Highlights from the ‘Transition towards sustainable farming’ seminar

August 17, 2021

The third seminar of the EFFoST Seminar Series ‘Sustainable Food Systems: Connecting Expertise in Academia and Industry’ featured discussions on vertical farming, the importance of animal welfare, life cycle assessments of crop production, and the EU farming strategy.

The seminar ‘Transition towards sustainable farming’ seminar took place Friday, July 30, at 1 pm (CET), with over 90 unique participants. We were happy to welcome renowned experts from academia and industry as well as policymakers, who shared their insights. Please find highlights from the session below and available PowerPoint slides can be accessed here.

In an inspiring first talk, Member of the European Parliament, Herbert Dorfmann gave an overview of the plans and tools that are currently established at political level and how they can contribute to the shift towards more sustainable food systems. In this regard, the plans of the European Parliament are ambitious: becoming the most sustainable continent in the world and consequently acting as a role model to other countries. Actions like the New Green Deal and the Farm-to-Fork Strategy are supposed to help achieve these goals.

The contribution of agriculture, particularly through emissions (where 60% comes from animal production), was addressed by Dorfmann: “how can we emit less and how can we absorb more?”. To reduce emissions, the European Union financially supports more sustainable farming methods in the frame of the Eco-schemes. Additionally, strategies to absorb unavoidable emissions such as carbon farming, are also further supported.

According to Dorfmann, the current Farm-to-Fork Strategy is in his view imbalanced, as the concrete measures focus heavily on agriculture. By also focussing on the other actors in the system the full potential of the tool could be achieved. One needs to look at the whole system from agriculture, production, distribution to the consumer. Dorfmann sees a lack of responsibility on the side of the consumers. Therefore, more emphasis should be put on sustainability-related education and investments are needed in farmers, education, research activities and technology developments.

Lastly, Dorfmann pointed out that the above-mentioned strategies may result in increased product prices. “The EU is the biggest exporter, not because we are the cheapest, but because we are the best. People have to understand that a high level of sustainability also implies a high level of quality”.

Thomas Nemecek (Agroscope, Switzerland) talked about the influence of climate change on crop production in Europe and corresponding strategies to improve the resilience of farming. Using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools, he showed that the environmental impact for the production of the same food can significantly differ when using different farming techniques. Also for different products among the same group, there is a huge variation in results. For example, plant-based proteins were shown to exert a less pronounced environmental impact compared to animal-derived proteins. However, what is often overlooked is that there is also a great variation in the environmental impact within the group of meat-based foods. Beef showed the greatest impact for most of the measured parameters including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, eutrophication, water- and land use. Whereas poultry generally had a less pronounced impact. Probably as a surprise for many consumers, the impact of organic products on the climate is similar to conventional products. Here no systematic differences in GHG emissions were found.

He pointed out that agricultural food production has a large environmental impact and that there is high variability within a product. Context-specific solutions are needed. Following on the previous speaker, he acknowledged that the consumers’ responsibility in combating the challenge needs to be improved. Their impact could be decreased by reducing meat-based food consumption, choosing local and seasonal products, and opting for less processed foods.

As a solution, Nemecek concluded that each system has to be addressed individually and that all actors in the supply chain need to be involved to address the challenge of transitioning towards more sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable animal farming practices were further elaborated by Laura Boyle (Teagasc, Ireland). Particularly, animal welfare was addressed as a key factor in this regard. Industry and society are polarized on this question, but societal concerns about animal welfare are increasingly supported by scientific evidence.

As Boyle pointed out, animals are usually overlooked as stakeholders. Therefore, she promotes the inclusion of animal welfare as a critical fourth pillar of sustainability together with social, environmental, and economic aspects. Ultimately, increased animal welfare (e.g. by improved housing conditions) will lead to fewer diseases. Therefore, it can be considered as preventive medicine for animals: “Good welfare could turn out to be one of the best vaccines available with huge added commercial and social benefits”. She emphasised that the improvement of animal health leads to fewer GHG emissions, increased economic benefits, and better meat quality.

In the light of COVID-19, she gave several examples of how the entire system is fractionated and fragile. For instance, in intensive livestock production, the impact of any distribution issues was felt immediately up and downstream and how due to the disorders in the food market, milk was being dumped.

She concluded that there is a need for alternative production systems and a smart combination of solutions as the “one size fits all” approach does not work to reach our sustainability goals.

Lastly, Anders Riemann from the Danish company Nordic Harvest gave insights into principles and possible opportunities of vertical farming as an alternative production method. Riemann, who previously worked as a business analyst, started his company 8 years ago out of frustration. Even though it is known that food production is not sustainable, he wondered why still no one would do it differently and how he could contribute. The approach of Riemann’s company is to grow plants in a 14-story indoor hall, using excess energy from renewable sources at night and natural sunlight during the day. Thus, Riemann calls vertical farming a perfect synergy with the renewable energy sector. Moreover, the heat loss from the used LED lights is used to heat up the facility. The plants grow in a controlled environment; thus the quality of the product is well managed.

Ultimately, Riemann’s vision is to intensify agriculture indoors, on a much smaller space, therefore enabling the transformation of agricultural land back into forests, where CO2 can be captured again to a greater extent. He mentioned that vertical farming as a production method still needs to mature as only a handful of plants are able to grow efficiently (e.g. lettuce, herbs, kale). Research focused on environment-specific plant breeding, as well as introducing political strategies applicable to alternative systems, can accelerate the assortment further.

During the panel discussion, the speakers concluded that we will need a clever combination of low-tech and high-tech systems adapted for local conditions, including a higher diversity of systems and crop rotations, and better cooperation between the producers and consumers to meet sustainability goals.

The next seminar of the 'Sustainable Food Systems: Connecting Expertise in Academia and Industry'  series will address the topic 'Development of sustainable food products: Novel solutions to meet changing consumer demand'.

Seminar: Development of sustainable food products: Novel solutions to meet changing consumer demand
When: 24 September 2021 at 13:00 CET
Where: Online
Cost: free of charge:
Register here



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