The global agri-food system – in terminal crisis

Image: AXP Photography


All analysts insist that the causes of hunger and malnutrition in the world can be explained by problems with access to food and not by a lack of food.

The success of the current agri-food system

Since the middle of the last century, the productive system known as the Green Revolution has expanded rapidly and today occupies all the cultivated land in developed countries and the vast majority of that in countries formerly called the Third World and today the Global South. This expansion allowed an extraordinary increase in agricultural production to the point that the most optimistic considered that the ghost of Malthus had been definitively exorcised. All mega agricultural producers today (USA, Brazil, EU, China, India, Argentina, Canada, Australia, Russia and other smaller ones) apply this system, marginalizing traditional peasant production.

The global agri-food system produces 2900 calories per person per day, discounting losses, waste, conversion to animal feed and bioenergy. This would allow us to feed (just in the sense of providing the necessary calories) 9 billion humans, more than the current population of the planet. (FAO report, 2016)

All analysts insist that the causes of hunger and malnutrition in the world can be explained by problems with access to food and not by a lack of products. In relative terms, the effect of the expansion of this system was the reduction of hunger on the planet as a whole, although in absolute numbers the year with the lowest number of hungry people still registered more than 700 million people, at the end of the 90s. Currently this number reaches 850 million (FAO), with other analysts raising this number to more than 1 billion. However, there are many countries, and not just among the poorest, where hunger is endemic.

Despite the widespread perception of the success of this system, many voices have raised doubts and criticisms since the 1980s. These voices today are much more incisive and have much more resonance than in the past. Entities that are not very suspicious of ideologisms, such as several UN bodies (FAO, UNCTAD, Rapporteurship on the Human Right to Food, UNDP, UNEP and others), the IPCC and even (in less critical terms) the World Bank, have been publishing studies and projections increasingly more vehement about the global food crisis and its likely consequences.

The study prepared by the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agriculture Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) promoted by the World Bank and FAO and presented in 2009, indicated multiple factors of unsustainability of the current global agri-food system, after four years of research with hundreds of scientists, confirming a wide range of partial studies carried out over the last 20 years by dozens of entities multilateral and national.

Signs of system exhaustion

The signs of the crisis begin with the perception that the system had reached a standstill in the second half of the 1980s. This was measured by several factors.

The first was the decrease (or stagnation and even decrease) in the pace of increase in crop productivity, with new scientifically developed varieties offering only small increments each year, after three decades of significant advances. These modest increases, however, did not compensate for the increase in the number of consumers.

The second was the growing need to increase crop fertilization just to maintain yields.

The third was the increasing loss of production due to the multiplication of pests and diseases without the use, even expanded, of pesticides being able to control them.

The use of genetic engineering was heralded as a great leap forward, but after 30 years of application it has only resulted in advances in the profits of biotechnology companies. There was no progress in terms of increasing productivity or decreasing the use of pesticides. Not to mention the increasingly numerous and expensive consumer lawsuits against biotechnology companies, condemned for health impacts.

The structural deficiencies of the agri-food system

The aforementioned criticisms, already worrying in themselves, pale when analyzing the already visible impacts and the predictable deficiencies inherent to the system itself. The agri-food system is subject to a set of factors that are leading it to a terminal crisis, putting all of humanity at risk. Any of these factors leads to the system becoming unviable, but their combination speeds up the process.

The first factor has to do with the fact that the agri-food system depends on natural resources to produce: renewable resources, such as soil, water and biodiversity, and non-renewable resources, such as oil, gas, phosphorus and potassium. The former are being destroyed and the latter are being exhausted.

The depletion of non-renewable natural resources – oil and gas

The depletion of oil reserves has been the subject of debate since the 50s, when American geologist King Hubert projected the depletion of American reserves for the year 1970. King's projection was confirmed, but the one he made for world production, the 2000, no. But the error, excusable due to the greater difficulty of accessing accurate data around the world, was only eight years old.

Today no one discusses the fact that the supply of so-called conventional oil stagnated in 2008 and today fluctuates slightly at a stable level. As demand continued to grow, the race to explore oil in so-called unconventional forms exploded, stimulated by higher conventional prices.

The so-called unconventional oil is that explored in deep waters, such as our pre-salt or the deposits in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea, all but the first, already in sharp decline. Unconventional oils are also those extracted from the tar sands of Canada, or through fracking from porous rocks in the United States, or from shale deposits. However, despite the immediate success of the supply of these oils, forecasts point to a depletion within this decade. And the cost of these products is higher than in conventional oil exploration, in addition to the environmental impacts being much greater. The so-called ultra-heavy oils, such as those from the Orinoco basin, in Venezuela, still remain in reserve. In the end, analysts agree that we are approaching a time when supply will not be able to cover demand.

