If we really want to address both the climate problem and the rise of affluence-related diseases, we need to drastically overhaul the agriculture and food industries. The case for this was put by various WUR researchers last week. Their new ideas seem to resonate with others.
(Illustration: Geert-Jan Bruins)
Our system of food production needs to change radically if we are to make headway against the global problems of climate and health. This message could be heard at the beginning of January at two gatherings involving Wageningen University & Research. At the New Year café hosted jointly by WUR and the consultancy bureau Schuttelaar & Partners in The Hague, politicians, civil society organizations and food producers discussed possible solutions to global warming, obesity, price slashing by supermarkets and low prices for farmers. And at Wageningen Economic Research’s annual Agro-debate in Spijkenisse, WUR economist Hans van Meijl argued for a climate-neutral and circular agricultural sector.
We urgently need to change current agricultural practice if we are to meet our climate targets, was Van Meijl’s message at the Agro-debate. At the climate summit in Paris, governments agreed to limit the rise in global temperatures to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Among the measures necessary to achieve that is a thorough overhaul of the agriculture system. Agriculture, forestry and other forms of land use contribute about 25 percent to greenhouse gas emissions, explained Van Meijl, whereas if we are to meet the climate targets this sector should actually absorb more CO2 than it emits.
But this is not the only problem. The current agriculture systems depends heavily on fossil fuels. This source of energy, often heavily subsidized, causes climate change. So the agriculture sector must switch to sustainable energy. What is more, the labour income share is going down in the agriculture sector. This is a measure of the significance of labour as a production factor for the income generated. Entrepreneurs save on labour, partly because it is heavily taxed, and invest in labour-saving technology instead. This leads to a growing gap between rich and poor. Prices of farm produce should reflect the harmful effects of agriculture, says Van Meijl, so that alternatives then emerge.
At the Agro-debate, the researcher sketched four scenarios for developing agriculture, with sustainability and equality as variables. If we carry on with unsustainable, unequitable agricultural practices, we shall be doing ‘too little too late’ to solve the climate problem. If we opt for equitable but unsustainable practices, everyone will have enough to eat, but not for long. If we go for sustainable but inequitable practices, the richest one percent of the world’s population will lead the good life. Only in a world that is both sustainable and equitable can we improve both the climate and our food supply. Van Meijl calls the vision he embraces Ecotopia.
In this utopian vision, deforestation and food waste are wiped out, people in wealthy countries eat less meat and we work on raising agricultural productivity per hectare. Ecotopia therefore means opting for nature conservation, a rise in production, a change of diet, minimal tilling of the land (because of loss of CO2), and a circular economy, with all waste getting put to use.
How can you translate this revolution into government policy and business strategy? According to Van Meijl, the government needs to make the ecological and social costs of our current food production system visible and felt. This could be done through a tax on CO2 emissions, meat or sugar. The revenues from these taxes could make it possible for the tax on labour to go down, says the economist. And in the interests of equality, the government could tax capital more heavily. His institute could help the government with this, says Van Meijl, by coming up with better economic forecasts which take into account the effects on the climate and the ecology.
Businesses should embrace sustainable production and adapt their production processes so that they no longer produce waste, thinks Van Meijl. They should use renewable resources and include external costs in the price of their products. There are already some examples of this, as was shown at the Agro-debate at which Van Meijl spoke. Unilever calculates an internal ‘carbon price’ for its raw materials, thus taking CO2 production into account in its prices. More companies should do this, to stimulate different purchasing decisions, said the Dutch climate ambassador Marcel Beukeboom at the debate. Other financial incentives can help sometimes too. Sugar cooperative Cosum has halved its energy consumption in the last couple of decades. In order to stimulate energy savings, Cosun has formulated sustainability targets, says Dirk de Lugt, chair of Cosun’s management board. The company is considering making the board members’ bonuses dependent not on profit margins but on sustainability targets.
A different livestock sector
Two days before the Agro-debate, at the New Year café hosted by Schuttelaar & Partners and WUR in The Hague, Martin Scholten also argued for a radical switch to climate-neutral food production. The general director of the Animal Sciences group said we need to move towards food production in closed cycles, in which we produce better food efficiently per hectare and make full use of nature as a valuable green resource. If we optimize these cycles we shall get a sustainable diet including 25 to 40 percent animal protein, reckons Scholten. A sustainable diet like this contains less meat than most people in wealthy countries currently eat, while scoring better on climate issues than a vegetarian diet.
Scholten painted a picture of livestock fed on grass and farm and food waste, thus drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Scholten says this change is necessary for improving farmers’ future prospects too. ‘We mustn’t stick to just limiting the scope of the current livestock farming system, because then we won’t have enough farmers in ten years’ time. We’ve got to invest in new cycles in which we make optimal use of animals and manure.’
