or even using the word “milk” in their names. The amendment was stopped only due to the campaign efforts of NGOs and 500,000 signatures from people from around the EU. However, a restriction remained in place, affirmed by a court decision in 2017, that plant-based products cannot be called “creamy.”
“We are currently pushing people in the [meat] direction and it would be so simple to make changes to push them in a different direction,” Heiling said.
Reducing overall calorie intake
Sébastien Treyer is Executive Director of IDDRI, a think tank which facilitates the transition towards sustainable development. He emphasized the importance of working on both the supply and demand sides to reduce overall calorie intake, particularly the share of animal protein, such as meat, milk and eggs. He suggests reducing the consumption of vegetables fed to animals, as two-thirds of vegetable production in Europe is used to feed them.
“None of the policies that have tried to influence our food behaviours has ever worked. [The French government] doesn’t want to forbid things, but I believe we are in a moment where everybody understands we need to work on the demand [of food] not just for environmental reasons but for public health reasons,” Treyer said. “The way we eat in France is becoming less good for public health.”
Treyer advocated in favour of regulating the food processing and food retail industry to give more freedom to consumers to choose healthy foods, rather than constraining them. It is essential to listen to all consumer groups and consider their needs to make changes in food consumption behaviours.
“Nobody has to feed the world. People have to feed themselves. That’s really important,” Treyer said.
Dangerous power relations and the resiliency of the food system
Monbiot highlighted the dangerous asymmetries of power within the food system, which are similar to those that caused the 2008 banking crisis. For example, just four corporations control roughly 90% of the global grain trade.
“The banking crisis in 2008 was caused partly by certain banks becoming too big and too well-connected with the rest of the financial system. We see a very similar dynamic taking place within the food system,” Monbiot said.
Unlike the banking crisis, where governments were able to bail out the banks with future money, there is no way to bail out the food system with future food. If the food system collapses, as Monbiot warns, it would have a devastating impact on many people, especially the poor.
There have been warnings in the scientific literature for 10 years, however this warning has not translated into public concerns or awareness. Monbiot warns that the food system is fragile and amplifies shocks, making it vulnerable to collapse.
Treyer offered a different perspective.
“A precautionary principle would be to really use chemicals in agriculture as the last resort,” Treyer said. “You turn to them only in the end when you’ve tried many other things. So it’s a new way of looking at risks in agriculture. But resilience in the system will be much more insured by more complex landscapes, more complex rotations and more biodiversity of the regions.”
The full webinar recording is available here.
The next Ecologues meeting takes place Thursday, 25 May 2023 on “Environmental Economics” with environmental economist Timothée Parrique, development finance research officer Bianca Getzel, climate journalist Marlowe Hood and PhD candidate in ecological finance Rigo Melgar-Melgar.
Three questions to consider:
- What makes the practice of grazing livestock so demanding in terms of resources?
- What is stopping people from reducing their meat consumption?
- Is the food system resilient?
Karolina Krakowiak is News Decoder’s Project Management Intern for The Writing’s on the Wall. Leaving engineering behind and following her passion, Karo decided to move to Paris and pursue a Master’s degree in International Management and Sustainability at the American University in Paris. Both in her professional and private life, she prioritizes nature, kindness and mindfulness.