The global population has never been larger, and while global population growth is leveling off (https://www.ted.com/playlists/474/the_best_hans_rosling_talks_yo go educate yourself), humanity still faces multiple enormous challenges in feeding so many hungry mouths.
Credit to https://ourworldindata.org
Global agricultural yield is now high enough that nobody needs to starve, and the most problematic situation in terms of sheer volume is simply distribution. However, the massive improvements in yield volumes have brought with them a new set of ethical challenges. Just like designer babies and bio-medically augmented humans, speedy advances in crop yield and livestock poundage and growth require immediate considerations about where to draw lines and limits.
Biodynamic agriculture is one paradigm that provides partial aid in making those decisions. Today’s post is a discussion of the clash between biodynamic, holistic agriculture, and the perceived need for advancing yield and minimising effort.
To try out a new post format I’ve invited Mona Lund Hedeager to participate in an ad-hoc interview setting, a specialist in innovation and part of the Hedeager family agro-business – centred around biodynamic principles.
Check out her take on biodynamics, progress and whether there’s a conflict.
Hvad does “biodynamic” mean to you? Why is it worth working with?
For me, it represents a lifestyle. I know that when something is marked with the Demeter-symbol (editor’s comment: The Demeter symbol marks a product as biodynamic similarly to how organic goods are marked), extra care has been taken to ensure the wellbeing of animals, environment and climate. All things that benefit humans in the long run. That’s why I see biodynamics as a positive cycle. When we watch out for the “organism” of Earth, it reaps rewards for both animals and people.
In biodynamic agriculture there’s space for diversity – so we don’t use any pesticides to kill unwanted plants and animals, and we avoid artificially provoking enhanced growth rates of specific life forms. Instead we use general-purpose fertiliser.
When working with biodynamics, you get to take part in something greater, a social responsibility. You strengthen the bond between helath, food, and humans. Oh, and bio foods are not just healthier, they’re tastier – something largely achieved through slower growth rates, packing in more taste and nutrition.
Hedeagergaard switched to fully biodynamic in 2011. Until that time, I presume you did business with commendable respect for the animals. So why the change? What differences did you see?
In 1998 we switched from conventional to organic, and in 2011 we took the next step onwards and upwards to biodynamics. The change helped us to feel more balance at the farm. A lot of the tighter regulations required to meet the aforementioned Demeter standard were in line with the values of the farm and household anyway, so it was a natural step.
Animal welfare has always been one of the driving values at the farm. Requirements like “dehorning cattle is forbidden, as it impacts the quality of life as well as the quality of milk” are really easy for us to follow. Cows simply need enough space that their horns aren’t an issue, so we simply maintain a lower population.
That means less volume and less revenue, but it’s balanced by higher margins.
When farming biodynamically, or using biodynamic principles on top of organics, the yield is reduced as compared to “conventional” agriculture. That means less edible product, and keep in mind that some regions there’s still not enough food to go around. Without a vegetarian revolution it’s impossible to convert all agriculture to biodynamics, due to a lack of space. What are your thoughts on these challenges?
My answer would be “prioritisation”.
We have experimented with our meat and we agree that the biodynamic meat is both more nutritious and tastes of more. We’re hearing the same from our customers. So we’d say that the amount required falls and the quality rises. Often, supermarket meats are fatty, or pumped up with water to make them seem larger. We don’t want pull stunts like that, we just want to focus on selling real, clean, quality product.
Does being in contact with the earth and animals influence your creative work?
As a student, it’s limited how often I get to work on the farm with earth and animals. It makes me happier to work with sustainable projects. Sustainability is a personal value for me, that I enjoy working with.
Thanks to Mona Lund Hedeager for taking time out to answer these questions and shed some light on biodynamics from the inside. Check out http://hedeager.info/ for a look at what a biodynamic farm can do with online presence.
Since our issues with feeding the population are more related to distribution that yield, we still have the choice to prioritise how we run farmlands, even though it means less yield. Combined with a more plant based diet, this approach can take us far.
Also – check out Global Agro-Science and How We’re Not Killing The Planet for more takes on earth, growth, and future.
Populations are growing exponentially, we’re going to cross the maximal yield of the earth yesterday and we can never feed the human population adequately and sustainably without entering mass caloric deficits! Agricultural capacity is simply insufficient and impossible to ethically improve. – unknown masses
Sound familiar? It’s the song of panicked environmentalists around the world, convinced that we are about to run out of resources, and that we have already crossed the threshold for what is possible – collapse is imminent, it’s a miracle the planet has not imploded!
Let’s pause, chill, and examine some perspectives on the future of farming and agriculture, and how we can overcome the challenges we face today.
Let’s begin with the assumption that global populations are skyrocketing exponentially. If this was the case, after all, the future does indeed pose many great challenges, simply managing this population growth. You may be familiar with the work of Hans Rosling, and the Gapminder project.
