Editorial, by Philippe Stoop,
Research and innovation Director at itk
The current health crisis has raised global awareness of the fragility of our interdependent economies and its consequences for our food security. For agriculture, its most obvious and consensual consequence is that it reinforces the many voices, which have long been pushing for a relocation of agricultural production, for economic and ecological reasons, and for the sovereignty stakes involved.
Agriculture was one of the first areas for which the European Union presented, as early as May 20, the main lines of its “Green Deal” for an ecological revival of the European economy . This speed bodes well for the future… but on reading the outlines already presented, one quickly realizes that it is in fact only the implementation of the “Farm to Fork” program, which has been under consideration for a long time. However, the stated priorities do not take into account the new situation revealed by Covid-19… or even any understanding of the recent changes in environmental issues surrounding agriculture! To understand this, we must first recall how the vision of agriculture’s role in environmental issues has evolved over the last 20 years.
Agriculture and the two ecologisms
By ecology, we mean here policy proposals based on the issues of ecology (in the sense of the scientific discipline). Under the effect of scientific advances in ecology, political ecology is divided between two trends that are increasingly difficult to reconcile:
- a “localist” ecology, highly mobilized against local environmental nuisances generated by human activities: physical (fine particles) and chemical pollution generated by industries and transport, effluents from human activities in water and air, and, as far as agriculture is concerned, diffuse pollution generated by fertilization and the use of pesticides, as well as the reduction in biodiversity generated by the standardization of agricultural landscapes. This trend was largely dominant at the political level during the 1980s and 1990s.
- a “globalist” ecology, the most media-friendly figure of which is of course Greta Thunberg: focused on global issues, this trend has been growing in importance since the 2000s. Its major driving force was first of all the awareness of climate change, which showed that greenhouse gases have effects on the entire globe, and not only on the emitting countries. Awareness of the decline in global biodiversity has played a similar role: it is certainly caused by local deforestation practices or degradation of natural habitats, but this destruction is often produced in developing economies to meet the food or wood demands of developed countries: these are therefore problems whose solution must be sought at the global level.
Initially, these globalist concerns were simply added to the agenda of environmental organizations. But it is increasingly apparent that there may be contradictions, and therefore trade-offs to be made, between these two levels of reasoning. The case of agriculture is particularly emblematic of the difficulty of finding a balance between these two approaches.
- From a “localist” perspective, the intensification of agriculture has only drawbacks: it leads to a reduction in biodiversity in the fields, by eliminating (whether by mechanical or chemical means) practically all plant species other than the cultivated species. As a result, whether or not pesticides are used, it greatly reduces animal biodiversity, which in any natural or artificial ecosystem depends very heavily on plant biodiversity. It requires high quantities of fertilisers (organic or synthetic), which is not necessarily an environmental problem if these fertilisers are well absorbed by the crop, but still increases the risk of losses to the environment if the doses have been miscalculated, or if the time after application is unfavourable to their assimilation by the plant. Finally, pesticides, even if they are as finely reasoned as possible, inevitably have undesirable effects on non-target fauna.
This localist approach was easily imposed at a time when the stakes of global agricultural production seemed to be of little concern: after the premature concerns caused by the Club of Rome in the early 1970s, the strong growth in world food production (multiplied by 3 since 1970, while the population “only” doubled in the same time) had reduced concerns on this subject. In a Europe that had long forgotten what a famine was in peacetime, intensive agriculture has thus become a reprehensible repellent that cannot be ignored. This was all the more easy because the European Union, and particularly France, had been convinced that its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) had ensured its food autonomy… while completely forgetting that it was massively dependent on imports for protein and oilseed crops! The consequence of this localocentric point of view was a systematic demonization of agricultural inputs, whether their use was agronomically justified or not.
- From a “globalist” point of view, high agricultural productivity in rich and densely populated countries such as the European Union, on the contrary, presents a certain number of advantages:
- It improves their food self-sufficiency, thus reducing their demand for food through deforestation in developing countries, and the GHG emissions generated by the importation of agricultural products.
- It can enable the development of biofuels, which improve the carbon footprint of their economies.
- It allows the incorporation of agricultural biomass into the soil, the main realistic route for carbon sequestration at the global level (which, incidentally, also allows the restoration of agricultural soils depleted in organic matter: a double environmental benefit).
Of course, the level of productivity of European agriculture must be guided by seeking the best balance between productivity, carbon balance and biodiversity. But this requires taking into account global effects, not just local ones. If an agri-environmental measure taken in France or in Europe has the effect of lowering yields, it should be ecologically compensated, either by an equivalent increase in productive areas in France or in Europe, or by an equivalent decrease in food demand. Otherwise, it only leads to externalizing our “soil footprint” to third countries such as Brazil, Argentina or Indonesia (ADEME recalled in a recent report that France only produces on its soil 35% of the bioresources it consumes ).