Scholten’s proposal makes it clear that it is not just the climate problem that is crucial in future food production. The new approach also needs to ensure that key resources – phosphate for instance – do not get exhausted and pollute the environment. And agriculture has to be the basis of a new bio-economy when the fossil fuels run out in the not-too-distant future. So agricultural policy needs to serve more than one purpose.
Diseases of affluence
The new term for this kind of agriculture is ‘inclusive’. Politicians, for instance, want to see ‘nature-inclusive agriculture’, with food production that conserves biodiversity. But the term also gets used in the context of addressing inequality and poverty in the world. Van Meijl makes use of the word in his scenarios for a more equitable world. And Scholten hastens to add: the revolution in the agriculture sector must be ‘farmer-inclusive’ too, because there is no food without farmers. And this cannot be taken for granted: 30 percent of the Dutch farmers are underpaid at the moment, show WUR statistics.
And then there is another important challenge for the food industry. More and more people are dying early deaths due to poor nutrition. Our present diet is causing diseases of affluence. It is often said that we can only solve this with drastic measures. In a recent public lecture for the Dutch Academy of Nutrition Science, Amsterdam professor of Nutrition Jaap Seidell recently proposed a ban on ultra-processed foods.
Our basic foodstuffs are often so highly processed that their nutritional value is close to zero, while they do contain high levels of salt and sugar, said Seidell. Sixty percent of our calorie intake comes from snacks, soft drinks and fast food. As much as 90 percent of the added sugars we consume come from these products. The vast supply of these tasty, easy, cheap products with long shelf lives is probably the main cause of the increase in diseases of affluence, said the professor of Nutrition and Health at VU University Amsterdam.
Sugar and fat
Seidell says government and scientists are focussing too much on the consequences of unhealthy eating habits. Every year billions are spent on drugs to combat high blood pressure, cholesterol and high blood sugar, but the causes of the eating habits are not being removed. ‘As long as there are still so many snacks and soft drinks on offer in schools, sport canteens and hospitals, you are fighting a losing battle.’
The simplest measure would seem to be to tax unhealthy foods with a sugar or fat tax. Several political parties are in favour of a sugar tax on soft drinks. Other parties, it was indicated at the New Year café run by WUR and Schuttelaar & Partners, prefer education campaigns and clear labelling on foods warning consumers off unhealthy products. There have previously been appeals for a ban on unhealthy foods in government buildings so that the government sets a good example.
All the possible measures have their limitations. Warning stickers on packaging do not easily change consumer behaviour, as the campaign against smoking shows. Banning products only makes them more attractive to young people and does not help them learn to choose for themselves between healthy and unhealthy options, say educationalists. And opponents of food taxes say they lead to higher prices, to the disadvantage of people in lower income brackets, or to lower farm gate prices, to the disadvantage of the farmers. On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option either.
Along with large amounts of sugar and fat, another product which is under fire is cut-price meat. At the Agro-debate, this was reflected in a discussion about a meat tax. The argument for such a tax is quite simple. We need to eat less meat, because that is better for the climate and for our health. This can be induced with classic economic policy – slapping on a tax. The main counterargument coming from the meat sector is that a meat tax will damage the competitiveness of Dutch meat on the international market, while our farmers produce meat that meets many environmental, animal welfare and health standards. From that angle, a meat tax would be counterproductive.
Yet the Dutch meat sector does not stand to benefit from the status quo, because the present business model in the intensive livestock sector is coming under a lot of pressure. Cut-price meat is the ultimate supermarket stunt, at the expense of farmers who get low meat prices. The farmers are eager to find ‘concepts’ that will bring them better prices. There is a pressing need for higher margins in the livestock sector so that farmers can invest in the circular and climate-neutral agricultural sector.
So farmers too stand to benefit from a new computation model presented by Wageningen Economic Research and the company True Price mid-January. Called ‘true pricing’, it includes the social costs and benefits of food. Using true pricing, the government could get the food industry to pay more for unhealthy sugars and fats, inducing them to use less of them. This would generate health benefits and the government could invest these profits – more precisely, the drop in healthcare costs – in a climate-proof and circular agriculture sector. This way, health issues could have a direct influence on our food production.
Government officials at a high level are in consultations with the industry this week about a coherent food agenda (see text box). WUR scientists and their partners seem to be one step ahead with their recent discussions. What is clear is that an integral food policy needs to be about much more than just agriculture and economics. The melting icecap and the epidemic of obesity need to have an influence on our diet too.