Can Agriculture be Sustainable While Keeping the World Fed? In Conversation with Tim Benton

Agriculture is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, second only to the energy sector. It’s also a leading driver of biodiversity loss. But without agriculture, we die. How can these facts possibly be reconciled?

Some argue that agriculture needs to be pursued more intensively on less land; for others, less intensive agroecology is the only sustainable approach.

Unfortunately, given the urgency of the question, policymakers have failed to find a consensus. This is partly because the two models are based on assumptions that are rarely examined and depend on whether you believe that demand shapes supply, or supply shapes demand.

But what does the evidence say? And is there an ideal solution? And if there is, what does it mean for viticulture?

Can Agriculture Be Sustainable While Keeping the World Fed? Recorded on July 6th, 2022

Professor Tim Benton leads the environment and society program at Chatham House, a policy institute with a mission to help governments and societies to build a sustainable, secure, prosperous, and just world. Tim’s research focuses on food security and building food systems that are resilient and sustainable, working with a broader areas of ecology, natural resources and climate change impacts. He has published more than 150 academic papers, most tackling the core themes of agricultures environmental impact, and more generally how systems respond to environmental change. His most recent paper, “Sustainable agriculture and food systems, comparing contrasting and contested versions” tackles these fundamental issues.

The below transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

ARENI

What were the main motivations behind this particular paper and why is it needed at this point in time?

Tim Benton

My personal motivation is that I’ve worked in this space for decades, but I was really struck at COP26 in Glasgow that despite 10 or 15 years of dialogue around food systems, all food systems got was a focus on intensifying agriculture to increase the supply with a smaller environmental footprint. Whilst broadly you can define that as sustainability, you have to make a lot of assumptions to decide that intensifying agriculture is more sustainable than doing less agriculture or producing less food. In this paper we look at the arguments for different sorts of sustainable agriculture.

I’m a scientist by background, but this is really not about science because these arguments are not based upon science. They’re based upon how you think the world works. Not the biophysical world, but the social and market world. It’s really to say, if you use the term ‘sustainable’, what do you mean? Be clear in your own mind and make it clear to your audience’s mind. Because there’s an awful lot of greenwashing in this space. Things are badged as sustainable when they’re not.

You have to make a lot of assumptions to decide that intensifying agriculture is more sustainable than doing less agriculture or producing less food. […] I’m a scientist by background, but this is really not about science because these arguments are not based upon science. They’re based upon how you think the world works. Not the biophysical world, but the social and market world.

Prof. Tim Benton

ARENI

Before we go further, there are a couple of words that are repeated throughout the paper that I thought it would be worth taking a second  to define properly. What constitutes a food system? And is wine part of a food system?

Tim Benton

The food system is the entirety of everything, from creating the inputs at one end to the production, the agriculture, harvesting, transport, processing, consumption, waste. It includes all the consequences of those decisions on people and the planet. And it also includes the actors in the system, whether they are consumers or producers.

If you allow me to digress for a second, I was giving evidence before a Select Committee the other day, talking about some of the risks to our food system. And I used this example that if before Christmas there was a worry that there weren’t going to be enough turkeys, and there was worry that there wasn’t enough carbon dioxide for stunning because a nitrogen fertilizer plant shut down, and the nitrogen fertilizer plant shut down because of energy prices, and energy rising was partly due to Putin starting to turn the taps off—is that a turkey supply chain issue?

No. It’s an issue to do with the interconnections between a whole host of supply chains that can be influenced through many different routes. The food system encompasses the relations between supply and demand—and between demand and supply. Whereas food supply chain thinking, or value chain thinking, is much more about thinking the linear steps from production to consumption. Not about whether that consumption is good or bad. It’s about the way the system works together.

ARENI

Why is it very difficult to define sustainability when it comes to agriculture now?

Tim Benton

Imagine you are comparing two ways of farming. Let’s say organic and conventional. Now, if you go onto an organic farm, you’ll find better soils, more biodiversity, probably less problems with pollution in the broad sense, but you almost always get some form of yield penalty. If you say the whole world should be organic, that directly implies you require much more land to produce the same amount than if you say the whole world should be intensively farmed in a conventional way.

