In discussion with Jacob Hansen
Podcast summary

Fertilizer industry facing challenges from all sides

 

Conflict in Europe, rising gas prices, the rising cost of carbon credits – multiple factors are affecting the European fertilizer industry and this can only continue. Jacob Hansen, Director General of Fertilizers Europe, talks us through some of the issues and possible solutions, from investment in renewable electricity to reduce dependence on gas, to keeping a global level playing field for fertilizer manufacturers. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 25-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

 

How will the tension between Western powers and Russia affect fertilizer prices and the supply chain?

It’s too early to say. The European fertilizer industry is part of European society. If our leaders decide on sanctions, we will support and accept them. But decisions and sanctions have consequences. Obviously Russia is a very big gas supplier to European society. We are a very gas-dependent industry, and we need solutions for us to continue production.

Gas and electricity have already got vastly more expensive. What impact has this had?

Gas prices have gone up more than 500% since the summer and since gas is 80-90% of our industry’s variable costs, so the impact is huge. Farmers have seen much higher fertilizer prices – around 250%. The good thing for farmers is that the prices of crops have also gone up significantly.

We need to work closely with farmers to diminish the impact. We need to increase nitrogen use efficiency, and also phosphate and potassium to make sure that we get optimal growth to optimal biomass per unit of fertilizer use.

Are there still big gains to make in optimization?

We have gotten significantly better at optimization but there is still a lot of room for improvement. More precision farming, much better analysis of soil. We need to get more knowledge to farmers. We also need it to be recognized that farmers are making an effort and they need to be rewarded in the marketplace.

Could organic fertilizers plug the gap between reducing mineral fertilizers and maintaining yields?

Clearly not. There is not enough organic fertilizer to supply what we need. Organic fertilizer typically does not have the right balance of nutrients to reflect the need of the plant to grow optimally. You have to balance that with mineral fertilizers.

Going back to prices, there’s been a sharp spike in the cost of carbon credits as part of the EU’s emission trading system, from 25 euros per unit to 85 euros. What’s been the impact of that?

At the moment we emit a lot of CO2, and we are trying to reduce it. Roughly speaking, we produce 2 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of ammonia, so we pay 170 euros per tonne. The good thing is that, at the moment, 80% of this is refunded to the industry as part of what is termed “free allowances”.

Does the EU plan to get rid of these free allowances?

This is one of our big concerns. Under the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, these free allowances will gradually be reduced with a lot of consequences. First, on the price we demand from farmers. If production gets more expensive, the product you sell will also have to get more expensive.

Second, we will not be competitive on the export market. And that is critical because we are a seasonal industry, so we need export markets. If we have to pay full carbon costs and our competitors don’t, it’s going to be very difficult for us.

How do you balance a good fertilizer industry with a legitimate need to reduce carbon emissions?

The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism is the right way to go, so there’s a level playing field in Europe. And we are transforming. But we want to make sure we can be part of the global economy while that happens.

As we start to transition to green fertilizers we will produce not on the basis of gas but of renewable electricity. If we want to speed up this development, there has to be an expansion of renewable electricity.

If you could give one policy or practical idea to create a more sustainable food system, what would it be?

I would focus on “how can we grow crops more efficiently?”. How can we increase nitrogen use efficiently? But we need to look at it not from the point of view of the individual sector, like organic manure, but what does the plant need? And I would like to have more discussion on how the whole food chain – retailers, consumers – can support this process.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 25-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Jacob Hansen

Jacob Hansen is Director General of Fertilizers Europe. Before joining Fertilizers Europe in February 2011, Mr Hansen was the Director of the Danish Agriculture & Food Council in Brussels.

 

In discussion with Brian Czech
Podcast summary

The case for ecological economics

 

What happens if economies move away from a focus on growth and GDP? In our latest podcast we talk with Brian Czech, Executive Director for the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), about an alternative model – the steady state economy, how it works, and some of its implications for the food system as a whole. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 28-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

 

Briefly, what is a steady state economy? How is it different from what we have today?

It helps to remind ourselves what economic growth is, and then put it in contrast to that. Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. That entails a growing population or per capital production and consumption, measured with GDP (Gross Domestic Product). A declining economy is decreasing levels of production and consumption in the aggregate… indicated by declining GDP. The steady state economy is the sustainable option in between those two. Stabilized population and per capital production and consumption, stabilized GDP mildly fluctuating around an optimum level.

How could you define that optimum level of GDP?

In a democracy, it’s a matter of weighing people’s attitudes, opinions and preferences towards things like green spaces versus urban areas, levels of trash, the amount of congestion. If the primary concern is the environment and climate change, biodiversity loss, or chemicals, you might say GDP of $90 trillion globally is too much.

We have indicators that allow us to see in proportion what are the concerns of citizens in a democracy, starting with GDP, but also the Living Planet Index, the Human Development Indicator, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, the Genuine Progress Indicator.

