The Future of Food Systems in a Changing World

Aug 10, 2020 by

Following the exchanges in the first session of the day with Gwendolin Hallsmith and Alexandra Strickner where we discussed the importance of localizing economies and transforming them in a way that serves the interest of the many over the few, we started this second session of our last week with a discussion with Thomas Liedenthal and Friedrich Leitgeb. Both are specialized in the field of biological agriculture, and they kindly joined us to answer our questions.

The first student question centered around the limits of organic farming. Some doubts were raised on the capacity of this method as a silver bullet answer to current issues, given that it would require more land for the same yield compared to industrial agriculture. Both lecturers agreed that the solution also partly lies in shifting the way we produce and consume and not necessarily in a complete transformation to organic farming. There is a need to change our habits, particularly regarding meat consumption and food waste. Fixing those two problems could be a strategy to overcome land shortage issues. Furthermore, even though organic farming might tend towards lower yields, Thomas maintained that the trade-off of building up soil fertility, groundwater quality, and biodiversity is worth a change in habits. We agree and maintain that with an alteration of diets and reduced or localized consumption, these issues will become less daunting.

Following this, the discussion moved towards genetic engineering and how our lecturers perceive it. Friedrich replied that his problem is not with the GMOs themselves, but the asymmetric power relationships that the technology generates between sellers and buyers of GMOs. Students voiced similar reservations about the underlying power structures inherent in this dynamic. Thomas added that we should use them with caution since we lack a complete assessment of their effects, and there seems to be a lack of transparency in methodology. He further explains that those are produced by big companies for economic purposes. This is largely incompatible with small farms, which we need preserve local and traditional knowledge. For Friedrich, traditional forms of farming are primordial since organic farming is a combination of traditions and innovations. On this assertion, Helga objected that traditional practices are important with the caveat of determining habits vs. actual knowledge, since some traditional techniques might be based simply in habit and will not be compatible with agricultural success in a changing climate. This is an important point that should be considered— under changing climate, practices that helped in the past might not be helpful in the future.

A question was then raised about bottom-up approaches and how they could have an effective impact on policymakers. Friedrich stressed that awareness generally arises within the civil society and not among policymakers. Therefore, relying exclusively on politicians is not a solution. We should instead be active and not passive consumers since everyone is responsible. Furthermore, as pointed out by Thomas, there is not a single bottom-up approach and not only one possibility to act—rather, there are layers of action distributed among the education system, policy system, sustainable enterprises, and more. As a disclaimer, we note that one must be careful to not shift “blame” to citizens by putting all the responsibility on the shoulders of consumers.

We then asked our lecturers on the nature of the challenges farmers face in transition. Thomas argued that the geographical area is relevant to achieve transition, as farmers will face different obstacles in Europe vs. the tropics, for example. Therefore, measures like consulting structures are required to overcome convergence problems. Thomas also evoked another major problem of the current agricultural system: The competition between farmers for market shares. Policy support is needed to create incentives through subsidies and positive marketing for the farmers. In this arena, questions of terminology are important as well. Both lecturers agreed that the advantage for “organic agriculture” over terms like “regenerative agriculture” lies in its legal recognition, which Mathias noted allows for more legal regulation.

The next part of this discussion was dedicated to a question regarding the opinion of the lecturers on plant-based meat. Both Friedrich and Thomas agreed on the fact that these substitutes do not represent a solution. Friedrich suggested that buying meat from a local farmer could be better than relying on industrial food, which would necessarily lead to more industrialized production in factories. Moreover, as indicated by Thomas, highly artificial goods are problematic since their numbers of inputs make them potentially less resilient than more natural products. Our guests were also not totally against any kind of trade and imports. They stressed that if trade conditions are fair and ecologically sustainable, there does not have to be total restriction on exotic products. However, students also point out that trade often supports or reinforces hegemonic and neo-colonial relationships. It can lock countries into primary based economic systems, e.g agriculture, often associated with very low wages.

As a final word to the students, Friedrich recommended to rethink our habits and our lifestyle, as well as being active in society to produce the changes we expect to see. Thomas told us that beliefs and hopes are important. Furthermore, many fields of action exist, and they all matter! We thank them once again for their presence and the thoughtful responses they gave to our questions.

Written by: Guilhem and Alexis

Based on the session with Thomas Lindenthal and Friedrich Leitgeb during the AEMS 2020.