|Eco-restructuring: Implications for Sustainable Development (UNU, 1998, 417 pages)|
|Part II: Restructuring sectors and the sectoral balance of the economy|
|9. Agro-eco-restructuring: Potential for sustainability|
One limiting factor is traditional basic cultivation patterns and mind sets. In different social and ecological conditions very different cultivation methods and philosophies have evolved. The most marked difference is that between intensive gardening-like agriculture in densely populated areas of Asia and "industrial" agriculture in those areas of the world that were brought under cultivation by European emigrants or colonizers within the past 500 years.
In the old cultures, land was scarce and population was dense. Thus, a high yield per surface unit was the overriding need. In the Americas, on the other hand, land was abundant, the population was low, and labour was in short supply. Thus mechanization and large scale agriculture were appropriate and successful. At present the latter model dominates world agriculture. Its domination is fortified by mainstream economic theory and international trade interests and rules, as well as by cheap transport and telecommunications. But will it be the proper long-term strategy for feeding the dramatically growing world population in a sustainable way? Would not the "outdated" agricultural models from China, (peasant) Europe, India, and Japan be a more appropriate starting point? Could these older models be modernized and adapted to the needs of the future?
Another limiting factor is underestimation of the real importance of agriculture in the industrialized economies.8 Owing to its minor contribution to the GNP of industrialized economies (typically 2-5 per cent), agriculture is largely neglected in mainstream economic analysis. But agriculture plays a key role in every scenario as the essential life-support system.9 This is due to five major features:
1. Because agriculture is the industry nearest to nature, ecological deficits become apparent much earlier here than in any other branch of the economy.
2. Agriculture satisfies the most basic needs of humankind: it feeds us.
3. The consequences of disregarding sustainable patterns have been more serious in agriculture than in any other sector of the economy; '´modern" industrialized agriculture has turned out to be unsustainable within two generations.
4. The long-term prospects for the world food situation are so critical that, if civilized humankind is to survive, corrective action is urgent.
5. Agriculture is the indispensable source of organic material streams in a sustainable future world economy.
A further limiting factor is that modern economics and management theory have encouraged a short-term and reductionist view of agriculture. Successful industrial strategies, characterized by "lean production," rapidly changing technologies, short depreciation periods, and minimization of external influences in process design, are now being transferred to agriculture.10 The evaluation of agricultural production strategies (systems) by impersonal "market forces" leads to a short-term calculus. But the physical and biological nature of the system itself implies that the appropriate time-frame for measuring sustainable and economically viable agricultural supply systems is much longer: at least 20 years (for example, to observe three periods of a seven-fold crop rotation requires 21 years) and perhaps as much as 100 years (Harrington 1992). Agriculture is an inherently interacting system that should make use of all natural synergism's.
To evaluate agricultural strategy on a short-term basis is to create inappropriate expectations. Thus agriculture is globally being driven towards the industrial model. But this systems coercion is in blunt contradiction to eco-system needs, which require biodiversity (CE 1995), site orientation, and a massive reduction of material flows.
There is a high degree of consensus that sustainable land use in developing countries should rely on small-scale mixed agriculture in order to husband environments with a low ecological buffering capacity as well as to feed and employ the population. But the opposite is demanded for industrialized countries (Schmidheiny 1992). The negative reaction of leaders in developing countries is not surprising. They consider this advice to be self-interested and neo-colonialist; they regard it as an attempt to preserve the oligarchic economic structure of the world economy. Hence they unwisely imitate the inappropriate patterns of the industrial world, even when they are not directly imposed by "Western-style" agro-business.
A logical consequence is that soil erosion and the leaching of agrochemical into groundwater are out of control in non-OECD countries. In fact, more than three-quarters of world soil destruction takes place in the third world. The massive problem of soil erosion demands a drastic change in production systems towards more stewardship and husbandry of soils and landscapes. The present pattern of production is leading to a decrease in the productive agricultural area by up to 16 million ha per year (ISOE 1995). Therefore, without change, a higher production volume for an increasing population would (will) have to be achieved on a decreasing area.