Faced with this new dilemma, environmentalist political parties are struggling to position themselves clearly. It is true that the “localist” line, the only one that is currently well perceived by the general public, is the most comfortable from an electoral point of view: it only imposes economic constraints and efforts on farmers, on whose votes political ecology does not particularly rely. NGOs have more diverse and nuanced attitudes. Greenpeace remains the archetype of the purely localist line, with all its contradictions: rejection of productive agriculture and associated techniques (pesticides, GMOs), glorification of organic agriculture, rejection of 1st generation biofuels, and “at the same time” denunciation of “deforestation imports”, … yet clearly aggravated by all its other demands. Other organizations, such as the Foundation for Nature and Mankind (FNH, formerly the Nicolas Hulot Foundation) have a more modern and balanced discourse, apparently more consistent with recent developments in scientific knowledge. However, when it comes to arbitrating political choices, the localist naturalist quickly returns to the gallop, as we shall see in the following.
One of the most balanced methodological approaches to date is that of the IDDRI (Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations), which in 2018 published the report “An agro-ecological Europe in 2050: multifunctional agriculture for healthy food”. Of course, the work carried out in this report cannot be described as balanced, since it tested only one scenario, based on very localist postulates (refusal in principle of productivist agriculture, with in particular the elimination of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers), and with sometimes very optimistic estimates of the parameters retained in favor of these choices (for example, an organic cereal yield estimated at 75% of conventional cereals, whereas this ratio is rather less than 50% in France, one of the largest cereal producers). However, this work has the great merit of reminding us that an agro-ecological policy only makes sense if it sets ambitious objectives not only on agricultural practices, but also on citizens’ eating habits: it is indeed the balance between farmers’ food supply and consumer demand that will set the carbon footprint and the food footprint of France or Europe. Even if the scenario proposed by IDDRI is highly debatable, it at least sets a framework for exhaustive and objective scientific reflection, which should be required for any proposal for a responsible agro-ecological policy.
The agricultural “Green Deal”: a clearly announced policy of agricultural decline
Where does the European “Green Deal” fit into this debate? It is still too early to be sure, but the broad outlines announced are hardly reassuring. Let’s look at the flagship measures announced to the general public :
- For pesticides: a 50% reduction by 2030 of “the use and risk of chemical pesticides”, and of “the use of the most dangerous pesticides”.
- For fertilizers: a reduction of at least 50% in losses to the environment, and a 20% reduction in their use by 2030.
- For antibiotics used in animal husbandry and aquaculture, reduction of 50%.
- The only thing that is increasing is, of course, organic farming, which the EU wants to increase to 25% of the agricultural area by 2030.
This is the systematic anti-input mantra of localist ecology, with no thought given to the level of inputs needed to maintain or even strengthen agricultural production potential. For pesticides, the discourse is too vague and ambiguous (why the shift between risk and danger between the two proposed measures?) to estimate their potential impact on production. However, it can be recalled that, in the case of France (which is in the European average for its pesticide consumption), INRA had estimated in its Ecophyto R&D report that a 50% reduction in their use would lead to a 12% loss of production.
For fertilizers, the first proposal is a step in the right direction, that of better reasoning for their use: this can only have positive effects, both environmentally and economically, since it implies reducing fertilizer wastage. On the other hand, the second objective (a 20% reduction in the quantities used) is a source of consternation to agronomists. Indeed, since the European Nitrates Directive of 1991, nitrogen inputs have been capped in the so-called nitrate-vulnerable zones. The maximum authorized doses are calculated in a rather restrictive way according to agronomic needs, based on the historical yield of the plots. In these areas, which represent a large majority of the most favourable regions for arable crops, nitrogen doses are therefore already fixed by regulation at a level rather below the technical optimum. Reducing these inputs by 20% will therefore cause a drop in yield of the same order of magnitude, without any environmental benefit compared to the first objective on fertiliser losses, since it is these losses alone that cause diffuse pollution. As for potassium and phosphoric background fertilisation, the amounts of which have to be calculated in a more complex way on a rotation scale, a systematic and undifferentiated reduction makes even less sense. The only logic is that, if the 20% drop in nitrogen fertilization causes yields to fall by 20% as feared, bottom fertilization could eventually be reduced by the same amount…
Finally, bringing organic farming to 25% of agricultural land means shifting about 17% of agricultural land to a production method that causes average yield losses of 30% (according to the most optimistic estimates), which represents an overall additional drop in production of at least 5%.
