Adapting agriculture to a changing environment requires major structural changes. The challenge is that there is often no consensus on solutions or even the root causes of the problem. Collaboration among stakeholders is critical to ensure that as many voices as possible are involved in shaping the solutions and supporting their implementation.
While agriculture is a necessity for food security, it also poses a threat to our environment. Modern agriculture plays a major role in disruptions to nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, the decline of biodiversity, land-use changes, and greenhouse gas emissions. These issues are interconnected, and agriculture is closely linked to human rights and justice.
However, agriculture also presents significant opportunities. It can help restore nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, create and revive biodiversity, and sequester carbon back into the soil. Solutions often involve positive synergies, as improving soil health, for example, promotes all the aforementioned processes. Climate change also brings new opportunities for Finnish agriculture, although it comes with increased risks. With rising temperatures, we can cultivate further north and expand the range of crop varieties. However, seizing these opportunities requires that farmers have financial readiness and the ability to flexibly change their practices. Land-use changes often involve conflicting interests.
Why do we need a food transition?
Modern agriculture evolved during the ‘green revolution,’ a period when agriculture became mechanized, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were introduced, and food production quantities increased while the need for labor in agriculture decreased. Larger yields also facilitated population growth. Now, especially with the deterioration of soil fertility in agricultural lands and climate change, the productivity of agriculture is under threat. The EU SOIL OBSERVATORY [https://esdac.jrc.ec.europa.eu/esdacviewer/euso-dashboard/] website illustrates how much of the world is suffering from deteriorating soil conditions. Currently, over 60% of the world is affected by activities seriously degrading the soil, while according to the European Environment Agency’s 2022 report, the impacts of climate change could make large parts of Southern Europe unsuitable for agriculture in the next 60 years.
The external inputs required by modern agriculture also pose political and food security challenges. Besides fossil fuels, phosphate, particularly used in fertilizers, is politically sensitive. The largest known phosphate reserves are in the region of Morocco and Western Sahara, with China being the largest producer of phosphorus fertilizers (see figure 1). Europe has almost no phosphate reserves or production. In fact, Europe’s only phosphate mine is located in Siilinjärvi, Finland. More information about the challenges related to phosphate fertilization can be found on the ‘European Sustainable Phosphorus’ platform.”
Figure 1: Global Phosphate Rock Production Capacity in 2022. Source: U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2022 (USGS, 2022).
The Vicious Circle of Modern Agriculture
Several factors have contributed to the deterioration of soil fertility in cultivated land, including soil compaction and plowing caused by the mechanization of agriculture, the loss of soil biodiversity due to pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and the monoculture of crops. Soil research as a living ecosystem has traditionally been considered unnecessary for modern agriculture. However, it is now recognized that without a healthy soil ecosystem, modern agriculture cannot yield significant harvests, especially in unpredictable conditions caused by climate change. The challenge lies in breaking the cycle (see Figure 2), where changing old habits is painful. Modern agriculture has produced higher yields on healthy soil but has gradually degraded soil fertility over time. Eventually, yields have decreased, but abandoning modern agricultural methods would mean almost no harvest at all due to the poor condition of the soil. On the other hand, improving soil fertility requires farmers to be patient and often results in lower yields, with benefits coming only after a delay. The political support system and the food market are structured to encourage maintaining high yields, with other goals considered secondary.
Figure 2: The Vicious Circle of Modern Agriculture
In this example, we can observe how the relationship between modern agriculture and the population leads to population growth, which, in turn, reduces yields. This reduction in yields incentivizes an increase in modern agriculture to boost harvests. The connection between modern agriculture and soil health is delayed, and thus, it has not been noticed in time. The decline in soil health, causing a deterioration in yields, encourages the use of more fertilizers, pesticides, etc., to increase harvest levels. Feedback loop thinking can be used to understand complex problems. The plus (+) and minus (–) signs in the image indicate the nature of the relationship between different parts of the system, whether it is reinforcing or weakening. B and R refer to ‘balancing’ and ‘reinforcing,’ indicating the type of process the feedback loop leads to, either a balanced situation or a self-reinforcing loop.