Another limiting factor is water. The exploitation of water resources, which brought nearly a 2 per cent increase in productivity in the first three post World War II decades, cannot be augmented, at least not without major investments and dislocations (as in the Three Gorges project in China). Pollution of water resources by wasteful agricultural practices (especially excessive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides) will have to be reduced in many cases in order to save drinking water reserves. Inputs of agrochemical must also to be limited in order to guarantee the integrity of food chains.
To compound the difficulties, most mainstream cultivation systems have been brought to a rather high level of productivity. This means that the law of diminishing returns has to be taken into account in planning the future. In the context of the standard model, this implies that higher industrial inputs will be necessary to increase productivity further, thus shortening the time-horizon within which non-renewable external resources (oil, natural gas, phosphates, potash) will still be available. These are the major raw materials for agrochemical (fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides). These fossil resources are finite and will last at most for some 100 years, if consumption is not slowed down. But the opposite (i.e. acceleration) is the probable outcome of present policies.11
Yet another limiting factor is that the food potential of the oceans (and aquaculture) will not be a sufficient alternative at least as far as fish is concerned. There is strong evidence that the world's traditional fishery resources are also already overexploited (see, for example, Weber 1995).
Is a collapse of the agricultural system inevitable? The logic of the curve of population growth suggests that either humans are already overtaxing the carrying capacity of the environment, or they soon will. This implies a real danger that we will eventually consume our own "seed corn," i.e. our life-support system. Without a basic change in population growth rates, consumption patterns ("lifestyle"), and supply technology, present developments resemble a forest fire in a strong wind. The system's breakdown can be expected.
As far as agriculture is concerned, the limiting factors enumerated above can be summarized in a nutshell: intensified conventional mainstream high-in-put/high-output agriculture is not sustainable in the long run. This is because short-term advantages are offset by long-term disadvantages in the form of increasing destruction and loss of soil and water resources. In addition, the pattern of ever increasing inputs of fossil energy and raw materials cannot continue indefinitely, for reasons of eventual scarcity as well as environmental reasons.
The food needs of an exponentially increasing world population could not be met, in the long run, even if we assume the most optimistic possible increases in area productivity. Besides slowing down population growth, increasing the efficiency of nutrition will be an indispensable supplementary measure (especially the reduction in luxury meat consumption).12
If the present trends of soil degradation and population growth are projected without change,13 there would be very few regions in the world in 2025 able to satisfy the nutritional needs of their own population, even relying on a diet of grain, tubers, and legumes (i.e. cutting meat consumption to a minimum) (ISOE 1995). Therefore the often-heard argument that there is only one way to avoid serious social upheavals in the future, namely to feed the growing world population by employing intensified industrial patterns of production, cannot be a realistic solution.
This judgement is supported by the annual "State of the World Reports" by the Worldwatch Institute, which point to an approaching crisis. In recent times several events and studies have underlined the view that agriculture will be the crucial sector in world economic development. In 1991 the Conference on Agriculture and the Environment, organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Government of the Netherlands, analysed the world situation and worked out an Agenda for Action to meet food needs without mining the natural resource base and thus consuming the life-support systems of future generations and probably even of our own. The loss of 5-7 million hectares 14 of arable land per year through soil degradation was reported, with an annual global loss of topsoil running at 24 billion tons. (For an even bigger estimate, see Editor's Note above.) There was a general consensus that the situation demands urgent action. It was generally agreed that it is not only the symptoms of unsustainability in agriculture (land degradation, desertification and deforestation, water pollution, loss of soil productivity and natural processes, diminishing wildlife habitats and genetic diversity, air and climate effects, etc.) that have to be changed. The change must extend to the underlying dynamics of our societies.
Some other studies support this position (Hohmeyer and Gärtner 1992; FAO 1993; Pimentel et al. 1994; ISOE 1995). The reduction in vital agricultural reserve capacity implied by "business-as-usual" scenarios is likely to lead to increased starvation in developing countries and to mass migration. It may also to social, economic, political, and - last but not least - military conflicts. In worst-case scenarios, such catastrophes could destroy the social achievements that most countries value so highly and assume to be guaranteed.
Some economists dismiss these warning studies with epithets such as "neo-Malthusian," the implication being that Malthus was long ago disproved or discredited. There are even strategic papers, such as the "Study on the perspectives for the rural areas in the European Community" of the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (1992), that see such large long-term surpluses of agricultural goods that only about 50 per cent of the productive land of the European Union will be needed in the future.
Those who attack Malthusianism per se can be met by pointing out that there is a decisive difference between the present situation and that in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Even in the nineteenth century there were still large new areas available for colonization and cultivation, especially in the Americas. Moreover, older cultivated areas and species had not reached ecological limitations associated with mono-culture, chemical use, and toxification of soil and groundwater.
As to the food surplus scenarios, it has to be pointed out that all these scenarios are based on the assumption that industrialized countries will continue to run their economies unsustainably. Societies that cover basic demands for organic raw materials and energy by plundering non-renewable fossil resources within a few generations have no need to reserve land for an enduring harvest of solar energy. By limiting agricultural production to the food sector and by boosting food production via cheap fossil-based inputs (chemicals and energy), they can and do produce artificial, but temporary, surpluses. These are not sustainable, however.
Because the introduction of general conditions of sustainability cannot be circumvented in the long run, agricultural politics is confronted with a (politically) painful dilemma. The choice is between short-term maximization even to the point of generating unwanted surpluses - and long-term sufficiency. This dilemma cannot be resolved by relying on market forces alone, because the latter are unavoidably short term and private in nature and do not reflect the larger public interest.
Anticipatory strategies leading the market to a long-term optimum are therefore necessary. The reasons are evident: population growth cannot be stopped quickly; water resources have already become scarce, especially in developing countries (FAO 1993); the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture has to be controlled and curtailed in order to protect the groundwater, especially in developed countries (OECD 1993). The accepted principles of precaution and plausibility in risk management underline this position.
In this context a few remarks on international trade policy as it concerns agriculture are appropriate. The results of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement in Tariffs and Trade (GATT) reflect the short-term market calculus (GATT 1994). Calls by environmentalists for measures allowing protection of future-oriented long-term sustainable agricultural systems within a system of fair trade are denounced by trade negotiators as "green protectionism." Trade negotiators argue that agriculture must accept the same rules as the industrial sector. Yet industrial undertakings normally do not need a site-oriented design. Their adaptation time to changing circumstances is shorter, and the same holds for the depreciation period. Further, the co-production of public goods (such as harmonious landscapes, biodiversity, and potable water) is, for practical purposes, non-existent in industry. The timeframe of the trade calculus is even shorter than the industrial one.
In addition, long-term food security concerns seem inconsistent with providing favourable trade treatment to regions that gain a short-term comparative advantage by operating unsubstainably. Examples include risking soil erosion through irrigation with "fossil" groundwater and clearing rain forests and steep hillsides to provide cattle pasture for less than a decade before the thin layer of topsoil is lost. Myopic decisions in international economic development planning are the rule, rather than the exception. Proven and sustainable cultivation systems are routinely sacrificed for unsustainable short term advantages, not only in the Amazon or Central America and in disadvantaged areas such as the European Alpes-Maritimes and Ligurian Alps, terrace agriculture in Yemen, or mountain agriculture in India and Pakistan, but also in the advantaged areas of the northern hemisphere.15
The so-called "green box" measures (the "Blair House Agreement" of 1992) are an attempt to mitigate some symptoms.16 This has broadly the character of a "social end-of-the-pipe treatment strategy," because the listed measures are strictly palliative. They leave the underlying dynamics unchanged. Therefore the environmental impacts of agriculture are not changed at the roots. (For more details see Editor's Note above.)
Does this mean that agriculturalists, as a minority that cannot significantly influence the economic mainstream, must be advocates of intensification of the presently dominating patterns of agricultural production in order to keep humanity alive and fed in the short run, in spite of the warnings of ecologists, environmentalists, and rural developers? The key to a strategy of hope is the answer to the following crucial question: Are there other systems of sustainable agriculture at our disposal that can achieve the high area productivity of mainstream (high-input/high-output) agriculture but that have the potential to feed the growing mega-cities of the future?