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Dr. Friedrich Leitgeb raised the problem of the food crisis by addressing how food diversity is a growing concern for the future of food production. Friedrich was concerned about long-term effects, which could be described by risks in the supply chain, such as low resilience of farmland against climate change. His advice was to exert pressure to change the current agricultural practice through a bottom-up method to make this industry more sustainable. Two important ways to achieve this are to shift away from conventional global agriculture and to increase the number of producers in organic agriculture.
The importance of bottom-up decision making is evident in the case of Sri Lanka, where the government decided to ban synthetic fertilizers because of the high demand of organic products worldwide and to protect citizens’ health. However, farmers were not trained, the transition was too drastic, and some even refused to plant as a protest. Yields have been catastrophically low, and that, combined with fuel scarcity and inflation, gave rise to the humanitarian disaster we read about now.
To elaborate on the issue of sustainable food production, Friedrich pointed out the reality that there are only 1.6% certified organic farms in the world, which was surprisingly low. Many of the agricultural farms we know are commercially driven and span vast farmland areas. The lecturer is of the opinion that organic farming is the absolute most sustainable practice available for commercial purposes. It includes: respecting nature, no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, using on-farm resources, having disease-resistant plants, applying crop rotation methods, animal species being adapted to the local environment, keeping land-related and free-range livestock, and a ban of genetically modified organisms (GMO). These strict conditions made it difficult for farmers to transition from conventional agriculture to organic farming, so this change would not be possible unless consumers also shift their choices and send a clear signal to producers.
Permaculture is another sustainable agricultural practice, based on conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems to build up the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. Principles of permaculture are seen as production to meet own needs and not for profit, always meet local demands first, local people control local resources, employ locals in local enterprises, and organize a decentralized economy. Achieving this requires a social movement. Food Sovereignty provides the opportunity to focus on food for people, value food providers, localized food systems, strengthen local control, build local knowledge and skills, and work with nature. In current practice, permaculture is mainly used to fulfill personal or community needs without money exchange, thus remaining out of the market sphere. This may also be why organic agriculture was more emphasized by the professor, since it can be applied more easily to the current food system.
Not only the producer’s techniques are important, but also the way products, profits, and losses are distributed matter. Alternative food networks work closely with the supply chain by offering a consumer self-harvest method to replace conventional supermarkets. This encourages locals to participate in the Civic Food Network to allow consumers to reclaim influence on agricultural practices and the food system by transitioning from a passive end-user towards a proactive citizen. This goes beyond what a typical consumer does and brings in an engagement factor. This would lead to a decoupling of product and price relations, which AEMS hopes for in practice. A practice that is now common in most parts of Europe is Community Supported Agriculture. Its basic working is that each farmer creates a network of people, which chooses to support the activity, not only buying the products. The farmer shares his total annual cost and every member offers a quota, so that in total the costs are met. In exchange, everyone gets a basket of products every week, based on seasonality and availability. Since margin profits in agriculture are so low that the majority of them rely on subsidies, this is a way of helping farmers, especially given the fact that weather events could cause big losses. Another problem it solves is that of food waste, since all of the harvested products will be given to households, yet this removes consumer choice to buy “prettier looking” food, as it happens in retail.. Examples of what consumers can do are organizing a food sharing system, buying in zero waste grocery stores, engage with organic local farmers, order organic home delivery, or using an organic self-service stall such as a vending machine.
During the discussion we talked about the situation of COVID-19, which led to food shortages and the Russo-Ukrainian war, which exacerbated the hunger crisis in many of its regions. And another point to drastically increase prices of fast food was raised. This is a way to stimulate consumers to eat more organic and fresh food as the price difference between fast foods and organic produce are reduced. However, this would create challenges for low income households to find other ways to buy food.
The lecture was effective in communicating the right practices we need to support as consumers and the importance of sustainable food production. A criticism might be that Civic Food Network initiatives usually focus on delivering only vegetables and fruit, which is only a small part of the caloric intake. Furthermore, the majority of people don't have enough time to actually cook from fresh products, so sustainable food production should also include elaboration facilities that offer cooked or semi-finished products.
To conclude, Dr. Friedrich Leitgeb advised global consumers that participating in the Civic Food Network would help transition into a democratizing food system and diversify the food system to make it more resilient to the changing climate. But it was disappointing that the dangers of meat production, central to the unsustainability of the current food system, have not been addressed.
Based on the lecture "Food and agriculture" by Friedrich Leitgeb during the AEMS 2022.
Written by: Garrett Dublado and Jennifer Pintar