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The possible course towards sustainable change

All basic strategies need a rather long time-horizon in order to implement the necessary changes. As pointed out by Leo Jansen (1993), a realistic approach has to start simultaneously on three basic fronts:

- good housekeeping in the short term, i.e. increasing efficiency within the present patterns of supply and consumption;

- designing new more efficient and environmentally benign processes that are compatible with the envisaged future supply systems in the medium term;

- designing new supply systems for the long term, in harmony with the ethical demand for global ecological, social, and economic sustainability and respecting the governing principles of the biosphere. In order to do this efficiently, an orientation grid (a "mental map") can be helpful to guide research, politics, and entrepreneurial activity.

The sustainability discussion in agriculture has so far developed in a rather casual and informal manner. There is some risk of failing to see the wood for being too fascinated by the trees. Therefore some general "guidelines" should be established. A narrowing "grid" for evaluation is therefore proposed. Accepting intergenerational and global solidarity as overriding principles implies that human supply systems should be designed in such a way as to be practicable for all people at all times.

In order to come up with practical management rules, more specific guidelines should be derived from this very general imperative. A constraint is that the biosystem has to maintain itself in balance, such that material flows are integrated by recycling mechanisms and driven mainly by solar energy. A set of general rules for sustainable action can be derived from this starting point. They are listed in figure 9.1.

A second essential guideline can be deduced from further discernible characteristics of the ecosystem to which humans are adapted. It may be called "respect for the governing principles of the biosphere" (fig. 9.2). These governing principles are characteristics of the ecosystem earth that cannot be altered by humans. They constitute boundary conditions for human action, as noted below.

The above broad principles imply that ecological principles have to be respected even more firmly than the social rules that have been developed within the past 200 years, if we are to give future generations a fair chance. The market mechanism should be acknowledged as the best proven vehicle for economic development. It can encourage human creativity and foster a multitude of options and flexible interactions. But its benefits can be steered towards the commonweal only if it is directed to operate within the domain allowed by ecological (and social) constraints. Therefore the World Trade Organization (WTO), regional trade agreements, supranational institutions, and national constitutions should take into account the principles of sustainable action.


Fig. 9.1 Basic rules for sustainable action

In principle the mode of action should be practicable for an infinite period - only then is it really sustainable

S Mat. Fl = S Dig. Cap
(local & global)

Anthropogenic material flows have to be digestible to the biosphere (locally and globally) as regards their quality and their quantity especially with respect to the central recycling system of the soil

Anthropogenic material flows should not change the magnitude of the global material buffer stocks, in order not to change dynamic equilibria to which the biosphere (i.e. also humans) is adapted

All supply strategies have to be site oriented, incorporating the demand for biodiversity and harmonious landscapes

¯ ­

Because planning activities always have to use simplification, which may turn out to be inadequate, strategies should be reversible

In view of the conflict between present-day economic pressures and expected future conditions it would be unwise to attempt instant change. The best strategy is to put the unavoidable rules definitely into force, to "send a message," but to "turn them on" gradually, so as to discourage new investment in unsustainable technologies. It is important to provide for a long transition (depreciation) period, in order to avoid unnecessary destruction of capital that has been invested according to the old rules of the game. The basic rules can be easily cast in a normative form usable for national and international negotiation and legislation (Wohlmeyer 1994).

Fig. 9.2 The essential governing principles of the biosphere

Solar orientation of the total biosphere Reducing entropy

Closed material cycles Minimizing entropy

Energy and material using cascades

Maximum variety (maximum of options) Enhancing ecological stability

Networking of decentralized systems

Public and private management in agriculture in industrialized countries is confronted by the political dilemma of present surpluses and looming future shortages. Present surpluses are a consequence of cheap fossil fuels and inappropriate agricultural subsidies and price supports that raise food prices in the industrialized countries, while doing nothing to increase the purchasing power of the world's poor and undernourished people. This mismatch suggests a different bridging strategy to prevent present market forces from driving marginal farmers out of production. Such a bridging strategy should also have the effect of alleviating pressure for unsustainable cost reduction strategies.