None of this means that oil, in all its forms, conventional or not, will disappear overnight. But it will start to become rarer and, above all, it will become more expensive every year. In the 2008 crisis, the price of a barrel of Brent, the market reference for conventional oil, reached a peak of 130,00 dollars and was the driving force behind a global financial crisis. Today it is at 90,00 dollars and rising.

It is not an exaggeration to say, as some authors do, that “food is digestible oil”. The agri-food system depends entirely on oil, whether as energy to move tractors and agricultural machinery or for the production of fertilizers and pesticides, or as fuel for transport and processing. The increase in oil prices hurts the system at the heart and projects immediate food price increases and a decrease in supply in the medium and long term.

As gas reserves are still more elastic, it may replace oil for some time, but not for long. Forecasts for gas supply point to the middle of the next decade as the likely start of depletion.

The depletion of phosphorus reserves

The second non-renewable natural product of immense importance in agriculture is phosphorus. No plant can exist without having phosphorus in doses that vary depending on the species. When there is a lack of this mineral, the effect can be, depending on the case, loss of productivity and greater fragility against diseases and pests.

Phosphorus reserves in the world are concentrated in a few countries, with the largest and even least explored being found in a territory disputed by Morocco and the Saaruí people. Depletion is expected to take another two decades, but extraction costs are constantly increasing due to the fact that the most accessible deposits are already in the process of being depleted.

Brazil is highly dependent on phosphate imports, from Canada or Russia and Ukraine. Chinese agriculture has always used compost from animal or human manure as fertilizer. This was replaced, from the 80s onwards, by the increasingly intensive use of chemical fertilizers. With an increasingly urban population, the Chinese would need to adopt industrial-scale collection and treatment systems. It is the same case for Brazil, with the aggravating factor of being highly deficient in the collection and treatment of sewage or garbage.

It is also necessary to note that the use of soluble chemical fertilizers results in losses of around 50% of the products, a portion that is never used by plants and is lost in the rain to pollute groundwater, lakes, rivers, reservoirs and the sea. There are already modern processes for the modulated application of chemical fertilizers and the use of forms that are not directly soluble in water, but through the action of the plants themselves. But these more advanced practices are not widely used yet because they are more expensive. Public subsidies for the use of fertilizers have to do with this cost differential and would need to be eliminated.

Renewable natural resources – soils

Even disregarding more pessimistic predictions that indicate the depletion of fertile soils between 30 and 60 years, not confirmed by scientific studies, there are enough indicators for the red alarm signals to be turned on.

The FAO indicates that 33% of all soils in the world are degraded by erosion, salinization, compaction and chemical contamination. The loss of arable land is estimated, by the same source, at 12 million hectares per year, while 290 million hectares are at high risk of desertification. Soil depletion processes, with loss of essential nutrients, affect the productivity of 20% of crops. On the other hand, grazing areas have productivity decreases between 19% and 27%, depending on the type of biome (grasslands e rangelands) (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

In all the studies mentioned, impacts on the soil derive from conventional agricultural practices.


The dominant agri-food system is the largest consumer of water among all human activities, on a global average, 70% of total extractions. Irrigated areas have been doubling every decade since the 50s, as a diet that demands high investments in the use of this resource is spreading throughout the world. To give some examples: a hamburger requires 2240 liters of water and a cup of coffee, 140. UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) warns that, if this trajectory continues, the lack of water will cause losses of up to 25% of food production.

The lowering of groundwater due to consumption exceeding replacement rates massively affects countries such as China, India, Iran, Mexico and many others. On the other hand, several large rivers spend months a year without water flowing, as a result of withdrawals for irrigation, including the Yellow (China), Indus and Ganges (India), Colorado and Grande (USA). Large lakes such as Aral and Chad are almost completely dry, while large aquifers are emptying, such as Ogallala (USA) and Guarani (Brazil and Paraguay) and are being contaminated by pesticides and fertilizers.


The food supply has suffered a constant narrowing in the variety of products offered. Of the more than 50 thousand existing edible plants, just three (rice, corn and wheat) account for 2/3 of all consumers' caloric intake and 90% of all food depends on just 15 products. Historically, this situation indicates a high risk to supply, which is even more serious due to the fact that this small number of plants is produced from a very small number of varieties of each of them.

The losses of agricultural biodiversity in the last century have been gigantic, as demonstrated by a USDA study that compared the number of varieties with seeds placed on the American market in 1903 with those stored in the national seed storage laboratory in 1983, indicating the extinction of 93% from them.

