Towards sustainable food systems

Photo Marion Guillou / President, Agreenium / October 14th, 2015

The evolution of food demand in different regions of the world will be crucial to ensure food security for all, in quantity and composition. But it is also a key driver for the proper management of natural resources, and as such a central element of the energy transition.

Food inequalities across the world remain significant, with an average of over 4,000kcal/day/person in OECD countries against 2,500kcal/day/person in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the FAO, 800 million people are still suffering from hunger, mainly because of access difficulties related to wars, crises and poverty.

At a global scale, diet will be a key answer to face the challenge of feeding the world population in 2050. The average physiological needs of a human being are covered by 3,000kcal/day/person, including 500kcal of animal origin. This level of production requires much less agricultural resources than the current average diet in the OECD countries (4,000 including 1,200). It may also make a difference in terms of sustainability.

The ecological footprint of food
It is more common to focus on the relationship between diet and health than between food and environment. And yet, this second aspect cannot be overlooked. Food packaging, for example, accounts for 80% of household packaging. In a country such as France, foodstuffs are the cause of 23% of the carbon footprint, 9% of the energy footprint, 55% of the footprint of acidifying gases and 23% of the water footprint.

Obviously, the impact varies considerably according to production methods, more or less water-intensive, for example. In terms of energy footprint, in France, food transportation accounts for 30-50% of goods transportation. One should not forget the transportation from home to store: calculated on the basis of one kilogram of transported goods, the diesel consumption for a round trip to the supermarket (5 km, 30 kg of transported food) is the same as for an 800 km truck journey! Obviously, environmental footprints vary depending on the mode of transport, whether by ship, truck, car or plane (in ascending order).

Part of this impact is “for nothing,” in a way, because a considerable part of the production perishes before being consumed. In 2011, according to the FAO, losses and waste of agricultural and food production reached between 208 to 300 kg per person per year in Europe and North America, taking into account the whole chain, from the agricultural inputs to the consumer. According to ADEME, the level of domestic waste in France is around 20kg/person/year. Each of us can do something to reduce this amount. But in the ecological footprints related to food, putting aside those related to energy, the upstream part is what weighs most.

How can we reduce this impact? In Western countries, this has become a major political issue. In 2014, the French National Food Program developed by the Conseil national de l’alimentation (National Food Council) implemented a priority action plan for the improvement of the environmental impact of production. Among its key points, the program promotes sustainable modes of production and the reduction of food waste.

Sustainable production methods
From the farm level to the global level, it is now crucial to focus on the development of more sustainable agricultural practices, with performances that are no longer only economic but that also take into account the environmental and social aspects.

At an international level, movements aiming ecological intensification value species that are resilient to climate change, water-efficient and that protect living soils and provide high yields. According to FAO, we would need to increase the volume of agricultural production by 60% to properly feed the world in 2050, given plausible assumptions concerning the increase in demography and food demand.

At the European level, the new common agricultural policy promotes productive and sustainable agriculture. In this context, some countries including France promote the transition to “agroecological” practices. In order to make this happen, the whole system of training-research-development needs to be leveraged, as it is done in the agro-ecological project behind the Loi d’avenir de l’agriculture (Act for the future outlooks of Agriculture), voted in October 2014. The corresponding CAP subsidies are now implemented at a regional level.

Already now, thousands of pioneer farmers grow and raise in accordance with a twofold objective, both economic and environmental, through a wide array of methods: organic agriculture, conservation agriculture, ecologically intensive agriculture, high environmental value agriculture, precision agriculture… The challenge is to widely disseminate these “agro-ecological” practices and help the majority of farmers in our country and abroad to engage in these new paths.

The effort required of farmers must in no case be underestimated. Changing business practices entails significant risks, which can be mitigated by consulting, training or assistance in the creation of farmer groups, for example.

One example: the adoption of a combination of new practices on a farm specialized in cattle raised for meat. These practices include:

. Evolving towards a system with an increased share of grassland in the forage surface (at the expense of corn silage) and increasing grazing (which requires increasing surfaces accessible from the milking parlor).

. Increasing the productivity of grasslands by the use of legumes instead of perennial ryegrass with synthetic nitrogen-fertilizer.

. Optimizing the functioning of the flock by using monitoring systems (for the reproductive management), advancing the age of first calving (by shortening the breeding time of females which haven’t given birth yet), increasing the number of production cycles of cows (made possible by a better reproductive management that avoids premature ends of cycles) and using industrial crossing (the crossing of two breeds with different abilities).