My proposed bridging strategy is demand oriented. It is based on the observation that a sustainable economy for the long term cannot be founded on fossil fuels and raw materials. In order to relieve present agricultural surpluses in the industrialized countries while preserving production capacity that will be needed in the future, a decisive move towards the use of biomass in the intermediate term to substitute for petrochemical products and fossil fuels would make sense (see also chap. 6 in this volume).

Needless to say, both cost considerations and established economic institutions will resist rapid change. Nevertheless, in the first phase, the edible parts of plants can be used both as chemical feedstocks and as liquid (oil or alcohol) fuels. Parallel to this, the use of the non-edible parts of plants as feedstocks (e.g. by cellulose hydrolysis) will have to be brought towards industrial maturity. The latter approach would enable agriculture and industry to switch flexibly from edible to non-edible raw materials and so respond to the increasing demand for food 20 as well as for circular-oriented organic chemicals and for CO2 - neutral organic fuels. One could call this the food (r) non-food (r) food strategy.

Nevertheless, this scheme by itself will not be sufficient. If the industrial (non-food) market is to be developed, heavy subsidies will be necessary at first, because fossil fuels and fossil raw materials are still available at low cost ("plundering value"). Therefore, a taxation system on non-renewable raw materials, bringing their real cost up to their replacement value, would have to be an accompanying measure.

But even this "green taxation" measure has to be supplemented in order to achieve a balanced social situation. If the markets were cleared of food surpluses by the above means, food prices would go up to the marginal costs of production in disadvantaged areas. Thus, agriculturally "advantaged" regions (such as France and the United States) would harvest large differential gains. This would cause higher consumer prices for foodstuffs and higher bridging subsidies for the infant industry strategy in the realms of renewable organic chemicals and primary energy carriers.

Both of these features would be difficult to accept in the long run. Thus it might be necessary to introduce an additional economic instrument. Compensatory payments may have to be given to farmers in marginal areas. Such payments might be inversely proportional to the quality of soil and climate, and possibly other factors. 21 Such a package of measures would ensure that consumers pay the lowest possible prices that can be ecologically justified, while minimizing the need for "infant industry" support for chemicals and fuels based on biomass. But the play of market forces would not be excluded. Farmers in disadvantaged areas would get a fair chance, but would have to compete in the market. Thus this combination of measures can claim to be probably the most economical way to meet the basic aims of agro-eco-restructuring and of long-term food security.

To summarize this section, industrial agriculture has turned out to be unsustainable within a few decades. Thus there is growing (if not yet widespread) consensus that a regression to basic patterns of proven systems and their modernization is inevitable (OECD 1992). Traditional farming systems are the result of long and complex human experience. Therefore their basic design should be used as a starting point in order to develop more productive and less laborious production systems that will endure.

This is the more understandable if one keeps in mind that the testing periods of agricultural systems are much longer than the periods over which industrial entrepreneurs can depreciate their investments or over which they have to react to fundamental market changes. The mismatch of time-frames explains why the usual short term industrial management horizons and practices are so inappropriate to agriculture. But it also explains why the regression to proven systems in agro-eco-restructuring is also feasible from the economic point of view. Organic agricultural practices, as described above, have evolved from ancient proven systems and make use of their insights - as modified by current scientific knowledge. Therefore relevant research and advisory services should be intensified.

In order to characterize sustainable production systems in concrete terms, and to provide tools for cost and price determination, general and regional (site oriented) Codes of Best Management Practices will have to be established.23 These codes should be understood as obligatory minimum standards for ecologically sound production. Among other things, these "Best Management Practices" will be needed to calculate ecological "break-even" prices for the purposes of dealing with systems competition in international trade. In order to claim to be consistent with sustainability they must adhere to the general ecological limitations noted previously in this chapter. They must reflect long-term past experience as manifested in proven systems and the insights of pragmatic organic agriculture, i.e. a concept that defines agriculture as the enduring synergistic management of biosystems to meet human demand.

