What will farming look like in 2050? If we are to believe science fiction, we might well witness the triumph of industrialised food production that has done away with farmers. We will be eating (human) plankton and weeping with joy at the sight of potatoes bought for a small fortune on the black market (Soylent Green). In the fields, giant bananas and tomatoes will be drip-fed (Sleeper). We will savour steaks of synthetic meat. Another mouth-watering morsel is this, taken from Ravage by the French author, Barjavel:
“Brasserie 13 was just a branch of the famous and hugely popular steak-and-chips factory. There wasn’t a butcher’s in Paris that didn’t sell its popular dish. The basement of the Brasserie was home to the huge vat of serum where the “mother” block was kept, a hunk of beef weighing in at almost 500 tons. […] It carried on growing indefinitely.”
These fictional representations of farmer-free farming seem like an over-imaginative extrapolation of reality. But what remains today of the farming world? In the West, not a lot in comparison with the 20th century. In 1950, France boasted more than 4 million farmers, whereas today just 400,000 remain and it is no longer an enviable career. Accused of causing pollution by ecologists, and caught between a rock and a hard place with production costs that are too high and sales prices that are too low, farmers are on their knees and have become an endangered species. In France, according to the Institut de Veille Sanitaire (the public health monitoring institute), on average one farmer commits suicide every day. It is hard to imagine this situation reversing itself, especially as the rural exodus has already pushed more than 50% of the world’s population into city living, a figure forecast to reach 60% by 2030.
Will technology make up for the lack of farm labour? A farm manager sitting in his control tower in a suit and tie will simply have to press buttons to control his machines remotely, inject pesticides drop by drop and bring in the harvest in the blink of an eye. It will be possible to become a “farmer” in the same way that one becomes a “marketing manager”. This high-tech scenario, which seems like science fiction, is one of the five outlined by Pierre Feillet, a researcher at INRA (the French national agronomic research institute) in his book entitled La nourriture des Français.De la maîtrise du feu… aux années 2030, which explores the future of food. But do we really believe it?
The agri-business bubble is about to burst
After thirty years of enjoying the spectacular increase in yields generated by intensive farming, the sheen is wearing off and we are paying the price. The reasons for this include: the dependency on oil for machines and inputs; excessive water consumption – more than 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawal is for farming; pollution by pesticides, resulting in the proliferation of nitrates and green algae and a huge drop in the number of bees; soil depletion, and the loss of biodiversity caused by monocropping and hyper-specialisation. Fewer than 15 plant species provide more than three-quarters of the world’s food. In a context of scarce resources and increasing needs, it is difficult to imagine being able to guarantee worldwide food security using this model.
80% of living biomass is found in our soils. Yet in Europe, soils have lost nearly 90% of their biological activity in the last fifty years,
explains Claude Bourguignon here. He is a microbiologist and a specialist in soil analysis, a field in which he is one of the few experts in France, where agricultural colleges show little interest in these practices. Once the black gold has run out, the new “oil barons” will be those who manage to find a way to restore the production capacity of soils. This agricultural revolution requires the mastery of little-studied disciplines such as microbiology, soil restoration techniques, biodynamic farming and agroforestry, all of which require us to respect nature. In this scenario, petrochemical engineers and the leading biotech firms could see their supremacy over the income from agricultural productivity challenged by a new generation of agronomic engineers, ecologists and soil restoration specialists, who will lead this new green revolution, where technology would support the functioning of ecosystems. Cultivating the land – whether pastoral production, agriculture, fishing or forestry – still employs nearly 1.3 billion people in the world, the majority of whom are small farmers, the essential yet poorly-regarded link in the globalised food chain. According to Edgar Morin, the philosopher and author of ‘Terre Patrie’, this will mean reappropriating skills and knowledge that were considered to be old-fashioned. In ‘Guerir la planète’ he wrote, “education will also have to draw on the mass of accumulated knowledge about nature gathered by generations of small farmers across the continents. Unfortunately, this knowledge has tended to disappear with the farmers as they die and with the worldwide triumph of industrialised agriculture”. Maybe this is not such a resounding triumph?
Will we all become farmers?
Science fiction tends to favour the worst case scenarios, which are more spectacular than gradual changes. A forced return to the land is one of them. In Ravage, following a disaster which cuts off the electricity supply throughout the world for good, a group of survivors manage to form a pastoral society in the south of France, the only place in the world where traditional agriculture has survived. In real life, some ecologists such as Pierre Rabhi or Philippe Desbrosses, creator of the Bio label for organic products in France, quite seriously believe that a return to the land (ideally before a catastrophe) would be the best strategy for creating jobs, restoring the environment and feeding ourselves properly.
In the Western world, the case of Detroit, which was once the hub of the car making industry and home to the Ford production theory, is a striking example of a return to the land. In a city that has lost nearly half its inhabitants since the 2008 economic crisis and which counts an estimated 100 square kilometres of abandoned buildings, more than 1,000 farming structures have appeared, from small gardens to vegetable gardens of many hectares. A forced conversion to agriculture is not an ideal scenario. But we could imagine urban agriculture as a productive leisure activity for city-dwellers, as it is in the process of becoming in New York, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere. Around 60% of the vegetables consumed in Dakar, for example, are grown in the city.
Another model, which remains marginal but is gathering momentum, is that of the neo-rurals – the ex-bankers, IT specialists, human resources managers etc., who are throwing off their suit and tie and picking up the hoe. In 2007, they represented 20% of agricultural start-ups according to the French Agriculture Ministry.This new generation of farmers works without pesticides and outside of the main retail circuits, collectively rather than alone.Are they visionaries?In the event of a collapse, agricultural knowhow will be the safest of safe havens.
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