Well-fed cities

How can the world ensure sufficient food of good quality without burdening nature? This article provides an answer to these question.

When it comes to global warming, the focus was on industry, the built environment and the transport sector. Land use and agriculture, however, also have a significant share in greenhouse gas emissions and the rapid decline of biodiversity, thus endangering the continuity of food production.

At the same time, the quality of the food itself is receiving increasing attention. Many consider the dominant diet in the Western world to be unhealthy, apart from the huge waste of food. On the other hand, a significant part of the world’s population is still undernourished or poorly fed.

The header photo shows a typical dish from the Mediterranean diet, often considered as the healthiest diet in the world. It is based on the regular foot pattern of people in Southern Europe and contains fish, seafood, whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, olive oil and moderate use of wine and high-quality meat.


Well-fed cities is part nine of a series of essays on how cities can become more humane. That means finding a balance between sustainability, social justice and quality of life. This requires far-reaching choices. Once these choices have been made, it goes without saying that we use smart technologies to achieve these goals.

The essays that have already been published can be found here.


In this article I unravel the problems mentioned above. First of all, I investigate the contribution of agricultural land use to greenhouse gas emissions and the reduction of biodiversity. Secondly, I look more in detail at solutions that are currently being discussed. Next, I discuss those solutions considering food security and I investigate to what extent they offer a solution to the demand for healthy food for the entire world population in the longer term. Finally, the transition from the current to the desired situation and the role of cities are discussed.

The problem with farming

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – an independent institution established in 2012 with now over 130 member states – has written an in-depth report about the production of our food. It is based on nearly 15,000 references and 150 experts in the natural and social sciences from over 50 countries. It answers the question how far the world has come – and how much there’s left to go. Modern agriculture has provided developed and emerging countries with an abundance of food, as a result of large-scale production, the use of high quality and genetically modified seeds, artificial herbicides, and pesticides at the expense of most of the forest areas. Developing countries, on the other hand, still face significant shortcomings in food supply.

However, half a century of abundance has exploited soil and climate. The report says that If we want to halt biodiversity loss, slow the deterioration of nature and meet biodiversity, climate and sustainable development goals by 2030, “business as usual” will not work and will instead drive societies and economies to more risks.  Let’s face the problems.

Greenhouse gasses

Agriculture produces 24% of all global greenhouse gases. 11% is CO2 from heating greenhouses deforestation and tillage; 7% is CH4 – methane – from cattle and rice fields and 6% is NO2 from fertilizers and livestock.

Tillage, as an indispensable part of the intensive cultivation of the land, has reduced the capacity of the soil to sequester CO2. Moreover, the destruction of wood all over the world but in the Amazon region in the first place, has considerably destroyed the immense storage capacity of CO2 in trees.

The destruction of the soil

Soil, the upper layer of the ground is a delicate ensemble of minerals and animal life that is directly responsible for the fertility of fields and meadows. For centuries, healthy soils produced an abundance of crops. A diligent rotating system and the use of animal manure made it possible to continuously regenerate the structure of the soil. Hence fertility was maintained and improved. A short documentary shows the development, destruction and conservation of soils.

Modern agriculture has created soils, stripped of all life, by making massive use of fertilizers, pesticides and intensive tillage. As a result, yields initially increased significantly – who does not remember the term Green Revolution – but gradually the quality of the soil began to decline and as a consequence more fertilizers and pesticides were used. Land degradation has meanwhile reduced productivity in 23% of global terrestrial area and $235-577 billion in annual global crop output is at risk. Each year another 39 million hectares are affected worldwide (an area as large as Zimbabwe) and according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN in 2050 90% of all soils worldwide will be degraded and 60 years from now all of them. At least if radical measures are not taken.

Decline in nature

Seventy-five per cent of the land area has changed considerably, 66% of the oceans suffer adverse effects, and over 85% of the surface of the wetlands has been lost. The same applies to approximately half the live coral cover on coral reefs.

Fertilizers and pesticides are directly responsible for the degradation of the biodiversity. The number of native species in most major terrestrial biomes has fallen by at least 20%. Even for global warming of 1.5°C to 2°C, the majority of terrestrial species are expected to shrink sharply.

