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Global Sustainable Food Supply with a Local Support

Submitted by on 17 Apr 2014 – 12:41

By Sven Bode Andersen, Professor of Plant Breeding, Copenhagen University

sustainable farmingDenmark has a large and efficient agricultural production of animal merchandises like dairy products, pork and poultry with an internationally renowned quality and export to many different countries worldwide. Competitiveness is the result of heavy investment in animal stable systems, optimization of animals through breeding and optimized feed use to obtain high output relative to input as well as subsequent processing of the raw material.Animal products from Denmark are based on an intensive agricultural feed production, mainly wheat and barley for pigs and poultry, and maize, grass and clover for dairy cows. The very flat and arable country blessed with year around precipitation is covered with crops on approximately half of the country’s surface. The temperate humid climate is well suited for plant starch production but less so for proteins, so large amounts of soy protein are imported to supply the animal diet.

A price of sustainability

Such intensive agriculture does not proceed without environmental fingerprints and public debate. From what used to be everyone’s livelihood just 60 years ago, with almost half of the population engaged in agriculture the profession has turned into a highly specialized industrial activity employing only about three percent of the Danes and economically controlled by even fewer.  The previous farmer life involving most people and thus democratically protected against serious critics has turned into an industrial minority activity.

The Danish media are flooded on a daily basis with articles critical towards agriculture pointing out the use of antibiotics generating multi-resistant bacteria, fertilizer pollution of streams and ground water, pesticides reducing biodiversity and demands for better animal welfare. Reproach has long ago reached the government level with the first wave of restrictions on agricultural input particularly nitrogen and pesticides introduced 1987, followed by another two such regulations intended to protect the water regime through restrictions, which removed about 40% of the nitrogen fertilizer for plant production.

The regulations have put Danish agriculture in front regarding reduced input production and led to improvements to the water streams, lakes and also maybe the surrounding sea environment, while reduction in ground water content of nitrogen compounds and pesticides still remains to be seen. These environmental improvements did not come for free, however. Stagnation in the amount of harvest and a clear decrease in the protein content of harvested grains, which will stimulate further soy protein import, have been noted. One thing still keeps agriculture politically on its feet. In spite of being a small part of the national GDP, agricultural products continue to make up about 20% of the national export of goods, and a very stable income it is.

European local perspectives

Conflicts between an agricultural business, economically incited to produce more and better quality food for a hungry world market and the interests from society in reduced environmental imprints are not unique to Danes. A debate about greening of European agriculture has spread all over the continent, particularly in relation to the European common agricultural policy, the subsidies of which make up a major part of the common EU budget. It is almost like Margaret Thatcher’s words, this time from environmental groups “we want our money back”, or at least we want something for subsidies with regard to wild life, biodiversity and environment in addition to stable food supply. Being already pushed for two decades towards greening of their agriculture, Danish farmers would seem to be well prepared to meet any such future external demands, but they face problems from domestic pressure.

Organic food production makes up around 6-7% of total Danish agriculture with dairy products as front runners covering close to 30% of total dairy produce. Organic production systems do have a positive effect on the local environment in that pesticides are not used, and the organic production does not nutritionally inflate the biological system with chemical fertilizer. In addition, organic animal production does ensure higher animal welfare in general compared with conventional farming.

However, there is a prize in reduced intensity, with the organic farms generating 30-50% less produce, even in spite of a considerable import of plant nutrients as animal manure from conventional agriculture. Danish government intentions to double the actual organic agricultural area by 2020 presently face considerable marketing problems, because strong public support for organic produce, manifested in polls and public statements, does not in general surface in the supermarket, where organic products are more expensive.

Global solutions

On a global scale reduced agricultural intensity and lower food supply would not seem to be a sustainable solution to such conflicts of interest between industrial agriculture and surrounding populations. Many developed countries have relatively low population densities and large productive areas of arable land suitable for efficient agriculture, which should be used to meet future global food demand. For this to be realistic, however, a new wave of innovation and technology development is needed to intensify future food production with less environmental imprint and more local support. More efficient application of fertilizer and much better recycling of nutrients in animal manure as well as weed and plant disease control less based on chemicals are urgently needed.