Food supply should have absolute priority, no less so in a biobased economy. Says Rudy Rabbinge, emeritus professor in sustainable development and food security at Wageningen UR. That is why Rabbinge opposes biofuels from agriculture, but accepts biobased high-value products such as vitamins and bioplastics. Agriculture can have large yields with minimal environmental effects. Moderate meat consumption is not at odds with that. Meat is fine.
Stop supporting inefficient harvests
In theory the world can supply all its demand for food, Rabbinge has held for many years. That is to say, if we choose for highly productive agriculture, and stop supporting unproductive practices. North-Western European practices show that we can have large harvests without major damage to the environment, and ample space for nature. But the rest of the world does not come even close to North-Western Europe. For grain harvests, including rice, the World Bank and world food organisation FAO provide detailed figures for each country (http://data.worldbank.org/). In passing through Europe from North-West to South-East we see a decrease from 9 tons/hectare to less than half, sometimes not even more than 2 tons/hectare. Many Asian countries stop at those 2 tons and Africa sometimes does not even reach that level. South-American harvests 4 tons per hectare, and grain countries par excellence such as Canada and the US reach 3-4 tons and 6-7 tons/hectare, respectively. The Netherlands tops the list with 9 tons/hectare. With other crops, e.g. potatoes, the differences are even larger.
Europe could be the food store of the world. But misconstrued self-interest stands in the way of this. With tariff walls and subsidies the European Union keeps inefficient food systems in place. And while individual farmers may think they benefit from this protection, the agricultural system suffers, with much lower harvests than feasible. In particular Germany and France shield their farmers from the world market, but in doing so they also reduce stimuli for continuous improvement of their farmers’ performance. We should not give farmers subsidies anymore, says Rabbinge, but instead help them in supporting ecological progress, for which cooperatives are instrumental. This is the model with which Africa is booking large successes at the moment, and develops agriculture in countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Nigeria.
As much nature as possible
Mr. Rabbinge has held many posts both in science and politics. He is an oft-seen figure at international fora and has given advice to FAO, other international organisations and many governments. The highly productive agriculture he propagates is not detrimental to nature, but is instead part of protection of the environment. ‘In order to conserve biodiversity, we will have to keep as much nature intact as possible. And in order to feed the world population at the same time, we will have to attain the highest possible productivity on the limited remaining area of agricultural land. World food supply is no problem if we use modern agricultural techniques everywhere. And if we use the best lands for agriculture. Then we would need only 30-40% of present cultivated lands, the rest is for nature. Potentially, there is enough food for everyone.’
The highly productive agriculture Rabbinge favours, uses as many natural pest control strategies as possible. With minimal use of chemicals and other inputs. The cycle of continuously increasing chemical control strategies in large parts of present agriculture, is a hazard for our future. Rabbinge got his Ph.D. studying biological pest control of spider mite and has always promoted biological pest control, both in greenhouse cultivation and on the field. An example of this is the method, developed under his guidance in the seventies, to combat fungal infection in the blossoming stage of wheat. Rabbinge introduced the spraying of whey (from milk), which stimulated the growth of yeasts that control the growth of the fungus. This practice prevents a cycle of increased need of fungicides to keep the fungi in check.
Meat is fine, at higher productivity
‘With increasingly knowledge-intensive agri- and horticulture, productivity is increasing across the board. In other words, inputs per unit of harvest decrease strongly. As for the use of pesticides. And for the use of water. And for the use of energy and corresponding CO2 emissions. The horticultural company Gebr. Duijvestijn collects more CO2 (from nearby Shell) than it emits. It has geothermal heating for its greenhouses, without emitting CO2. The knowledge-intensity of agri- and horticulture is increasing and so does the harvest. The Duijvestijn family now reaps 70 kg/m2 of tomatoes every year.’
Prof. Rabbinge has never joined into trends or fashions, and has always stuck to his guns. As in the case of meat. Should we still eat meat? Yes! He says emphatically. Meat is fine. Often, meat is good for our health. Cows graze where little else can be done. They thus produce meat in a neat way. We can continue eating meat, even at increasing global wealth levels, because our highly productive lands continue to supply large grain harvests. But then, we should not feed that grain to our pigs. And we should stop using antibiotics. Like in the salmon fish farming, and with cows. Of course there are good alternatives for meat too, such as GMO-plants which produce proteins that resemble animal proteins. Or insects, which produce proteins at a much higher level of efficiency than cows can do. But from the point of view of food security there is little necessity for a vegetarian diet. For public health reasons the Mediterranean diet, with limited consumption of meat, is the best, and much better than the American diet.
The future of farming
Agriculture is going to have to take into account a number of rules, says Rabbinge. In the first place we must further increase productivity; not just per hectare but most of all per unit of inputs. We must broaden the goals of agriculture: to food, energy neutrality and materials. We must keep industrialising production, both in agriculture and in animal husbandry. Neither have been ‘natural’ for a long time. As long as the product is healthy and the animal is happy, we must strive for efficiency. And we should learn to think in food chains: from spade to plate. For example by looking more at health and less at food security. With less calories, more minerals and vitamins. And finally, agriculture should start supplying high-value biobased resources for industry. Not for the production of biofuels, but for biomaterials and other high-value products.
We are far from there, says Rudy Rabbinge. Still too many policies are geared for retaining what we have, or even promoting things we should not want. Smart policy can secure both food security and health, as well as support a high-value biobased economy. In order to reach that goal, we should stop producing biofuels with major subsidies. But meat is fine.