Food quality

The development of modern agriculture has contributed to a strong focus at the production and consumption of proteins and carbohydrates, which are responsible for a serious imbalance in the quantity and quality of the food in developed countries. The current diet contains too many proteins, carbohydrates, saturated fat, salt and sugar and too few fibers and minerals. The consequences are serious: More than half of the people in developed countries are too fat, 25% are obese, and food-related diseases are growing significantly.

The troublesome existence of farmers

Many farmers are concerned about the continuity of their business. These generally well-equipped farms are heavily financed by banks, and every year of unsatisfying harvests brings them on the verge of bankruptcy. Many farmers lack successors and worry about the meaning of their lives.

Moreover, the necessary subsidization of agriculture costs $13 billion annually in the US alone. Even more than in Europe, American farmers’ incentives are profoundly shaped by these subsidies and corporate agribusiness behemoths, like Monsanto or ADM that encourage farmers to specialize in one product.

Overproduction of food in developed countries

In the US alone, dairy producers had a cumulated surplus of cheese of 1.39 billion pounds in July 2018, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture. Meat production also exceeds demand. American meat producers have 2.5 billion pounds of chicken, turkey, pork, and beef in cold storage.  You may wonder what such a stock looks like. If you use all the excess cheese and meat to make one incredible (large) hamburger, the US Capitol will completely disappear from view.

US stock of meat and cheese stockpile (Source US Department of agriculture 2018)

Unequal distribution of resources

Current food production is sufficient to meet global needs, but 11% of the world’s population is undernourished. Diet-related disease account for 20% of premature deaths, both in connection with undernourishment and obesity. The expansion of food and biomass production has taken place at the expense of other contributions of nature to quality of life, including regulation of air and water quality, climate, carbon sequestering and conservation of natural habitats.

There is broad agreement on the conclusion of the aforementioned Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report, that agricultural practices in emerging and developed countries must change fundamentally in order to restore soil quality, to improve food quality, to reduce the emission of greenhouse gas and to increase the biodiversity. One of the mentioned directions of change is the transition to regenerative farming, a concept that includes a variety of solutions.

Regenerative farming

The term regenerative goes back to Bob Rodale, who made organic farming popular until he died in 1990.  He and the movement that have been putting his ideas into practice prefer the term regenerative to organic and sustainable. The term organic emphasizes what is absent, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The term regenerative emphasizes that thanks to farmers’ persistent care the quality of the soil will improve over the years.

Regenerative farming is characterized by some – not necessary all – characteristics below:

  • Limitation of tillage to enable improvement of soil quality and capacity to capture CO2;
  • No or minimal use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers;
  • Keeping the land covered during all seasons to protect it from dehydration;
  • Rotating of a rich variety of crops, multi-paddock grazing included.

The documentary From the ground up gives an overview of the characteristics of regenerative farming.

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Regenerative farming has different varieties, such as organic agriculture, conservation agriculture, agroecology, rotational grazing, agroforestry, and permaculture.

Many of these varieties having been discussed in the seminal Drawdown Report that offers 100 strategies to protect the earth from global warming. Together, these strategies can stop or compensate for all greenhouse gas emissions and more than 30% comes from changes in land use and agriculture.

The transition to regenerative agriculture also includes scientific research, competent advising, supermarkets that prioritize healthy and environment-friendly products, banks that provide financial aid and governments that are willing to subsidize the transition process.

Carbon capture

Regenerative farming will increase the capacity of the soil to capture carbon, as fungi work to preserve organic matter by aggregating it with clay and minerals. The Rodale institute, a nonprofit that supports organic farming, claims that regenerative techniques could capture more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive management practices. According to Tim LaSalle, cofounder of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems of California State University this expectation is justified, but further research is needed to identify favorable and less favorable conditions.


Technology and regenerative agriculture: Christine Su

Christine Su, after being a successful business developer in Silicon Valley, was looking for a new challenge with impact on the world. Her own quest for food that made her feel well raised her awareness of the negative impact of today’s industrialized agriculture. According to Su regenerative agriculture can be overwhelming because it’s a set of principles that requires a change in mind-set, as well as a bunch of processes that are rooted in science. A starting regenerative farmer must analyze the land, subdivide pastures, rotate cattle, and apply a wide diversity of crops. That is why she developed PastureMap, a map-based digital planning tool that also helps farmers evaluate the environmental performance of their land, such as the amount of carbon that their land stores.


Stabilizing food security and farmer’s income in developing countries.

