As the team leader of the Global Perspectives Studies from FAO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Lorenzo Bellù studies the impact of agriculture in our daily lives. Is humanity threatened by mass food production techniques? Should we all go organic? I talked to him and brought you answers to these and other questions.
Regarding the Zero Hunger goal, how can we overcome the challenge to produce healthy food for all?
I understand healthy food as safe food, which means is not poisonous or damaging, and then containing sufficiently nutrients, vitamins and proteins. On the other side, it is a healthy combination of healthy food. You can use healthy food and have an unhealthy diet. I’m saying that in terms of abuse of animal proteins, for example. Food may be healthy but the way you use it or abuse it can be unhealthy.
That being said, how to produce healthy food for an ever-growing global population?
There is a debate about whether farmers should use organic versus conventional techniques. I’m not against organic, but a key question is whether producing organic food is something that can actually feed the planet now and in the future. This question is an issue that still needs to be researched. Having said that, this doesn’t mean conventional agriculture doesn’t require investigation. In general, we need to identify sustainable ways of producing to achieve the SDGs, but we don’t have the answers. Moving food along the sustainable pattern require investigation, investment, commitment.
Are technology and social innovation helping with providing solutions to the increasing global demand for food?
We are going to face several challenges, one of them is in front of us, how to produce more food with fewer resources – water, land and greenhouse gas emissions. Technology may help us to use less water or using it in a more efficient way, it is something that may evolve a lot. But this requires knowing the moment when crops need water and the quantity. So technology can help with finding ways of dealing with antimicrobial resistance. The use and abuse of chemicals, medicaments, antibiotics to deal with animals and plants diseases cause resistance. Technology can discover new remedies ant the better use of the current ones.
Conventional agriculture has shown limitation in terms of excess withdrawal of water, fertility of soils, what has been useful so far to feed global expanding population now cannot be on the future, we are facing deflation of biodiversity. We must change the way of doing and producing things by spreading existing knowledge, investing more in research and development, infrastructure, know-how and expertise of people. We don’t have preconceived solutions. To move around these ways you need political commitment, private investment and the participation of all actors.
What is the role of consumers and their personal choices in order to push for a more sustainable agriculture?
I believe that the role of consumers is crucial now and it’s going to be crucial in the future. First of all, the consumer can decide to move personal diets into more healthy food. In developed countries, for example, where there is an excess of animal products consumption, we can move to more sustainable diets, because animal processing is very intense on gas emissions. (By eating too many animal products), I am not going to help myself and other people and I put pressure on the market, contributing to raising prices. Consumers are sovereign, what they decide can influence production and is going to be crucial to go on the sustainable path.
Many experts and influencers advocate for organic, regional, seasonal food. Is it part of the solution to make agriculture more sustainable?
It’s important to rely on trustworthy information and not ‘fake news’ sources concerning food. On internet you find everything, consumers have to be informed but not trapped getting wrong signals. Not all the websites are the same. But I believe consumers who want to privilege organic food may have their right to do that. I believe the awareness is a key factor also in pushing production techniques. I’m not saying that local food intended as self-sufficiency of small, regional areas is necessarily more sustainable than traditional. To some extent, exchange of food across different zones may help increase sustainability, so you are not forced to produce some kinds of food. If you live in a zone where water and land are under stress, there is no need to produce that to fulfill needs. So it doesn’t exist simple solutions to complex problems. But consumers who want strawberries in winter time need to know it’s not advisable. If they want cherries in December in Europe and they’re coming from Australia, it’s not environmentally sound. You can consume other things. We need to be wiser about what the implications are.
What should we be aware of working conditions and other social impacts of agriculture?
When we eat food at cheaper prices, we don’t count externalities like footprints as transport cost and pollution. We don’t fully internalize the costs of gas emissions. The food is cheap, I consume it, but environmentally and socially it may not be cheap. Prices are signals the consumer receive, but the cost of polluting water sources may not be reflected in these prices. Food may come at cheaper prices because people work with indecent wages and conditions. In some parts of the world, labor conditions are not acceptable, that’s why FAO push member countries do adopt legislation to impose decent working conditions. FAO avocates for responsible investment in agriculture, respect for the environment, local values, right to food, access to resources to small holders. It may imply higher costs, but the consumers have to be aware of what they consume and if it comes from countries which actually respect these conditions. If we move in that direction we may be close to achieve the SDGs.