Global climate change

In addition to the losses of renewable natural resources and the depletion of non-renewable ones, the agri-food system is seriously threatened by global warming and the resulting changes in climate.

Firstly, it is necessary to remember that the IPCC has been pointing out, with each new report, an acceleration of global warming, caused by the increasing use of fossil fuels and the expansion of agriculture and livestock farming. The limit target assigned in the Paris Agreement in 2014, a maximum increase of 1,5º C in the global average temperature, estimated to occur by 2040, is already being reached in 2024. It is not yet the annual average, but in the hottest months this index was achieved and should be annualized in the coming years. The IPCC is already indicating that 2ºC warming is inevitable by 2030, even if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are eliminated immediately. This is due to the delay between the emission of gases and their effect on heating.

Industrial agriculture and the agri-food system as a whole have a huge impact on this process. GHG emissions from agriculture and livestock (11 to 15%), together with their impact on deforestation (15 to 18%), represent 26 to 33% of the total. On the other hand, the entire agri-food system, including transport (5 to 6%), processing and packaging (8 to 10%), refrigeration and supermarkets (2 to 4%) and waste (3 to 4%) represents between 44 and 57% of all GHG emissions (ETC and Grain).

The mere warming of the planet has a heavy impact on agriculture, caused by the stress of high temperatures. With warming reaching the fateful 2º C, effects of up to 30% losses in plant productivity are expected, depending on the species. On the other hand, the climate is becoming noticeably more unstable and unpredictable, with more frequent and intense droughts and floods, also with major impacts on plant productivity.

Higher temperatures also lead to greater multiplication of pests, affecting production. Finally, warming is causing accelerated melting and the consequent rise in ocean levels. Increasingly high tides are already making production unviable in low-lying coastal areas in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and China, while massive floods affect millions of people around the world, forcing mass displacement of populations.

To complete this gloomy picture, we must also remember that the IPCC predicted, in 2018, that 32% of the Earth's surface will be arid even before global warming reaches 2º C.

In short, these data are just a sample of the much broader set of factors that point to the conclusion reached by FAO at a scientific event in 2014: “business as usual is not an option”. In plain English: more of the same is not an option.

And what is the option? or the options?

Before presenting the options and discussing their validity, it is worth remembering that the growing wave of criticism of the conventional agri-food model did not mean a change in the direction of production in the agricultural sector. Alternative forms of production are multiplying around the world, but they still represent only a tiny fraction of the total output of the agricultural sector. In other words, the elements presented above as factors of unsustainability are getting worse and dragging humanity towards disaster. Even entities such as FAO, for example, which had made firm statements about the unsustainability of the dominant model, continued to support, in their activities, the same paradigms that led to this unsustainability.

This reality is explained by the power of the companies that control the various stages of the agri-food system. A handful of transnationals dominate the production of fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, veterinary products and seeds, used by an increasingly smaller number of large producers, which are concentrating the agrarian economy. In the transformation sector, concentration follows the same path, as in wholesale trade. Even in the most fragmented retail sector, concentration is evident, although at less impressive levels.

And, behind these mega-companies, the weight of the financial sector has become increasingly greater. It can be said that this alliance between productive and financial capital determines the direction of the agri-food system, influencing everything from public opinion to national governments and parliaments and, in part, multilateral organizations.

This economic predominance, which is reflected in national and international institutions, means that the model continues, impeccably, producing with the same vices as always. Some “alternatives” were created that do not escape applying the same paradigms, at most rationalizing and seeking to minimize some of the worst effects of the model. This is the case of what is known as “climate smart agriculture” (untranslatable, something like climate-conscious agriculture) or precision agriculture. In both cases, the model of monocultures on huge expanses of land is not questioned and we are betting on the magic promised by genetic engineering.

This is what the French call “flight forward”, or escape forward. And even these “solutions” have little adoption by agribusiness. The use of chemical fertilizers is rationalized, but we do not stop depending on fertilizers with a date set to disappear. And the use of pesticides continues to grow throughout the world.

The solution, demonstrated by countless experiences with a history of more than 80 years, is agroecology. Its practice has been expanding rapidly in recent decades, with the number of producers doubling each time and now reaching tens of millions of peasants, but also thousands of entrepreneurs in what is now called green agribusiness.