In developing countries, regenerative farming opens the way to economically stronger regions and possibly a reduction of urbanization. In the 1990s, agriculture scientist Subhash Palekar developed a series of farming methods that are now known as Zero Budget Natural Farming. His aim was to improve food security and prevent stifling debts caused by loans to pay for fertilizers and seeds. There are currently around 160,000 farmers in the state Andhra Pradesh in India applying regenerative methods. The government plans to scale this number to 6 million by 2024.

Reduction of the ecological footprint of cattle

Industrialized livestock farming is an important producer of greenhouse gases. The cows and sheep are not to blame for this. On the contrary, they are indispensable in regenerative farming because of the use of manure. The video below illustrates the role of livestock in regenerative agriculture.

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In this context, it is also instructive to make a comparison between the ecological footprint of regenerative agriculture and farms that produce soy for the production of plant-based meat.


White Oak Pastures versus the Incredible Burger

White Oak Pastures is a farm in South Georgia (USA) that keeps cattle using regenerative methods. A company called Quantis carried out a life cycle analysis (LCA) in this company. The total amount of outgoing and stored greenhouse gasses was mapped and it turned out that the storage was greater than the emission.

Quantis also carried out an LCA at a company that supplies the genetically modified soy for Burger King’s Impossible Burger. This analysis showed that, as expected, its greenhouse gas emissions are much lower than those from conventional livestock farming. However, the cultivation of soy still releases more greenhouse gases than is stored.

The net emissions of White Oak farm (source: Savory Institute).

The graph below provides an overview of the differences between conventional and regenerative farming. The first is an exponent of the take-make-waste economy, the second imitates natural regeneration systems where waste does not exist, but instead provides input for another cycle.

Conventional versus regenerative farming practices. Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The quality of our daily food

To live a healthy life, we need an amount of nutrients such as proteins (in meat, fish and nuts), carbohydrates (in grains and potatoes), unsaturated fat (in fish and dairy), fibers, minerals, vitamins and not to forget water.

Dietitians worldwide advise adults to consume an average of 2000 calories daily. Half of the daily calories must come from fruits and vegetables, and the rest from whole grains, low-fat dairy products and a limited amount of fish or meat. To a certain extent these ingredients can compensate each other, for example less meat versus more nuts and beans.

The first problem is that in developed countries almost everyone eats much more than 2000 calories. In the US, an average of 2600 calories per day instead of 2000. As a result, 25% of the US population is already suffering from obesity, resulting in a whole series of health problems.

The second problem is that the average menu in developed countries cannot be considered as ‘healthy’.  Americans eat too much saturated fat, especially in red meat, butter, cream and chocolate. The amount of meat consumed in the US is 125 kilos per capita per year, which exceeds the recommended amount by 130%. They also eat too many carbohydrates (grains, potatoes), (added) sweeteners, salt and processed food. Americans by far do not eat enough fruits, vegetables and (low-fat) dairy products, which results in a shortage of fiber and minerals.

Experts believe that excessive and poor nutrition causes 20% of all cancers and a significant number of strokes and cardiovascular disease. Obesity undermines health in every way.

Food-related health problems are directly related to wealth (social class). The poorer the people, the larger the intake of fat (burgers) and sugar (Coke) and the less the intake of vegetables and fruit.

There is discussion about the necessity of eating meat and fish. According to some, meat is necessary, because of the presence of high-quality proteins. Others argue that meat and fish are exchangeable for beans and nuts. This is good news for those who abstain from meat consumption due to the production of greenhouse gases by modern livestock farming.

However, two important comments are in place. In the first place, the impact of meat on the environment depends on the type of meat. The table below shows that pork and chickens have a much smaller impact than cattle and sheep.

CO2-impact of a variety of menus. Visualization: Melissa Amarello, Center for biological diversity.

Secondly, the abandonment of eating meat from animals raised in farms using regenerative techniques is not necessary from the point of view of global warming. Although, eating less meat still continues to be advisable from a health perspective. Moreover, others will refrain from eating animal products for ethical or even political reasons.

Good and sufficient food for the world

The conclusion is justified that the emphasis on the production of meat and grain in modern agriculture is not consistent with the requirements of healthy food. Quite apart from its contribution to global warming, decline of biodiversity and soil quality, and not to forget deforestation.

At the other hand, regenerative agriculture supports the provision of healthy menus. Moreover, it is an opportunity to improve agriculture in developing countries, without large investments.

