There can be little doubt that producing enough food without doing irreparable damage to the Earth’s biodiversity and to our health is one of the biggest challenges we face. It is a problem exacerbated by the enormous problems of climate change and rapid global population growth.
As some of you know, for the past three decades I have sought to demonstrate the benefits of an agro-ecological approach through my own efforts as a farmer. So I appreciate only too well from first-hand experience just how difficult it is to make the approach viable and, more to the point, why it is so difficult in economic terms.
The financial odds are heavily stacked against you and the polluter most definitely does not pay! I was therefore tremendously heartened that my plea two years ago in Washington to work out what it really costs us to produce food in different ways struck such a chord with many of you here today.
If I was to identify one of the biggest pieces missing from the jigsaw it would be the principle of the polluter paying for the damage the polluter causes. The damage done to soils and water systems – let alone to the oceans which are out of sight and out of mind – is one of those costs not factored into farming at the moment, and yet it is such a huge cost.
Understandably, the idea of making the polluter pay suggests that costs will go up and profits will be limited, which is a big concern for those involved in large scale, industrial food-producing operations.
There are powerful vested interests at stake in our centralised food systems, but if you consider the sheer scale of the damage done by maintaining that status quo – in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the depletion of natural capital, public health costs and its impact on the social and cultural fabric of communities -then it quickly becomes clear that we play a dangerous game if we neglect the welfare of the very elements that support food production.
What is more, does the idea of the polluter paying actually result in business suffering? There are plenty of examples in other sectors where it is quite the reverse.
Take the idea of a landfill tax. When a charge has been placed on the dumping of waste it has dramatically changed a society’s approach to recycling – and produced jobs. Or take the deal struck by Norway and Guyana to pay for the preservation of rainforests through funds earned from fossil fuel extraction.
So, I wonder, could it be the same for food and farming? Could the principle of the polluter paying actually inspire innovation that leads to economic benefits and generally propagate the practice of a more responsible approach?
This is just one of the bullets we have to bite. We have to find a way of valuing, in financial terms, the increasing damage done to the Earth’s life-support systems by our over-reliance on intensive, chemical-based, monocultural farming systems. And then we have to look honestly at how producers can enjoy a profit if they switch to a more agro-ecological approach.
I say this because I meet many open-minded farmers and food companies who tell me they would love to take a more ecologically sound approach, but they simply cannot afford to – the numbers just don’t add up.
It is hard, if not impossible, to compete against specialised systems of cropping or intensive livestock production, given the costs of the damage done by non-renewable chemical fertilizers and pest controls are passed onto the environment, human health and to future generations. And often it is perverse subsidy regimes which perpetuate such a situation.
It is the economic invisibility of Nature that is the root problem. The value of the planet’s ecosystems has not been taken into account, fully and consistently, in our decision-making systems; we forget that the ultimate source of all economic capital is natural capital and not the other way round.
This is why I set up my Accounting for Sustainability Project almost ten years ago to help organizations, some of which are here today, account more accurately for natural and social capital.
And this is why I very much hope that the outcome of today’s gathering will be the commissioning of a major study to explore, once and for all, whether it is actually more affordable and profitable in the long term to farm by putting Nature at the heart of the process – that is, if we include the true costs in the bottom line, rather than exclude them.
This is key. Otherwise our capacity to feed the world’s rising population on the back of increasingly weakened ecosystems will lead to more and more conflict and misery on an unimaginable scale, which is not a legacy we can leave to our children and grandchildren.
That is why your discussions today are crucial, and why I can only encourage you to dismiss the feeling that you are swimming against a much greater tide. The ripples your efforts produce from events like today’s do have the capacity to turn that tide. Not only that, but they will!
See on www.theecologist.org