This broad definition can be opened out to yield more specific guidelines by introducing the following major characteristics of sustainable agro-systems:

- cautious use of all natural synergisms possible at the specific site;

- the saving of energy and material inputs by using biological aids and more human labour;

- reliance on a high degree of biodiversity in order to achieve ecological stability, flexibility, and the availability of a multitude of usable synergisms;

- conservative use of other vital parts of the environment such as water, air, genetic information (soil life, wild plants, and animals);

- linkages with other sectors of the economy in a revolving management of material flows;

- embeddedness in harmonious landscapes, fostering their amenities and conserving their biological carrying capacity.

These characteristics can be reduced further to three central themes:

1. Cutting inputs of energy and non-renewable materials and using all available natural synergisms.

2. "Networking" in a complementary partnership with all other sectors of the economy as a supplier of foodstuffs, raw materials, and energy on the one hand and as the recycled of organic wastes (in biologically harmless qualities and quantities) on the other.

3. Protecting other vital parts of the environment, such as air, soil, water, and biodiversity and embedding agricultural activities in the landscape without overtaxing its biological carrying capacity or harming its natural amenities. This vision of harmonious, multifunctional landscapes is shown in figure 9.3.

Being confronted with short-term-oriented (myopic) market forces, which can usually not take account of environmental concerns and future shortages, and with systems competition between sustainable and unsustainable agrosystems, agricultural politics has to try to encourage traditional and new "islands of sustainability" in an unsustainable world economy (Wohlmeyer and Steinmüller 1993). Rules of fair competition should enable them to comply with the overriding imperatives of ecological balance, as well as with ecological, social, and cultural factors unique to each site.

Aspiring to this aim, the instruments should be chosen in such a way as to take advantage of market forces as far as possible. It is the philosophy of giving as much freedom as is possible and of using as much regulation as is necessary that should determine the policy mix. The desired strategy should also recognize that the right of self-determination towards sustainability and the right of long-term food security are derivatives of the norms laid down in the General Declaration of Human Rights.

Fig. 9.3 The vision: Agriculture and forestry embedded in harmonious landscapes supplying water, food and fodder, organic raw materials, and organic primary energy carriers for virtually unlimited time

These guiding thoughts have led me to propose a 12-level core concept to ensure sustainable agriculture and optimal world trade (see fig. 9.4). The proposed policy mix starts from the definition of obligatory minimum standards of ecologically sound production (see the previous section) and ends with international arbitration in the event of dispute.

The intermediate steps (levels) introduce the missing instruments for fair supply-side price bargaining, for demand-side removal of surpluses, and for ensuring a competitive position for disadvantaged regions and farms. They also integrate with already existing measures, such as payments for activities that do not produce a service that can be marketed but are necessary for (and desired by) the public, and temporary assistance within regional development programmes. By these means the core concept tries to ensure transparent and fair competition, incorporates the "bridging" strategy as explained earlier, gives disadvantaged areas and development a chance, and, last but not least, addresses the issue of ecologically necessary price levels for agricultural products. This topic, unfortunately, seems to be taboo for nearly all mainstream neo-classical agricultural economists.

Fig. 9.4 A 12-strata core concept to ensure sustainable agriculture and optimal world trade

12. Agreed arbitration in the event of a difference of opinion
11 Control by an international group of experts and by a joint standing committee of WTO, FAO, UNCTAD, and UNEP
10. Temporary assistance within the framework of regional development programmes for disadvantaged areas
9. Payments for non-marketable performance (especially ensuring environmental safety, water supplies, and biodiversity, and shaping and husbanding harmonious landscapes) according to published standards
8 Removal of general surplus and subsidized exports by directing national | production surpassing present food needs towards the non-food sector (regrowing raw materials and primary energy carriers)
7 Compensations levies to ensure fair competition with world market supplies produced under lower standards of environmental and social protection and under more favourable eco-topical conditions s
6 Equalization payments in inverse proportion to the quality of the soil and proportionate to geographical aggravations (especially inclination and climate)
5. Market orders to ensure cost covering prices plus a fair profit for the main goods produced in advantaged areas of the state concerned
4. Total costs calculation for the main products produced in the most effective way within the boundary conditions defined in (1), (2), and (3)
3. Determining site-oriented optimum farm size (sustainable workloads being the limiting factor)
2 Adaptation of these general standards to local conditions (eco-topical sustainability)
1. Definition of minimum standards for ecologically sound production