Are stocks of natural capital still depleted in a steady state economy, or do you try to reinvigorate them? For example, how does that work for land or rainforest?

We have renewable and non-renewable resources. Some of the energy resources, for example fossil fuels, aren’t renewable. Once you extract them and combust them for power, they’re gone. Most minerals are pretty much like that. With renewable resources, you mentioned forests. If you haven’t depleted or degraded timber and biodiversity too far already, then they are renewable, meaning they can be recovered to a level that is higher than when they were severely depleted. However, biodiversity can only take so much and when a species is extinguished, it’s gone.

Is there a significant overlap between steady state and the circular economy?

They’re different. And there is no such thing as a completely circular economy. There will be waste in the economic production process. Maybe where the two come together is in the buying of time in the transition from a growth economy to a steady state. We would encourage people to think more in terms of a flow of throughput rather than a circularity with 100 percent recycling.

What happens to the price of food in a steady state economy?

I’m afraid it’s going to go up before there’s significant steady state politics to conduce a steady state economy itself.

A lot depends on when the transition to a steady state economy transpires. If it’s prior to a collapse of an economy, then it can be done with relative price stability. If it’s done after the fact, after a lengthy period of macroeconomic supply shock and inflation of the money supply… then no, there won’t be price stability.

Could you give one policy idea or practical suggestion to create a more sustainable food system (aside from implementing steady state economics).

I would give one of the top policy recommendations toward establishing a steady state economy, which is land conservation. Maybe we could view it as a matrix of ecological integrity – including stocks of natural capital and funds of ecosystem services. You may have a forest that’s a stock of timber. It’s a stock of wildlife. It helps to maintain stocks of water. It’s concurrently a fund of ecosystem services that help to maintain an agricultural economy on agricultural bases outside the forests, like pollinators and scavengers and soil aerators.

The more we depend on monocultures that are dependent on heavy loads of fertilizer and energy – that’s very dangerous and it’s very unstable. We need the resilience provided by ecological integrity and a biodiverse matrix for the agricultural sector.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 28-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Brian Czech

Brian Czech has a Ph.D. in renewable natural resources studies from the University of Arizona with a minor in political science. The founding President of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), Brian is also a Visiting Professor at Virginia Tech, where he teaches ecological economics in the National Capitol Region.

 

In discussion with Konstantinos Afianes
Podcast summary

How wine links to health and nature

 

Our latest podcast takes us to Ikaria, in the Aegean ocean, where Konstantinos Afianes is producing natural, sustainable wines. The island is known for the longevity of its population – so what are the secrets of the islanders’ health, and how can wine production continue against the intensely hot weather produced by climate change? For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 22-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

 

Tell us a bit about Afianos Wines, the vineyards and Ikaria.

We started in 1997. My parents had a lot of passion about the history of the island. People had been forced to leave after the phylloxera plague at the end of the 19th Century . It destroyed 90% of European vineyards. Wine-making rebooted after the Second World War. There was always huge potential.

Like your parents, you produce natural wines, rather than processed. How did that start?

My father’s main profession is a pharmacist. He knows how important people’s well-being is, and he always tried to avoid using chemicals. So I learned wine-making the natural way. Then when I studied in France I saw the most industrialized way. I came back having learned what not to do.

As a farmer, do you receive any support?

When we started the winery in 2007 we had some funds from the EU. We had first applied in 2002, so by 2007 everything – materials, building – was about twice the price. So we still have a loan to pay back. There’s a lot of hassle with the bureaucracy. With the pandemic, we’ve also had help.

Is climate change having an impact on the vineyards and on the island?

The situation is changing drastically. This year we saw the greatest impact of all. From 400 metres altitude, coming down to the sea, we had a lot of heat and just before the harvest severe fires. We lost about 60%. But anything above 400 metres flourished. Fortunately, we didn’t have any significant diseases. We’re in survival mode. We’re forced to plant at higher altitudes where it’s cooler. A lot of our vineyards are experimental, we have different patches at every altitude.

Ikaria is famous for being a Blue Zone – one of only five places in the world with high longevity. Why is that?

It’s a family-centric lifestyle which is closer to nature than in the city. People have time to think about themselves – to meet people, to bring wine, to enjoy dinner together, supporting each other in the bad moments and the good moments. I missed this when I was abroad.

What about the diet on Ikaria. Should it, or could it, be more widely adopted?

Everything begins with the soil – that’s the No 1 priority, to have clean land without chemicals. If you have clean land, you can start thinking about the rest, food, vegetables etc. We’re talking about a biocentric model, which is the only one that’s sustainable. We have to focus on that.

Is the traditional lifestyle coming under threat?

We are big on tourism nowadays. We’re not like the big islands, but in August the situation is dire! My main concern is that Ikaria does not get taken over by tourism and money, and we lose our values.

What are your plans for the future of the vineyard?