. Adoption of a more conservative management of nitrogen effluents, covering slurry pits and manure and use of a specific material during spreading.

The INRA study that develops this example shows that the adoption of more sustainable agricultural practices is appropriate, from an economical point of view. The authors conclude on the fact that a system defined in such a way has a positive impact on productive and economic performances, both quantitatively and qualitatively, due to a sharp reduction in variable costs and a higher meat share that compensates for the decrease of milk production. Work time and drudgery are significantly reduced because the maximization of grazing reduces the time needed for harvesting and the distribution of conserved forage.

Reducing losses and wastage
If not measured correctly across the globe, the loss of goods weighs doubly upon the environment: water, land, fertilizer inputs involved in their production are consumed for nothing and their waste products are sometimes contaminating.

Policies against loss and waste follow three directions: ecodesign (i.e. designing production lines to avoid losses), reduction of losses during operation and, ultimately, the recycling or reuse of material.

In June 2014, the expert group of the Committee on World Food Security issued a report showing an overview of the situations of various continents and proposed measures designed to reduce the losses and food waste to better ensure food and nutrition security. Several countries adopted incentive policies: the United States, the United Kingdom and more recently, France. The Pacte national de lutte contre le gaspillage alimentaire (“National Pact against Food Waste”) aims to reduce food waste by half by 2025.

The method is interesting in that it mobilizes all players along the chain. Agricultural producers, wholesale markets, manufacturers, distributors, restaurateurs, associations and local authorities have committed to take action.

How? The recovery of unsold goods, adaptation of portion sizes, awareness-raising actions for stakeholders or users, training in high schools and schools are part of their program. The “optimal use-by-date,” often misunderstood by consumers, is replaced by the phrase “best before…” which implicitly leaves the choice to the consumer to eat yogurt even a few days after the expiration date, to take only one example. Indirectly, this “no-waste” approach contributes to the reduction of overall energy consumption.

Sustainable food systems
Agricultural production is the most important step in promoting the sustainability of global systems, whether by adopting environmentally-friendly intensive production models, or by extensively avoiding deforestation.

Food consumer demand will be a complementary determinant. Beyond environmental-friendly production methods and the fight against waste, the contents of our plates also has a major influence on the sustainability of global food production in the decades to come. Demographers predict a slowdown in the increase rate of the world population and, according to these projections, the world population is expected to reach between 8.5 billion and 11 billion people by 2050. Because of the economic growth of emerging and developing countries, dietary habits will change towards more calories, more diversity and more consumption of animal products.

We know for a fact that the production of the latter needs more basic resources than plant products. In terms of carbon footprint, the balance of animal products must take into account the plants used to feed animals and possible methane belching (for ruminants).

The meat of ruminants, for example, has a carbon impact (per 100g) two to three times greater than fish, pork, poultry or eggs. In a business as usual” scenario based on the extrapolation of current trends, the resources needed to feed these 9 billion humans would add an unsustainable pressure on the environment.

While it would be simplistic to assume that healthy diets are per se environment-friendly, the adoption of “moderate” dietary habits for the two billion currently overfed people in all regions of the world would be beneficial for the environment too, aside from reducing the prevalence of obesity and metabolic diseases.

Several trends prompt us to change our consumption organizations and practices. One is the rise of short circuits that involve a sale with one single intermediary (outdoor markets, farm shops and more recently, CSA shares).

But the life-cycle analysis of these products is not always more favorable than that of products purchased in conventional distribution channels. Fuel expenses per kilo are more important even if these circuits have other benefits such as the reduction of waste and the preservation of biodiversity.

In addition, according to a 2015 study conducted by Ethicity, Western consumers are divided into two quite distinct groups: either they are increasingly involved in environmental issues, or they become hostile towards the very idea.

For those who are sensitive to the problem, a clear display of the environmental qualities of food would be effective. However, according to dealers I interviewed during my mission on the agro-ecological project, they favor products with environmental qualities only in a context of equal prices. They would be willing to pay more only if they think the product also has a health benefit.

Organic products, pigs raised without antibiotics, chickens fed without GMOs, all fall into this category. For other commodities, the price paid by the market will not cover the efforts made by producers to improve a particular environmental aspect (reduction of greenhouse gas, contribution to biodiversity, quality improvement of ground water…).

Therefore, only other incentives such as subsidies (bound to the implementation of agri-environmental measures), the development of markets for energy-saving certificates, and perhaps, in a near future, of pesticides-free certificates, will guide the practices that contribute to the sustainability of food systems.

This has become a crucial issue in international climate negotiations.

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