There are several aspects under this name of agroecology, the oldest of which precede the adoption of this concept. This is organic farming, with the biodynamic variant. In this version of agroecology, however, an approach more focused on producing “clean” food using chemicals or genetically engineered varieties prevails. Organic agriculture is characterized more by what it cannot use to have its products certified. Often, this organic production maintains a production design with monocultures to allow mechanization, which leads some purists to not consider it agroecological. In my opinion, it is necessary to accept that there are mediations between systems that apply all the principles of agroecology and those that make simplifications in order to respond to some type of pressure, whether from work or from the market.

In more advanced agroecological systems, the production design is more complex and diversified and does not support monocultures. These systems have proven, in practice, to be the best performance in terms of total productivity per cultivated area, but they also showed that this area cannot be large. There is an inverse relationship between the complexity of an agroecological system and the size of the productive area. The size and complexity imply a greater use of labor, but the main limitation is the ability to manage space and working time. The implication of this fact is the need to multiply the number of producers enormously, reversing the trend of conventional agriculture which has always sought, since the advent of capitalism, to reduce the use of labor and expand the scale of cultivation areas.

If the world were not facing a growing energy crisis, it would be unthinkable to think about abandoning the immense farms with tens of thousands of hectares of monocultures operated by a few dozen tractor drivers, cultivators, harvesters and applicators of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. But the energy cost of the conventional system will require greater employment of labor, as well as a radical redistribution of food production throughout the world, seeking to reduce the distance from consumers as much as possible. Before arguing with the replacement of fossil fuels with “green” energy, it is good to remember that there are important limits to this happening on a widespread basis.

As already mentioned, diversified agroecological systems are operated more efficiently by family and small-scale producers. And in order to produce food in the quantity and quality necessary to guarantee an adequate diet for the entire population of the planet, it will take more than agrarian reform. It will be necessary to carry out an agrarian revolution and hand over agribusiness lands to hundreds of millions of peasants. As an example, we can cite a study carried out in the USA indicating that the widespread adoption of organic production and ensuring an adequate food supply for the entire population would require a base of 40 million peasants. This study used productivity from organic production experiences in the USA, which are lower than agroecological ones here in Brazil. But even with minor performance, the productivity of North American organic agriculture is comparable to that of conventional agriculture under ideal climate conditions. In drought situations, which tend to become much more frequent, this productivity can be up to 40% higher.

Studies commissioned by FAO have shown that organic agriculture can correctly feed a population of 10 billion people, completely replacing conventional systems. There would be changes in the composition of crops, with a significant decrease in animal production, especially cattle, and an increase in the production of legumes and vegetables. The amount of calories available would also fall, but remaining above each person's vital needs.

Other studies point to the possibility of replacing all chemical fertilization of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium with legumes that fix the first and composting sewage sludge and organic waste for the second and third.

On the other hand, agroecological systems allow carbon fixation in the soil, in addition to promoting reforestation, which has the same effect. The reduction in cattle stocks would have an impact on reducing N emissions20, one of the most powerful GHG. Some studies indicate that, between reforestation, the reduction of emissions from cattle cattle and the fixation of carbon in the soil would significantly remove CO2 of the atmosphere, in addition to exponentially reducing N emissions2O.

There is no need to elaborate on the comments about the positive impacts of agroecology in eliminating chemical contamination of soil and water, as well as in greater savings in the use of water in agriculture. These results are inherent to agroecology.

To complete this brief analysis of the implications of the widespread adoption of agroecology in place of conventional agriculture, it is necessary to indicate that the social effect would be gigantic. Transferring millions of people from the urban universe back to the rural world will be an imposition of this reality and, for this to be possible, a redistribution of income will be necessary to correctly remunerate vital production, food and other agricultural products, as well as payment for environmental services under the new system. A tax on GHG emissions and a bonus for removing them from the atmosphere would favor this redistribution.

All these changes have implications for scientific research, requiring new forms of knowledge production. Practice shows that the extreme diversity of production systems in agroecology eliminates proposals centered on monoculture, a hallmark of current agricultural research. Agroecology is “knowledge intensive”, while conventional agriculture is “input and energy intensive”. It will be necessary to combine scientific research with peasant experimentation so that specific production schemes can be redesigned for each producer. These are new paradigms for teaching agricultural sciences, research and rural extension.

This new distribution of work will happen in one way or another. If induced by the advance understanding of its need, it will face resistance from agribusiness. If left for when the crises worsen, it will take place in the midst of immense difficulties arising from increasingly insufficient production and all the social and political disturbances that will continue to manifest themselves.

*Jean Marc von der Weid, eEconomist and agroecologist, he is a former president of UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).

Conference text at the event, promoted by UFRJ, Brazil-China Innovation Dialogue 2024 – technology and development []

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