It is not possible yet to determine whether regenerative agriculture can feed a global population of 10 billion people in 2100 on its own. More research and practice are needed. Nevertheless, there is good reason for optimism, as illustrated by a large list of examples of large-scale regenerative farms.


Examples of large-scale regenerative farms

Retired businessman Doug Tompkins and owner of the Laguna Blanca farm, a 4000 hectare property in Argentina, applied regenerative methods to revitalize the farm.

Laguna Blanca farm. Image: Tompkins Conservation.

His first priority was erosion control, through contouring, terracing and planting. The second was restoring fertility and soil structure. The third step was a planting plan characterized by high diversity.

Another eye-catching example is Leontine’s Balbo’s Native Farm in Brazil, that reports to have increased the yield of sugar cane by 20%, after it changed to regenerative production methods. The Balbo Group started to introduce regenerative agriculture in 1986. In the video below, Balbo describes its positive impact on the nature, the farms’ environment and the company itself.

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Support for regenerative agriculture is also growing within agribusiness, which can lead to greater confidence among farmers, politicians and consumers. An example is General Mills, a leading global food company with US sales in 2018 of $ 17.0 billion. The company recently announced that it will work with organic and conventional farmers, suppliers and agricultural advisers to introduce regenerative agriculture on 400.000 hectares of farmland by 2030. The company is already launching products with ingredients that have been grown using regenerative methods.

Other examples of agribusiness companies on their way to circular production methods are Danone and Unilever.

As the need for food will double in this century and probably stabilize in 2100, food supply should not be made dependent on the scalability of regenerative agriculture alone. That is why an open eye is needed for other sustainable methods that contribute to the production of healthy food. A few are mentioned below.

Controlled Environment agriculture (greenhouse horticulture)

Greenhouses produce an enormous amount of tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, blackberries, herbs and leafy vegetables and recently also bananas. Because of its greenhouses, the Netherlands is the largest exporter of agricultural products after the US. The use of sustainable energy in greenhouse horticulture is growing rapidly.

New forms of ‘indoor’ agriculture are emerging, such as vertically stacked grow beds and aquaponics (a method that integrates the breeding of fish with the cultivation of plants).

Algae

The application for algae is very broad. They are an alternative to less sustainable and scarce ingredients, such as fish oil that is used as food for farmed fish and that is under pressure due to overfishing.

Other types of algae are rich in vegetable fats and can replace palm oil, which is becoming less and less attractive due to deforestation.

Precision agriculture

Precision farming is actually part of industrialized agriculture. It is mentioned here because of its inherent environmental awareness. In precision agriculture, self-driving small robot tractors and drones measure soil properties such as water content, presence of salts and density. The data is stored in a database. This allows the farmer to determine an exact dose of fertilizer and pesticides for every square meter, which improves sustainability. Harvesting is carried out by small, electrically driven tractors.

Electrically driven tractor. Photo: The Small Robot Company.

Plant-based meat

Plant-based meat is advertised as a viable and sustainable alternative to conventional meat. It has a nutritional value comparable to meat, and its production requires considerably less water and energy.

The number of available variants is growing rapidly, such as Burger King’s “Impossible Burger” and Greggs “vegan sausages”. As taste and texture of meat is increasingly matched, they become more attractive for consumers, especially if they are served with ketchup, mustard and other intensive flavored additives.

Artificial meat

The report Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030: The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the Collapse of Industrial Livestock Farming does not excel by modesty, as it states that by 2030, the US dairy and cattle industry will have collapsed and been replaced by lab grown ‘meat’. This meat is cultivated in bioreactors from cells extracted from livestock. The result is a product that is almost indistinguishable from conventionally produced meat in taste and texture. In the meantime, the first lab-grown hamburger has become available.

There is no doubt that artificial forms of meat and – who knows – fish will come onto the market. In what quantities and how the consumer will receive them is unpredictable. Nonetheless, they can make a welcome contribution to the nutrition of the world population.

At the same time, the possible take-over of livestock farming by Silicon-Valley companies is a horror scenario because keeping cattle prevents desertification in large parts of the world.


Food forests

Food forests are not natural by origin, instead, they are forms of regenerative agriculture.

The seven layers of a forest garden: Image source: Permaculture a Beginner’s Guide, by Graham Burnett.

