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Ethical and Sustainable Food

Ethical and Sustainable Food

The connection between ecology and thermodynamics of dissipative systems makes us understand how human activities, their economy, social systems and, certainly not least, the way of producing food, will have to gradually realign or, if we want, synchronize with the laws of nature. The assumption of a liberal and capitalist economy, of unlimited growth, detached from these criteria, is a utopia, conducted for too long, no longer viable.
For this reason, to produce food, fibre, services, etc., according to the assumptions mentioned, agricultural models must be reconverted taking into account the energy aspects linked to the primary productivity of ecological and therefore also agroecological systems.
We have underlined how ecological systems, whether natural or artificial (built by man), are energy systems that respond to the laws of thermodynamics and that these principles must be applied to the entire agri-food system, seen both in its complexity and in its unity.
Such a revision of the system obviously cannot fail to have significant repercussions on the organizations and production systems of the agricultural companies themselves, in the agroecological direction, which therefore involves the entire production structure and offering of their services.
This assumption obviously represents a factor of notable change in agronomic and cultivation logic which will increasingly tend to determine a transformation not only of production systems but also of the relationships between them and the users of agricultural products and services.
The basic principles on which agroecology is based, in this sense, do not only involve the production and organization of farm systems but the entire framework of the agri-food system and social models and their organisations.
Obviously, the theoretical part of this broader energetic-productive-organizational vision must gradually be followed by a research system that delves into and develops biodiversified production systems, interconnected both from an energetic, productive and social point of view, considering that, by now, research has always It is more evident that systems based on biodiversity are more stable, while those based on intensive agriculture are increasingly less stable (Dardonville M. et al. 2022).
However, the ecological reorganization of agricultural companies also involves the recovery and revaluation of the genetic heritage, both of natural origin and created by farmers through millennia of agricultural practices.
A review of the production system which must review the principle of unit yields, on which corporate systems have often been specialized and monocultural, with low biodiversity, excessively linked to the need for external inputs of synthetic substances, often necessary to restore fertility or for the control of pathogens or unwanted species.
Among other things, this production scenario is strongly linked to an energy system of fossil origin that cannot be foreseen over time; Furthermore, this energy model has significantly impoverished the capacity of agricultural systems which have often been depleted of the ecological services provided by biodiversity (insects, pollinators, fauna, plants, energy exchanges, microbiological, etc.) with a consequent loss of resilience of agricultural systems -silvo-pastoral.
The fossil energy system, necessary for the functioning of companies run with specialized systems, has, in recent decades, gradually replaced that of ecosystems to the point of creating an alternative model, totally detached from the principles and rules of ecology, altering the balance of entire habitats .
The consequence is that the drift from ecological principles and their energetic and biochemical structures has required a growing need for all those inputs which, ordinarily, were instead provided in nature.
Control systems, feedback, fertilizers, water supplies, air, soil, etc. have been involved and often replaced by alternative processes and techniques, increasingly requiring a need for replacement materials or techniques which often originate or are created with the aid of fossil-derived materials or energy.
An increasingly close link has been established between the agricultural process and the fossil system, to the point of degenerating the former and putting the latter in crisis.
Furthermore, the comparison between various field experiences indicates that non-renewable energy efficiency is greater in organic agriculture, while the consumption of this type of energy is lower (Alonso A.M., Guzmán G.J. 2010).
Suffice it to say that the modern agricultural system is one of the major consumers of extracted minerals, both for the energy and material needs of agricultural companies (fuels, metals, raw materials, etc.) and for the restoration of the fertility of soils subjected to non-renewable biochemical model (chemical fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, hormones, growth regulators, etc.).
It has been known for years that the extraction of minerals and metals cannot continue indefinitely and will become increasingly less convenient before the actual exhaustion of the mines. A special section of the journal Nature Geoscience, dedicated to economic geology, has already traced, in recent years, a picture of the most complex issues, outlining the solutions to get out of the impasse, which mainly aim at rationalizing the exploitation of raw materials, recycling and the use of new extractive technologies but also, especially in the agricultural field, a different (agroecological) way of understanding the production of food and ecosystem services.
The inevitable depletion of mineral reserves was a topic brought to the attention of scholars and public opinion by the famous 1972 book, the so-called “Report on the Limits to Development”, commissioned by the Club of Rome from scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Since then, various studies have analyzed the timing and methods of the depletion of raw material stocks, predicting in many cases that world production of minerals must reach a peak value and then gradually decrease, as the difficulties of reaching the metalliferous veins will make it the activity is increasingly less convenient from an economic point of view.
