Agriculture: The Price of our Thrift


When agriculture produces food, there are costs for the environment and health. No one's calculated that yet. A UN report wants to change that.

By Christiane Grefe (Zeit Online) 27. June 2018, 16:27

This article was originally published in German on ZEIT ONLINE No. 27/2018.

Farmers in Andhra Pradesh after the chili harvest. The Indian state wants to completely renounce pesticides by 2024. ©  Amit Dave/Reuters

Farmers in Andhra Pradesh after the chili harvest. The Indian state wants to completely renounce pesticides by 2024. © Amit Dave/Reuters

Sometimes courageous solutions come from the unexpected. The government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has announced the abolition of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As early as 2024, farmers are to use only biological methods to make their land fertile and combat pests. Six million farmers must learn Zero Budget Natural Farming by then.

Pavan Sukhdev has just been to Andhra Pradesh, and what is happening there has inspired the long-standing adviser of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and new president of the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF); it is a revolution in agriculture. But Sukhdev also knows: "It will be a feat of strength. Whether he succeeds depends on the support he receives - "and only what is evaluated is appreciated," says Sukhdev.

Organic farming practices save water, build up humus, reduce climate change and help the poorest people to eat a varied diet. But the agricultural statistics and the profit and loss accounts hardly show such benefits. Because they are neither calculated nor have a price," says Sukhdev. Politics, however, is based on what economists calculate. To make things change, Sukhdev, once a manager at Deutsche Bank, together with 150 experts from 33 countries, has developed a fundamentally new assessment framework for the global agricultural and food industry. The title carries its core message: "Trade fairs, what really counts".

UNEP promoted the study, which begins unusually with a well-known parable: the story of the blind scholars whom the king commissions to find out what an elephant looks like. One touches the trunk and describes the alien creature as elongated and agile. Another one gets to grasp the tusk and paints himself a tube being, a third one a fan animal on the basis of his ear and so on. Each of you is right in his own way, says the King in the end. But only those who see the big picture will understand the elephant.

The parable on limited perception stands for how the scientific disciplines draw their incomplete picture of the world - in this case, the food supply. Their special knowledge is all important, "but in their silos of thought they ignore the connections," criticizes the head of the study, Alexander Müller, long-time Vice Director-General of the World Food Organization and now Director of the sustainability think tank TMG. For Müller, this coexistence is not only responsible for the fact that one does not recognize the benefits of the kind of agriculture that Andhrah Pradesh is striving for. It also explains why the damage caused by agriculture, livestock farming or the fishing industry in its traditional form is underestimated.

Today, farmers produce more food worldwide than ever before. Nevertheless, 815 million people are still hungry and 650 million are overweight. Agriculture is attributed responsibility for 60 percent of species loss, for one-third of degraded soils and 24 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Sukhdev was consulted in the new UN report because he has experience in accounting for the overlooked. Eight years ago he pointed out that microorganisms, plants, and animals purify water and pollinate trees, that they supply medical substances and ideas for technical innovations - and all for nothing. Sukhdev's initiative The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) warned that nature's ecosystem services would be lost to the economy if it destroyed its natural wealth. The push opened many people's eyes. Now a new report follows with the TEEB for Agriculture and Food. He describes - slightly pointedly - the "blind scholars" of the agricultural system and asks how their perspectives can merge into a holistic view.

The first, the agronomist, is concerned about feeding a growing population that is also consuming more and more meat. He focuses mainly on higher harvests of a few food and fodder plants. High-tech in the field and in the stable is supposed to help. The fact that this efficiency thinking is "dangerously simplified" is particularly evident in the meat industry. Monocultures of maize or soy and high numbers of animals result in deforestation, overfertilisation and an enormous use of arable poisons.

A New Way of Thinking

As the second blind man, the economist wants to open markets to such an extent that food is available everywhere at low prices. He overlooks the fact that mass raw materials, which are traded globally, often supplant established agricultural traditions and treasures of knowledge. At the same time, they destroy ecological relationships. When giant trees are cleared for soy cultivation in the Amazon, there is a lack of evaporation and clouds that rain down over South America and entire regions dry up.

The third blind man, the environmental expert, wants to save the planet with its forests, bogs and grasslands. He tends to see agriculture as a troublemaker. With this protector attitude, however, he often neglects the fact that many people have nothing as their basis of life but fields, forests and rivers. Nature conservation and poverty reduction are thus incompatible.

The latter employs the sociologist. He also wants to connect small farmers and villages to modern technologies and the world economy.

But if industrial farming methods replace smaller farms, an overlooked part of agriculture is endangered: worldwide it offers an existence to 1.5 billion people. Millions and millions are already migrating to the cities. "How many car factories are to be built to keep them busy," asks TEEB author Alexander Müller.

Finally, the health professional is concerned about nutrition. He warns that too much fat, sugar and meat can carry cancer, Alzheimer's and other diseases. However, his perception ends with the human body, what happens in the field does not interest him. Without the surplus of fructo-rich syrup from the American corn belt, for example, there would probably not be so many sweetened lemonades or breakfast cereals. The result according to the report: more overweight people, high blood pressure or kidney patients and enormous treatment costs. Also in the interest of health, significantly less cheap red meat would have to be produced and in return significantly more fruit and vegetables.

The new TEEB-AgriFood report now plays the role of the wise king in the elephant parable. He coined the term "eco-agro food system" for the big picture and proposed a framework with which it could be grasped. According to this, the damage-benefit balance of agricultural products will in future not only be examined for arable land, pastures and stables, but the entire value chain including waste. Nature's services gain more weight and above all health. The flow of capital and goods is complemented by values such as ethics, social cohesion, landscape protection and culture.

All this sounds plausible - but complicated and abstract. It's still just a model. But the report provides examples of how diverse the new way of thinking can be applied. In Kenya, for example, one would be more likely to wonder whether the country's agriculture should in fact primarily serve the Western consumption model. The developing country is already struggling with increasing numbers of obesity and diabetes, which are completely overtaxing its health system.

In Thailand, it would be possible to calculate the benefits of the introduction of a pesticide tax under discussion in the country. Europeans, for their part, could weigh up the reform of the common agricultural policy even more carefully: Should agricultural subsidies continue to be spent largely on a lump-sum basis or on renewing ecosystems and rural areas? Or the example of Senegal, where the social and ecological benefits of an agricultural development strategy similar to that planned by Andhrah Pradesh have already been calculated. The result: If small farmers who cultivate sustainably were supported, 27 percent more jobs would be created than in large-scale irrigated agriculture with chemicals. Farmers could get seven percent more value added from their fields, and water would be used 40 percent more efficiently.

Critics of the TEEB initiative fear that an economic assessment of nature could soon lead to their services also being labeled with prices. "Don't worry", defends Alexander Müller, "bees are not immediately traded on the New York Stock Exchange just because the value of pollination is measured."

Rather, it is about making people more aware that they pay for their food several times: at the counter, with rising health insurance contributions and with their taxes, which have to be spent on subsidies, detoxification of the environment or cleaning up polluted water. Alexander Müller sums it up as follows: "Cheap food can be very expensive in the end."