We’ve set goals which are all around environmental sustainability. Our goal is not the wine – that’s the final thing. The projects we have are to make us as autonomous as possible for the winery in the future. We are recycling the water we use in the winery, because we have high usage, and adding solar panels. In the vineyards we only use compost we produce from the leftovers of the harvest.

Can you share one piece of advice that would really make a difference and increase the sustainability of the food system?

We have to think long-term, improve our techniques of, say, organic farming so that we can feed more and more people without destroying the environment. We need to search deeper and deeper into techniques to return to the natural world.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 22-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Konstantinos Afianes

Konstantinos Afianes, who studied wine-making in Bordeaux, France, is co-owner of the Afianes Vineyard, which was founded almost 20 years ago by Nikos and Maria Afianes. Today, joined by their two children, Konstantinos and Eftychia, this family-owned winery is a local treasure elevating Ikarian wine and welcoming guests from all over the world that want to share moments, experiences, good company, and great wine.

 

In discussion with Galina Peycheva-Miteva and David Wilkinson
Podcast summary

Realistic steps towards regenerative ag

Every farm is unique and encouraging farmers to use regenerative practices is about small, easy steps, not a rush into advanced analytics and big data. That was the theme of our first podcast of 2022, in discussion with Galina Peycheva-Miteva, farmer and land manager in Bulgaria, and David Wilkinson, Vice President for Agricultural Procurement, PepsiCo Europe. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 27-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

There’s a lot of divergence in what regenerative agriculture means to people. What’s your definition?

GP-M: On my farm, it’s a holistic conservation and rehabilitation approach. In particular, a combination of minimum tillage, use of various cover crops targeted towards different goals, rotation of up to seven crops, and significant reduction of fertilizer, substituted by the use of nitrogen and phosphorous-fixing bacteria. This has made us a successful nature positive business. But it took almost 10 years of trial and error.

DW: My view is very similar. It’s around the adoption of farming principles and practices that really seek to improve the farm and field ecosystem. We want to measure benefits like soil health, water quality, watershed health, biodiversity and the amount of carbon we’re sequestering. It’s thinking about the system benefits instead of the March-to-September impact on a specific crop.

Some of these practices are already relatively standard in Europe – so what’s different?

DW: It’s about quantifying the systemic effects and actually looking to measure the improvements of these metrics. Let’s understand the impact. These are not a set of practices that are generic and work across the whole spectrum of farms. The specificity around the uniqueness of every farm and every farmer’s livelihood is really important.

GP-M: Regenerative ag demands regionally specific knowledge that is grounded in the particular crops grown within local climates and it requires trial and error. Trying it on your farm, seeing how it works, what the outcome is, and talking to other farmers.

Are farmers ready to engage with the level of IT management and administration?

GP-M: I don’t think we can quantify regenerative ag by counting worms, for example. The way to make farmers ready is to establish peer to peer groups. Farmers need to see the practices to be convinced that this can work.

DW: Are farmers ready to be the next data scientists? Probably not. But you can encourage people to start to step into the area. It’s not about blinding people with analytics and thousands of data points and algorithms. It’s just to show some very basic improvements and then, in my experience, farmers catch on very quickly with the technology.

Specific carbon goals and sustainability targets do need to be measured and verified. Does the average farmer in Bulgaria have the tools and skills to provide not thousands of data points but even 20 or 30?

GP-M: The average farmer in rural Bulgaria does not have the skill-set for very advanced digitalization. Nevertheless, we see that this is the future and people are trying to catch up.

DW: Data and digitalization will play an absolutely critical part in understanding the activities that are being performed to support crop production. It’s a learning curve.

Is digitalization and regenerative agriculture inclusive or will some farmers and food chain actors be left out because of cost?

GP-M: A lot of farmers are older and have trouble getting used to technology. It’s a trend that will be picked up by the newer generation of farmers. It’s a matter of how we prepare our succession. We have to think how to motivate the new farmers, the new agronomists to be more pro-digital and pro-technology.

DW: I think if regenerative ag and digitalization for farmers ultimately ends up not being inclusive, then we will have failed. It’s not just around age but we need to think about small farmers that might be renting land short-term. When we talk about inclusivity, how do we make it work for them?

Looking at the broad set of practices, which one if the easiest for farmers to start with?

GP-M: Minimum tillage and use of cover crops. This combination can be applied to virtually any farm.

DW: Fully agree with both! Thinking about low-carbon farming, the third element would be to transition to better fertilizers. More organic fertilizers, applied in smarter ways, only applying the right amount of fertilizer.

If you had one piece of advice or one policy suggestion for a much more sustainable food system, what would it be?

DW: Again, touching on low-carbon farming, it would be great to have a coherent approach that appeals to all types of farmers. that incentivizes food to be produced in the right way.