Does the Green Deal provide for a measure to compensate for all these losses in agricultural production? In any case, not a word about a possible increase in agricultural land. As for an action to reduce the food demand of European citizens, the plan is much more evasive: there is talk of labelling to guide consumers towards the healthiest foods, but it is hard to believe that this will be enough to significantly change their eating habits, and in any case no quantified objective is set. Similarly, actions to reduce food waste are announced, with certainly quantified objectives… but these will be defined in 2023, while those imposed on farmers are already set in stone.
One more effort to be a real environmentalist!
The objectives set for farmers in this “Green Deal” are very similar to a double extension of the approach initiated in France by the Ecophyto plan: geographical extension to the whole of the European Union, and transposition to fertilizers of the principles applied to pesticides for 10 years in France, with the failure we know. The same arbitrary and undifferentiated objectives of reducing inputs, without any reflection on their level of use that is agronomically justified in order to maintain a desirable level of agricultural production, can be found in the Ecophyto plan. The extension of this principle to fertilizers breaks the last regulatory deadlock based on agronomic reasoning, the 1991 European directive on nitrates. It thus consecrates the total victory of localist ecology, at a time when this ideology is increasingly contradictory to the global ecological objectives that are also declared in the fight against climate change. Indeed, these decisions are not accompanied by any evaluation of the foreseeable effect of these measures on the decline in European agricultural productivity. As they are not accompanied by any serious and binding measures to change the eating habits of Europeans, and thus reduce their food footprint, this Green Deal can only increase Europe’s dependence on food imports. This will further aggravate the “deforestation imports”, which have been denounced by environmental NGOs.
One may also be surprised by the ambition of the organic farming development target (25% of land area in 2030, at the risk of exceeding demand and thus degrading prices), when even its supporters acknowledge that its carbon footprint is poor, and that its benefits for biodiversity are very modest measured at the farm or regional level (+4.6 and +3.1% respectively). This form of agriculture must of course be supported, since it meets strong societal demand and can improve farmers’ incomes in certain sectors. But we should ask ourselves whether it is economically sustainable without causing a fall in prices, which would further weaken EU organic producers compared to their non-European competitors.
Generally speaking, we note that this agricultural “Green Deal” is not very interested in the fate of farmers, to whom it promises little compensation for the efforts required of them. Like the French Egalim law, its main argument for them is that it will enable them to better promote their production to consumers. This means, in plain language, that it is the consumers who are supposed to pay the final bill, by buying more expensive European agricultural products. A risky gamble, when the price is already pointed out as the first obstacle to the development of organic farming.
The only encouraging point for actors of agro-environmental decision support such as iTK: the Green Deal cites precision farming among the techniques that must be encouraged to improve the sustainability of agriculture, in the same way as organic farming, agroecology, or agroforestry. But, as is already the case in France for the Ecophyto plan, it will be difficult to put these good intentions into practice, when the rules imposed for input management deny any agronomic reasoning. Moreover, this will require the Member States not to let themselves be impressed by the intimidation of environmental NGOs. The FNH has already protested against this idea in a note entitled “Green Deal: The time has come to recognize that precision agriculture will not allow for ecological transition” and calls for “directing future public support to agro-ecology and not precision agriculture”. The text of this note is revealing of the anti-technological prejudices that remain dominant in the localist ecological software, and of the astonishing confusion between objectives and means at work there: the FNH presents as “quantified objectives to fight against biodiversity erosion” the fact of “reducing by 50% the use and risks of synthetic pesticides in 2030 or reaching 25% of useful agricultural area in organic farming in 2030”. Who is able to say how these reductions in inputs would reduce the erosion of biodiversity in Europe? And to estimate their effect on the notorious “deforestation imports”? And on the carbon balance of European agriculture?
It is true that precision farming alone cannot meet the ambitious and arbitrary objectives of this Green Deal: the reductions in inputs that it allows are more often in the order of 20 to 30%. But to date, agro-ecology is far from having demonstrated that it can do better. It would therefore be very imprudent to rely on it alone to change European agriculture, especially for a plan whose objectives are set for 10 years. Finally, it is astonishing (or rather revealing) that the FNH opposes precision farming and organic farming: from an agronomic point of view, the tools of precision farming can be perfectly applied to organic farming, to better reason the use of its inputs. From an ideological point of view, it’s another story…
The principles set out in this Green Deal will then have to be implemented in national agricultural policies. There is therefore still room for debate to ensure that this Green Deal does not definitively endorse the victory of localist ecology. There is still time to prevent political games from once again pushing for greener than green agriculture in Europe, while the Amazon will continue to burn, partly to compensate for our productivity deficit. For this to happen, it is essential that Europe finally understands that an agro-ecological policy only makes sense, at the global level, if it aims to reduce our economic and ecological dependence on third countries…and therefore to better match our production capacity to our food needs.