Farmers Facing a Difficult Situation
Farmers are being asked to take responsibility for their unsustainable production practices. However, farmers themselves feel they are producing what is demanded of them and find the requirements imposed on them to be impossible. It is challenging for farmers to produce something for which there are no subsidies and markets. European agricultural policy (CAP) has attempted to mitigate the environmental impacts of agriculture but has not succeeded. The previous CAP mainly increased bureaucratic work for farmers, and there is little optimism regarding the recently enacted CAP. The struggles of primary producers can be seen in LUKEN’s economic outlook for agriculture and forestry in 2023, revealing that agriculture has not been consistently profitable throughout the 2000s. Livestock farming, in particular, suffers from poor profitability. Climate change also increases the vulnerability of agriculture. Primary producers have the weakest position in the food chain, and consumers are often unwilling or unable to pay the price for sustainably produced food. Meanwhile, a monitoring system for sustainable production methods would increase costs and further burden farmers. Collaboration is also challenging in some cases due to preconceptions and a lack of trust between farmers, researchers, and officials. However, to achieve a food revolution, we need close collaboration among various factors. It is also crucial to ensure the fairness of the food revolution so that the most vulnerable are not deprived of their human rights.”
Opportunities and Challenges of Regenerative Agriculture
In Finland, new, more sustainable cultivation methods are already in use. For instance, the Baltic Sea Action Group (BSAG) supports regenerative agriculture in the country. Regenerative agriculture lacks an official definition, but in Finland, it is seen as a comprehensive approach aiming to promote the fertility and health of cultivated lands, prevent climate change, protect biodiversity and water systems, manage water resources, use resources efficiently, recycle nutrients, and ensure economic viability. However, BSAG emphasizes the context-specific nature of regenerative agriculture, acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The practices of regenerative agriculture can be explored through the BSAG Regenerative Agriculture e-school. Nevertheless, as of now, there is no monitoring system for regenerative agriculture. The question arises whether a monitoring system is desired for regenerative agriculture. Besides being labor-intensive, a monitoring system may limit the flexibility of farmers in adopting context-specific solutions. On the other hand, the absence of a monitoring system means that farmers do not receive compensation in the market for more sustainable production methods, and the term can be easily used for greenwashing.
Finnish consumers have confidence in the quality of domestic food, as reflected in their purchasing decisions. However, internationally, the quality of Finnish food is not considered a given, and it may not command a higher market price without a monitoring system. Moreover, biodiversity monitoring systems based on indicators developed for Central and Southern Europe can easily discriminate against Finnish farmers who inherently have lower biodiversity due to geographical reasons. Challenges also include the complexity of monitoring systems for sustainable production, a lack of scientific knowledge, and disagreements among experts.
How to Prepare for an Imminent and Vastly Different Future?
As the potential agricultural land area increases in Finland, it is likely to face growing pressures locally, especially as agricultural challenges, particularly in Southern Europe, intensify. This could lead to land-use-related conflicts. However, seizing opportunities requires collaboration among various stakeholders, currently hindered by a lack of trust. Ensuring the sustainability and fairness of the food revolution is a significant challenge. Sanctions against primary producers, who are already in a vulnerable position, are unlikely to be helpful. Farmers need assistance and incentives to change their practices. However, higher prices can be problematic for consumers, and temporarily shifting subsidies that encourage high yields to support sustainable agriculture may pose a risk to food security. How do we secure the right of primary producers to a profitable livelihood and everyone’s right to food? Additionally, how do we design incentives for sustainable agriculture that achieve their goals? Addressing these questions requires professionals skilled in leading collaboration and managing conflicts.
Author: Pinja Pöytäniemi
I am a sustainable agriculture agronomist and a master’s student in natural resource management at the Technical University of Munich. My vision is to transition to sustainable agriculture and a food revolution while ensuring fairness. That’s why I chose Akordi as my internship to learn more about building collaboration and participatory decision-making.