GP-M: I would add that decision-makers in Brussels should establish regenerative farming as a legitimate path towards a sustainable agriculture future and support farmers in the transition.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 27-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

PepsiCo is a Supporting Partner of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture.

Galina Peycheva-Miteva is a Bulgarian farmer, landowner and activist. She has been managing the family farm since 2007. She is the vice-chairman of the Bulgarian Landowners Association, sits on the board of the Bulgarian Association of Agricultural Producers, and is active in policy-making.

 

David Wilkinson is Vice President for Agricultural Procurement, PepsiCo Europe. David has worked for PepsiCo for 21 years and was originally an engineer by training. He now leads PepsiCo’s team of agronomy experts across the Europe sector and oversees PepsiCo’s Sustainable Farming Programme.

In discussion with Melissa Ho
Podcast summary

Valuing the true cost of food is key to our water future

 

There are many elements to tackling the way the world ensures a future water supply. Water as a commodity, the regulation of groundwater and drought-resistant crops are just some of the topics in our discussion with Melissa Ho, Senior Vice President for Water and Food at WWF-US. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 32-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

 

What’s your view on the UN Food Systems Summit: did it create a catalyst for real improvement in the sustainability of the food system?

The summit and its takeaways drive ambition in other platforms, like the Convention on Biological Diversity, where governments will make commitments on nature and biodiversity. The momentum was about elevating the importance of food systems in the broader global agenda on climate and nature. There’s been an elevation and understanding of land use change, deforestation, conversion and food waste and loss.

Turning to water, the western United States has been experiencing severe droughts. What are some of the causes and effects?

We’re tracking two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, and their status shows us the state of all western US water. The reservoirs are around 35% of their capacity right now, which is the lowest they have ever been. This is the result of not just a drought but a ‘mega drought’. There’s so much at stake: agriculture is hugely dependant on these reservoirs, and cities too.

Part of the response has been more marketization and commodification of water. Is water pricing a strategy for the future?

Water markets are very controversial and very nascent. To go back a step, the crisis is largely driven by climate change but another dynamic is the importance of groundwater, especially (but not only) in California, where water markets are taking off. Until recently, groundwater was not highly regulated and in droughts there’s chronic overdraft leading to degradation, salt water intrusion and land subsidence.

In California, in 2014 regulation mandated that local groundwater users must bring their basins back into balance by the 2040s. Water markets are just one piece of a mechanism to help manage this groundwater. There’s lots of other mechanisms too.

There’s a need to have pricing and for the true cost of water to be evaluated. For many, the markets are a way to bear that out. The other pieces of the puzzle are governance, equity and inclusion. It’s important to understand the impact and the design of these systems to ensure the basic human right of having access to water for households and livelihoods is maintained.

Are there specific things farmers in the western US or Europe should be doing to help conserve water?

Wetlands restoration is a key one for land management. Wetlands around the world have been converted and it’s a neat example of nature-based infrastructures. On farm, practicing regenerative agriculture, which is important for water management, soil health, soil infrastructure, and soil and nutrient management. We need to also think about water quality and understand the issues around runoff and degradation of water systems from agriculture.

Will we see new crop strains specifically bred to be drought-resistant on farms in the coming decade?

I don’t think genetically engineered, drought-tolerant corn or wheat or rice are a silver bullet. Water is a critical input – you can’t avoid needing water at all. We also need to look at our consumption, our management, and our choices in a much broader way.

Would it be better for people to eat less meat which causes less water abstraction?

I think we oversimplify the issues and the context-based nature of the environmental footprint of food. Moderation and consideration of consumption really matter. It’s not fair to demonize one commodity or another. In the Great Plains in the US, the land is suitable for grazing but not suitable for plant production. Beef is a quality nutrition product and it’s not accurate to say it has no place in the food chain. There are a lot of issues with speciality horticultural crops, especially coming out of France and South America. In the Eco Valley in Peru, there’s overextraction of groundwater for a huge rise in horticultural crops, especially asparagus but also onions, tomatoes and other things.

What would be one policy idea or practical suggestion to create a more sustainable food system?

I wish we would value food for its true cost, looking at all the externalities and impacts that our food system is having on human health. Then allocate our public resources to drive a food system towards better shared values on the outcomes. The UN reported that 87% of government support that goes to agricultural producers is either distorting or causing more damage to health and environment.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 32-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Melissa Ho

As Senior Vice President for Freshwater and Food at WWF-US, Melissa D. Ho drives landscape and transformational initiatives that increase the sustainability of agricultural systems and the conservation of water for the environment and ecosystems. WWF is a Strategic Partner of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture.

 

In discussion with Alberto Arroyo
Podcast summary

The hurdles to implementing sustainable practices

 

Sustainable agricultural practices abound, but the key question is how to implement them. In our latest podcast, Alberto Arroyo, Head of Policy and Programs at the IUCN European Regional Office, discusses the challenges, the need for a clear, aligned way ahead, and the commonalities between different systems. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 25-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

 

Which sustainable agriculture practices could make the greatest contribution today?

