In response to rising food prices and blocked grain exports from Ukraine, people are increasingly calling to turn away from sustainability efforts and instead to push for more intensification in agriculture. The SVP (Swiss People’s Party) is even demanding that measures to promote biodiversity be reversed as part of a “cultivation slaughter 2.0”.This short-term view, however, would not solve the problems; on the contrary, it would exacerbate them.
The problem is not that too little is being produced
Worldwide, hunger has indeed been on the rise again since 2016, mainly due to conflicts and weather extremes as a result of the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. East Africa is currently experiencing its worst drought crisis in 40 years. Rising food prices exacerbate this problem, especially for low-income populations in countries that rely heavily on food imports. Their food security is threatened not by a lack of global production, but rather primarily by inequality regarding income and distribution. Worldwide, 4,600 calories of food are produced per person per day – more than twice what we need to feed humanity.
Around 40% of global arable land is currently used to produce animal feed, and 10% of the world’s grain is used for biofuels. One-third of the food produced does not end up on people’s plates, but rather in the garbage. When facing a temporary shortage of food produced, it is much more effective to start with those issues than to further intensify a mode of production that is already too intensive. Just an 8% reduction in the use of grain as animal feed in the EU alone would fully compensate for the expected decline in grain exports from Ukraine. In Switzerland the degree of self-sufficiency could also be significantly increased if more grains, potatoes, pulses and vegetables were grown instead of animal feed. Doing so would simultaneously contribute to a healthy and climate-friendly diet.
Investing in education and health instead of artificial fertilizers and pesticides
Prices are currently rising sharply not only for food but also for fossil fuels. This increases the costs of transport, artificial fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. Sustainable, diversified production based on local cycles and predominantly local sales markets is largely independent of those costs. This is particularly relevant for lower-income countries, which spend a significant part of their gross domestic product on such imports. Converting to agroecological forms of cultivation would not only enable them to sustainably increase soil fertility but also to invest their scarce financial resources in more sensible sectors, such as education and health, instead of fertilizer subsidies.
It is not surprising that agrochemical companies are trying to use the crisis to defend their business model. Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Syngenta, a subsidiary of the Chinese-controlled agricultural multinational ChemChina, recently even claimed that people in Africa would starve because we are eating more and more organic products here. The statement is as absurd as it is easy to see behind: industrial farming is not part of the solution; on the contrary, it is one of the causes of the food and climate crises. Technical “miracle solutions” such as genetic engineering have so far turned out to be empty promises – at least as far as sustainability is concerned. But they have been very effective in increasing herbicide sales and thus agricultural corporations’ profits.
Agribusiness is partly to blame for the hunger crisis
The consequences of the war in Ukraine bring the risks of globalized agribusiness before our very eyes. For the people in Africa, the dependence on grain and fertilizer imports is fatal. Price increases for grain and artificial fertilizers are additionally fuelled by speculation and self-serving export restrictions, as a report published in May 2022 by the international expert panel IPES-Food shows. Biovision President Hans Rudolf Herren, himself a member of the expert panel, says in this regard: “The price increase in recent weeks is largely due to speculation on the world market. Doing so is creating artificial shortages, and huge quantities of grain are being withheld in the hope that prices will rise and that it will be possible to sell the grain at a higher price later. I find it unbelievable that food speculation is tolerated.”
Globalized, agroindustrial farming is part of the reason for the rising number of people going hungry. The idea of solving the current crisis by producing even more monocultures and using even more artificial fertilizers and pesticides fails to think the problem through fully. It would be much wiser to use the higher market prices of food and artificial fertilizers as an opportunity for an agroecological transformation of food systems, in both the Global North and South. A diversified, sustainable agriculture would not only be more sustainable, but also more resilient to climate change and economic and social crises.
Countless practical examples and studies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere (see also the book “Transformation of Our Food Systems” on the right/below by Biovision President Hans R. Herren) have shown that a diversified organic agriculture that includes crop rotation and organic fertilization sustainably improves food security and farmers’ incomes – and often produces even more and better-balanced food than from conventional monocultures.