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16.4 Paradigm Shift for a New Food System

4 months ago

7 min read

To claim that Agriculture is 'at a crossroads' (Kiers et al. 2008) does not quite do justice to the magnitude of the situation. The gaping 'sustainability gap' (Fischer et al. 2007) amidst unanimous calls for sustainability are increasingly being met with common response amongst researchers: pleas for revolutionary measures and paradigm shifts. Foley et al. (2011: 5) put it quite directly: 'The challenges facing agriculture today are unlike anything we have experienced before, and they require revolutionary approaches to solving food production and sustainability problems. In short, new agricultural systems must deliver more human value, to those who need it most, with the least environmental harm'. Somehow, world agriculture's current role as the single largest driver of global environmental change must shift into a 'critical agent of a world transition' towards global sustainability within the biophysical safe operating space of the Earth (Rockström et al. 2017).

The Anthropocene lays steep demands: Agriculture must be intensified; it must meet the needs of a growing population, but at the same time it is mandatory that the pressures exerted by our food production systems stay within the carrying capacity of Planet Earth. It is increasingly understood that future food security depends on the development of technologies that increase the efficiency of resource use whilst simultaneously preventing the externalisation of costs (Garnett et al. 2013). The search for alternatives to our current agricultural paradigm has brought to the fore ideas such as agroecology (Reynolds et al. 2014) and 'sustainable intensification', with the acknowledgement that real progress must be made towards 'ecological intensification', that is, increasing agricultural output by capitalising on the ecological processes in agroecosystems (Struik and Kuyper 2014).

There has been well-documented debate on what constitutes 'sustainable intensification' (SI) of agriculture as well as the role it might play in addressing global food security (Struik and Kuyper 2014; Kuyper and Struik 2014; Godfray and Garnett 2014). Critics have cautioned against the top-down, global analyses that are often framed in narrow, production-oriented perspectives, calling for a stronger engagement with the wider literature on sustainability, food security and food sovereignty (Loos et al. 2014). Such readings revisit the need for developing regionally grounded, bottom-up approaches, with a growing consensus claiming that an SI agenda fit for the Anthropocene does not entail 'business-as-usual' food production with marginal improvements in sustainability but rather a radical rethinking of food systems not only to reduce environmental impacts but also to enhance animal welfare, human nutrition and support rural/urban economies with sustainable development (Godfray and Garnett 2014).

While traditional 'sustainable intensification' (SI) has been criticised by some as too narrowly focused on production, or even as a contradiction in terms altogether (Petersen and Snapp 2015), others make it clear that the approach must be broadly conceived, with the acknowledgement that there is no single universal pathway to sustainable intensification (Garnett and Godfray 2012). Important here is the growing appreciation of 'multifunctionality' in agriculture (Potter 2004). If, during the twentieth century, 'Malthusian' demographics discourse had secured the narrow goal of agricultural development on increasing production, the growing rediscovery of the multiple dimensions of farming currently taking place is altering the perception of the relationship between agriculture and society.

'Multifunctionality' as an idea was initially contested in the context of the controversial GATT and WTO agricultural and trade policy negotiations (Caron et al. 2008), but has since gained wide acceptance, leading to a more integrative view of our food system (Potter 2004). In this view, progress in seeing agriculture as an important type of 'land use' competing with other land functions (Bringezu et al. 2014) interrelates with a number of other perspectives. These have been conceptualised through several important categories: (1) as a source of employment and livelihood for a rural and future urban population (McMichael 1994); (2) as a key part of cultural heritage and identity (van der Ploeg and Ventura 2014); (3) as the basis of complex value chain interactions in 'food systems' (Perrot et al. 2011); (4) as a sector in regional, national and global economies (Fuglie 2010); (5) as modifier and storehouse of genetic resources (Jackson et al. 2010); (6) as a threat to environmental integrity that exerts destructive pressures on biodiversity (Brussaard et al. 2010; Smil 2011); and (7) as a source of greenhouse gas emissions (Noordwijk 2014). This list is by no means comprehensive, but what is important is that each of these interacting dimensions is understood to impact sustainability and food security in one way or another and must be apprehended by serious attempts towards SI.

Sustainability outcomes are increasingly seen as a complex interplay between local and global concerns (Reynolds et al. 2014). Biophysical, ecological and human needs intermix within the complexities and idiosyncrasies of 'place' (Withers 2009). The 'one size fits all' solutions, characteristics of the Green Revolution, fail to acknowledge these unique sustainability potentials and demands. The result is that changes in food production and consumption must be perceived through a multiplicity of scales and styles. To this end, Reynolds et al. (2014) suggest an approach to sustainability that takes advantage of the insights of agroecological principles. They forward a 'custom-fit' food production focus 'explicitly tailored to the environmental and cultural individuality of place and respectful of local resource and waste assimilative limits, thus promoting biological and cultural diversity as well as steady-state economics'.

If the issues at stake are inherently multidimensional, others have also underlined that they are contested. Trade-offs between the plethora of biophysical and human concerns are inevitable and often exceedingly complex. Sustainability thresholds are diverse, often normative, and can seldom all be realised in full simultaneously (Struik and Kuyper 2014). It has been emphasised that new directions towards sustainability and food security require simultaneous change at the level of formal and informal social rules and incentive systems (i.e. institutions) that orient human interaction and behaviour, and hence that 'institutional innovation' is held to be a key entry point in addressing challenges (Hall et al. 2001). Insomuch as the complexity of sustainable intensification derives from human framings (which entail and flow from contexts, identities, intentions, priorities and even contradictions), they are, as Kuyper and Struik (2014: 72) put it, 'beyond the command of science'. Attempting to reconcile the many dimensions of food production towards sustainable ends and within the bounds of our finite planet involves a great deal of uncertainty, irreducibility and contestation (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1995); it requires an awareness and acknowledgement that such issues are shot through with political implication.

Food systems and sustainability research have come a long way in expanding the narrow focus of the Green Revolution, bringing greater clarity to the steep challenges we face in the pursuit of a more environmentally and socially sustainable food system. Thanks to a broad range of work, it is now apparent that food production lies at the heart of a nexus of interconnected and multi-scalar processes, on which humanity relies upon to meet a host of multidimensional—-often contradictory—- needs (physical, biological, economic, cultural). As Rockström et al. (2017: 7) have stated: 'World agriculture must now meet social needs and fulfil sustainability criteria that enables food and all other agricultural ecosystem services (i.e., climate stabilization, flood control, support of mental health, nutrition, etc.) to be generated within a safe operating space of a stable and resilient Earth system'. It is precisely within these recalibrated agricultural goals that aquaponics technology must be developed.