Whether we speak about one or another approach to sustainable agriculture, there are a number of practices behind that are relatively coincident in all of them. Crop rotation, cover and companion crops, mixed crops and intercropping, reduction of synthetic pesticides and mineral fertilizer use, no or minimal tillage, lower livestock densities, managed grazing, free range – there are many more. These are the kinds of practices that are definitely helping.

Regenerative agriculture is one of the practices hitting the headlines. Is it a useful framework when some of the terminology seems to be quite broad, even vague?

Yes, why not? If we do the practices right, let’s not bother too much about the names. We came up with a glossary of 180 and there’s even a new one – nature positive agriculture. I’m not sure we’re talking about something completely new.

Some of the practices you outlined are fairly common. What stops any or all of these from being implemented in the majority of European farms?

Challenges in implementation is one of the issues we discuss in the report. The economic issue is a fundamental one. Conventional agriculture is very subsidised. To transition to something different needs support, so these subsidies will probably be redirected to other kinds of practices.

Do you think the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will bring about substantive practical changes on the farm?

Yes, there are opportunities now. What’s very important is that a lot of the responsibility is not in the Commission’s hands, but in the Member States’ hands – which means there are still a lot of decisions to be made and we don’t know what they will look like.

There is a concern that some of all of the national ministries may not be practically ready to take on the responsibility.

Maybe it wasn’t the best to leave that much responsibility to the Member States. It’s difficult to know how we’re going to monitor the achievement of all the targets with different decisions taken not at the central level, and also how the CAP will be translated into performance in relation to environmental targets.

Monitoring performance needs an identifiable baseline. How close are we to having indicators that allow us to monitor performance at a useful level?

That is one of the gaps we identified. And this is an area where we want to focus our efforts. There are lots of indicators and a lot of metrics for measuring environmental performance towards different targets. But at the moment everything is a bit messy. We are going to try to define some recommendations for a potential way forward.

Let’s go back to the practices: which one is most underused, something we could promote better?

One of the targets in the Green Deal is the reduction of the use and risk of pesticides. That’s something that will be useful not only for the environment, but also for health. That’s why it’s also in the Farm to Fork strategy.

Is there anything that consumers at an individual level could do more of?

There is a terrible issue with food waste. That’s in the hands of not only supermarkets and restaurants, but all of us.

You say that sustainable agriculture must deliver economically, socially and environmentally, because otherwise it doesn’t work. How would you ‘rank’ them?

If we have a problem with the environment, we will not have anything to discuss about social or economic issues. If you look at it like a wedding cake, in the base you have all the environmental targets, and afterwards economic targets and after that social targets. Without the environmental targets being achieved, we will not have anything to discuss about the other targets.

IUCN has recently joined the ForumforAg. Here, we’ve always stressed the need for open dialogue. Are there any actors who shouldn’t be invited to join in? And on the other side, who are we missing?

I would say there’s nobody we should exclude, because if we want to achieve change we need everybody to feel responsible for the achievement of the target. I would like to hear any kind of industry or sector you could imagine. Maybe the focus has been quite strongly oriented towards production – farmers and land users. Now we’re getting broader, for example, the pesticide industry which is a very important one.

In these discussions, do you differentiate between ‘natural’ pesticides like sulfur or copper, and synthetics? Or is it a total phase-out of all of them?

I wouldn’t like to differentiate. We need to change the way we’re doing things and this is a challenge. We need to think about it holistically, not focus on a specific one. At the moment, the challenge is the spectrum of the use of pesticides. There are some approaches that are using much, much less.

Finally, can you give us one practical or policy idea that you think would make a difference for a more sustainable food system?

At the moment we’re lacking a clear vision of where we’re going. It depends who you ask. As long as we have different ideas of where to go we are just going to push in different directions. This is one of the fundamental issues: to try to sit down with everybody who is important in this discussion and try to find a common way forward as much as possible.

Read the IUCN report on sustainable agriculture here.

We think you’ll also enjoy a podcast with Emily Broad Lieb, Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard, on finding simple solutions to food waste. Listen to Ask a Harvard Professor on Food Waste here.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 25-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Alberto Arroyo

Alberto Arroyo is responsible for policy and programs at the European Regional Office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). IUCN is a Strategic Partner of the FFA. He has held leading positions on EU environmental policy for the past 15 years.

 

In discussion with Sébastien Treyer
Podcast summary

A knowledge-intensive transition of Europe’s food systems

 

Our latest podcast delves into how Europe’s food system could be transformed towards agro-ecology on a continent-wide scale. Sébastien Treyer, Executive Director of the Institute for Sustainable Development & International Relations (IDDRI), talks about the pathways for such a transition that would meet biodiversity and climate objectives – and what agroecology at large scale would mean. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 31-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.