Among other things, the production of minerals is highly concentrated in certain geographical areas; for example: 80 percent of platinum comes from South Africa, while 30 percent of copper comes from Chile. This concentration exposes the risk of interruption to the global supply of crucial materials in the event of regional political crises, posing a serious problem in very structure of society and its geopolitical balance.
An interesting contribution, which more closely concerns the agricultural sector, comes from Michael Obersteiner, researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the Ecosystem Services and Management Program, in Laxenburg, Austria. In this study M. Obersteiner, together with other colleagues, analyzed the problem of the availability of phosphorus, an essential element for the fertilization of soils and therefore for the production of food, and lately also of biofuels (Obersteiner M. et al. 2013 ).
Most of the phosphorus is in fact extracted from sedimentary phosphorite deposits, and with current consumption rates it will be exhausted within a period of time varying between 40 and 400 years. However, well before actual depletion, the price of phosphorus is expected to rise to unacceptable levels, precisely for the nations that need it most. Suffice it to say that in 2008 the price of phosphorus increased 1.5 times faster than any other raw material for agriculture when China decided to stop exporting minerals containing it.
The simple but evident conclusion reached by M. Obersteiner and his colleagues is that we are morally obliged, especially the operators of the production systems of the richest countries, to rationalize the production and consumption of phosphorus, trying to reduce the waste, and increasing the recycling of food waste, so as to keep prices at levels accessible even to low-income countries.
Furthermore, the notable decline in fauna (particularly avifauna) of natural and agricultural ecosystems in recent decades has led to a lack of the supply of substances, such as guano, organic substance, etc., which contributed to constantly restoring their fertility.
In short, the criterion with which production yields were increased by using this fertilizer, as well as other external factors, did not take into account a long-term sustainable model, laying the foundations for a major global food crisis over the years if no action is taken. concrete policies for the reorganization of the agri-food system and its techniques.
Similar principles can be applied to all the other inputs used today on farms, such as nitrogen, potassium and other elements or for the often irrational mechanization of many production systems and the use of non-renewable resources, at least in the short-medium term such as water, air, soil, etc.
The solution to this apparently unsolvable problem lies in bringing the food production systems and all the ecological services that future agricultural companies can provide within a cyclical energy and use of materials model that is suitable to the principles adopted in general by nature and specifically by ecosystems.
This transition will have to take place by identifying a balance between human and ecological needs; in fact, so-called industrial agriculture is responsible for the four great environmental crises that the planet is facing: the mass extinction of species, climate change, land degradation and the water crisis (Shiva V., Leu A . 2019).
In summary, and for the benefit of greater systematicity of the topic, we can summarize what will be the main aspects that will involve the transition in the years to come.
In fact, we know that agroecology is an approach to agriculture that integrates ecological and social principles in food production. Its goal is to create sustainable production systems that preserve the health of ecosystems, promote biodiversity and respect the well-being of agricultural communities.
This is why agroecology is based on principles and practices that differ from the conventional model of industrial agriculture, as reported below in its fundamental principles:
1. Crop diversification: agroecology promotes crop diversity as a means to reduce disease risk, improve resource use efficiency and increase the resilience of agroecosystems;
2. crop rotation: crop rotation helps prevent soil depletion and the proliferation of specific plant parasites and diseases. This system reduces dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides;
3. Soil conservation agriculture: Agroecology promotes practices that reduce soil erosion, such as the use of plant covers, terracing and minimal tillage. This improves soil fertility and reduces environmental impact;
4. rational use of water resources: agroecology encourages sustainable irrigation practices that reduce water waste, such as drip irrigation, micro-irrigation and the use of water conservation techniques;
5. Integrated Pest Management: Instead of relying on chemical pesticides, agroecology adopts natural approaches to pest management. These include some techniques such as the use of plant repellents, beneficial insects and biological control techniques;
6. biodiversity conservation: agroecology promotes the conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity, including traditional seeds and local animal breeds. This helps preserve the genetic diversity of plants and animals, reducing dependence on genetically homogeneous varieties;
7. involvement of local communities: agroecology promotes the active participation of agricultural communities in the planning and implementation of agricultural practices. This involvement fosters the social and economic resilience of communities and promotes long-term sustainability.
From this summary we can understand how the agroecology production system requires a gradual transition from intensive and chemical-dependent monocultures towards more diversified and sustainable agricultural systems. It also requires greater cooperation between farmers, researchers, policymakers and consumers to promote awareness and adopt policies that support agroecology as a unique and viable agricultural model.

Guido Bissanti

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