Renewable Matter # 22 / July-August

A Global Affair

by Emanuele Bompan

Coca production, in the Putumayo department of Colombia, is currently at some of the highest levels seen in recent history. The process of illegal crop substitution with cash cropslike cocoa and prised chillies is struggling to gain traction: coca is sold at a much higher price. 

“Without a true valorisation of agricultural production coca cannot be stopped,” explains a local small-scale farmer called Nico, when interviewed. Even if this is an extreme example, the topic of how to extract increased value (not only in economic terms) from agricultural producers is of key importance in both developing and industrialised countries. 

With very few exceptions – such as the wine sector – the agricultural sector is in the midst of an endless struggle, constantly searching for subsidies. However, it is a sector that has the potential to find new sources of revenue and that should become a protagonist in the fight against climate change and improving soil productivity, thus making up for the damage caused by a technological and hyper-specialised approach to agriculture. With another fundamental objective: guaranteeing dignified and adequately remunerated employment, in stark contrast to the recent narrative. 

Some have defined the food industry as “the largest industry in the world,” employing over one billion people everyday to grow, process, transport, market, cook, package, sell or deliver food. The resources needed to sustain this sector are huge: 50% of the planet’s inhabited land and 70% of the demand for water is absorbed by agriculture.

The environmental impacts of agriculture and livestock, cornerstones of our very existence, are huge. From carbon emissions connected with deforestation to the environmental footprint of intensive farming. At the same time direct producers (not the large brands) are unable to benefit substantially, especially in less industrialised countries. 

Is the circular economy a potential solution to these problems? This is the question that we put forth in the latest issue of Renewable Matter. How can we establish practices in farming and industrial processes that optimise the use of resources whilst generating profits at every stage, limit environmental impacts, and even operate so as to regenerate the environment?

Innovation in the chemical makeup of materials and the rediscovery of traditional knowledge, could be the key to unlocking the circular economy of food. Today we are able to generate a wide variety of products from a vineyard: wine, distillates, polyphenols, textiles and even fibres from the leaves. This is just one example from the many that are already in practice. At the same time, the rediscovery of agro-ecology and resilient plant species can protect crops and livestock from environmental and climatic shocks. It is a world that is open to discovery and involves an understanding of processes of scale (How many sub products are there? Will we have sufficient materials for a supply chain? What are the correct econometrics?); seeking more efficient models and more sustainable processes for a more resilient agriculture and food industry (like Gunter Pauli’s 3D Farming, outlined in the interview contained within these pages); studying examples of best practice; and feeding a political debate where this topic is still bubbling below the surface. 

With two pillars. Firstly, avoid using resources in the production of energy if they can be employed as food stuff. This will prevent disasters such as those caused by the boom in first generation bio-fuels, that distorted the market of staples such as corn and sugar cane, and created genuine food crises. 

Secondly, the issue of price: food has to free itself from the grip of speculation. By entering financial commodities markets (such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), not only as food produce but also as bio-matter, there is a high risk of strong price distortions and speculation tied to derived products. 

Once the right guiding principles are outlined it is down to independent research to concentrate on the quantitative and qualitative analysis of these processes, whereas for industry and agriculture the task is to innovate processes and study new solutions. Finally, designers have a responsibility to rethink and re-propose both the way in which we consume food, as well as the uses of new bio materials that will arise out of agriculture, production and food waste.

It will be down to those that like us take care of communication to reveal all this, connecting the dots and attempting to promote new ideas and even stimulating a proactive political process.  

 

 

Top image: Coke plant, Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1897. Wikimedia Commons CC0

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