Many people now associate modern agriculture with failure, “but we have been extremely successful as a world community in feeding ourselves”. Professor Louise Fresco, worldwide renowned figure in the field of sustainable agriculture, recognises the importance of narratives in the ever-growing polarised debate surrounding sustainable agriculture and food systems. The outbreak of the war in Ukraine and the fluctuation of food prices due to inflation only increased the debates and discussions around agriculture, food security and strategic autonomy. Most of the narratives touch on feelings of external dependency, insecurity and rapid landscape changes. Professor Fresco understands that a globalised agriculture system can produce some sense of insecurity, but highlight that “the fact that we can trust so many people around the globe to produce safe food for us and get it to our plates at a very reasonable price in Europe, and get this enormous diversity of food that our grandmothers didn’t know can also instill us with a great sense of pride about the world, and a great sense of pride that we as Europe have been a linchpin in a lot of that agricultural modernisation”. According to Professor Fresco, if there is one thing that’s lacking in public and political perspective “it is a sense of European pride”.
In Reimagine Agriculture, a new episode of the ReImagine Talks, Professor Fresco highlights that “agriculture has always been a very harsh and difficult way of living”. With this short sentence, she demystifies the romanticised view that some people have regarding the activity that has been part of human history and lives for the past ten thousand years. By definition, agriculture includes all activities that “are based on harnessing the power of nature, in particular sunlight and water, for human good”. However, it is important to acknowledge it as a very complex and varied endeavour. With this complexity in mind, it is crucial that many factors such as weather, soil and energy prices and the critical roles they play in the outcomes are taken into consideration. In the last fifty years, there was a major increase in productivity, driven at least in part by a rapidly growing global population but, according to Professor Fresco, it also came at the price of “a loss of biodiversity, loss of landscape diversity, pollution of groundwater, of soils through chemicals, etc.”. This is not completely linear and negative spiral. “Agriculture is not a way of ill-treating the landscapes. Some of the most appreciated by Europeans, like Tuscany, are in fact the byproduct of centuries of agriculture.” According to the Professor, on the contrary wo what many people think, in the course of these millennia we have learned from our mistakes and learn to do more with less.
A renowned authority in the field of sustainable agriculture, blending a distinguished academic career with extensive involvement in policy, development and innovation, Professor Fresco has been a pivotal figure in agricultural research and education as former President of the Executive Board of Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and as a scientist conducting research programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America and holding academic positions in Sweden, Belgium and the United States.
Based on her extensive research, academic and policy work, she is convinced that sustainability in absolute sense does not exist in agriculture because “as soon as you use the product you are taking something from the ecosystem”, as is true for any species, only the scale of human impact is so much vaster. The focus should be on how we can regenerate the agricultural ecosystem and understanding sustainability as a process and as a way for mankind to evolve. “We should be very wise in using the best possible science and technology in agriculture and do that in harmony with society”.
The Strategic Dialogue on the Future of Agriculture, announced by the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen offers a great opportunity to not only have a look at national and sub-national level, but also at a European level, by taking into consideration the complementary nature and synergies that all Europe can benefit from. According to the professor, Europe should define first “what do we want to do, where do we want to do it, and how”. We can also depolarise the public conversation about agriculture by discussing priorities and scenarios for the future and by acknowledging the necessary trade-offs to achieve these scenarios in order to move the debate forward: “We can depolarize by asking people what are the priorities for the future. Is it food safety and food security? Is it nature? If we say nature, how much nature do we want to forego on maybe food autonomy?” “These are all trade-offs and the dialogue about the balance between them is very important, because it isn’t of course black and white”. Thirdly, “is very important to ask ourselves what kind of future is there for young farmers and for others that want to invest in agriculture”. According to the Professor, there is not one blue print answer and the EU should give some guidance here.
Fresco is especially interested in fostering the role of farmers in the definition of the future of agriculture in Europe: “We need a dialogue in which young farmers see a future not just hanging on, but really a future they can feel proud of. A future of innovators. A future of people that can do more than just produce cheap food”. One of the future scenarios that Professor Fresco envisions and not many people are talking about is the fact that, in the future, agriculture will not only need to produce the usual food and fibers, but also “replace the petrochemicals that are now derived from fossil fuels, and possibly also contribute to energy generation through new biofuels.”
In her opinion, we need a blueprint for future agriculture that should start by defining “not at national level, but at European level as a whole: Where do we want to conserve nature? Where do we want to have the most modern, innovative farms, and where do we want to have a group of farms or land use that is more multifunctional, where we have both nature conservation, some biodiversity parts, but also some social functions for children or the elderly, and so on.” “The question that the European Union should ask itself is how much do we want to be self-sufficient in food? How much do we want to be a leader for the future in terms of waste land use, and what is needed for that?”. “It could be very unwise in the current geopolitical situation to say we will not produce very much food anymore in Europe. I think this is a risk we should not take”.
The author of “Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories behind the food we eat”, brings us an important piece of advice for all of society before ending the interview: “we are evolving. We are learning every day in agriculture, in medicine and transportation, in medicine studies. Although this may be a source of insecurity for some people, it can also be a source of pride and comfort to know that we have an open society that allows an open debate and an open exchange of opinions and science”.
Professor Fresco is a member of eight Scientific Academies and has four honorary doctorates. Her career also includes over ten years at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, where she significantly contributed to global agricultural policy and development; and executive and advisory positions in numerous private organizations. Her engagement with the arts is showcased through her chairmanship of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet and her past role with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, reflecting her drive for cultural enrichment. She has published thirteen books and her regular media contributions and TED talk in Palm Springs reflect her impressive influence as a thought leader in food and agriculture.
Reimagine Agriculture is the eighth episode of chapter of the ReImagine TALKS, a series of video podcasts launched by Re-Imagine Europa together with leading media partners and featuring some of the most innovative, influential, and original thinkers of our time, challenging conventional thinking and reimagining the concept with an unexpected and contemporary lens. The series is hosted by Erika Staël von Holstein and Luca de Biase, RIE’s Chief Executive and Research Director, respectively. The first episodes delved on Reimagine Capitalism with Professor Rebecca Henderson, Reimagine Power with Professor Manuel Castells, Reimagine Trust with the Internet pioneer Lisa Gansky, Reimagine Ethics with Professor Jeroen van den Hoven, Reimagine Narratives with Professor Marcin Napiórkowski, Reimagine Taxation with Rita de la Feria and Reimagine Information with Dino Pedreschi.
You can watch and/or download the series at: