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The science of food due to new challenges

by Richard Meckien - published Sep 13, 2016 01:50 PM - - last modified Jun 04, 2019 11:29 AM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Sylvia Miguel.

The first world is concerned about food quality of their population, and is increasingly investing in research and public policies aimed at healthy eating and sustainable food production. In England, for example, eight leading universities have joined forces to launch the N8 Agrifood Programme, a project focused on the sustainability of supply chains and food health. English agro-ecologist Leslie Firbank, a professor at the University of Leeds and one of the scientists leading the N8 Agrifood, has visited the IEA to speak precisely about sustainability in agriculture, an issue that he heads next to the international program.

At the conference Can we achieve sustainable agriculture?, given on September 5, Firbank advocated a concept derived from the famous definition of the Brundtland Report. For the scientist, sustainability in agriculture must meet today's needs without compromising the needs of the future.

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Agro-ecologist Leslie Firbank, from the University of Leeds

"This involves the production of biomass and fiber, animal husbandry, the health of farmers and consumers, as well as the financial needs of the productive chains, and also the maintenance and conservation of ecosystem services. But there is always the danger of leaving the track and forgetting that sustainability is also about looking at the needs of future generations," he said.

Future needs will depend on the natural capital that we conserve now, but the companies are not giving due respect to this assumption, Firbank showed. England faces a serious problem with land available for agriculture. Soil carbon has been reduced to drastic levels due to the intensive agricultural use for decades. "The soil is either incredibly dry or totally wet, until the crops get decimated," he said.

Soil and climate conditions have led Britain to become an importer of wheat, one of its main crops in the past. The region is also facing new diseases of their livestock. "But people do not give due weight to it and do not even know where food comes from or how it is produced. There is a mindset that if we do not produce, we can buy from anything from any other country that does," he said.

Expert in animal bioscience Helen Miller, also from the University of Leeds, took part in the debate, which has been moderated by Pablo Mariconda, a professor at USP's Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH), and coordinator of the IEA's Philosophy, History, and Sociology of Science and Technology Research Group.

Local solutions

Unlike agriculture in the decades from 1970 to 1990, with the domination of an equal model for all types of farming, agricultural production of the new millennium will be characterized by the differentiation and diversity thanks to precision agriculture, according to Firbank's belief.

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Precision agriculture: the needs of a varied diet

For the specialist, precision agriculture will gain great vitality, as it allows directing production according to demand. "We can think of local solutions for local needs using local expertise. Precision farming allows contemplating the differentiation and diversity again, and thus producing exactly what we want with the least possible impact on the landscape," he said.

Therefore, agricultural activities will need funding to develop. "Without funding, few will have access to cutting edge technologies. The fertilizers are much more accurate. Robotic systems allow determining the ideal diet for each animal. But all this innovation requires money. Then there is the danger that only large rural businesses will survive, or those with money to invest."

In addition, the rural sector has changed due to its own natural, social and economic conditions, with the advent of global climate change, increasing urbanization and new behaviors. "What used to work 20 or 30 years ago is no longer a solution because society has different needs," he says.

Management of demand

Firbank has noted that food production in 2009 tripled in comparison to the 1960s and thus the world has no problem of production but of food distribution. Nevertheless, there are still many unmet needs for agriculture, and even then, we are pushing the limits of the carrying capacity of terrestrial systems.

"We still have an unresolved issue about whether we can live safely operating only in the same land space already used and if it will be able to meet everyone fairly. This does not have to do with agriculture only but also with industries and other sectors, and with how wealth is distributed on the planet," he said.

For the specialist, the agriculture of the future will have to face the challenge of food demand management, reducing losses in the field, transportation and storage. Moreover, the quality of food supply at affordable prices is a matter of political decision. "In England, we have food banks that markets and distributors put available to the public when the product is close to expire," he said.

Food security will also involve the strengthening of productive chains so that they are able to get along with production and price shocks. But not only that. Public policies should promote healthy eating.

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"People do not know the origin of food anymore. Milk comes in bottles and meat is a supermarket package," says Firbank

"In Leeds, life expectancy in the poorest places is five times lower than in the richest places and this has a close relationship with the quality of food. In this case, it is not about access to food, but food education and concern over what children eat," he said.

Land value

The availability of farmland is a widely debated issue in England, because the habitat have been destroyed over time and their preservation has been neglected. "Now, without the EU funding, it is likely that very little of the natural habitat will be left in England," he believes.

English cities are expanding and territory planning values the urban land to the detriment of rural areas. "The mentality is that we can buy food from other countries which are agricultural exporters, such as Brazil. But around the world, quality agricultural land is increasingly being found in the cities."

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The labor market in rural areas is also neglected, said Firbank. "There is a lack of human capital in the countryside. It is increasingly rare to find people with skills, and committed to food and agriculture in the area. Young people do not see the agricultural area as a valuable career. A newly formed biologist would rather work with genetics, life sciences and related careers because they find them more attractive. "

The N8 Agrifood Programme and other public policies in Europe have been trying to change that. "People in general do not value the countryside. For them, milk comes from bottles and meat is a supermarket package. We are trying to get over this and one of the initiatives is Farm Sunday, an annual event in which hundreds of farms open their gates to the public and students can see how a farm is. Last year, 500,000 people attended the event," he said.

More autonomous cities

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Community garden of USP's School of Public Health (above). Berlin-Tempelhof Airport, disabled in 2008 for community and leisure horticulture (below).

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Facing the challenges, it is necessary to encourage the autonomy of cities as to the production of food, though many cities do not have space to produce food for everyone. "This is not about commodities. But instead of importing everything, we should encourage the production of vegetables and fruits for local consumption. In Leeds we do not have enough space to produce food for everyone. While it is desirable, I do not see urban agriculture as a political solution to food security problems," he says.

However, one can think of urban agriculture as an education movement, food culture and socialization more than one route of food supply. "We still have little statistics and it seems that urban agriculture still works more like a hobby or a supplement to the food that people already have. At the University of Leeds we have a vegetable garden as part of a research project. The place is really nice and at harvest times anyone can go there and get what they want. The area is twice this room here (IEA Events Room). But putting it in a broader context, would it be enough to feed all the people of the university?," asked Firbank.

Professor Thais Mauad, from USP's School of Medicine (FM), responsible for the community garden project of USP's School of Public Health (FSP) and coordinator of the IEA's Study Group on Urban Agriculture, said that the urban gardens have indeed been fulfilling an important social role in Brazil.

"This is not to provide food in quantity for everyone, although many poor communities now have access to healthy and cheap food thanks to several projects of urban gardens. In fact, community gardens have been fulfilling a relevant social and educational role to all these populations," she said.

Photos: Pixabay; Leonor Calasans; Sylvia Miguel