Current dominant thinking on food security treats nature like a machine Brian Fagan

The push for more intensive agriculture to feed a growing global population risks ecological “boom and bust” according to four of the UK's leading ecologists, writing for Friends of the Earth’s Big Ideas Change the World project

In a damning critique, they argue that the current dominant thinking on food security treats nature like a machine, demanding ever-increasing productivity, which damages the long term health of ecosystems. As a result, the vital services ecosystems provide, including food production, pollination, climate regulation and flood protection, are vulnerable to collapse.

Lead author of the No Dominion Over Nature paper, Professor Mark Huxham from Edinburgh Napier University, said there was a need to rethink current approaches, including the assumptions made about future populations.

“The food we eat doesn’t appear out of thin air, it comes from ecosystems; ecosystems that we are currently abusing through intensive monoculture farming. There are many complex reasons why so many people around the world go to bed hungry, but unless we manage our ecosystems sustainably we risk condemning billions to a boom and bust in food production. And unless we address food waste, obesity and population growth, the problem will be exacerbated.” 

The authors find that efforts to manage ecosystems sustainably while increasing agricultural productivity are currently being hampered by the privatisation of knowledge and a shortage of public funding for international research.  They argue that we need an open source approach to science and technology to develop a shared understanding of how we can manage ecosystems – integrating food production with other services such as watershed and climate regulation in a “mosaic farming” approach.

Professor Huxham added: “Open access to science and technology can play an important role in improving the way in which we manage food production, but the idea that technology alone is the answer is dangerously misleading. We need a fundamental change of approach that recognises the value of the different services ecosystems provide. Our land and oceans need to be managed to allow food production to happen alongside other services in a more integrated mosaic approach.”

Despite the bleak outlook, the authors point to examples of a more sustainable approach to agriculture, such as the Chinese Shengtai Nongye programme, which takes a broad approach to land management using agroecological engineering.

Mike Childs, Coordinator of Friends of the Earth’s Big Ideas Change the World project, said: “Big Ideas is all about bringing fresh thinking to the challenges the world faces – and this paper provides a much-needed counter-blast to our current approaches to farming and food. The prevailing assumption that we can treat the planet as a machine that will continue producing more and more food is putting future populations at risk. We need to develop a more sustainable resilient approach to managing ecosystems, and take responsibility for the natural systems we rely on.”  

Big Ideas Change the World is a three-year research project run by Friends of the Earth which seeks to spark thought and debate to find real-world solutions to the key challenges faced in the 21st century.