The current European food system is not sustainable
On the bright side, the European food system provides 4.2 million jobs in Europe, feeds more than 500 million Europeans, and its greenhouse gases emissions have decreased 20% since 1990. But the social and environmental impacts of the European food system is alarming.
Diet-related diseases such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease are growing at an alarming rate. We eat too much and our diets are unbalanced: we consume about 60% more animal proteins than what the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends. More and more crops are used to feed livestock we don’t need to be eating, and there has been a widespread use of chemical inputs to keep the high productivity of European land. These pesticides and synthetic fertilisers are responsible for an increase in the prevalence of numerous diseases among farmers, and there are strong concerns about their impact on our food and drinking water. One other consequences of intensive farming is the loss if biodiversity: in the space of one generation in Europe, 20% of common birds have disappeared, and some regions are lamenting the loss of three quarters of all flying insects.
The agriculture of the future is free from pesticides
A new study by IDDRI shows that it is possible to feed Europe with sustainable food while preserving the continent’s biodiversity and natural resources. The only prerequisite is a profound transition of our agricultural and food system.
The TYFA project (Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe) examines how much feed, food, fuel and material the agricultural sector could and should produce to tackle challenges associated with climate change, health, the protection of biodiversity and natural resources, and the provision of a sustainable and healthy diet to Europeans — without affecting global food security. The results show that an agro-ecological project based on the phasing-out of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, and the redeployment of extensive grasslands and landscape infrastructure would work.
This multifunctional ecological performance of agroecology is only possible because it is accompanied by a decline in production relative to the current situation. Indeed, the yield assumptions used in TYFA are 10 to 50% lower than current average yields depending on the crops — although future innovations should be considered in this field, which would help to adapt to the impacts of climate change, for example.
Feeding 530 million Europeans with sustainable food by 2050
Can we envisage a decline in production resulting from the generalisation of yields observed today in organic farming, and still meet the needs of a population expected to reach almost 530 million people by 2050? The answer is yes. Based on a healthy diet, according to current nutritional recommendations, while retaining important cultural attributes such as the consumption of animal products and wine, the decline in production modelled in the scenario is sufficient to feed Europeans.
This diet contains fewer animal products (but those consumed are of better quality) and less sugar. On the other hand, it is higher in fibre and contains more seasonal fruit and vegetables. Overall, it is more nutritionally balanced and has absolute environmental quality if we consider the replacement of pesticides by beneficial organisms.
An agro-ecological Europe that contributes to global food security
Although the benefits of TYFA are centred on Europe, global challenges are not sacrificed in the shift to an agro-ecological Europe. In terms of food security, reducing the consumption and production of animal products, especially granivores, translates into reduced demand for cereals for this sector, freeing up a surplus of cereals comparable, in volume, to the net export-import balance of the last decade (6% of production). This quantity is not expected to “feed the world” but can provide a reserve that can be used in cases of food crises, especially in the Mediterranean zone. But the main contribution to food security consists in envisaging a more autonomous European agriculture, which stops importing almost 35 million hectares of soybean. For soybean exporting countries, this means lower deforestation pressure.
Envisaging a transition to agroecology
The next stage of the process needs to address other economic and policy issues, explains the study. The challenge appears in the very title of TYFA: “Ten Years” is the timescale needed not to achieve an entirely agro-ecological Europe by this time, but to launch a movement that makes this a feasible prospect by 2050. The goal of the analysis presented here is to show that this transition is not only desirable, but also credible. A debate and a new strategic area are opening: they will be political.
This article is also available to view on our Medium page.