Final remarks

The main aims for strategic planning towards worldwide sustainability in agriculture can be summarized in ten guiding principles:

1. The agricultural system, embedded in the overall economic system, must be consistent with a scenario reducing the input of oil, gas, and coal per service unit to the order of one-tenth of present consumption.24

2. Simultaneously, it is essential for the long-term future of agriculture and forestry to achieve a high level of productivity per unit land area.

3. A feasible transition strategy must be devised to bridge the gap between the present surpluses, due to subsidies and high levels of resource inputs, and the anticipated future shortages of agricultural products.

4. In view of probable social and political turbulence arising from growing inequities, access to food should be recognized as a basic human right.

5. Apart from the guarantee of food availability, the fulfilment of other basic human needs, such as clean water, clean air, and functioning harmonious landscapes, should be integrated into long-term agricultural strategies.

6. Because ecologically sustainable agriculture is, in the long run, possible only within an ecologically sustainable economic system, a broader overall ecological strategy is needed. In this, agriculture and forestry are the indispensable source of all organic material flows.

7. The main future food supply pattern will have to consist of viable localized agricultural systems that are site adjusted, biodiverse, capable of utilizing all natural synergisms, and requiring therefore only low energy and material inputs. Thus, the best pathway to long-term human survival appears to be just the proven small scale and mixed agricultural and forestry system that has been severely undercut by short-term interests and policies in the OECD (OECD 1991) and the WTO (GATT) as well as in the European Union.25

8. The agricultural strategy should be globally applicable but locally and individually adjustable.

9. The effective division of agriculture and forestry into mixed and labor-intensive small-scale farming in the densely populated developing countries on the one hand, and fully mechanized energy/material intensive large-scale farming in the industrialized nations, on the other, is neither ecologically nor socially sustainable (Austria 1992). This is because the developing countries follow the example of the industrialized nations in choosing their strategies. It is thus necessary, irrespective of the great variety in eco-topesand cultures, to strive for a common global scheme.

10. Finally, assurance of an adequate future food supply also calls for the maintenance of agriculture in marginally productive areas.

It seems that the conventional view of world agricultural development is paradoxical. Thanks in part to unsustainable high-input/high-output industrial agriculture, people are leaving the countryside and flocking to the cities. It is then argued that exactly this type of labor saving agriculture is necessary to feed the urban agglomerations.

In my view, the sustainable future world will have to consist of a variety of diverse agricultural production systems embedded in cautiously husbanded landscapes. The essential rules of design will have to be global, but the details will vary according to local conditions. Differences in climate, soil type, topography, and cultural preferences will lead to a bouquet of solutions. Nevertheless they will have to respect the governing principles of the biosphere.

Fair-trading rules to cope with competition from unsustainable high-input systems will have to regulate the exchange of goods and services in such a way that the exchange is beneficial to a maximum of people both now and in the distant future. Therefore scope has to be given to allow for the internalization of the costs of respecting global and local ecological conditions, as well as of local cultural and social achievements. Yet this needs to be consistent with the basic rules of free international trade.

If world trade culture - especially within the World Trade Organization does not adapt to these imperatives and still adheres to inappropriate theories of traditional trade that do not incorporate ecological and social aims and limitations, our economic system is on track to a general disaster. It is especially in the realm of agriculture that the dangers are most evident. Agriculture is the industry nearest to nature. Thus it should be seen as the tip of the ecological iceberg, which our titanic civilization is approaching with increasing speed.