The sustainability of the system as a whole depends not just on the agriculture, but on the implications of adopting that agriculture at a system-wide level. If you increase the demand for goods, you need ever more land. But say you adopted low alcohol diets; the wine market would collapse and the extra land required for organic viticulture would not necessarily be an issue at all. You’d actually be using a smaller land footprint that could go to other land uses.

It’s the sum of agriculture demand and the implications of that demand for the totality of land use and what the land use does.

The sustainability of the system as a whole depends not just on the agriculture, but on the implications of adopting that agriculture at a system-wide level.

Prof. Tim Benton

ARENI

I suppose that’s why it’s so difficult to have international policies when it comes to sustainability, because if we can’t agree on what it is, then we can’t regulate accordingly. In this paper you compare and contrast two versions. Can you tell us what version one is first?

Tim Benton

The kind of business-as-usual version. The population is growing, the world is getting richer, people want to consume more. Therefore, the demand for food goes up. If the demand goes up, the best way of saving nature is to put a fence around it.  If you’ve got a finite amount of land that you can use for agriculture, the best thing to do is to increase the productivity per hectare of that land. And that leads you to the kind of notion that sustainable agriculture is really intensifying productivity growth, but trying to do it in a way that increases the efficiency from an environmental perspective.

That version is very much around a separation of nature from agriculture, and an assumption that demand will continuously grow. Therefore you need to grow more from each part of the land that you use.

ARENI

So what we need is more technology. Genetically modified agriculture and hybrids would fit into that category of helping us to maintain or increase yields.

Tim Benton

There’s a kind of deeper, ideological assumption in the sense that our economic system is capitalism. Capitalism effectively says that if there is a limiting factor to production growth, then the answer is in technology to remove that limiting factor, to allow you to grow production.  The only way of doing this is by going beyond what we’ve done in the past. And it does lead you to think in terms of CRISPR, genetic modification etc.

I went to a wine tasting recently where one of the presenters—it was in Argentina or somewhere in Latin America—was talking about using cloud seeding to reduce the risks that come from over-exposure to heat. That is a technological solution to mitigate the risks from climate change. But if adopted on a large scale, who knows what kind of climatic impacts it would have.

ARENI

Can we get into the criticisms of those assumptions? One key assumption is that if we intensify more, we’ll be able to save more land. Is that really true?

Tim Benton

The evidence is that the more you use technology to increase yields per unit area, the more valuable that piece of land becomes because it becomes more profitable. In areas where there is relatively weak land governance, which includes a lot of the global south, the intensification of agriculture provides an added incentive to chop down the rainforest next door. Rather than creating the conditions where nature is preserved, it often creates the conditions where nature is converted. This is known as something called the Jevons Paradox after a British economist of the 19th century, William Jevons, who pointed out that if you made coal fired power stations more efficient, you should expect to use less coal. But what happens is you make energy cheaper, demand for energy goes up, and you use more coal. The argument is that the more we make food cheaper, the more we create more demand, the more incentives there are to expand the land area, and the more the problem gets worse.

A minister in Indonesia said to me, “Tim, the thing you got to realise is that a piece of rainforest doesn’t contribute to our economy. It supports a few indigenous people, but it doesn’t contribute to our economy. If we chop that down and turn it into a palm oil plantation, we get a lot of income.”

The more we make food cheaper, the more we create more demand, the more incentives there are to expand the land area, and the more the problem gets worse.

Prof. Tim Benton

ARENI

What is version two?

Tim Benton

So the second version effectively starts with the assumption that demand itself is a variable.

ARENI

We don’t have to produce more food just because there are more people.

Tim Benton

Exactly. In Europe, over two thirds of grain goes into animal feed. About a third of the feed we produce is lost. And if you look at overall ill health on a global basis, poor diets now are the major mortality and illness factor. Much of that comes from eating too many calories and too little proper food.

The more we produce cheap grain, the more people over-consume calories and the more obesity there is. If instead of saying demand is a variable outside the system determined by the number of people, you start from: what should people be eating for a healthy diet? And if people didn’t waste food, how much food would we need?

