Opening words from Janez Potočnik

Czech Regional Event

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Dear friends, welcome to another edition of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture and I am delighted to be talking to you in the Czech Republic.

The raison d’etre of the Forum for Agriculture is to bring all of us together, policy makers, farmers, NGOs, industries, and academics to see if we can find ways to break down our silos and transform our food system, together.

I don’t believe I need to convince you all here today of the urgency for such a transformation, for all our sectors – energy, transport, infrastructure and so on. I think we all recognise that the current predominant system of production, and consumption, is unsustainable both for the climate, and the environment.

The war in Ukraine has only worked to expose the vulnerabilities of the food system and the urgency to build resilience for the long run. Ukraine and Russia combined are important producers of wheat, barley, maize, sunflower seeds and oils and natural gas. Export bans and the effect of conflict on trade routes and ability to plant and process crops has led to a worldwide fear of a global food and energy crisis. This combined with increasing transport costs may prevent countries that were reliant on imports from Ukraine, such a Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt, and low-income counties with high import dependency ratios across Africa and Asia, from procuring sufficient food supplies. This is an enormous concern. And inevitably perhaps, as there was at the start of the COVID crisis, there are cries from some corners to ramp up production in Europe, to plough up areas designated for nature to grow and replace the shortfall in livestock feed from Ukraine, and to support fertiliser producers to sustain production.

Whilst action clearly needs to be taken to allay potential terrible hunger down the line, we need to think very carefully about what action we take, because how we react to this crisis today, will determine how we fare during the next. The Ukraine war is not a climate related emergency, but if we don’t meet the 1.5 degrees climate target, nor halt biodiversity loss, be in no doubt, that global crisis will keep coming, and our systems will be less able to buffer the shocks. Solving the current conflict related crisis should not, and cannot, compromise our ability to tackle the triple planetary crises of climate emergency, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Now is not the time to call off the Green Deal, an ambitious and necessary policy framework, or question the good intentions and the vision included in the Farm to Fork document. Rather, the COVID crisis and the war on Ukraine have accelerated the need to transition our food system to one that is robust, sustainable, that restores and preserves biodiversity, reduces emissions, and sequesters carbon, and provides affordable, nutritious food for us all.

Let me reiterate some of the messages I have already shared during the main Brussels Forum event. Long term food security is not about ploughing up nature areas to grow more food for livestock. Livestock is an essential part of our farming system, but there is clear evidence that we are overconsuming and overproducing livestock products. Therefore, holding up and sustaining the size of the livestock sector does not contribute to long term food security.

Food security is about recognising that in western countries we continue to overconsume, at the expense of others. It is about prioritising food for direct human consumption over food produced for animal feed.

It is about taking a fresh look at marine production systems that can have the capacity to deliver multiple benefits. Aquaculture to produce seaweed and bivalves is a great option because these species absorb nutrients directly from their environment and therefore not dependant on feedstocks.

It is about amazing agricultural technologies, like precision agriculture, vertical farming, and production of meat analogues. They rely on expensive machinery, but we can see these technologies being offered to farmers through dematerialised product-as-a-service business models, which is again very encouraging. The emergence of these new business models in the food system are breaking away from engrained ways of thinking and working in order to create new or additional value through sustainability solutions, shared throughout the food chain. It is about our care for pollinators, and it is about our care for healthy soils. It is about how much of the food we still waste which, if you think about it, also means wasted water, energy, pesticides, fertilisers, and land used to produce that food. This is entirely unacceptable from an economic and environmental, but also ethical, perspective. But it is also about policies which are not directly related to food. It is, for example, about how much of the biofuels produced from food crops we use to fuel cars instead of feeding people, it is about how much of the fertile land we use for various expanding infrastructure projects, it is about how much of the fertile land is swallowed up by urban expansion and new space required by our inefficient resource consuming mobility systems. It is about ensuring our forests are protected and planted to withstand the climate change of the future and working together to link in sustainable biomass production into our value chains, whilst simultaneously supporting carbon sequestration and biodiversity … and I could continue.

All this is about food security!

This multiple approach may seem a long way from the economic counter-offensive – the single, swift response – that political and media logic demands. But it is less strange to those working to hold back the underlying planetary crisis. Here, the cumulative effect of many positive, system-changing decisions is almost the only thing keeping a stable and safe world within reach. While dealing with acute challenges, we are also facing an emerging chronical and systemic environmental and social crisis due to the overuse of natural resources and uneven and unfair distribution of their benefits. The triple planetary crisis is making instability the norm.

Natural resources are at the heart of our environmental and human health challenges. The use of materials – fossil fuels, metals, minerals, biomass, everything we extract from the Earth – has tripled since 1970 and accounts for a huge share of greenhouse gas emissions. In overusing Earth’s resources, and by distributing the benefits unfairly, our economic model is taking far more than the planet can sustainably give.

The problem is that humankind has never separated out economic growth from ever-rising demand for resources. As a result, we are now overstepping planetary boundaries, and locking ourselves out of the safe operating space in which human societies evolved. We must instead link resource use to fundamental human needs and optimize the systems that deliver them. We do not need a car, we need mobility, we do not need a chair, we need to sit comfortably, we do not need a fridge, we need fresh, healthy food. Much extracted material goes into under-utilised cars, inefficiently built cities, and poorly maintained machinery. If we look at our production and consumption through the lens of natural resource use, we can start to look at the transformation of the whole system, not just of a specific sector. We need to reject the assumption that these systems need to be so resource intensive.