We live in a world of relentless change, huge migrations of people to new megacities filling soaring skyscrapers and vast slums. Ravenous appetites for fuel and food, unpredictable climate change, and all this in a world where the population is still growing! Should we be worried? Should we be scared? How to make sense of it all? – Hans Rosling
The first point addressed in the video below (Don’t Panic, The Facts About Population), is population growth. The world population has increased approximately exponentially since around the time of the industrial revolution, from 1 billion in 1800 to 7+ billion in the 21st century. However, what about the future? What about right now? Rosling bases his work on hard facts and statistics, and explains it better than anyone, so watch the video and become smarter on global population growth.
The core of it is this: Don’t panic, a cultural shift in the attitude to population growth (family, contraceptives, wealth, free time) is underway, and the curve is flattening.
For an even deeper look into the wealth and health of nations as presented by Gapminder, check out this interactive graph (it’s pretty radical): https://www.gapminder.org/world
But – even with population growth slowing down, health and wealth improving, and positive change in the world – should we sit back and expect things to just happen?
No – most certainly not. We have an obligation to examine, test, and creatively advance our society, and what better way to challenge ourselves collectively than with how to provide enough food for all of the world’s population?
Andrew Youn suggests three major levers to achieving the noble and totally achievable goal of ending world hunger and removing large portions of rural societies out of poverty and into modest prosperity for starters.
- First he notes that 50% of the worlds poorest people are farmers. Not only that, they are managing their crops sub-optimally (using bronze age tools and methodologies in many cases) with room for large gains with the right equipment, farm inputs (fertiliser comes to mind!) and education.
- Secondly and very happily, we know what needs doing to improve output. We have the tools, the blueprints, the plans and the inputs, so it’s just a matter of sharing.
- Third, and most difficult, is optimal delivery of modern agricultural technology to rural areas in far removed locations like subsaharan Africa. Watch Youn’s TED talk on the subject below, and then let us push on with ways to achieve delivery, and whether to aim for Youn’s modest delivery or much more ambitiously revolutionise global agriculture to high tech standards.
- We see the successful funding of programs like the One Acre Fund, and the democratisation of knowledge about agriculture and productivity at the basic level. People are no longer hungry, there is food to eat.
- Programs like the One Acre Fund fail in their mission – corruption, theft and general criminal behaviour undermines the profits and production of the farmers, and conditions do not improve. (This one depends largely on what else happens in parallel to wealth on a national level – if it is elevated, this outcome becomes less likely)
- We leverage the creativity of 500.000.000 people to improve agriculture globally. SAY WHAT?
In the beginning, foreign aid and non profits was giving finite resources to poor populations for consumption. Hungry? Have some bread. Cold? Here is some oil to burn.
In more recent times, initiatives have changed for the better, to focus on renewables rather than consumables, or at least consumables that last much longer. This includes initiatives like Youn’s One Acre Fund, it includes educational programs, schools, clean water in taps etc. etc.
Very recently, something else has happened though, with vast benefits and largely still untapped potential. Microfinance, investing capital in extremely poor populations, and changing the future through business and enterprise. Studies uncover measurable impact on 6 of the 8 Millennium Goals! That means Microfinance is contributing to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, and much much more.
So – why does this work? Because human creativity is the ultimate resource, and by starting enterprise and promising reward for effort, human creativity is kickstarted. Can we go further though? In the US there are way less than 5 million farmers. Is it conceivable then, that given the opportunity, the access to information and by sharing our creative space with 500 million poor farmers (as Youn states in his video we have access to), we could advance the way we pursue agriculture and farming exponentially quicker as a function of how many human minds were pouring their creativity into the project? Why stop at some fertiliser and modern yield management techniques? Why not a global intelligent farming initiative? Massive automation, intelligent irrigation, fertilisation, and hands off automated harvest? What about the agriculture of tomorrow, which we can’t properly imagine today?
- Connect – instead of just providing materials and tools, provide connectivity and access to the internet (via phone, tablet, PC). This shares our cumulative creative canvas, allowing it to expand globally instead of “locally” in the west. Non profits can do this, major philanthropy can do this, or Microfinance institutions can do this, it is in each of their interests.
- Compete – Microfinance has the advantage (for capital returns) that it is selective. You find and finance the initiatives you believe in. However, for a free competitive market, everyone must have equal opportunity to advance. So, instead of outreach for investment, Microfinance must adopt an ever more open door application policy, and an educational role. Not everyone is an entrepreneur, that will not change, but creativite output from any individual is many times a function of several complex external factors such as being physically networked, under competition and pushed to change by some external agent – among other things. Facilitate this sort of environment, and democratise the global creative canvas.
- Challenge – to rise above, to better the world not just the farm, to make new. 500 million poverty stricken human beings, 500 million potentially world altering creative inputs on how to improve yield, reduce work time, automate etc. etc. The new growth hackers of farming.
Who though? Well, western agricultural lobbies, institutes and corporations perhaps – creating competition for yourself can be bad, but expanding the rate of innovation by potentially x100, that has to be worth something, that human advancement has to be worth more items in the marketplace for you to compete with.
Reach out to One Acre Fund or a similar foundation and ask how you can help to connect people to the creative canvas, spark competition and embark on a new journey of invention!
When you have it good, it is easy to sit back and accept standstill, your steady earnings, your comfortable life. But meanwhile there are advancements to be made, and a future to be building. Be a part of it. Share this with a farmer, landowner, or awesome friend!