 

You’ve said a transition is technically feasible. But what does that mean when we’re trying to compete on world markets?

We had three findings. First, academically and technically, it is feasible to transition agriculture at the scale of the whole continent. And we are still able to export cereals and added value products, like dairy and wine.

Second, there will be structural changes – and two that are particularly important to discuss with the food and farming sector. One, the need to diversify crop production systems and, two, the need for a reduction in volume in livestock systems, which is particularly concerning for the sector. We’ve tried to explore this at scale in France with the dairy and cereals sectors to see how that could be compatible with economic strategies for farmers, cooperatives and the food processing industry downstream.

Thirdly, how ‘value not volume’ can be compatible with some specific economic strategies in both sectors, actually leading to a 10% increase in jobs in those sectors compared with business as usual.

Where are those jobs going to be found?

In farming, we would have more need for people to work on farms than with current trend of mechanization. Agro-ecology is based more on knowledge than just mechanized innovations, meaning qualified jobs. The added value is other types of jobs in the food processing industries than those that exist today.

This paradigm shift towards agroecology would need a huge investment in technology and innovation. What specific tools are you referring to?

The idea is to put more ecological thinking into agroeconomic practices and look at innovation at the scale of the whole agro-system. Innovations in the organization of the landscape and in practices. Not only looking at the improvement of one specific seed or one specific breed of animal, but at the whole ecosystem.

It’s extremely knowledge intensive – a lot of data processing, a lot of artificial intelligence to try to understand the whole ecosystem. More concretely, a lot of robotization. It could be more knowledge-intensive than capital-intensive – and this is something we need to consider. A lot of farmers are in debt, so we should not necessarily help them invest more in technologies.

What about the need to shift towards a more plant-based diet?

It’s a key and very difficult structural change we need to address at the whole European scale. The livestock sector has to face the necessity that, at some point, output in dairy, red meat, also in pigs and poultry sectors, has to reduce. We see a possibility that the same farmers or the same supply chains can be involved in the plant protein industry.

Then is the EU on the right track with Farm to Fork?

The Farm to Fork strategy has two important triggers for the transformation that I’m talking about. First, setting clear, important targets about climate protection and biodiversity protection. Second, Farm to Fork pushes us to discuss at the scale of the whole food system, not just looking at farmers alone, but also food processing, consumers, retailers, and the input industry upstream of the food system.

Farm to Fork strategy is really positioning the problem and the policy discussions at the right scale.

Which policy conditions are needed to forge ahead?

I see three areas of policy that are extremely important. A food policy – the Farm to Fork is the beginning of that. Food labelling on environmental information for consumers. And trade policy – how to align the EU trade policy with the objectives of Farm to Fork.

To finish, could you give us one concrete policy or a practical idea to create a more sustainable food system?

My choice would be to look at how we use the existing recovery plans and investment plans. I hope we have a really open discussion on NextGenerationEU, the instrument for recovery, and how recovery instruments are targeted at the right type of investments, both in the processing industry and at the other farming sector levels. Investments are needed that can shift towards the diversification change that is at the heart of the structural changes that are needed.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 31-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Sébastien Treyer

Sébastien Treyer is Executive Director, IDDRI (Institut du Développement durable et des Relations internationale). A graduate from École Polytechnique, chief engineer of the Corps of Bridges, Water and Forests, and PhD in environmental management, he was in charge of foresight studies at the French Ministry of the Environment, and played an active role in leading the interface between science and policy and scientific programming at the European Commission, the French National Research Agency, and territorial actors such as the Seine Normandy Water Agency.

 

In discussion with Chris Harbourt
Podcast summary

Carbon farming: Changing behaviour for the long term

 

With climate change increasingly top of the news agenda, interest in carbon farming is growing fast. Our latest podcast heard from Chris Harbourt, Global Head of Carbon at Indigo, about how it can work in the field, how almost any farmer can benefit, and why prices of carbon credits are likely to rise. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 28-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. Indigo is a supporting Friend of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture. 

 

Let’s start on the farm: what does a farmer have to do to sign up for carbon farming?

They have to decide carbon farming is for them: that’s a major decision as they have to make significant changes to how they do things. They have to add a practice or make a physical change. The most important thing for me is, they have to innovate. And they have to document the changes. We designed the programme to pay for performance.

What are the most common operational changes that farmers make?

Cover cropping, because if the fields are green, they are sequestering carbon. Limiting the loss of carbon from the soil, with no tillage or reduced tillage. Changing rotational practices, or changing major inputs.

Can all sizes of farms do carbon farming?

With the Indigo programme, you’re part of a very large cohort, you gain from the participation of a very large pool. We have no minimum size.

What about investment, for example, equipment or seeds for cover cropping? Is the current price of carbon credits high enough?

In some cases, it certainly is. We have a massive programme that we started first in the US, and it’s working. We recently issued first payments to over 200 farmers.

