Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Towards a regenerative food system.

Almost 40 years ago, in our small farm we were packing bags of vegetables to consumers that wanted good food. After a having spent thirty years with development of the organic sector, the entry of supermarkets and multinational food companies in the organic sector, development of certification systems and  international trade - I am now back in a small farm packing bags of vegetables to consumers who want good food. 
Speech at the European Organic Conference in Talinn 6 September 2017

Industrial food and farming have been very successful in producing more food, and cheaper food. But it has come at a very high price as you all know. The practices have disturbed and destroyed important biological systems, in particular bio-diversity and the nitrogen and carbon cycles.

While food is abundant, the distribution system, the market, fails to reach almost 1 billion people which are hungry. Even in the rich EU every tenth person can’t afford a proper meal every second day.

More than anything else the global market fuelled by oil and coal and shaped by merciless competition has been the factor that has determined the whole food system, from the prairies to the supermarket shelf, from the production of grain fed chicken to the emergence of fast food chains. The effects on biodiversity, landscape, rural development, and the quality and culture of food of this transformation is immense.

Agricultural policy in the EU as well as in most other countries has by and large supported this trend by a one-sided focus on competitiveness. The result is that 1 out of 4 farms have disappeared in the EU between 2003 and 2013, and almost 5 million full time jobs were lost, one third of all jobs in the agriculture sector. With current trends we will have 2 farms with 150 000 dairy cows each in Sweden at the end of the century.

Productivity in farming has increased quicker than in most other sectors. Farming has become a very capital intensive business where it often cost 1 million euro to create a full time job. The average Danish farm represent a capital investment of 2.5 million Euro, Dutch farms almost as much.

The combination of high capital costs, constant reduction of number of farms and farm workers and low profitability together explains well why so few young people enter the farm sector. As a matter of fact, in the modern economies many more people work in restaurants and cafés than in farming and food industries.

As a reaction to the development, organic farming, local foods, slow food, fair trade and alike has developed. And they play a very important role, both as agents of innovation and for their actual results.

We have come a long way and should be proud of the accomplishment.

However, these systems are, by and large, still subject to the same market imperatives of competition, profit and constant labour productivity increase. And increasingly so the more successful they are.

This limits their transformational power. Both Thomas Fertl and Nic Lampkin said that organic is more, more than regulations and more than markets, and I think most of you agree. But we have spent most of the sector’s energy in government regulations and conventional markets the last decades. Both are institutions we need to relate to if we want to be relevant and live in the real world. But they don’t carry the soul of organic and they are not fostering innovation. They are reflections of the past and not the image of the future.

A truly regenerative food and farm system will close loops of energy, nutrients and most importantly meaning and culture. It must reconnect people to the land and to farming.

We need to think carefully which are the best paths to reach there.

Let me take an example:The value of the ecosystem services and the external costs of a product can be higher than the commercial value of the product itself.  FAO calculated external costs for the four most important crops and found that they were 1.8 times the farm gate prices for the same crops. Full and fair payment to farmers for ecosystem services and inclusion of costs for environmental damage sounds like a good idea. Who could object to that?

I could. For many reasons.  

To calculate the real cost of production is not at all simple, and the calculated cost of using one method, say a kg of synthetic fertilizer, will differ enormously in different parts of the world, even within the same country. All valuation of nature is subjective. In a hugely unequal world it will be the priorities of the wealthy that determines the values. It would also require an administrative system and controls which would make the current CAP, and organic regulations, look like a kindergarten.

But the major objection to true cost accounting is that it puts even bigger pieces of nature under the rule of the market, a trend that I believe is contrary to the desired development.

So while the ambition is a good one - to reward good stewardship and discourage harmful practices - we need to think carefully about what we are asking for and how it can be realised.  The organic regulation is another example of how a good intention easily can become an obstacle.

Technology and natural science are great and there is still a lot to do there. We need to understand better the whole micro cosmos of the soil, as well as the linkages between the soil and the health of our bodies.

