Stephen Cadogan: Improved farming has saved a billion hectares of forest

There was an eloquent, if perhaps unintended, comment on the EU’s sustainability plans, at an important event in the US last week.
Stephen Cadogan: Improved farming has saved a billion hectares of forest
Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the European Green Deal, Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, and Virginijus Sinkevicius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. Picture: Jennifer Jacquemart
Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the European Green Deal, Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, and Virginijus Sinkevicius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. Picture: Jennifer Jacquemart

There was an eloquent, if perhaps unintended, comment on the EU’s sustainability plans, at an important event in the US last week.

On Wednesday, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides launched the Farm2Fork strategy part of the EU Green Deal.

“A unique opportunity to make food systems a model of sustainability and meet citizens’ aspirations for healthy food”, was how she described the Farm2Fork strategy.

Also speaking on sustainability, on Thursday, food and agriculture expert Jack Bobo said, “How we frame the conversation will determine whether farmers are working with us to solve the problems.

"Or if they feel like they are the problem, they won’t be working with us and perhaps working against us.”

At the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience, the 2020 version of the annual Alltech ONE conference, Bobo explained that farmers have been on a journey of sustainability for the last 100 years, during which farm productivity took off, because of things like fertiliser and mechanisation and improved seeds and better land management.

He spelled out that the improved productivity of farmers has saved a billion hectares of forest, more than a quarter of the world’s existing forest.

That’s how much extra land would now be needed to produce our feed, if agriculture hadn’t improved.

He said sustainable means different things to different people.

The Green Deal shows EU leaders’ idea of sustainability is a million miles from that of farmers.

Jack Bobo said, “The story that conservation are telling is one of agriculture is the problem, and yet it’s clearly saved a billion hectares of forest.

"I don’t know any conservation organisation in the world that can claim that they’ve saved a billion hectares of forest.

"The nature conservancy in the United States on their website says that they’ve preserved eight million hectares of forest in the US.”

He said the sustainability debate isn’t about good or bad or right or wrong.

It’s really about choices and consequences.

“In Europe, there’s a push towards less intensive agriculture, reducing the amount of fertiliser, keeping the farm small, and all of those sound like wonderful things.

"If we can protect the local environment, if we can use less insecticides and other things, that sounds great.

But because of the approach that Europe takes to agriculture, it also needs to import 70% of its animal feed needs. And the country that sends the most food to Europe is Brazil.

"And of course, Brazil is a country with the greatest level of deforestation, which is caused by agriculture.

“So in many ways, Europe has exported its environmental footprint for agriculture to arguably the most biodiverse country on the planet.

"That might not be a good idea. If Europe doesn’t produce its food, somebody else will.

"And so we need to understand that countries like Brazil, they need to make decisions, too.

"And they need to have access to more intensive agriculture, or it’s going to become more expansive agriculture.”

The EU’s new biodiversity strategy “to bring nature back into our lives” and a Farm to Fork Strategy “for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system” sound great.

Who could resist those two advances?

It’s all part of the European green deal, the signature proposal to mark Ursula von der Leyen’s appointment as EU commission president last year.

This plan to reduce the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% was a popular choice, as Europe confronted the climate emergency.

It includes a biodiversity plan, and the Farm2Fork plan to change current farming methods beyond recognition, with steep reductions on pesticides and fertilisers, and a forced reduction of agriculture land.

The point has been made by some that making such proposals without first providing an impact assessment is incomprehensible.

Experts have done their own calculations, and they say that Farm2Fork, together with the biodiversity strategy adopted last week by the EU, would reduce EU agricultural production by 15%.

With an overarching green deal target to make the EU climate-neutral by 2050, keynote aims of its farm to fork section are to halve agrochemical usage by 2030, and expand organic farming to a quarter of the EU’s farmland, as solutions to EU agriculture’s 10.3% of EU greenhouse gas emissions (including about 7% from livestock), and 30% globally.

Like all EU schemes, it will take a long time to get off the ground, with some of it unlikely to be finalised before 2024, and everything requiring approval by EU governments and the European Parliament.

Holes were picked in it when it was first launched, with some pointing out the funding was only €1 trillion over 10 years, compared to €4.2 trillion to save Europe’s financial sector in six years from 2009 to 2015.

Many more trillions will have to be found to get the EU through the Covid-19 pandemic.

It remains to be seen how the accompanying recession affects the green deal, for which funds were to be largely reshuffled from existing EU funds, or from expected private-sector capital, with just €7.5bn of new EU budget commitments.

And if the Covid-19 pandemic is not controlled, the Green Deal, or maybe just the farm to fork part of it, could even be scuppered completely.

If that happens, all that has been achieved is to demonise farmers a little bit more, as people who are damaging the world.

The dangers of doing that were eloquently raised at the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience by Jack Bobo, CEO of the Futurity food foresight company.

Bobo was named one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology by Scientific American in 2015.

He told the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience his personal mission is to de-escalate the tension in our food system so that we can all get about our business of saving the planet in our own way.

“We either produce more on the same amount of land, or we need more land,” he summed up.

He predicts farming as it is currently done will deliver 60% of the extra food needed to feed 10 billion in 2050.

But the version of agriculture envisaged by the EU will fall well short of that.

The EU choosing to reduce food production has the consequence of eating into the billion hectares of forest saved over 100 years by improved farm productivity.

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