A new place for agriculture

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By JEAN MARC VON DER WEID*

Contributions to the development of family farming

Introduction

An effort to plan a program to promote the development of family farming has to go beyond the identification of short-term policies and think of mechanisms to prepare for the near or remote future. For this, it is necessary to diagnose the environmental, economic, social, financial and political threats that may exist hovering over the present and future of this social category. Based on this evaluation of the external conditions, it is necessary to make another diagnosis of the current conditions of family farming to finally study the effect of the public policies applied in the latter and their relationship with this last diagnosis.

That's what I'm going to try to do as a contribution to my fellow men and women from the current Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA). To avoid tiring the interlocutors it will be a series of articles that I will try to keep as short as possible.

 

The threats

We are living, here and in the rest of the world, under the threat of a series of accelerating crises that feed each other. Without wanting to establish orders of importance or causality, I limit myself to stating what these crises are: environmental, which can be subdivided into global warming, loss of biodiversity, destruction of natural resources such as soil and water, pollution of soil, water and air, and others; energetic; to feed; health and finance.

All these crises are already impacting life (and causing death), both human and animal and vegetable on the planet. And they are in a process of sharp acceleration, some reaching what scientists call “non-return”, that is, they provoked changes in their dynamics that feed back the ongoing evolution, regardless of human action.

It is important, in the first place, to remember that this set of phenomena that alter the conditions of life on the planet are not part of a natural evolution, as were other major changes in past geological eras. What we are experiencing is the result of human action and its impacts on environmental conditions. For this very reason, some geologists have called the current era the Anthropocene or the age of human action. Other analysts gave another name to the era we live in: capitalocene, or era of capitalism.

And how are these phenomena acting? Global warming has already led to an increase in the average temperature of the planet of 1ºC since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 18th century. This number was reached in 2015 and is approaching 1,5ºC much faster than predicted by the IPCC scientists. In previous reports, a scenario was pointed out where such an index would be reached in the middle of the century, if everything remained the same from the point of view of the emission of greenhouse gases.

It turns out that the forecast was optimistic (which always happens in IPCC reports, no matter how much they are announcing tragedies) and, on the other hand, conditions worsened, with an acceleration of the increase in GHG emissions above expectations, with the exception of the brief hiatus caused by the COVID pandemic. The date for us to beat the limit defined in the Paris agreement for the increase in temperature, exceeding 1,5º C, has become the mid-2030s, and the most pessimistic or more realistic scientists already point to the year 2030, just over six years from now.

The effects of warming are already being felt in the form of large temperature differentials, with very hot summers (like now in the USA and the European Union, where thermometers this summer are breaking one record after another and reaching 53º C) and with winters ice cream, also with negative records.

These high temperatures are accompanied by enormous climate instability, with diluvian rains, devastating snowstorms and hail, typhoons, cyclones and other environmental manifestations occurring with greater intensity and greater frequency. Heat waves cause devastating fires, even without human collaboration (and they exist everywhere, intentionally or not), with the destruction of biodiversity and intense air pollution, sometimes very far from the places where they originate. The fires a few weeks ago in midwestern Canada, with smoke contaminating the entire northeastern US, from Chicago to New York, are a good example. Another was the smoke from the Amazon fires closing airports in São Paulo two years ago.

Another very high-impact effect is less noticeable for ordinary mortals, less for those who live on islands with low altitudes: the rise in the level of the oceans. Small island countries are disappearing, an ominous harbinger of what will happen to the planet's coastal areas.

The last time the Earth lived with current GHG concentrations, sea levels reached almost 10 meters higher than the current level. Why aren't we at these higher levels now? It's only a matter of time, unfortunately. The increase in the concentration of GHG does not have an immediate effect on the increase in the average temperature of the planet, there is a delay while the large masses of land and water warm up and the glaciers melt.

That is, even if we stop emissions completely and immediately, warming will continue for a while and the impact on rising sea levels will as well. To prevent this process, it would be necessary not only to stop emitting GHGs, but also to remove GHGs from the atmosphere. Is very. Even in this super-optimistic hypothesis, the scientists calculate that the mechanisms set in motion with the current warming will not be reversed fast enough for cities like New York, Cape Town, Marseille, Alexandria, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Recife and many others to escape of the flood.

And huge low-lying coastal regions in India, China, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, and smaller ones would be flooded, displacing close to a billion people. And the more GHGs emitted going forward, the more temperatures will rise and more cities and coastal areas will disappear. And more arable land will be unusable. And more destruction will be wrought by more and more powerful cyclones and typhoons and fires.

