Waves of innovation in agroecology

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The era of wealth generated by global trade in large agricultural commodities is ending

A Silent spring is turning 60 years old. This is the book by Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist, a fundamental inspiration for contemporary socio-environmental struggles and who showed, for the first time, the global destructive impacts of the large-scale use of pesticides.

One of the chapters of this classic work was edited by Penguin as a small book with the title Man's war against nature. It contains a relentless and very up-to-date critique of the model that has dominated agriculture since the Green Revolution: “monoculture (single crop farming) does not take advantage of the principle from which nature works. Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has a passion for simplifying it.”

It is because of this simplification that global food security itself is at risk today. Monotonous agricultural landscapes are much more susceptible than diversified ones to droughts, which, as the IPCC report launched a few weeks ago, already reach, with increasing frequency, 75% of the cultivated areas of the planet.

Overcoming the current model of agricultural supply is basically taking two paths. The first became European Union public policy and is advocated by the IPCC report. This is agroecology, a set of practices that seek to eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics, through techniques that are based on knowledge of the complex relationships between plants, animals, human beings and their environment. In addition to being a scientific discipline, agroecology is a social movement with a wide influence on farmers' methods, consumer attitudes (through, for example, initiatives such as the Slow Food) and agricultural policies.

The second path of transition consists of a new wave of technological innovation in which cultured meats and vertical farming are the most important expressions. This path, which is not incompatible with the first, is addressed in an impressive survey that John Wilkinson, full professor at CPDA-UFRRJ has just completed.

Wilkinson has been researching the interface between technologies, consumer behavior, public policies and social movements linked to agriculture and food for four decades. It is with this comprehensive vision that he presents a highly informative text on the new wave of innovation that marks the contemporary agri-food sector.

Since Rachel Carson published her book, there have basically been three waves of innovation. The first was the Green Revolution, led by the public sector. The second corresponds to the introduction of transgenics, with innovations that integrated genetics and chemistry, led by the private sector and which deepened the monotony of agricultural landscapes (and, therefore, the problems that today affect some of the most commercialized grains in the world, such as soy and corn). The current innovation, third wave, is quite different from the previous two.

The first difference is in the actors who carry it out. are basically startups, financed by venture capital coming not so much from the companies that dominate the global agricultural sector, but from the big tech, as well as by energy companies. This is because the focus of these innovations does not fundamentally pass through agriculture, animal husbandry and, therefore, the tradings that still dominate the sector today.

Both vertical farming and cultured meat represent a kind of emancipation of contemporary food from agriculture itself. Vertical farming is already a significant reality. Cultured meat is still taking its first steps, but should grow a lot in the coming years.

One of the most interesting traits of this new wave is that startups that gave rise to it are often run by vegan entrepreneurs and whose narrative is very close to that of those who defend agroecology. There is no aggression to animal welfare, since the meat is manufactured in laboratories from cells, without the cruelty inherent in large concentrations and slaughter processes. Nor is there any pollution derived from the remains of the slaughter of animals or the use of medicines.

John Wilkinson shows that, in the wave of transgenic innovation, the prevailing narrative downplayed public mistrust with respect to the product—and treated opposition to genetically modified organisms as the fruit of ignorance. Now it is very different and there is even an organization, the Good Food Institute, responsible for elaborating a narrative that reconciles the innovations represented by cultured meat (or those based on plants) with the growing concerns about the unsustainability of contemporary agricultural production.

In vertical farming, energy and lighting are the most important resources. For no other reason, energy companies (General Electric, Philips, Osram, among others) are investing in the sector. And this is not a random production, made in individual apartments (although that also exists). Jones Foods, from England, for example, produces 420 tons of herbs and leaves per year based on 17 vertical levels, does not apply pesticides and uses only biological controls. Its products are intended for food, but also for biopharmaceuticals and biocosmetics.

A company in Denmark produces 3.000 kilos of green leaves daily in the space of a field of football club. According to its director, with twenty equal soccer fields, the country's self-sufficiency would be ensured. These techniques are a stimulus for agriculture to be internalized in urban environments. China is particularly committed to incorporating these techniques, the advancement of which is already inscribed in its five-year plan.

The era of wealth generated by global trade in large agricultural commodities is ending. The end of what Rachel Carson has called “man's war against nature” will take many different forms. Agroecology will gain increasing importance. But the study by John Wilkinson shows that cultured meat and vertical farming will, by all indications, have a strategic role.

*Ricardo Abramovay is 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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