We anticipate carbon credits will go up in price. So as prices go up, there’s a bigger opportunity. Farmers have to be ready to capitalise on that. If they want to be excellent at carbon farming three years from now, when prices are significantly higher, they really need to get started. We are excited about increased pricing to unlock more supply. There’s a landslide of buyers looking to purchase credits.

What’s the minimum in technology a farmer needs to take part?

The minimum is to be able to do some type of electronic recording. Then it’s the availability of an education programme that would inform them what in their area are the right type of practices to adopt to lead to carbon sequestration.

What kind of buyers are typically looking at carbon credits?

It’s the voluntary market: tech companies, consumer packaged goods companies. Heavy emitters are aware and looking at offset credits. Aviation is a great example – for the foreseeable future we’re going to burn jet fuel to fly around the world. There’s no way to offset that, and so the offset market comes in. I hope our buyers of today are not our buyers of the future, and they’ve figured out ways of removing carbon from their supply chains.

Cover crops and rotations are already mandatory in Europe under the CAP. What would you ask European farmers to do above and beyond?

The buyers of carbon credits are looking for something new, that the farmer doesn’t already do. There are opportunities in any of these practices and in new technology as well. So, for example, if a farmer’s been using a cover crop for many years, a switch to a multi-species cover crop, or changing the timing. There’s an opportunity with almost every farmer.

Are the rewards tiered, based on the impact of the practices?

Yes, they are incremental. It’s pay for performance, not pay for practice. What we’re trying to do is effect long term change, make sure that these practices stick. Credit is not just about the creation of the element, but it’s also to make sure it stays for a very long time.

Is carbon farming actually measurable? Can we deliver accurate, verifiable data at the farm level?

The science is certainly there. We’ve worked with a model called DayCent – that’s day and century together. We’ve created a hybrid between soil sampling and modelling, that can actually estimate carbon credits. Is there opportunity for improvement? Absolutely.

Credits are seen as ‘permanent’ if the atmospheric benefit of emission reductions is the equivalent of 100 years. Can we really guarantee such a long period of carbon storage? How do you incentivize farmers to keep up the practices for a century?

It’s more of a fundamental question of, can we make the work we’re doing today withstand the test of time and beyond the concept of a carbon credit? Can we educate farmers in a way that makes sure the behaviour sticks over the long term? The key is in driving the behavioural change, making sure it sticks, that it becomes generational. If it’s profitable… why would you go back from that?

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 28-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Chris Harbourt

Leveraging over 25 years of experience in leadership positions at the intersection of science, agriculture, engineering, and business, Chris leads Indigo’s efforts to develop a trusted and scientifically rigorous carbon credit program for farmers.

 

In discussion with Ken Giller
Podcast summary

Regenerative agriculture in practice

 

Regenerative agriculture is having its moment in the spotlight. But behind the enthusiasm there are many complexities. Ken Giller, Professor of Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University, talks to ForumforAg about what it means in practice, whether it could be applied in Africa, and reopening the debates on gene editing and biodiversity practices. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 30-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. 

 

Where does the term regenerative agriculture come from and what does it represent today?

It originated with Robert Rodale, the father of organic agriculture, which confused me! Today there is a coalescing around regenerative agriculture because everybody wants to do better: sustainable agriculture is good but we want to go one step further.

Everything comes together around soil and biodiversity. Many companies are committing to zero carbon by 2030 in their food and supply chains and find that 70-90% of their CO2 emissions go back to farming and production. So locking carbon in the soil is very prominent in the debate. It’s a bit dangerous because it could be oversold.

How do you measure soil carbon storage?

It’s quite difficult. People often take a sample of soil from the surface. But if you practice zero till, all the organic matter accumulates on the top of the soil. If you measure at 60 centimetres deep, there’s hardly any difference between zero till and non-zero till.

Spectral sensors measure carbon in a soil sample. But that doesn’t tell you how much carbon there is in the profile. To do that you need a very detailed analysis.

Is regenerative agriculture just a combination of practices that we’ve seen before?

People talk about basic principles like reducing soil tillage, maintaining soil cover, improving soil carbon, more diverse crop rotations, and reducing agricultural inputs. With inputs, I get worried because everything is put into one bucket, agrochemicals. There’s a big difference between nutrients, which are environmentally benign if used in the right way, and pesticides, which are designed to kill things selectively.

My work focuses on Africa where we see completely degraded soil. We don’t want to reduce inputs, we need to increase inputs of nutrients. So the starting point is crucial to this debate and often ignored.

Regenerative agriculture seems accepting of mechanization and technology in general.

There’s an opportunity for technology, particularly small-scale technology. Zero tilled systems are usually highly dependent on herbicides, so how do we control weeds if we ban them? Mechanical weeding and modified forms of tillage can help to reduce the need for chemicals – a more integrated pest disease management approach.

Is there a danger of greenwashing, with everybody coming on board but it’s not clear how they’re going to get there?