But, is it lack of knowledge that is the main limitation for farmers to produce sustainably? I believe most farmers do know how to farm sustainably. But there are economic and sometimes regulatory hurdles to the best behaviours. Examples, specialisation and dropping rotations.

Some of the major challenges as well as the possible innovations are found in the political, social and economic arenas. It is encouraging to see that there is a lot of such innovation going on, even if many of them are taking place outside of the “certified organic” straight-jacket.

And perhaps we should not be so bothered about that. After all, certification and regulations are tools for the conventional market and they will not be the relevant tools when we seek to develop new relationships.

Organic, regenerative farming is a very important counter narrative to the eco-modernist narrative of GMOs, lab meats and vertical hydroponic farms, where the ideal is a food production that is land-less, sweat-less and dirt-less. In the end it is also soul-less, culture-less and human-less.


IFOAM EU propagates for organic on every table and Fair Play – fair pay and it wants to improve, inspire and deliver. And it promotes the transformation of the food system.Cornerstones for such new food systems need to be:

  •       Food as a human right rather than a commodity
  •       Food as culture rather than the intake of prescribed nutrients
  •       Food producing resources – land, water, seeds and breeds – should be seen as common goods rather than assets which can be traded and speculated in
  •     New relationships in agriculture and food built on cooperation rather than competition
  •    Food and agriculture based on local resources and linkages rather than on international trade and global supply chains 
  •    Farming is not only seen as production of food but as much as planetary stewardship

Let us apply the organic principles of health, fairness, ecology and care on the whole food system and not only on the farms. 

(Speech at the European Organic Conference in Talinn 6 September 2017)

Friday, September 1, 2017

Save the world with pickled cucumbers

And now something completely different:

Garden Earth proudly presents:

The circular, sustainable cucumber sharing app that will save the world from climate change and eradicate poverty (and provide investors with massive returns). 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Vertical farms - no lighthouses for ecological cities

The dream of food without dirt. That is the best description of how we will get food in the future if we would believe the impressive number of food tech start-ups which will produce food without soil or animals. But few of them deliver on their exaggerated promises. 

Image result for IKEA indoor farm
The IKEA indoor growing kit.

The growing of plants in water with drip-fed nutri­tion is a much-hyped technology. There are some traditional hydrocultural systems that work well, where people farm on floats in rivers or lakes, e.g. in Bangladesh and Burma, and of course there are edible aquatic plants which are grown or collected. 

In its modern scientific form hydroponics was developed by researchers at Berkeley University in the 1930s.[i] In 1937, Time Magazine reported that hydroponic had “yielded some remarkable results”.[ii] Seventy two years later the same magazine elected a vertical hydroponic system to one of the 50 best innovations in 2009.

An extreme version of hydroponics are indoor vertical farms in cities. We see sketches of green skyscrapers feeding the people with clean, local and nutritious food. Most such plans remain on the drawing boards for very simple reasons. For sure, it is possible to produce lettuce in high towers with automated systems. But the fact that it is possible doesn’t mean it is viable on a larger scale, and even less that it will take place in the cities. Vertical hydroponic farms are totally dependent on inputs that will need to be transported in, they are not part of any ecological context in the city, and if they are large, the crops will be put into the normal food distribution networks. In that sense, they are like any other assembly plant. And, like any other assembly plants, they are better located outside of city centres. But the rational for stacking crops on top of each other is gone where land prices are lower. Hydroponics is already, since decades, the dominating form for commercial production of tomatoes, capsicums cucumber and lettuce in greenhouses in many countries in the world. By and large, it can only compete in high value crops where production is close to the market, and greenhouses are often located close to transportation hubs or energy resources rather than in cities.

It can of course be a marketing gimmick for a supermarket to grow its own lettuce on the roof of the outlet or in a green dome inside the shop, in the same way as they have an in house bakery. And, similarly, it can be an interesting architectural and engineering challenge to have green skyscrapers, and it can increase the commercial value of the property. But it has little relevance for feeding the population, which is underscored by that the commercial application are all about growing baby lettuce, pak choy or herbs, crops which provide almost no food energy or proteins.