As a university student, I was taught that economic theory is based on the rational behaviour of consumers and producers: the more we produce at the lowest possible price, the higher the capital returns and GDP growth. But what if the whole economic system was at fault? Undervalued human capital and, in many cases, not valued natural capital by our markets, are leading to systemic social and environmental imbalances. Imagine that for example, large food shopping centre customer, would enter the centre and not pay, at least not pay the full price, for the things taken home … the food shopping centre would soon get bankrupt. The same is happening to nature. Nature is a large eco-system getting bankrupt due to our behaviour. Our short-term rational behaviour is leading to a long-term irrational “charming mass suicide” as Arto Paasilinna titled one of his excellent novels.

Our international efforts to fight the climate crisis remain focused on, and driven by, the supply side. This, the recent IPCC report warns, will fail to limit warming to 1.5C. But authors add that demand-side mitigation could reduce global GHGs in some sectors by up to 70% by 2050. More fundamentally, demand-side measures get us closer to the human questions of responsibility and equity. High-income regions, including Europe, must take the lead. Resource efficiency should thus be complemented with sufficiency-based policies. Until then, ambitious policies such as the EU’s Green Deal and the UNFCCC’s targets face an uphill battle to implement incentives and regulations to change our production and consumption patterns. Sending policy signals one way, and market signals the other, is creating confusion (not to mention intense lobbying by companies that fear the loss of profitable markets). It’s time to stop signalling to producers that destroying natural capital is free of charge. Time to stop contradictory messages to consumers, who still routinely pay more for food with a low environmental impact, instead of the reverse.

I started today saying that the challenges we face for our climate, our biodiversity and our health no longer need to be laid out. The science is overwhelmingly pointing us in the direction for change. Many of us have sat at the Forum for Ag, and other conferences and heard the now often repeated phrase, that there is no time to lose, that we need to change. These are messages given with good intention, but if those intentions are not followed through, they only work to make us feel better in the moment and serve to lose us time in the long run.

I applaud the phenomenal amount of work that is being directed towards innovation to reduce the impact of our current system, but without full scale systems change, these innovations will not even touch the sides of what is needed to meet our climate and biodiversity targets.
Our young and future generations who face an existence tackling the devastating effects of our lack of action will judge us poorly. The current economic system, and system of agriculture has bought food security for millions, healthcare advances beyond what could have been imagined, allowed the creation of social security systems in many of our countries, which we are grateful for. But it has now run its course and no longer serves us well. It has left us with a climate emergency, the devastation of natural resources, a declining quality of life and ever-growing inequality. And so, there is little logic in clinging to a broken system.

Like it or not, the responsibility falls to us here to today, listening at home, working in companies, doing the weekly shop, sowing the seeds in the fields this spring. The burden has fallen upon our shoulders to transition how we produce, and how we consume, to save the world for those to come. And I don’t deny this will be difficult. Tough choices will have to be made, money reinvested, whole sectors restructured, and policies updated. But it is also an enormous opportunity to create an economic system, and a food system, that serves us ; that works to improve our quality of life, provide equality, and prepare us for the future.
Dear friends, to conclude. Making our fragile economies and societies more sustainable and resilient is our best defence against any future crises. In the longer term, food and energy security are not about opening a new economic front. They are, first of all, about reassessing our values, rethinking our economies and reducing overconsumption.

Standards and behaviour patterns linked to the current economic model were set by high-income countries. We are ethically bound to show the world that we are willing and able to change a reality we created, and to lead the essential transition – at home and globally. The map of resource use still shows the shadows of an imperialist world, where wealthy nations pursue their ambitions at the expense of others. A more stable and sustainably prosperous future will mean shifting to an era of responsible resource use, where benefits are more fairly shared, mitigating resource fragility and strengthening our preparedness and resilience. The more we avoid these strategic, sometimes difficult decisions, the more likely is that that we will soon face them again.

For the future we want we need a system-based approach: minimising trade-offs and future lock-ins and maximising co-benefits and synergies among all our efforts. Focusing only on cleaning the current production systems will unfortunately not be enough. We must enter the untapped territories of the needed deep system transformation. If we want to avoid extinction of elephants in nature, we need to extinct elephants in the rooms. According to the Dasgupta Review, our unsustainable engagement with Nature can be traced to institutional failure and the failure of contemporary economics to acknowledge that we humans are embedded within Nature, and not external to it. So, for the beginning, it would be good to agree that humans are part of nature and start behaving accordingly. I never forget to mention that we are the first generation facing the emergence of a single, tightly coupled human social-ecological system of planetary scope. We are more vulnerable, interconnected, and interdependent than ever.

And in the spirit of working together, I would like to take a moment to thank the wide variety of partners who come together to support the Forum and join the conversation on these crucial topics: the founding partners: The European Landowners’ Organization and Syngenta; our strategic partners: The Nature Conservancy, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Cargill, WWF and Thought for Food; Our international partner: The Chicago Council of Global Affairs and our supporting partners: The Friends of the Countryside, John Deere, Pepsico, Nestle, Indigo, The Rewe group, SYSTEMIQ and the RISE Foundation. And to thank Emma Mikosz and her extraordinary team for bringing us together today.

I wish you a fruitful conference and thank you for your attention.

Janez Potočnik

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