Food forests use to have seven layers:

  • A canopy layer, comprised of tall large fruit and nut trees.
  • Between the canopy layer trees, there is a layer of low growing fruit trees.
  • Nestled between the small trees are bushes with currants and berries.
  • Next comes a layer with culinary and medicinal herbs, companion plants, bee-forage and poultry forage plants.
  • Any remaining space is occupied by ground cover plants that protect the soil, reduce evaporation, and prevent weeds growing.
  • The underground level is taken up by root crops, such as potatoes, carrots, and ginger.
  • Finally, the vertical space is filled by climbers like grapes, climbing peas and beans, berries, passionfruit, kiwi fruit, and many other species.

Over the last decade, around 100 hectares of food forest have been created in the Netherlands and much knowledge has become available, for instance in Ecological Principles in Natural Temperate Forest Ecosystems Relevant for Productive Food Forests written by Anastasia Limareva. The minidocumentary below illustrates of the development of food forests in the Netherlands and their contribution to the production of healthy food.

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A transition towards regenerative form of agriculture

Below, the term regenerative agriculture is used as an umbrella for all kinds of agriculture that apply the before mentioned characteristics, but may be not all at once and not fully. It is therefore useful that a certification for regenerative agriculture has recently be introduced. This certification allows farmers to distinct themselves and for others it is an indication of how they could produce in the future.

The certificate can apply to any product made with agricultural ingredients. It requires that farmers produce those ingredients through methods that meet criteria as:

• Increase in organic material in the soil and absorption of carbon;

• Promotion of biodiversity

• Improvement of animal welfare

• Ensure economic stability and fair working conditions for employees;

• Development of ecologically and economically resilient production ecosystems and communities.

The transition process requires changes in agriculture, banking, government, supermarkets and consumer behavior. It is an illusion to believe that such changes can be planned in detail. In the beginning there will be many small-scale pilots and experiments. Instead of criticizing each other, promoters should share experiences and learn from each other, as they example below demonstrates.


El Hierro: Planned regenerative agriculture

El Hierro is the smallest Canary Island. 20 years ago, the Spanish government proposed relocating the 10,000 inhabitants and keeping the island uninhabited. However, the residents developed an alternative plan, and the government agreed. A choice was made to become an agricultural economy based on regenerative methods with some eco-tourism and agrobusiness. In the beginning, farmers resisted switching to regenerative agriculture. Then a pilot farm was built that after a while surpassed the yields of regular agriculture. After this, all farmers took part.

In addition to bananas, the island supplies pineapple and grapes. Moreover, the population cultivates its own food. In 20 years, the inhabitants have built a resilient community with cooperative companies that produce and export fish and whines that bring prosperity.  Entrepreneurship is flourishing and fewer young people are leaving the island.

The islands produce its own water (by desalination) and electricity (with wind and hydro power), gas and fertilizers (both with a methane bio-digester). All systems are population owned. At this time, a project has started to electrify all cars.

The documentary below gives an actual update.

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Agricultural reform is one of the pillars of the Green New Deal in the US. It connects environmental and social issues because few farmers will change their production is there is no income or support.

These plans did not stay unnoticed and as a result, a national coalition representing almost 10,000 U.S. farmers and 50 organizations, sent a letter to Congress, calling for support for the Green New Deal. The government was called upon to make agriculture policy reform a priority for tackling the climate crisis and the economic crisis that independent family farms are dealing with. This is a shining example for farmers around the world.

The government can play a facilitating and supporting role. Financial support is important, but from a governance point of view, the most important task is to make concrete plans and to initiate cooperation between all stakeholders, based on objectives such as a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, restoration of soils and biodiversity, and food security. Financial aid and tax incentives for farmers might also be parts of this plan. Diversification of VAT rates, depending on the ecological footprint of the crops and the resulting products, will increase the willingness of the agroindustry to pay fair prices to farmers.

As there are many reasons to shortening food supply chains, urban and regional authorities can strengthen regional markets for food and agriculture products. I will elaborate on this theme in the next section.

How cities can help to secure the production of good and enough food

Currently, a third of all food produced globally – to the value of $1,000 billion – is wasted every year. This means a huge loss of nutrients and it is a major cause of environmental problems. Waste is partly due to the large distance that food has to travel from areas where it is produced to areas where consumers live. Nevertheless, worldwide 40% of the whole agricultural area is in the peri-urban zone, at a distance less than 20 km from cities.