The claims of environmental benefits are mostly not backed by any facts. In-door production of lettuce, herbs and other small leaves require in the range of 250 Watt per square meter of energy efficient LED lamps (a lot more is required for the production of tomatoes or potatoes).[iii] With 12 hours light per day one would need 3,000 Wh per square meter and day, or 1,095 kWh per year. This means that only three square meters of such a farm would consume the global average per capita use of electricity.[iv] The company Freight Farms offer a container ready for vertical farming. For 85,000 dollars you can buy the monster which will consume 36,000 kWh of electricity anually. It will produce 500 heads of lettuce per week. Hardly enough to keep one person alive.

LED lit vertical farming also doesn’t save land as it often claims. Assuming, optimistically, that we could produce the electricity with solar panels, depending on where we are located we would need solar panels on an area which would be between 4 and 8 times bigger than the area of each layer of cultivation.[v] And this is only for the light. In addition to light one needs energy for ventilation, cooling, water pumping and purification etc. The claim that the production is climate-smart is also questionable; T. Shiina and colleagues (2012) found that growing lettuce with artificial light causes at least 6 kg CO2 emissions per kg, which is considerably more than for common greenhouse production and at least five times more than arable lettuce production.[vi]

In an entertaining article professor David Keith at Harvard calculates that his small-scale household cultivation of lettuce causes greenhouse emissions of 50 kg CO2 per kg lettuce and use 100 times as much energy. In addition, the production cost is 5-8 times higher than for normal lettuce.

Indoor farming in the cities are part of a narrative of ‘sustainable cities’ in which cities become self-sustaining ecological units. Unfortunately, those technologies are not integrated into the ecological web of the city, rather the opposite, they need to be sealed off even from the people and the water used must be of premium quality. They can’t even use the rain falling in their roofs.

While it is commendable to strive to reduce the ecological footprint of cities some realism is called for. For their provisions and waste disposal, cities need forest, agricultural, marine, and wetland ecosystems on lands many hundred times the area of the city itself.[x] If we are serious about feeding the cities more locally, we should look more to the perimeters of the city and to the interplay between cities and their hinterland. It is here that there really is a potential to feed the cities.

Meanwhile, urban farming - with soil and animals - has a role to play in reviving commu­nity spirit and for recreation. It is also a good way to engage people in food production and in appreciating food quality. Despite the hype and attention given to urban farming in modern wealthy cities, most urban farming takes place in developing countries by poor people using very simple technology producing a lot more food than any vertical farms.

[i]         Gericke, W. F.: 1940 The Complete Guide to Soilless Gardening Putnam.
[ii]        Time 1938: ‘Science: Hydroponics to wake’ Monday, 23 May 1938
[iii]       Maximum Yield 2014: ’ A Beginner’s Guide to Calculating Garden Lighting Needs’ 17 February 2014.
[iv]       World bank 2017: ’ Electric power consumption (kWh per capita)’ 14 December 2017
[v]        Based on industry data drawn from several web sites.
[vi]       Shiina, T., Hosokawa, D., Roy, P., Nakamura , N., Thammawong, M. and Orikasa, T. 2011. ‘Life cycle inventory analysis of leafy vegetables grown in two types of plant factories.’ Acta Hort. (ISHS) 919:115-122
[vii]       Atkins, P. J., P. Lummel and D. J. Oddy (editors) 2007: Food and the City in Europe since 1800 Ashgate.
[viii]      Steel, C. 2008: Hungry City. Chatto & Windus.
[ix]       Rundgren, G 2015: Global Eating Disorder. Regeneration
[x]        Folke, Carl, et al. 1997: ’Ecosystem Appropriation by Cities.’ Ambio, vol. 26, no. 3, 1997, pp. 167–172. JSTOR,