Humanity is challenged to reconcile ecology and food security

Food security

At a time of climate change and unprecedented demographic growth, a researcher who analyses thematic themes such as the dynamics of globalisation and human security a calls for placing food issues at the heart of our policies.

“We must not forget that 735 million people are in a state of chronic hunger and more than 2 billion are in a state of food insecurity, while we produce enough to feed the entire planet.”

So says French researcher Sébastien Abis, associated with the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

He’s also the author of the just published book Do we want to feed the world?: Crossing the food Everest in 2050 (Veut-on nourrir le monde?: Franchir l’Everest alimentaire en 2050) to understand what part of the future of the world is at stake.

“The equation is all the more delicate as we are in an unstable geopolitical context that also risks increasing the cost of food and restricting access to it,” he told La Croix’s Camille Richir in a recent interview.

La Croix: In recent weeks, we have witnessed significant protests from the agricultural sector. What does this say about the relationship between society and those who feed it?

Sébastien Abis: The issue of food has been neglected politically for too long and needs to regain strategic attention.

“Among the claims made by the agricultural world, few are completely new. They primarily reflect a lack of mutual trust. On one side, farmers feel that neither the state nor the European Union trusts them; at the same time, they themselves are wary of the ability of leaders and consumers to be consistent.

“The tensions are also related to the lack of consistency in policies.

“Agricultural time is a long time: when experimenting, it takes several months before results are seen and lessons can be learned, then tests must be conducted differently the following year.

“When new regulations are constantly introduced in the meantime, creating uncertainties, these standards are very poorly received.

But given the climate emergency and the rapid erosion of biodiversity, transitioning our food systems appears to be a necessity. Is a dialogue on the subject possible?

“The challenge will be to unite in order to change. While we are fortunate to be in a democracy, we struggle to accept disagreements and diversity of opinion.

“Those who defend the environment are accused of not believing in human development and the economy. And those who emphasise the issue of production and food security are labeled as enemies of the environment.

“would benefit from bringing these worlds together. We have lost a lot of time in recent years opposing systems and models. It’s a constellation of solutions that needs to be implemented.

“The need to unite is also true at the European and international levels. Yet since the Covid crisis, then the war in Ukraine, and facing the climate challenge, we have entered an era of “every man for himself.”

In your book, you warn of the risk of retrenchment at a time of a triple demographic, climate, and food security crisis.

“We must not forget that 735 million people are in a state of chronic hunger and more than 2 billion are in a state of food insecurity, while we produce enough to feed the entire planet.

“In the 21st century, humanity is challenged to reconcile ecology and food security, as demographic growth will reach an unprecedented peak in the second half of the century. The UN anticipates the population will grow from eight to 10.4 billion people on Earth by 2086, all of whom will need to be fed.

“At the same time, agriculture will have to face increasingly severe and frequent shocks related to climate change… The equation is all the more delicate as we are in an unstable geopolitical context that also risks increasing the cost of food and restricting access to it.

“In parallel, agriculture will have to decarbonise. It has its share of responsibility in climate change since it represents about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions.

“The challenge goes beyond the simple issue of CO2! For example, half of the agricultural soils are in a degraded state.”

What are the implications in terms of free trade? Food production is extremely globalised, and these imports weigh heavily on our carbon footprint.

“During their mobilisation, European farmers were right to raise the issue of imports and free trade agreements. It’s normal to import commodities that are not produced on European soil, otherwise, we wouldn’t have coffee or chocolate!

“However, facilitating the importation of products with lower environmental and social standards than in the European Union is incomprehensible to farmers who are pushed to do better.

“Once again, it’s a question of coherence! Leaders must understand that free trade agreements, like the one being negotiated with Mercosur countries, are no longer politically acceptable in this new context of fighting climate change, whereas they might have been a decade ago.

“At the same time, we also benefit from free trade. We export wine, cheese, cereals, and even milk powder… to the point of being accused of competing with certain local industries.

“That’s why the answer is more complex than simply retreating into ourselves. In France, exports also allow some sectors to remain competitive at the national level.

“In the future, geopolitical and climate shocks will be such that we may sometimes have to rely on each other for food supplies. Europe cannot be in a bubble, separate from the rest of the world.

“When we consume imported products, let’s not forget that we are also creating economic and social development abroad, provided that the supply chains are fair.

You also alert in your book to the necessity of thinking about the future of agricultural employment.

“I’m tired of hearing that farmers should be assured of a “minimum.”

“Why such a miserabilist discourse? Farmers are entrepreneurs and must earn their living. If they do better, they should earn more, which seems to be taboo.

“Then, we must question what we want in terms of agriculture: we have lost 100,000 agricultural holdings in ten years.

“Should we replace all of them and find the necessary labour? Or accept having larger, more mechanised, and more competitive farms capable of producing on a large scale? Once again, the solution lies in the diversity of models.”

Faced with climate change, what choices will the sector have to make? For example, will it be necessary to give up part of the yields to reduce emissions related to fertilisers, or reduce pressure on biodiversity?

“Agriculture has already made tremendous progress. Practices are modernising, technological innovation is advancing… Of course, there will be choices to make, such as which crops: what we can grow today in some regions may not be possible tomorrow.

“That said, we have already put a lot of pressure on the transition of the sector compared to others.”

But the reduction of agriculture’s emissions remains low, around 13 percent in thirty years, and is mainly due to the reduction in cattle stock. How to think about a real transition of the sector in this context?

“Agriculture cannot be compared with other economic and industrial sectors.

“In the environmental transition, we need to think in terms of priorities: is it better to have an industrial production – albeit partly decarbonised – of certain “unnecessary” products? Or a production of food, a bit more emitting, but vital?

“That being said, farmers are well aware that the sector needs to work on decarbonisation. But faced with the very ambitious objectives set at the European level, they note that they have neither a roadmap on how to get there, nor the means.”

What is the responsibility of the consumer?

“It’s an important lever: we cannot ask farmers to decarbonise if the demand is not there.

“Yet the inconsistency of consumers strikes the agricultural world. Neither the prices practiced nor our food expenses are in coherence with the values and injunctions we advocate in Europe.

“Ultimately, food inflation has had a positive aspect: it has given value back to food, and made people aware of the investment it represents. Even if at the same time it raises a real social issue.”

What lessons can be drawn from the demonstrations of recent weeks, in the face of the challenges that await us?

“was missed in the narrative in recent years. The transition must be made with the farmers, not against them. We must be clear about the difficulties but continue to cultivate enthusiasm!

“Faced with the challenge ahead, we cannot afford to be fatalistic. Because food is an ecological issue but also one of pleasure, health, and, I insist, human security.”

  • First published in La Croix International. Republished with permission.
  • Camille Richir is a journalist at La Croix whose focus is on the environment.
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