The peri-urban zone. Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Unfortunately, only a small proportion of the harvests from the peri-urban zones ends up in the nearby cities. Much food is transported to other parts of the world, traveling thousands of kilometers. The map below gives an impression of the intra-European foot supply chain. Many countries are promoting the growth of the export of vegetables and other agricultural products. The Netherlands is one of the most successful examples. They better promote shortening supply-chains and improved prices for farmers instead of international competition.

Intra-European trade of vegetables. Source: UN-Comtrade, Eurostat 2017.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on promoting circular principles, the redesign of the regional food marked can be guided by three principles:

  • Food that is grown regeneratively, locally as much as necessary
  • Growing and marketing healthier products
  • Optimal benefit from agricultural production by reusing waste.

Food markets in developing and emerging countries are primarily regionally oriented. Growth in the share of regenerative agriculture and the regional orientation of the food-marked mutually reinforce each other’s and represent important policy goals.

Business models based upon local markets are commercially feasible, provided a wide variety of products. Regenerative agriculture can provide this, together with products from greenhouses, rooftop gardens and the like.

Urban and regional governments can promote this development by subsidizing farmers who want to be part of this regional food market and otherwise use fiscal incentives.

At the same time, quite a few farmers take initiatives themselves, such as ‘The Boers from Amstel’.


Boers of Amstel

The ‘Boers of Amstel’ initiative, near Amsterdam, is intended to increase biodiversity and to give meadow birds space by introducing nature-inclusive farming methods. Such methods include: higher water level, later mowing periods, and more herbaceous crops in the grass. A cost-effective lease of land was introduced available to farmers who participate in the project. A private investor provided capital. The dairy farmers received an extra premium for their milk. A few cents per liter are reserved to invest in nature restoration.

To realize this regional business model, a cooperative of participating farmers was formed. It funded and built its own milk factory and the farmers effectively promote their products in the Amsterdam region.


There are plenty opportunities to reconnecting city dwellers with the farmers who grow their food; citizens can even become (part-time) participants in its production.

Instead of being the end of the food supply chain, cities can develop into places where agricultural by-products are transformed, through new technologies, into a broad array of valuable materials, ranging from organic fertilizers, biomaterials, medicine, and bioenergy.

Together with local organizations, the city government can initiate a range of interventions to prevent food waste.  They can also facilitate the transformation of collected organic materials to stimulate regenerative peri-urban food production through composting, anaerobic fermentation, and wastewater treatment. Emerging economies are particularly well positioned because of their large share of organic waste.

Milan is an example of a city, characterized by the development of a food system that is sustainable, just, resilient and healthy. The city also works to improve consumer awareness. It has created an open innovation hub for peri-urban farming. The program regenerates 30 hectares of land in the urban fringe. This land will be used as a living test bed for innovators and entrepreneurs to develop improved food systems. 

Start-ups and SMEs are working on 18 projects. These include vertical farming technology, roof farming, social integration and automation in urban farming. A special focus is on the development of skills for young and disadvantages people in the city.


Herenboeren

‘Herenboeren’ (gentlemen farmers) is a new successful initiative in the Netherlands. Gentlemen farmers are groups of around 200 citizens who lease land and hire a professional farmer to cultivate the land according to regenerative principles. Every week, they visit their ‘own’ farm, to collect their share of crops (and meat), meet each other and occasionally cooperate as volunteer. The short video below gives an impression.

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A humane approach to food security

Good and sufficient food is a fundamental right for everyone. In comparison to many rural residents, citizens depend on others for their daily food supply. In cities in developing countries there is often a direct link between citizens and farmers, because they trade their products on local markets. In developed countries there is a gap between the production and consumption of food. It comes from all over the world and is preserved, processed and packaged by the food processing industry and sold in supermarkets. The emphasis is no longer on providing the best food, but making profit. Products have been developed for an anonymous market that absorbs almost everything, thanks to sophisticated advertising.

Large-scale production in anonymous farms and food processing industries around the world has numerous negative effects such as degradation of soil quality, decreasing biodiversity, health problems and waste. However, consumers are becoming more critical and are starting to develop their own alternatives and suppliers are starting to adapt. Change in food production is on the policy agenda. A growing group of citizens wants a healthier menu and at the same time politics has to do with climate and biodegradation. This involves a transition from industrialized to regenerative agricultural businesses and from predominantly global to predominantly locally organized markets. These and other upcoming changes have been extensively documented above. Below I summarize the essence of a humane approach to the problem of feeding the global population, citizens in the first place.

