This is the first article in a series of articles on Neayi. We want here to explain the agricultural context as we perceive it, in France and in the world. This is why we decided to create Neayi, in order to bring a beginning of answer to the formidable challenges that we see there.
Agriculture goes through a multi-form crisis
Pollution, crisis of confidence, health risks, indebtedness, standards, disappearance of species, awareness of the limited resources of this world … Solutions to these problems intersect by clashing. For example, the mad cow crisis has halted the feeding of livestock with animal bone meal, generating a huge demand for soybeans and maize (two of the most energy-dense plants per kg), leading to massive deforestation of primary forests. from South America.
Deforestation which is at the origin of CO2 emission increase, adding to those of methane (ruminants, rice), and nitrous oxide (fertilizer), respectively 30 and 300 times more powerful as CO2 as to their warming power. In total, global agriculture accounts for 24% of total greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming.
This warming, we know now, is a serious threat in return on our agriculture: drought, flood, hail, early spring followed by frost, pest migrations, new diseases. Each additional degree lower yields globally by 7%.
A drop in yield, which in parallel faces an increase in the world population (now 7 to 9 billion inhabitants by 2030), requiring an increase in production of at least 30 to 50%. In addition, some countries, such as China, have increased their standard of living, drastically changing their diet and are turning to diets that are much richer in protein.
It is expected that by 2030 the melting of the Himalayan glaciers will dry for months each year 10 of the largest rivers in the world (including the Ganges, Indus, Yellow River, Mekong), which supply directly both agriculture and hydro power supply of several billion people.
As between the hammer and the anvil, populations that will not be affected by droughts will be affected by floods. For example, in Bangladesh, the rising waters will remove 20% of the territory, leading to massive migrations of its inhabitants to neighboring countries.
The threats do not come only from global warming. The peak oil, signaling the beginning of the end of oil, took place in Europe in 2006 on conventional oil and should intervene by 2030 for all hydrocarbons. The agricultural industry is extremely dependent on the use of fossil fuels, whether for the production and then the spreading of fertilizers and pesticides, for tillage, storage and transport of raw materials. It takes about 1,500 liters of oil to “produce” a 500 kg cow. Without oil, or even simply with oil that has doubled in price, we do not know how to maintain our food system.
Beyond the peak of oil, the peak of phosphorus points its nose. Phosphorus is one of the three essential molecules for plant growth (with nitrogen and potassium). Without phosphorus, no agriculture. But phosphorus has no “renewable” equivalent. If we do not find a solution to optimize its use (today only 15% of phosphates spread on agricultural land end up in plants, the rest goes into rivers and lakes, causing new pollutions to blue algae in particular), our food production system will be doomed.
Finally lack of water, with falling groundwater levels, is becoming an increasingly worrying threat, especially in countries whose demographics are the most galloping.
Faced with these facts, farmers in France are divided
Conventional agriculture, faithful to the model imposed by the European policy of the post-war period, continues to fulfill its contract: maximize production. But it operates in an ever more regulated framework, which limits on one side the options in terms of authorized treatments and on the other hand the innovation options; largely dependent on the indebtedness and specific aids that can be granted to it. The widespread mistrust of consumers towards the agri-food industry, as well as the lack of support and understanding of the issues on the part of politicians, lead to a deleterious climate in which no one is listening.
Organic farming, the child of the agrochemical industry abuse, is trying to define a new model in opposition to the first. However, recovering forgotten knowledge, managing limited yields, sensitivity to pests and climatic hazards, the immense complexity of this fight using natural products, but also less precise and less effective, the continued race for low prices make this agriculture dependent on grants and subsidies. When these aids are slow to come, as has been the case for several years now, the system no longer works.
Whether conventional or organic, agriculture faces sometimes unfair international competition. Conventional agriculture at our neighbors does not suffer from limitations on GMOs or the use of certain products. Organic farming does not follow the same specifications in Eastern Europe and France. In parallel with the planned ban on glyphosate, the import of soybean and maize is increasing through free trade agreements. Soybeans and maize from GMO plants on which glyphosate is spread directly (increasing the amount of residues), on lands resulting from deforestation.
Consumer expectations on these issues are not always accompanied by consistent changes in behavior. Habits created over the last forty years (having fruits and vegetables of all countries, in any season, with irreproachable color and appearance, for an always lower price) are complicated to change. Like vaccines, the safety we take for granted makes us doubt the relevance of certain additives (eg nitrites, added to prevent botulism bacteria, listeriosis or salmonellosis).
In view of this, a necessary evolution of agricultural practices will have to take place.
It is said that the agricultural sector is slow to change. However, we are wrong about the causes of this slowness. It is not about the lack of will or entrepreneurship of farmers. They have not waited for the government’s recommendations to adapt, to look for new ways of doing things, as evidenced by the initiatives of organic, agro-ecological, permaculture or agroforestry systems.
What is slow to change is the soil and the cropping system. It takes several years to change a soil, or to switch from one system to another. Similarly, it takes several seasons to test a new practice and find out if it is effective. Indeed, between apprenticeship in implementation and climatic hazards (drought one year, flood the next), one can not validate the practice over a single year.
Moreover, when a farm is in debt, bearing heavy financial burdens (wages, machinery, plant protection products, fertilizers, energy), it is normal that the first character trait that expresses itself is prudence.
We dream of technological solutions that would miraculously solve each problem one by one. In fact, digital, agronomic and even economic innovation is not lacking. For example, in the face of the problem of phosphorus, the use of mycorrhiza can be rightly seen as a miracle solution.
However, it would be naïve to believe that technology alone will solve all the problems without the need for consumer behavior, regulation, and farming practices to adapt.
What practices to promote?
It is complex to define what characterizes a good practice. Is it its ecological character? Is it economic, improved performance? Is it sanitary? Consumption of water, energy?
On the other hand, it is clear that in the next 10 or 20 years, few people know in what context we will have to feed ourselves. Resilience, this ability to adapt to changing production conditions (climate, pests, …), will become a guiding principle. It is generally synonymous with variety (cultures, but also systems), and simplicity. A resilient agriculture will necessarily be the result of many winning practices in some contexts, and losing in others, but globally able to feed us.
We believe that the agriculture of tomorrow will be composed of multiple systems, that to shape it, everyone will put his paw and his innovation (weeding between the vines with sheep or hens? What kind of hedges for which plot size? To transplant the rice plants after 8 days instead of 30? Put walnut trees over apple trees?).
We believe above all that through collaboration, exchange on techniques and feedback, powerful new ideas can emerge.
We are convinced that the agricultural world is ready to take up this challenge, and that there is no more passionate than a farmer when it comes to imagining new ways of doing his job.
We are certain that the agricultural world is ready to change, to testify, to learn and to exchange, as soon as it is given the means to do so, on the basis of trust and benevolence, rather than preconceived ideas and defiance.
We believe that technical solutions, whatever their nature, are just tools. What matters is the purpose and the way of using these solutions.
Our goal is therefore to facilitate the sharing of all the practices and innovations that allow and will allow agriculture to be more efficient and more respectful of nature, and its resources which are in essence limited.