Rethinking agricultural systems: first impressions, part II

By Joern Fischer

Tim Benton also gave his plenary talk at the conference I already reported on in the last blog entry. To start with, he highlighted that the average American family consumes more unequal food bundles, and vastly more calories than – for example – a sub-Saharan African family.

Regarding food security, Tim very quickly argued that food prices were important, implying that the supply side therefore was important. Given dietary changes then, it was inevitable to increase global food demand. Moreover, the food system was very much globalized; again, this highlighted the inevitability of taking a global perspective on how to address food security.

Unlike Jon, Tim was somewhat more pessimistic. Regarding climate change, for example, we are currently tracking the worst case IPCC scenario – a 4 degree increase by 2100. Extreme climate events that happened only every few centuries now happen as commonly as (almost) every decade. Tim highlighted that climate change was very much going to reduce food production in the decades to come, in several of the areas currently responsible for producing most of the world’s food.

In a nutshell, Tim’s argument went like this: Land is finite, and demand is growing, hence if the market works, reducing yield in one place (e.g. due to climate change), will put pressure to increase yields elsewhere (like it or not). Based on this assumption of market economics, Tim predicted there would be pressure for intensification on Europe (because other areas will be more severely affected by climate change).

Tim went on to talk about sustainable intensification – he actually cited the Brundtland definition, thereby signaling the need to consider social, economic and environmental issues (i.e. not only environmental issues). Right now, Tim highlighted, natural capital was providing free subsidies to agriculture. What if these subsidies decline in the future? Such decline could risk that systems may actually collapse. Moreover, different indicators of sustainability in farming systems can be negatively correlated, suggesting there may be uncomfortable trade-offs. Having more of everything therefore may be difficult.

Importantly, Tim emphasized that there was no simple solution as to what constituted sustainable agriculture. The benefits of organic farming, for example, may only be useful for biodiversity if we are dealing with low yielding organic production (Gabriel et al. J Appl Ecol). A key challenge thus is to manage entire farming landscapes, including areas that harbor ecosystem services; which in turn, may cause trade-offs with other variables (such as yields and profits).

One potential solution might be to select landscapes that can be safely intensified without losing a lot of ecosystem services, while avoiding intensification in areas that would be costly to biodiversity and ecosystem services. Smart multi-functional landscapes therefore need to be designed, and incentives must be developed for farmers to actually implement  such spatial planning – despite incentives to intensify likely growing in the future. Tim mentioned that diversification of landscapes may improve the resilience of farming systems, and this could be a possible incentive for farmers (Dave Abson wrote an earlier blog entry on this – Tim cited his work).

Finally, Tim emphasized the importance of the need to change our attitudes towards food. To have everything, cheap and abundant, just won’t be possible. Tim emphasized that it was not all about production – indeed, an increasing number of people is obese, and a lot of food gets wasted. The current situation is one where we expect that more consumption will endlessly improve human well-being – in a food context, this is not true and is causing a lot of environmental as well as health problems. Changing diets therefore could be a particularly powerful strategy to foster sustainability. At this point, Tim gave a beautiful quote by Tim Lang: “The rich have to consume less and differently so that the poor consume more and differently”.

Key challenges ahead, according to Tim, were lengthening the view of governments; finding a business case as to why it is worthwhile to invest in the environment (e.g. a resilience argument?); and we needed organizational cultural changes. Finally, academics needed to communicate their messages more clearly, and needed to better articulate how something can change, and what the actual societal impacts were going to be. Just stating that “we need conservation”, for example, was not enough, because this comes at a cost to other aspects of well-being …. and ignoring these costs was something that ecologists had done for a long time.

Like Jon Foley before him, Tim gave a great overview of some of the most pressing issues of our time, with many important facts and nuances that cannot be ignored.

9 thoughts on “Rethinking agricultural systems: first impressions, part II

  1. Two great talks, though the reification of demand is infuriating and, to my mind, unscientific.

    “If the market works” Tim said — yet “if the market works”, AND if only a fraction of the facts he and Foley presented are true (and I do not doubt they are, I very much agree with most of it), then: (a) the costs (to the environment, society, the climate, etc.) of food systems are high and arguably escalating, and (b) the prices of food should correspondingly be high and escalating. Indeed, if the number of people (potential demand) is increasing and supply is increasing at a lower rate, then prices should go up until “there isn’t a problem”. Now, clearly, this form of “markets work(ing)” is undesirable. We don’t want prices to simply rise to match costs such that only the rich can eat (even more so than now). But to say “demand is increasing, and so therefore, must supply as well” is as far as I can tell, absolutely incoherent as far as “real” economics go (Dave Abson, help me out?) The rising population is not, for example, causing concerns about the looming supply crunch in luxury planes because the demand for luxury planes consists only of those who can afford them or are likely to be able to. We do not look at this and say “we must therefore increase the supply of luxury planes”–for an obvious reason, a luxury plane is not necessary to survive.

    It is absolutely imperative to recognize food as being different than other commodities. But if we wish to be scientific (as I presume both Jon and Tim wish to be), we must separate aggregate economic demand, which is set by the combination of supply and prices (or more precisely, is a response curve/surface sensitive to price, and the demand seen in the market should rise or fall according to prices which should rise and fall according to supply) from the demands of social rights and equity. “Increasing (and increasingly damaging) demand” can (and should in an efficient market) be stopped by price increases. It cannot and should not be met by additional supply, which in theory should lower prices and increase the realized demand.