It's a tragic vision for the future, but it's already awful in the present for many people.

I will not go into detail about who is to blame for GHG emissions. Everyone knows that the CO2 emitted by the burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of global warming, with the United States, the European Union, China and Russia having the greatest responsibility for these emissions. And that using it to move cars, planes, ships is the biggest source of emissions. But it must be remembered that a lot of CO2 is issued in several other undertakings, since petroleum is used in almost all industrial activities, whether as fuel or as raw material for plastic, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, food, computer and many other products.

It is important to note that conventional agriculture, that of agribusiness, also emits CO2 in large quantities, being one of the biggest sources of CO emissions2 outside of fossil fuels, this is because it is responsible for large-scale deforestation. In this regard, Brazil and Indonesia are the most responsible, placing them as fifth and sixth among the largest emitters of CO2. Finally, agriculture is primarily responsible for the emission of the second most important gas in the generation of the greenhouse effect: methane. There is less methane being emitted and accumulating in the atmosphere, but it has a warming power 300 times greater than ethane. Agriculture is also responsible for the third most important greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.

Computing all GHG sources, some calculations point to agriculture as the sector with the highest emissions, directly or indirectly, something close to 35%. The agri-food sector as a whole involves (in addition to farming itself) the production of inputs, the industrialization of agricultural products and their transport and the formation of organic waste derived from leftovers from homemade food, in restaurants or markets, waste that , released into rivers or open-air deposits, emits gigantic tons of methane. According to some calculations, the set of direct and indirect impacts of the agri-food sector as a whole amounts to just over 50% of GHG emissions, well above the emissions caused by the use of gasoline and diesel oil in land, air and sea transport.

Global warming impacts agriculture in a brutal way. Each degree Celcius more in the average temperature of the planet has very significant repercussions on cultivated areas and pastures. Remember that the average planetary temperature means a balance between very low temperatures at the poles and very high temperatures in the tropics. An average annual temperature of 17,5º C on the planet implies an average temperature of up to 40º C in the summers of the hottest areas of the tropics. In tropical or temperate producing zones, an average annual increase of 1º C reduces crop productivity by values ​​ranging from 10 to 25% depending on the product and region. This is without taking into account the indirect effects of warming, generating instability in the water supply and the occurrence of atmospheric phenomena such as cyclones, typhoons, frost, droughts and floods.

On a planet with close to 1 billion people going hungry, these changes brought about by warming will be dramatic. Yes, there are calculations that indicate that there will be an increase in production in the colder areas, but there is agreement that it will not compensate for the losses in the warmer areas.

Taking Brazil as an example, we can expect that the impacts will be completely negative as we are entirely within the tropical or subtropical zone. We are already experiencing this process, with the increasing impacts of hotter summers throughout the territory. On the other hand, we are very threatened by the process of deforestation in the Amazon, which is dangerously approaching the moment when the still existing forest loses its conditions to reproduce and starts a “natural” degradation on the way to becoming a dry savannah or even a desert zone (as happens in the Sahara or the Atacama, deserts that are at the same latitude as the Amazon).

The destruction of the Amazon rainforest not only has (and already has a lot of) an impact on global warming, it will annul the flow of moisture generated by this ecosystem and which naturally irrigates all our agriculture in the Midwest, Southeast and South. Deforestation in the Cerrado is impacting the flow of water in the large rivers generated in this biome and which flow northwards, the Tocantins and Araguaia, with significant effects on the generation of electricity.

Leaving the threat posed by global warming, we fall into the threat of the energy crisis. The fossil fuels that contribute so much to the generation of GHG are in an accelerated process of disappearing. I will not expand on this topic, which I have dealt with in other articles, limiting myself to pointing to the crisis announced for the middle of this decade (in the next two to three years!), when oil and gas prices should return to the levels of the last 2000, which led to the financial crisis of 2008. If we need to quickly get to zero GHG emissions, the oil production crisis could be good news. However, the world was not prepared for a sharp drop in oil supply that will be accompanied by an equally sharp rise in the prices of this residual supply. The shock of the oil crisis will be felt throughout the world's production chain, in addition to impacting the media.