Let me put two things on the table. First, we should re-open the debate around gene editing. With using the best of biology, we can reduce the need for chemicals. If you have a couple of different resistance genes in your potato, you can cut down on fungicide.

Second, the biodiversity discussion is focused on farm diversity. We end up with some practices reducing productivity and taking land out of agriculture, which is being discussed in the EU. That means our ecological footprint will be moved elsewhere. We have to think about the implications: are we pushing more cutting down of the Amazon rainforest or more clearance of land in Africa?

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 30-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

You can read Ken’s paper here.

 

About Ken Giller

Ken Giller is Professor Plant Production Systems, within WaCASA (the Wageningen Centre for Agroecology and Systems Analysis) at Wageningen University. Ken’s research has focused on smallholder farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa, and in particular problems of soil fertility and the role of nitrogen fixation in tropical legumes, with emphasis on the temporal and spatial dynamics of resources within crop/livestock farming systems and their interactions.

 

In discussion with Adele Jones
Podcast summary

Knowing the true cost of food will help fix broken systems

 

In our latest podcast, we talk to Adele Jones, Deputy CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, about how true cost accounting can identify the real cost of food, including the cost of its impact, to the benefit of nature, society and farmers. We also discuss how it could be practically implemented, and whether the political will to implement it exists today. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 33-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. 

 

Can you give us an overview of true cost accounting?

It’s a new way of looking at how we value things and how we value the impact a company or a person might have. It doesn’t just look at traditional financial profit and loss but also at the impact on the natural environment and public health. It places value on externalities, as economists call them. We’re not just looking at the financial cost of producing a carrot, but also its environmental impact and its impact on people when they eat it. It’s a massive part of the solution in terms of how we fix our food system.

There’s been a lot of development in this area, but how much closer are we to implementing true cost accounting than ten years ago?

In some ways we’re closer. Perhaps we put the cart before the horse by starting to gather an idea of how we value natural and social elements of food and farming. But what we didn’t have was a common way of measuring those things on farm in the first place. It’s very difficult to start meaningfully valuing externalities until you have a common way of measuring external impacts.

At the Sustainable Food Trust, we believe the common framework of measurement should begin at the farm and be a suite of metrics and indicators which empower farmers to be part of the change – things like soil health, biodiversity, water quality, air quality, animal welfare, social capital, human capital.

Then farmers can easily see the steps for improvement. You can start to shift the balance of financial advantage towards farming in a way that promotes positive nature, mitigates against climate change, and produces food in a way that contributes positively to public health and strong communities.

How do you assign a value to assets on a farm, particularly biodiversity?

Biodiversity is probably the hardest category to value. But, until we start to place a value on some of these things, companies and politicians won’t act because they won’t necessarily see how important they are as part of our economy and our future well-being.

With biodiversity you can think about how much it would cost to hand-pollinate or mechanically pollinate an orchard, for example. We are trying to create a common set of metrics for measuring sustainability, the Global Farm Metric. For instance, directly measuring biodiversity on the farm by looking at key indicator species like birds, insects etc.

Do farmers have the knowledge and time needed for measuring?

In the developed world, farmers already have to supply information to different sources – certification schemes, government grant applications, compliance requirements, carbon foot printing. If we can find a way of harmonizing the way we measure impacts on farms, we can draw it from the places farmers are already sending information to. Of course, there are some parts of the world where farmers will need help, particularly smallholders.

One study said that for every £1 in the shop, there is 97 pence unaccounted for in externalities. Are we talking about doubling consumer prices?

What consumers pay at the till is not the true cost. The way food is priced is not right and the ‘cheapest’ is actually the most expensive. The cheap food is costing us so much, and it might cost our children and grandchildren the right to go for a walk in the woodland that we love.

If true cost accounting is implemented, the cost of food might go up, and that impacts low-income societies. There are some interesting initiatives, like one in the US where food stamps are worth double if you spend them at a farmers’ market.

Isn’t that being prescriptive and saying to people ‘this is the food you should eat’?

It can be about choice. Increased transparency in supply chains is going to happen. It’s about giving people more information on which to make decisions.

Is there a political will to tackle the issue?

It’s starting to emerge. Politicians will only act when they feel pressure from the public. We have to find ways to shift public opinion in favour of transparency in supply chains, people wanting to know the story behind food.

If you had one policy suggestion or practical farm idea to make to food system more sustainable, what would it be?

If we incentivize all farmers to start measuring their impact, it’s going to inform so much policy decision making in future. As part of new schemes, as part of reform, as part of the Agriculture Bill, introduce an annual sustainability assessment just to start collecting the data in a common way.

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 33-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

 

About Adele Jones

Adele Jones is Deputy CEO at the Sustainable Food Trust. She has been with the SFT since 2013, primarily focusing on projects including true cost accounting in food and farming and the harmonisation of farm-level sustainability assessment.