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Our industrialized food system is killing us. (Image: shutterstock)

Only Agroecology Can Tackle the Global Food and Health Crisis

Julia Wright

 by The Ecologist

The current global food crisis is simple and complex at the same time.

Simple because all we need is sufficient, healthy food to eat and to share, for our medicine and to commune with nature, simple because it's technically possible to have an abundance of healthy food.

Yet we have made it a complex issue. We overeat, we don't have enough to eat, we sell and buy cheap 'food like substances' whilst watching the rich and famous - who we aspire to - choosing not to eat these foods.

We mechanise farms to reduce labour costs, we worry about the lack of rural jobs, and we go to gyms for exercise, fuelled by sugary 'energy drinks'. We refine carbohydrates and become addicted to them yet we apply no regulation to manufacturing or accessing these 'drugs', we overeat again ...

Globally, we produce double the amount of calories required for the current population, or 4,600 kcal edible food per person per day, which is the right amount for the future peak population of 14 billion. So in one sense there has been success with the prevailing food system in terms of producing sufficient quantity of food.

However the world isn't 'being fed'. In fact the recently published Global Nutrition Report shows that almost all countries are facing a serious public health risk due to malnutrition. This issue - of food quality - is inarguably the major fault in the food system that the industrial agricultural sector has avoided addressing.

It is pretty well accepted that much dietary-related disease is caused by the overconsumption of processed foods, and more recent evidence - especially that gathered by the United States paediatrician Dr Robert Lustig, identifies processed carbohydrates in the form of sugars and modern grain varieties as being particularly causal.

A flawed production approach

This in itself creates a quandary when, under current economic conditions, farmers can best survive by adding value to a product rather than selling the raw - more healthy - primary produce.

The implications of this alone would be for more technology development and implementation around processing techniques that maintain or enhance the nutritional quality of the raw material, such as fermentation, freezing, dehydrating or germinating.

Meanwhile, in terms of production, relatively little research and development has been undertaken on the relationship between agricultural production approach and food nutritional quality.

The few studies that have attempted to analyse fluctuations in levels of nutritional content in foods (specifically fruit and vegetables) in Europe and the USA since post WW2 all point to a sharp decline in the percentage of vitamin and mineral content of up to 80%.

So even if one eats unprocessed foods, one would today need to eat perhaps half as much again as food produced pre 1950 in order to obtain the same nutritional value. This fact is never mentioned in debates around global food forecasts.

The authors of these studies have suggested that the main reasons for this nutritional decline are poor soil and crop management combined with plant breeding programmes that have aimed for high yield traits but may have selected-out nutritional characteristics.

The latter has been termed the 'genetic dilution effect', where in the case of wheat for example, the breeding of higher yielding varieties has led to a decrease in their mineral concentration.

Soil, plants and human health

The other areas of research that have attempted to link production practices with human health have focused on the impacts of agrochemical usage, and on comparative analyses of certified organic products which represent the outputs of one type of agroecological production approach.

The most recent and comprehensive scientific review of organic versus non organic products concludes that production method affects quality, that organic crops and foods have more desirable antioxidents and less potentially harmful cadmium, nitrogen and pesticide residues (Baranski et al, 2014).

One of the neatest examples of the relationship between soil, plant and human health is around antioxidant content of vegetables. If pesticides are applied to the crop, they inhibit the release of the plants' own self defence mechanism against pests and diseases.

These defences include the release of chemicals we know of as secondary metabolites or antioxidants - which help build our defence against cancer and other illnesses. In fact organic foods contain 10-50% higher concentrations of these metabolites.

Nevertheless we still only have a patchy understanding of much of the soil-plant-human relationship. For example in the case of mineral pathways, we know that mycorrhizal fungi take up minerals from the soil and make these available to plant roots, up to 80% of certain minerals in fact.

We also know that roots colonized by mycorrhizae in organic farming systems are 40% longer than in industrial systems, which suggests that organic systems provide more opportunity for soil mineral uptake.

The agroecological approach

We can also work at the level of best practice systems, and it is enticing to believe that if we get the system balanced, then quality issues will take care of themselves.

One high potential, agroecological system that confers quality food outputs is showing to be holistic grazing management or 'mob grazing', whereby livestock are grazed intensively for very short periods of time, and a diverse pasture is encouraged that is left to juvenile stage before being grazed again.

This system is indicating to be the fastest way to sequester carbon and build topsoil, as well as increasing stocking density, reducing veterinary bills and having zero fertiliser costs. This leads to improved sward, improved soil water retention capacity, and increased nutritional content of the milk and meat coming from this system. Similar results in terms of milk and meat quality improvements are showing for agro-silvo-pastoral systems.

Malnutrition isn't surprising, given that the chief goal of the majority of players in the food system, from farmers upwards, is not to produce nutritious healthy foods for the people, but to make a profit.

Further, the medical profession has divorced itself from food issues, which is ironical given that doctors swear on the Hippocrates Oath, and it was Hippocrates who stated: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food."

Yet research into agroecological farming and food systems still isn't being done to any large degree, the food industry isn't interested to change if the way forward is a move away from the highly processed foods where the greatest profits are to be made.

The other reason why little advance has been made is that one would need a certain level of ecological literacy to be able to identify the opportunities to work on, and this literacy is simply not present: it is neither taught in our agricultural colleges and universities and nor is it practiced in our research centres and agricultural support sector.

Yet there is a lot at stake, including economically, in 2011 poor diets were costing the NHS £6 billion a year. The business case for taking action to redress these imbalances and improving crop and livestock nutritional quality - whilst at the same time building the resilience of our natural resource base - is agro-ecological.

© 2021 The Ecologist

Julia Wright

Dr. Julia Wright is Senior Research Fellow in Agroecological Futures at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University. She has worked for 3 decades in sustainable agricultural development in the UK and internationally, including for the UN, the UK Government, the CGIAR network, and the private and third sectors. Following doctoral research on the coping strategies of the farming and food system in Cuba when petroleum and food imports ran out at the end of the 1990s, Wright wrote a book that both dispels and corroborates the myths surrounding that country: 'Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Scarcity, Lessons from Cuba' (Earthscan 2009).

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