To complete this critical scenario, it is necessary to remember the threat posed by the gradual disappearance of phosphorus and potassium reserves worldwide. These elements are essential for plant life. In the agribusiness model, they are applied to the soil or leaves in the form of soluble chemical fertilizers. This procedure is immensely inefficient, as it is estimated that less than 50% of the inputs are used by crops, while the rest is taken by rainwater or irrigation and ends up in rivers, lakes, aquifers and groundwater or the sea, with enormous impact on the eutrophication of these water reserves.

Implications of these threats for agriculture

The action of these different phenomena on the production and distribution of food in the world (and in Brazil) will be to reduce the global supply of food and make it more expensive due to the increase in the cost of fertilizers, pesticides and transport, in addition to the effect of law of supply/demand. It is estimated that international trade will be reduced, either because many countries will prioritize internal supply in the face of shortages, or because the cost of transport will be much higher. It is a counter-globalization movement, reversing a dominant trend since the post-World War II period.

In the case of Brazil, we already have problems with the internal supply of food, since we are, more and more, a country focused on the production and export of corn and soy (for animal feed) and meat. We import a lot of what we consume and we are in the process of changing eating habits among lower-income consumers, abandoning products such as rice and beans, corn (cornmeal) and cassava and adopting the consumption of processed and ultra-processed products, based on wheat ( bread and pasta). From the point of view of a recommended diet, we are very badly off and the effects on public health are heavy.

With the aforementioned crises bearing down on us, it will be difficult for us to import what is necessary, both for the ideal diet and for the current predominant deleterious diet. We will have to make a brutal conversion of our agriculture both in terms of directing products to the internal market and in the way of producing them.

It will be necessary to control deforestation, not only in the Amazon and Cerrado (the most threatened ecosystems with the most devastating effects), but in all biomes. This will not only be our main contribution to contain the accumulation of GHG in the atmosphere, but it could be extremely important to remove GHG from the atmosphere, if we adopt the policy of massive reforestation. And, of course, to keep the “flying rivers” active that guarantee our production in the most important areas of our agriculture.

The change in the way of producing will be imposed, both due to the increase in the cost of industrial inputs (chemical fertilizers and pesticides, almost everything is currently imported) and due to the need to contain the emission of GHGs emitted by agribusiness (in addition to CO2), methane and nitrous oxide. It remains to be seen whether we are going to anticipate crises and organize a transition in time or whether we are going to wait for everything to collapse to see how to solve it.

But how to produce sustainably in the format of the mega plantations that dominate Brazilian agriculture today? The known alternative to the agrochemical and motor-mechanized model is agroecology. Can agribusiness adopt this proposal? Hardly, since the characteristic of the agroecological model is the use of biodiversity, both agricultural and natural, to replace the use of external chemical inputs and control pests, diseases and invaders, restoring the environmental balance. Replacing soy monoculture plantations, to give an example, occupying tens of thousands of hectares, by diversified systems with various agricultural products dividing the productive spaces inhibits the use of large-scale machinery. And it is in this super productivity of work that the profit of agribusiness resides.

When the crisis caused by the fall of the Soviet system shook Cuban agriculture, the government's response was to distribute the lands of the large state monocultures of sugar cane in lots assigned to family neopeasants. We will have no alternative but to do the same or live with a giant social and economic crisis, affecting the majority of the population. Hunger is a trigger for social and political instability and, in other countries, it led to revolts in the 2000s.

Examples around the world point to small-scale family farming as the best adapted to incorporate the principles of agroecology. But replacing agribusiness with agroecological family farming implies radicalizing (and correcting) the agrarian reform process initiated by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and followed in the same way by Lula (Dilma Rousseff reduced the reform to almost nothing, and Michel Temer/Jair Bolsonaro settled the invoice). It is estimated that close to one million families were settled between 1994 and 2016 and that more than half abandoned their plots due to lack of conditions for production and disposal of crops, debt and bankruptcy or lack of basic economic and social infrastructure. To prepare the agriculture of the future we will need to do much more and much better than in the past.

According to some calculations, an agriculture centered on agroecological family production implemented throughout the Brazilian countryside would imply guaranteeing land and many other productive and social factors for 20 million families with 10 hectares each. It is a giant challenge for our future, implying a strong re-peasanting of our population. When we realize that rural evasion was not contained by popular governments and that the number of family farmers fell by close to 10% between the 2006 and 2017 agrarian censuses, we can measure the size of the challenge.

In order to prepare for these crises, we have to think about what is possible to do right now, in order to mitigate the impacts when they occur.

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


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