environment

Focusing on the need for farming change

The first woman to stand for director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says she wants to transform how richer countries farm animals, though she kept clear of suggesting any decrease in the global herd, writes Eloise Gibson.

French civil servant Catherine Geslain-Laneelle is the European Union’s candidate to lead the international body coordinating efforts to fight hunger, which Europe hasn’t led in 40 years. She’s also the former head of the European Food Safety Authority and the first woman candidate in the FAO’s 73-year history – a job she’ll compete for with five other contenders, including one from China. (China has never held the FAO directorship).

The FAO brought global attention to the climate impact of animal farming in a 2006 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, which was attacked by the U.S. meat industry for the methods it used to compare animal emissions with transport. The food-focused body has since embarked on a cross-country effort to agree on how to measure dairy, meat and other animal products’ carbon footprints. More recent reports – including one from the EAT-Lancet commission – have recommended people eat more vegetables in countries with the highest meat intakes, to boost global health and slim the environmental damage from farming.  

Asked about the future of livestock, Geslain-Laneelle told Pacific journalists in Paris last week that the way many farmers feed their animals needs to change.

Right now France imports soy to help feed its cattle, but the nation has been using E.U. subsidies to nudge its farmers to grow more protein crops within its borders for people and animals, French Ministry for Food and Agriculture officials told journalists.

Asked about the sustainability of feeding cows imported food that people could eat, Geslain-Laneelle said farming needed to change – although she stressed the importance of small-scale animal farming to people in countries with poverty and poor nutrition.

To feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050: “We will need to produce more vegetable protein and more animal protein,” she said.

But while the FAO hopeful didn’t foresee a decrease in animal protein, the methods and, possibly, species favoured by farmers in wealthy countries currently would need to change, she said. “We need to make more effective use of pasture…and remember there are different kinds of livestock that are less demanding (than cows),” she said. “We are talking about significant changes but we need to make change gradually and work with farmers, not against them.”

Animals such as pigs and chickens produce less greenhouse gases per kilo of meat than cattle, which require more food and water to make the same amount of meat. On the other hand, cows can eat grass in regions where little else will grow (though this can also make them burp more methane).

Geslain-Laneelle said modern food production was a success, because farmers were growing vastly more food than before, but the food available to people had been driven by supply, not considerations of what people needed to eat for their health.

“Maybe we need to look at what we need to eat to be healthy, which would diversify the agriculture sector”.

Other priorities on her list were cutting food waste, and creating better-paying food-producing jobs in developing countries, particularly in poor, rural areas.

“I’m not a pessimistic person but we need to acknowledge the situation is serous. Hunger is on the rise,” she said. Climate change would make matters considerably worse, she added: “There is no region of the world where farmers and fishers cannot see the effects of climate change already.”

Geslain-Laneelle plans to visit the Pacific Islands in April to seek support for her FAO bid.

Meanwhile her country, France, is trying to shift its enormous food production system towards what the government calls “agroecology”, using less pesticides and fertiliser and re-using waste.

France is Europe’s biggest producer of cereals, owns the largest European cattle herd (19 million) and has dedicated more than half of its land to agriculture. Unlike New Zealand, it has access to generous European Union farming subsidies, which it can use to shift its agriculture to more sustainable methods.

Officials from the French Ministry for Food and Agriculture told journalists France was using direct aid payments from the E.U., known as “protein subsidies”, to encourage French farmers to grow more vegetable protein, including pulses, soy, beans, legumes and fodder crops, for both people and cows to eat.

Worth a total of €870 million a year for livestock farming alone, these EU subsidies can amount to tens of thousands of euros per farm, and considerably more in some cases. EU payments had been criticised for pushing higher production at the expense of the environment, however the EU has progressively re-jigged them to foster more sustainable practices, the officials said. Among other things, the payments now oblige farmers to grow least three different crops and meet minimum standards for greening their farms with trees and hedges.

Before her FAO bid, Geslain-Laneelle helped devise the French government’s ‘4 per 1,000’ initiative, which aims to boost carbon storage in agricultural soils around the world by 0.4 percent each year to slow climate change. While storing carbon in soil has significant potential in countries with severely depleted soils, New Zealand soil scientists and farmers say New Zealand’s soil is already high in carbon in many places.

In the EU, common climate policy dictates that all member nations must reduce food-growing emissions. Agriculture makes 19 percent of France’s total emissions (including energy consumption for farming), mostly in the form of methane and nitrous oxide, giving farming about the same share of emissions as the French energy sector.

In 2014 the French government passed a law promoting agro-ecology, encouraging farmers to try more sustainable, semi-organic methods. At first the concept tanked with farmers, who were reportedly suspicious of the “ecology” push. Five years later, many farmers are trying different ways of farming, although only a minority have shifted their habits.

Some of the methods would be very familiar to farmers in New Zealand – such as using manure to fertilise crops, using less nitrogen fertiliser, and attempts to breed less-gassy cows. But there are also some French-specific ideas, like producing purified methane gas from vats of manure and slurry and using it to power school buses.

In an effort to foster more grass-roots support for greener farming, agriculture ministry staff have been helping small groups of about 15 farmers organise trials of new methods. The projects are suggested and arranged by farmers. One small group of farms tried growing native plants between rows of grape vines to keep out weeds and negate the need to spray weed killer. (The trial was a success, and neighbours liked it because the vineyards looked prettier with less bare earth, officials say).

One official – who’d worked on the effort, but wasn’t authorised to be quoted by name –  said that, unlike five years ago, everyone in the agri-sector now “accepts there’s a big need for change.” She added that letting farmers take the lead on ecology projects had been “hard for everybody at first”.

The next step, according to the French government’s written strategy, is to promote and advertise the so-called “agro-ecological” food, and, possibly, support it directly using government procurement. In the process, they hope, it will expand from a minority of farms to thousands of others in the vast food-producing region.
 
*New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, will release a report on Tuesday on the treatment of animal greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sinks in climate policy. It may cover strictly to curb methane, how to lower nitrous oxide more quickly, and what role carbon sinks such as forests and soils could play.
 
* Eloise Gibson was in France as a guest of the French foreign Ministry.
 

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