Principles for a humane approach to citizens’ food security

  1. In economically developed parts of the world, food supply is mechanized and industrialized. It is also characterized by the use of fertilizers and pesticides and it contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. After years of increasing harvests and productivity, soils are degrading and biodiversity is declining. For all these reasons, a transition to regenerative forms of agriculture is necessary.

2. In developing countries, a large part of the food comes from small-scale farms. Their number is declining due to urbanization. This puts food security in the fast-growing cities at risk. Developing countries can improve the efficiency and productivity of small-scale agriculture, while the transition to regenerative agriculture is less drastic than in developed countries.

3. Farmers in developed countries are locked in the global agriculture-industrial system. That is why it is inappropriate to hold them primarily responsible for greenhouse gas emissions in their farms. Equally responsible are governments that have promoted large-scale agriculture, banks that have provided the necessary funds for investment, supermarkets that compete strongly on agricultural products and pay minimal prices to farmers, not to mention the majority of consumers who are reluctant to pay more for quality food.

4. Improving farmers’ income and existential security is also required in developing countries. This enables them to combine profitability with a protective role of nature. In these countries, rural policy must also improve the quality of life in rural areas and, in particular, reduce the migration of young people.

5. The reduction of waste in the production and processing of food can contribute significantly to the availability of food worldwide. In developing countries, improved food storage has priority to reduce waste.

6. It is highly recommended that cities and neighboring rural environments are considered as integrated wholes. This principle limits the growth of the city and ensures that the “peri-urban zone” can provide a substantial part (at least 40%) of the total demand for food from the city in question. In addition, there will be room for recreational land use and forest for capturing greenhouse gas.

7. To increase local food production, a wide range of agricultural activities can take place in the vicinity of the city. These can vary from regenerative multi-crop farms to greenhouses, vertical farms and city gardens. At the same time, new relationships between local (super) markets and farmers must be set up to ensure that locally grown crops, fish and meat will find their way to the consumers quickly. Realizing this type of supply chains is probably simpler in developing countries than in developed countries.

8. It should be recognized that global supply chains of fresh agricultural products will gradually lose importance as soon as locally organized chains become stronger. Worldwide, export usually leads to monocultures and also endangers circularity. Dutch greenhouses prove that almost all vegetables and many types of fruit can be grown in greenhouses, which are exported all over the world. From a perspective of promoting local food supply, the Netherlands do better with exporting greenhouses instead of the products grown in it.

9. Food must be sold at fair prices. This means, for example, that farms who have succeeded in reducing greenhouse gas emissions should benefit from lower VAT rates.

10. Replacing beef with plant-based varieties only marginally contributes to reducing obesity and improving health in general. This objective requires a substantial change in the current eating pattern, that in average is characterized by an intake of too many proteins, carbohydrates, saturated fat, salt and sugar and too few vegetables, fruit, dairy products, minerals and fibers.

11. The discussion about the desired composition of diets is complicated by the coexistence of health-related motives, climate-related motives and motives related to the consumption of animal products. Politics has a different role for each of these motives. The choice for a healthy diet can be supported by information and financial incentives. Climate-related motives can be tackled by supporting farmers in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example by adapting regenerative forms of agriculture. Refraining from the consumption of animal products in general is first and foremost a personal choice, whereby it is the task of the government to protect animal welfare.

12. The Mediterranean diet is often considered as the healthiest one in the world. It is based on the regular foot pattern of people surrounding the Mediterranean and contains fish, seafood, whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, olive oil and moderate use of wine and high-quality meat.

13. For the production of soy, the main component of plant-based meat, large-scale production methods are applied using fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds (the last not in Europe). These methods are objectionable from a point of view of preserving soil quality and biodiversity and should be taken into consideration when evaluating the value of artificial over real meat, especially if it comes from regenerative farms

14. Large companies such as Danone, Unilever, General Mills that process agricultural products and contribute to the food supply of billions of people, have responsibilities that must always be given priority over increasing their profits. For this reason, these companies must acquire the status of social enterprise (‘b-corporation), as Danone has already done.

Written by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Header photo (an example of the Mediterranean diet): Grobery (Flickr). Licensed under Creative Commons.

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