Farm to Fork is not something to emulate or admire.
When I was young, agriculture was not a common news story. The times that ag was mentioned in the news (we were one of those families that always had the six o’clock news on), it was a story about an old elevator getting knocked down, farmers complaining about this or that, how difficult it was to survive farming, and so on. I so wished for ag to feature more prominently in the news. I so wished people could see the amazing technological advancements we were making, even twenty years ago. I so wished people saw farming the way I did!
I believe the phrase goes something like, be careful what you wish for…
Well, we got what I asked for. Agriculture is definitely a prominent subject these days. In fact, farming has found itself more in the spotlight than I ever could have imagined it would. Unfortunately, it isn’t there for the reasons I’d hoped.
Like the energy industry, agriculture continually finds itself in the crosshairs of the environmental movement. Apparently, we are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, we degrade and damage our land, we apply dangerous pesticides and fertilizers that harm the environment, we grow nutritionally sparse, calorie-dense foods that are causing a crisis in obesity, and on, and on.
Recommendations usually include switching to organic or at least regenerative (whatever that means), cutting or eliminating pesticides and fertilizers, or, in the case of the Netherlands in certain areas, just shutting down the farm completely.
What is Farm to Fork?
The European Farm to Fork strategy is a microcosm of this movement to “transform” food systems. You might have heard of it – it’s a key part of Europe’s “Green New Deal”. Here are its core tenets, at least as far as agriculture is concerned:
- Reduce the overall use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50% and the use of more hazardous pesticides by 50% by 2030
- Reduce fertilizer use by at least 20% by 2030 (they hope to achieve this by reducing nutrient losses, thereby reducing what farmers need to apply, which is highly optimistic)
- Increase land devoted to organic farming to 25% of total European farmland by 2030
Agriculture is responsible for 10.3% of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, which, if they are to meet their Paris Accords targets, must be reduced. It might be worth mentioning that greenhouse gas emissions for something as critical as food might not be the first place to drastically cut emissions, but here we are.
The EU is also very interested in seed security and diversity, because farmers need to “have access to a range of quality seeds for plant varieties adapted to the pressures of climate change.” Oddly, this does not include access to genetically modified varieties, and it remains unclear as to the EU’s policy on gene editing. Clearly, if they allow neither, they are trying to encourage seed diversity with two hands tied behind their back.
The one part in this plan that really doesn’t belong, though, is the encouragement of organic farming. Indeed, they claim “organic farming needs to be further promoted.” Organic agriculture is not a strategy to promote to reduce emissions, improve the environment, or provide food security. My usual caveat: I have no problem at all with farmers choosing to farm organically to pursue higher margins for their crops. That is and should always be their choice. It is an entirely different thing to force farmers to switch to organic to improve the environment.
Organic farming is not better for the environment than conventional production. Yields are typically at least a third less than conventional agriculture (yes, some do better than that, it depends on the crop, etc; but that’s a good average). So, how do we feed 8 billion people with half the production? We find more land. Where do we find uncultivated land? Most often, in forests (including rainforests), or we tear up grasslands. The greenhouse gas emissions from doing something like this are colossal. The biodiversity losses and other environmental damages are catastrophic. And let’s not kid ourselves: the organic agriculture industry also uses pesticides to control all types of pests in their crops – they just have to be “natural” compounds. Natural does not mean safer than synthetic. Let’s not forget about all the extra mechanical weeding that organic production requires, as well, which promotes soil erosion and increases fuel use. I could go on.
According to the USDA, if Farm to Fork were to be implemented worldwide, we would see a 11% decline in world production. Worldwide adoption of Farm to Fork could increase food costs by 89%, resulting in $1.9 trillion of lost GDP. The yield decline and increase in food costs would be devastating to the world’s poor, but the increase in costs would put millions of farmers out of business, creating a vicious cycle leading to even more hunger.
What the Farm to Fork program highlights is a growing and disturbing disconnect between farmers and policy makers. As our share of the population dwindles, we continue to see our voice erode. It’s difficult to explain the intricacies of how we grow our crops to the uninitiated; agriculture is complicated, made worse yet by the astonishing variations in crops produced and the production practices needed across even stunningly small geographies. A good rule of thumb is this: farmers need access to every tool we have invented to sustainably grow crops in their individual areas. Yes, some pesticides have been phased out for good reason, but we have scads of toxicology literature available to us on everything we still have left that generally demonstrates safety when used as directed.
The Far-Reaching Consequences of Bad Policy
The dangerous aspect of Farm to Fork is what it looks like when taken to the extreme, as it is in the Netherlands. Their government’s goal of reducing nitrogen use by 50% will put thousands of farmers out of business. In fact, that is their stated goal – 3,000 farms will be forcibly closed. The government has taken a shockingly hard line on this, stating that “there is no better offer coming,” as said by Christianne van der Wal, referring to the buyout the government will undertake to remove these farms. They make it sound like they’re being generous. From the standpoint of a farmer, it’s not generous. It’s authoritarian.
Top-down control of agriculture has never worked. It’s too complex, too hyper-local, too exposed to the vagaries of weather. What these European governments are attempting will result in considerably reduced food production, increasing prices, and thereby hurting – and, sadly, killing – the poor.
We are seeing similar ideals evolve in Canada’s government. Agriculture Canada quietly revamped its strategic plan just a few months ago. Its previous scientific priorities were:
- Increase farm productivity
- Improve environmental performance and attributes for food and non-food uses of products from farming
- Address threats to agriculture and the food value chain
These priorities were sensible, practical, and achievable. Apparently, they weren’t good enough. The new priorities are:
- Mitigate and adapt to climate change
- Increase the resiliency of agricultural ecosystems
- Advance the circular economy through more value-added agriculture
- Accelerate the use of digital tools in agricultural and food production
These priorities are… interesting. They are clearly far more subjective and open to interpretation. One thing that is clear, however, is how prominently climate change will factor into their new platform. One other thing that’s clear, though, is the lack of consultation with farmers, who are most directly affected by this change in plan.
With less production coming from Europe, along with considerable reductions in production from the Ukraine and, going forward, quite possibly Russia, the world needs exportable surpluses of safe, high-quality food. Canada should be a place to provide that. The changes we are seeing play out right now won’t blow over in a month, or a year, or quite possibly a decade or more. Our world is changing, possibly in fundamental ways. The people best suited to growing affordable, nutritious, sustainable food are farmers, not bureaucrats and politicians.
By collaborating, we can do things better. There are always improvements to make to something as amazingly complex as agriculture. But that won’t happen if farmers are continually being sidelined in these conversations. Farmers should be leading these conversations. It’s time for a change, before the EU’s catastrophe spreads.