The more we produce cheap grain, the more people over-consume calories and the more obesity there is. If instead of saying demand is a variable outside the system determined by the number of people, you start from: what should people be eating for a healthy diet? And if people didn’t waste food, how much food would we need?

Prof. Tim Benton

At the moment we could easily feed, in terms of total global calorie production, between 11 and 12 billion people. But we feed most of the excess calories to cattle, or we throw it away. It’s not a matter of the number of people on the planet. It’s more about what they eat or what they’re encouraged to eat. What they’re marketed to eat, what is available in their shops. If you designed a kind of global agriculture to provide the nutritional needs of people, then you could have a situation where more agroecological practices are used, of which organic is kind of one variety.

We’ve used agriculture for so many thousands of years that there are birds and beetles and butterflies that are very much specialists evolved to live on extensive agricultural land, which agri-ecological practices mimic much better than conventional farming practices. If we ate the right amounts of the right sorts of food, we could farm in a way that was diverse, had complex rotations, had the right amounts of animal livestock for nutrient transfer, didn’t use a whole lot of pesticides. There is also space in the system for saving the woods, the forests and so on.

The critical thing about this is that we have designed policy subsidies, research agendas, trade policies, to focus on producing calories as cheaply as possible, and driving up consumption year on year. For version two you would need to change the structure of the market. You would need significant political leadership to make things work better. You’d have to change the incentives around trade. You’d have to change the incentives around people eating more of the right sort of thing. And that’s not just about putting all the pressure on consumers to make better decisions. It’s about changing the way that the overall market works, so that fruit and vegetables were more available, and cheaper ultra-processed foods were less available and more expensive. If we remove the subsidies from grain production on a global basis, it would not only make ultra-processed foods more expensive. It would make cattle feed more expensive.

The critical thing about this is that we have designed policy subsidies, research agendas, trade policies, to focus on producing calories as cheaply as possible, and driving up consumption year on year. For version two you would need to change the structure of the market. You would need significant political leadership to make things work better. You’d have to change the incentives around trade. You’d have to change the incentives around people eating more of the right sort of thing.

Prof. Tim Benton

When I first started working on advising governments, I was told—almost on my first day—that the role of government is to intervene when markets fail. We have global market failure. We can see that in the rise in obesity. We can see that in the emissions that come from the feed system driving climate change. We can see that in biodiversity loss with food systems.

Many politicians have kind of forgotten that the public interest should be at the heart of what they’re doing. You’re supposed to be doing what is good for people on the planet. There is a bit of an ideology wrapped up in all of this: the ideology of whether you leave the markets to do their own thing or the ideology about whether you should shape markets to deliver goods for people.

If you leave everything to the market, you automatically end up in version one. It is very difficult to be a version two country, because all that would happen is that your local food would get more expensive in part. And you would get undercut by importing stuff from other countries that would be cheaper and with a high environmental footprints. This is why it’s a systemic problem.

If we ate the right amounts of the right sorts of food, we could farm in a way that was diverse, had complex rotations, had the right amounts of animal livestock for nutrient transfer, didn’t use a whole lot of pesticides. There is also space in the system for saving the woods, the forests and so on.

Prof. Tim Benton

ARENI

I read a couple of times that you don’t really like that expression “farmers feeding the planet”. Why?

Tim Benton

Because it’s often been co-opted by large scale agriculture to justify the political power. The power of the farming lobby in Europe is very strong and there is still a notion that productivity is the number one thing that the farming lobby should do.

ARENI

Let’s say we go to version two and decide to encourage a healthy diet. How can we define the healthiness between crops?  

Tim Benton

What has emerged over the last decade is that a healthy diet would be one which is primarily rich in fruit and vegetables, with a relatively small proportion of animal-sourced foods, and lots of protein coming from plants. Very little sugar, very little salt, whole grains rather than processed.

And then if you ask, “is that healthy diet also more sustainable?” The answer is yes. If everyone in the world were to eat a healthy diet, it would have a significantly lower environmental footprint.

ARENI

If we go towards version two, shaping demand based on what’s healthy, surely wine might not be one of the number one priority to actually use resources? Is there a scenario where it’s decided that wine grapes are not a priority for land use?

