March 11, 2019

Responding to EAT-Lancet: Consider agroecological solutions

Sara ScherrEcoAgriculture Partners

The EAT-Lancet Commission report never overcomes a reliance on 20th century industrial farming methods as a baseline, chronically underestimating the potential of agroecological systems to generate healthy diets within planetary bounds.

In an introductory post last week, I shared the three main gaps I see with the EAT-Lancet Commission’s recommendations for a ‘Great Food Transformation.’ This week, I’ll look at each of these issues in turn. In this post, I’ll examine why using 20th century industrial farming models as the basis for their analysis of agriculture’s environmental footprint skews their recommendations off course.

The basic framing, scenario modeling, and analyses of the EAT-Lancet Commission assume that each type of food is produced using the dominant 20th century model of external input-driven production in large-scale monocultures. The principal environmental impacts highlighted are the conversion of natural habitats to agricultural use (driven particularly by concern for recent rapid conversion of tropical forests for soy, palm oil and beef); water and greenhouse gas pollution from excess nitrogen and phosphorus inputs; over-use of water for agricultural production; and greenhouse gas emissions associated with conversion, nitrogen use and methane from rice and livestock production. The ‘sustainable intensification’ model presented as a solution relies heavily on the concept of input-use efficiency to reduce the ‘footprint’ of agriculture. While agrobiodiversity was highlighted, the focus was on a diverse food basket (diversity across total global production), not farm- or -landscape level agrobiodiversity.

Maximum benefit rather than minimum harm

But it is critical to consider agricultural production as a central feature of ecosystem management. About 40% of global land area is dominated by croplands,  and most of the rest by grazing systems. This means recognizing, managing and developing the myriad ways in which farming systems can contribute to healthy ecosystems by providing compatible habitat for biodiversity, sustaining and enhancing hydrological and water filtration processes in watersheds; substituting (accelerated) natural ecosystem processes for external inputs; and large-scale sequestration of carbon in agricultural soils, grasses, and trees.

The future thus lies in agroecological models of regenerative farming (one might call them 21st century models, if so many weren’t inspired by ancient and indigenous systems). Exciting innovations—in agroforestry systems, managed grazing, intensive intercropping, perennial cereals and oilseeds, and more—are increasing yields, food quality and diversity, while enhancing ecosystem services and biodiversity. Rather than aiming for ‘minimum harm’ to the environment, our goal should be ‘maximum benefit.’

Agroecology meets technology

One serious problem of environmental degradation associated with livestock production is unsustainable production of feed grains. Yet, there are numerous non-grain substitutes for animal feed, particularly from well-managed, high-carbon grasslands and agroforestry systems that could dramatically reduce carbon footprints. In fact, studies have shown that well-managed grasslands can serve as reliable carbon sinks.

Similarly, many of the environmental challenges of agricultural production stem from overly simplified, monoculture production systems. Technical innovations from recent decades including precision input delivery, remote sensing, biological pest control, internet-enabled tailored design and learning mean that more complex, multi-crop and multi-layered agricultural systems can be managed efficiently at all farm scales. Many such systems, which maintain near-permanent vegetative cover, minimize soil disturbance, and require much lower levels of agricultural chemicals, can provide much higher environmental performance without sacrificing yields, including for the intercropped plants that would be seen as problematic in monocultures.

Great Food Transformation will require major shifts in how we grow, not just what we eat

The final recommendations  of the Lancet-Eat report do briefly mention potentials for carbon sequestration from agricultural systems, and for biodiversity conservation by maintaining 10% natural habitat networks in farmed areas. But there was no serious discussion of these in the prior analytical and modeling sections. Yet, shifting agriculture from ecosystem-damaging to ecosystem-sustaining is one of the most critical transformations that needs to be championed.

Indeed, the most critical decision of food consumers, from an environmental perspective, is not the food itself but choosing environmentally-positive sources. It is far better to eat a modest amount of beef produced by a rancher using demonstrably carbon-positive managed grazing techniques on rain-fed natural grasslands, than to purchase legumes for dietary protein from a producer who has converted forest. Likewise, using rice or rapeseed oil grown in multi-cropped agroforestry systems is far better than palm oil from drained peatlands or vegetables from producers relying on irrigation that is drawing down ancient aquifers.

Of course, the choices posed to the consumer at the market are rarely as clear as that (though much good work on this front is happening). Fortunately, farmers are discovering how to grow healthy food that maintains a healthy ecosystem and healthy farmers in unique places all around the world. Rather than focus on intensifying industrial models in smaller spaces, EAT-Lancet would do better to examine pathways to scale for the many good agroecological models that already exist.

Stay tuned for my next commentary on the EAT-Lancet Commission report, focusing on how their implicit top-down approach to food system transformation not only undermines food justice but misses an opportunity to cultivate resilience.


Photo Credit:  World Agroforestry Centre/Bindu Johnson

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