Biodiversity and agriculture

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Passarinho / Young Bird II, pencil on paper, 29x21cm, 2022


Satisfying dietary needs only through rigorously standardized techniques is going against the grain of the most important socio-environmental and cultural demands of the XNUMXst century.

“Reductionism was the driving force behind most twentieth-century scientific research. To understand nature, runs the reductionist argument, we must first decipher its components. The assumption is that once the parts are understood, it will be easy to apprehend the whole. Now we are close to knowing almost everything about the parts. But we are as far as ever from understanding nature as a whole.”

It was exactly twenty years ago that Albert-László Barabási, one of the most important physicists today, published Linked, a book with the ambition of showing the decisive role of networks, connections (more than the components of these connections) in the emergence of natural, social and business phenomena. His starting point could only be, as the quotation above shows, the criticism of the method that until then prevailed in scientific thought and which he did not hesitate to call “reductionism”.

The fragmentary nature of knowledge that dominated scientific education until almost the end of the 20th century is not an important issue only for the philosophy of science. This fragmentation is also expressed in the practical consequences of scientific activity.

Agronomic research, especially since the green revolution of the 1960s, is perhaps the most emblematic example of the reductionist method that Barabási denounces. It is true that the creation of wheat and rice seed varieties, whose potential was revealed with the large-scale use of nitrogen fertilizers (and pesticides), contributed decisively to expanding harvests and, thus, reducing hunger. worldwide since the early 1970s.

But Norman Borlaug himself, protagonist of the green revolution and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, recognized the limits of his creation. On the one hand, he was aware that the capacity to increase production resulting from the technologies he stimulated was limited. The green revolution corresponded to “buying time” (25 or 30 years, starting in 1970), until the world population stopped growing. Increasing productivity was the basic premise for natural environments to be spared from productive activities and, therefore, preserved. Nothing is further from the spirit of the founder of the green revolution than, for example, cutting down forests to plant soybeans.

Also, in speech given thirty years after his award (that is, in the year 2000), Borlaug made a decisive observation. If global food production were evenly distributed, it would feed a billion more people than the existing population at the time. Combating hunger, in his view, then required, above all, combating poverty.

But Borlaug was also aware that the predominant dietary pattern in the richest countries in the world could not be extended to the whole of global society, no matter how great the technological advances he conceived. If people in developing countries ate the same amount of meat as people in rich countries, food production would be enough to feed not a billion more people than the population existed in the year 2000, but only half of humanity at that time.

Now, it is around the production of meat that global agriculture is organized today and, with the exception of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the average global consumption of meat is much higher than the need for protein intake. It is the meat that most of the production areas use, not only for the pastures, but above all for the grains (where soy plays a central role) intended for animal feed. And these grains come from highly artificialized environments, resulting from the mastery of standardized, homogeneous techniques and whose susceptibility to extreme weather events is increasingly evident.

The vulnerability of simplified, homogeneous, territorially concentrated productive patterns, and the recognition that today, agriculture is the main vector of biodiversity erosion, make the recently published book by Don Saladino, Eating to Extinction, essential reading. A BBC journalist and a scholar of the relationship between agriculture, food and health, Saladino does not limit himself to denouncing the “reductionism” to which the global agri-food system has been converted.

On the one hand, he shows that this reductionism is highly profitable: four corporations control most of the seeds used in the world today. Half of cheese is produced by bacteria or enzymes from a single company. Beer, pigs, bananas, wines or poultry: wherever you look, the reduction in the diversity of what is grown and the corporate dominance over this monotony set the tone for the current agro-food growth.

Eating to Extinction it is a gigantic reporting job in search of initiatives by individuals and groups aimed at saving and giving new life to rare foods. Wild life foods, cereals, vegetables, meats, fish, fruits, cheeses, alcoholic beverages, stimulants and sweets, Saladino visited thirty-four initiatives in which people and groups, often against dominant powers and even in war situations, dedicate themselves to life to recover food, traditions, culinary skills and what can strictly be called the material culture that the advance of the Green Revolution has systematically been destroying.

Satisfying dietary needs only through rigorously standardized techniques is going against the grain of the most important socio-environmental and cultural demands of the XNUMXst century. Much more than simply increasing harvests, valuing diversity and the immense contribution of black and indigenous cultures, varied culinary traditions, pleasure, rituals and respect linked to food is a fundamental mission for when the power of those who cannot unlink food poison and live in the nefarious illusion that a vast soy field is the best that Brazil can offer the world.

*Ricardo Abramovay is a senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at USP. Author, among other books, of Amazon: towards an economy based on the knowledge of nature (Elephant/Third Way).

Originally published on the portal UOL .


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