Tim Benton

I don’t think so because you know, because we’re living in a world that’s very volatile. And to deal with volatility, you need diversity of crops, diversity of products. If you take the notion that health and wellbeing should be first, then alcoholic drinks play a role in wellbeing, moderate amounts of drinking is not a bad thing. Moderate amounts of production of alcoholic drinks is not a bad thing. Of course it then comes down to the issue of who decides what is moderate and what if somebody wants to drink themselves to death or what if your industry markets wines and creates the kind of message who induce people to think that it’s cool to over drink or whatever, then where is the kind of the broad sense regulation to stop that happening?

The way that it’s often articulated in the climate space or the biodiversity space is that we should internalize the externalities. So all of the external costs should be put into the cost of producing or the cost of buying the food or drink in the first place. I’ve argued in several papers that we should be incorporating healthcare costs into our food pricing. And if you take that notion with alcohol as well, it means including the environmental costs and healthcare costs in the pricing. Then you are not creating a good in your sector that somebody else has to pay for. It is a matter of you paying in advance for the damage that you are causing.

ARENI

One other thing about version two that’s always scares me a bit is the rising price of fruit and vegetables. Meat has fallen out of fashion, but suddenly good fruit and vegetables are so expensive.

Tim Benton

We did some modeling a couple of years ago that indicated that if you took the subsidies, the 600 billion of subsidies that largely go onto grain production at the moment, and put them on fruit and vegetables, you would make vegetables more available and cheaper, and you would make grain and the products from grain, including animals, more expensive. And because we’ve designed this system since the Second World War based on grains and calories and not based on nutrition, we haven’t invested in cold chains. We haven’t invested invested enough in storage facilities. We haven’t invested enough in the agricultural science of growing fruits and vegetables in the way that we have in terms of the major large commodity crops. And so fruit and vegetables are more expensive because they’re always the niche product.

ARENI

That’s also an argument for fine wine. Wine as a commodity is likely to follow version one. And then there’s a fine wine ecosystem that gravitates towards version two quite heavily. When we talk about wine, we use one word, but it’s actually two.

Where do you see us in Europe or in the USA going in the next few years? Will we see the massive change that we need for version two to happen?

Tim Benton

There are a number of big drivers. One is climate change—the extreme heat, extreme rainfall. We are seeing change on a daily basis and as climate costs mount it disrupts supply chains and creates volatility in markets, which changes the investment architecture obviously. Second, the ill health benefits from eating and drinking the wrong sorts of things are becoming really important. In the UK we spend about 40% of tax revenue on a health system that is increasingly challenged by the cost of obesity and the comorbidities associated with obesity. At some point governments will be faced with needing to switch to more preventative healthcare rather than curative healthcare and will have to put pressure on changing diets.

You’ve also got the biodiversity crisis. Many of my colleagues who work on diseases would say strongly that the more that you change land use and the more you change,the way that animal species mix (together), the more likely you are to get new diseases. If you add on top of what the Ukraine war is doing, it’s bringing up the fragility of our global food system.

We are in a time where the structure of the market and the benefits of globalization and the profit-making ability of global trade will change. And I would not be surprised if the Ukraine war forces governments to think in new ways about the need for the food system transformation to make it more resilient for national security perspectives.

We might be at one of those critical points in time where we have two very clear directions to travel ahead of us. If we choose one, we lock ourselves into long term climate change. The other might be forced on us by the geopolitical changes.

We might be at one of those critical points in time where we have two very clear directions to travel ahead of us. If we choose one, we lock ourselves into long term climate change. The other might be forced on us by the geopolitical changes.

Prof. Tim Benton

ARENI

In all of this, what’s our role as citizens and consumers?

Tim Benton

I work quite closely with the livestock sector and there is a clear route in terms of producing less but better. So if people are going to eat less meat, make it meat that comes with better quality.

Yes, you can make a difference by choosing in a supermarket, but your real power is as a citizen. To create the conditions that politicians recognize that people want to live in a world that is safe. One where the environment is protected because our long-term future relies on it.


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