    Now, ag economists and ecologists like to implicitly assume a satiation model–which is appropriate, no one can eat infinite food–but they must recognize that this satiation model bakes in unequal food distribution and waste–if food is “cheap” and all people need some level of food to survive, then the rich will be “overconsuming” relative to (societal) efficiency, and there will be little incentive to decrease wastes and processing inefficiencies as they’re not worth the cost of the cheap food.

    Foley, Benton and others with similar analyses never seem to acknowledge this, nor countenance the alternative: regimes that seek to make adequate and appropriate food accessible, and excessive and wasteful consumption expensive. This seems clearly to match the economic and environmental realities. It seems to me, in essence, to be the plain and obvious scientific approach, whereas emphasizing demand only is both politically short-sighted and flirting with ineffectiveness and unscientific scope-narrowing.

  2. This is exactly what I wasn’t doing. My starting premise was that we shouldn’t reify demand because if we do we will never achieve it. Instead, we should tackle demand-side issues to reduce the pressure to intensify unsustainably; so that we leave space for sustainable production of the demand that is necessary for a safe, nutritious and affordable diet. One of my slides explicitly said we need to move from a demand-driven, over-consumptive and wasteful food system to one where we buy less, eat better, waste less and are sustainable: the “sustainable nutrition model”. This is where the Tim Lang quote fitted in reported on J’s blog. As an example of my analysis, in a recent piece in Climate Action ( p135 – I explicitly address the issue that climate smart agriculture is tackled most strongly by changing dietary demands rather than techno-tweaks of farming. That article puts driving down demand as the first route to sustainable ag.

    So rather than not acknowledging this, I am directly trying to tackle it. As I said in my talk, however, politically it is a difficult argument for politicians to accept because changing demand is close, in their view, to reducing personal freedoms. Hence, politically, the concentration on demand is an easier course for governments to think about for food security.

    • Thank you, Tim, for engaging and responding to this. I hope my summary of your talk was somewhat accurate — not an easy task to “get it right” with respect to every detail! So your clarification definitely helps to make sure readers of this blog don’t mis-interpret what you did (or did not) say. Thanks! — J.

      • On re-reading, it seems you did a fine job summarizing it, Joern. I simply, apparently, was keen on demonstrating the questionable value of Blogging Near Midnight and the effect of wee hours on reading comprehension! (7 hour time difference and all)

  3. Tim, thank you for the important correction! I will take a close look at the piece in Climate Action. Reassuring, if embarrassing, to know that I got it so wrong! And I was quite happy to see Tim Lang’s quote in there, it does fit in well with your actual message. Though I have to say, there are many ecologists and other scientists as well who do still seem to reify demand, though perhaps I’m off specifically on Jon, too. I did chat briefly with him and present at a session with him this summer–I think he is heading more and more in directions that make sense to me, but I still disagree with the way he has presented providing supply in the cases I’ve seen and heard thus far. But he does place demand into a broader context that is right on, in my view.

    I do think, in the US context at least, that part of the tactical route to go is not (explicitly) restricting demand per se but making the argument that demand should be more responsive to, and better reflect, actual costs. No politician ever wants to include costs one was able to keep off the books, but I think that’s an easier (still very hard) fight than one over “freedom”. And as I wrote at the IATP blog earlier this month, I think people want to pay what something costs–that is the implicit social contract we’re told we’re signing up for. Indeed, failing to pay what meat (among other things) truly costs essentially puts us in the position of being continuous moochers, stealing from our neighbors, ourselves, and our children while not even being given the (market) signals that we’re doing something very expensive and destructive. While politicians and others will, with certainty, rail against any approach to curbing demand, and will dispute real costs like climate change and health effects, I think “we need to pay what it costs” is an argument we can win in the long-term.

    Thanks again for letting me know I was exactly turned around on your talk, though!

  4. Tim when you say “As I said in my talk, however, politically it is a difficult argument for politicians to accept because changing demand is close, in their view, to reducing personal freedoms. Hence, politically, the concentration on demand is an easier course for governments to think about for food security.” I assume you meant to say “supply” in the last sentence? In which case I think you hit the nail squarely on the head. From a political-economy perspective driving down demand is highly problematic, other than through the clearly undesirable rise in prices (with the terrible consequences this has on the food insecure). To decrease demand would seem to require a rejection of “consumer sovereignty” and a return to paternalistic economics. Paternalistic approaches to managing demand do exist, for example, regarding food as a “demerit good” and applying localised taxes to “correct” over consumption (taxes on cigarettes is such and example), but such aggregate measures, even when applied locally, are only likely to work in relatively equitable societies and are really problematic when the good in question is fundamental for human well-being. It might work in Sweden, but less well in Mexico where it would simply make the poor more food insecure.

    I think it comes down to the point that Joern often raises that it is mindsets that need to be changed first, I can’t really see any economic instruments, including inflating supply (with the problem of the rebound effect) that will fix this problem.

    • Thanks Dave. Indeed you spotted the mistake (early morning haste, I plead!). Politically, reducing demand via changes in consumption is difficult (though waste is increasingly being tackled as an issue). However, the global obesity and diabetes epidemics (with over 50% of adult Chinese showing signs of developing diabetes, that’s a helluva health bill) may in future act to push government action.

      Smoking is a good example. It took 60 years of growing awareness, and soft measures, before the public was accepting enough for a smoking ban to be introduced. Government then, in a sense, follows (not leads) public opinion. I think the greatest scope is therefore with the public and raising awareness and this, coupled with retailer responsiveness to consumer issues, may sow the seeds enough for govt to step in with facilitation regulation.

      Prices will rise through demand-supply imbalances and perturbations created by climate (see the ref above to my blog) and this will change behaviour towards the “buy less, waste less, buy better” model, but I don’t expect a lot of political leadership here until the health costs get crazy!

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