Planetary boundaries and the global food system: what about the farmers?

Louisa Jane Di Felice, Mario Giampietro, Tarik Serrano-Tovar

Planetary boundaries are usually framed in terms of natural constraints on the ecosystem, but constraints linked to society’s organization, especially our workforce, shouldn’t be ignored.

Planetary boundaries have become a popular concept in sustainability, as a way to show the amount of stress that human activities and lifestyles are putting on the earth’s ecosystem. In 2009, a study conducted by a team of researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Center identified nine planetary boundaries of the earth system, ranging from ocean acidification and climate change to fresh-water use and land system change. The goal of the study was to define a “safe operating space for humanity”. Scientists worldwide agree that the EU’s current way of living does not fall within such a “safe operating space”: recently, over 15,000 researchers signed an article warning humanity against “the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels, and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption”.

Agriculture, as a big emitter of greenhouse gases and user of land, is central to boundary debates. It is also a complex topic for researchers and policymakers alike: looking at food systems from different perspectives shows how their complexity cannot be easily modelled or reduced to a single indicator of sustainability. Food systems are shaped both by production and consumption patterns, and these are in turn shaped by a variety of factors, which are constantly co-evolving, therefore making their evolution incredibly hard to predict. For example, food requirements are determined, among other drivers, by population structure and size, dietary preferences and culture. Untangling the mess of possible relations determining how the EU produces and consumes food is almost impossible, but in terms of sustainability some sort of simplification is needed in order to determine what possible boundaries will affect future food systems.

These simplifications, leading to assessments revolving around natural and ecosystem boundaries linked to agriculture, are valuable and necessary. This holds true not only from an academic perspective: the simplification of ecosystem constraints to planetary boundaries is also very powerful for communication purposes. However, while they might not convey strong images of glaciers melting and species going extinct, it is also important to consider the boundaries that arise when analyzing how society is structured, and how this structure shapes the way food is produced. In this sense, boundaries can be viewed not only as external to societies, depending on environmental constraints, but also as internal to the way we live, particularly in relation to how people use their time. In the EU, for example, if one looks at the total amount of hours available to the population, labour statistics show that 70% of working hours are used in the service sector. A very small percentage is allocated to food production, meaning that productivity must remain high. The internal societal and external environmental boundaries are, of course, related: there is a link between the small amount of work Europeans put into agriculture, and the consequences it has on the environment. Running an agricultural system with very few farmers means that manual labour is substituted with machines running on fossil fuels, and that most food is imported. The EU, in fact, imports almost four times the amount of food as China does, even though it has double the amount of arable land per capita. So the issue isn't that the EU doesn't have enough land to produce its own food, but that it doesn't have enough people willing to do it. 

The situation worsens when considering future trends: the EU has an aging population structure, which will lead to a reduced labour force and more people to be supported in the coming years. The diet is also changing towards a higher consumption of meat products. And yet, most people work in services. This is the famous service economy, but looking at the other side of the coin, by also considering imports, quickly shows how the service economy is little more than an import economy – the EU does not run our society on services, but it outsources its basic food and energy requirements to other countries.  So not only is the EU importing food, but it is importing food based on cheap and time intensive labour. This means that if the whole world were to produce and consume food the way the EU does, not only would it require more land, water and energy, but also (and crucially) more people willing to work as farmers. This was the norm in the past, but new norms are quick to re-emerge, and the notion of farming is so distant from the majority of the EU population that it has become imbued with an old-timey nostalgia - one that has little grounding in the reality of the business. From labour statistics, the amount of hours of agricultural work embodied in the food imported by EU is of around 80 hours per capita per year.  This quantity doubles the hours of agricultural work used in domestic production within the EU, of around 40 hours per capita per year. In simple terms, this means that the food imported by the EU needs a lot more work than what Europeans put into their own agricultural sector.

Discussions of the classic planetary boundaries of land use, water use, and other ecosystem constraints related to agriculture should run alongisde conversations about the way society is organized and functions. If not, by viewing agriculture only from an environmental perspective, one runs the risk of forgetting about who is producing the food. In fact, farmers are often left out of the equation when it comes conversations about sustainability and agriculture -  policymakers and  academics talk about climate smart agriculture, sustainable food systems, green farming and so on, but little mention is given to how these innovative systems will affect the labour fource, specifically farmers and rural communities. This is a big issue for Europe: a recent report by the EU showed how less than 6% of farmers are below the age of 35, and a worryingly high 30% are 65 and over. No matter how green, circular or climate-smart agriculture becomes, such advances will be useless if there is no one to take care of the land and little regard for the preservation of rural communities. And moving towards a service economy by outsourcing food production to the rest of the world may work at the EU level, but looking at the problem from a global scale leaves little room for manoeuvre, and reveals societal planetary boundaries that may be just as pressing as the ecosystem ones.

For more on whether adding agricultural land has become a burden on Europe, watch this video taken from the 2017 UAB MOOC on socio-ecological systems held by Mario Giampietro.