This Cassandran judgement should not be mistaken for a tactical exaggeration. The traditional economic paradigm is already cracking from not being able to cope with rising structural unemployment, unfinanceable social services, loss of tax base, inability to finance growing environmental repair costs, unfinanceable general budgets, and unsustainable international systems competition. This situation will deteriorate further if the neo-classical dogma of unconditional free trade and capital transfer is not modified. Thus the apparent problems and necessary solutions for the agricultural sector could be eye-openers and pacemakers for general eco-restructuring. The other sectors of the economy could learn, from the industry nearest to nature, how nature has to be obeyed in order to be commanded.


1. Data in this paragraph are taken from Heilig (1995), tables 3 and 4.

2. Brown's scenario is analogous to the so-called energy crisis of 1973-1974. See Brown (1994, 1995).

3. Deposition consists of nitrates resulting from neutralization reactions between alkaline ammonia (volatilized from animal urine and manure) and nitric or sulphuric acids produced by atmospheric oxidation of NOx and SOx. The end results of these acid-alkali reactions are ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate, which dissolve in rainwater and fertilize the soil.

4. The crop yield per unit of fertilizer input is anomalously low for North Africa and the Middle East, but the explanation for this is almost certainly related to water scarcity. That is to say, yield could be increased sharply without more fertilizer input if more water were available.

5. This is roughly consistent with other estimates. For example, the US National Academy of Sciences estimated global N2O output for 1988 at 1.5 MMT.

6. The rate of deforestation in the Amazon has apparently slowed down since the late 1980s, thanks to the withdrawal of subsidies to cattle-ranchers.

7. The Greek myth of Erysichton illustrates this. The prince plunders the sacred grove of Demeter, the goddess of agricultural fertility, and is punished by insatiable hunger. He ends up eating his own limbs, i.e. autoconsumption.

8. The underestimation is mainly due to the fact that the services rendered by agriculture in the common interest are not reflected in market prices (e.g. landscape amenity, biodiversity, drinking water supplies).

9. One of the most striking examples is the calculations of the costs of climate change done by Nordhaus (1991), which should be compared with the calculations and estimations by Hohmeyer and Gärdner (1992).

10. This was officially done in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

11. Such as, for example, those adopted by World Food Summit (13-17 November 1996).

12. The present developments in South-East Asia (see Editor's Note) run in the opposite direction, thus aggravating the future situation.

13. Also excluding the food risks of climate change.

14. The above-reported 16 million ha include deteriorated grassland.

15. One is reminded of the outcry by J. M. Keynes in a similar economic environment in 1933: "Or again, we have until recently conceived it a moral duty to ruin the tillers of the soil and destroy the age-long human traditions attendant on husbandry if we could get a loaf of bread thereby a tenth of a penny cheaper. There was nothing which it was not our duty to sacrifice to this Moloch and Mammon in one; for we faithfully believed that the worship of these monsters would overcome the evil of poverty and lead the next generation safely and comfortably, on the back of compound interest, into economic peace" (Keynes 1933).

16. In particular, direct payments to farmers as long as they are not linked to production, income safety-net arrangements, set-aside programmes, and pension schemes; payment for environmentally friendly behaviour and landscape husbanding; research, quality control, and information.

17. For this section I am very much indebted to Dr. Thomas Lindenthal, Institute for Organic Agriculture at the Agricultural University of Vienna, who provided a wealth of essential information and literature.

18. Personal observation on various farms.

19. Personal information, 1996.

20. At present there is enormous need (more than 800 million people hungry) but not sufficient demand. Demand will increase when all world citizens get a comparable chance for adequate nutrition.

21. China is now about to abandon its mountain farmers for short-term reasons. By doing so it is destroying a major human capital for the future.

22. See also OECD (1992). The Codex Alimentarius should serve as an example. It continuously defines the best manufacturing practices for foodstuffs and codifies them.

23. The present endeavours of the OECD to establish a set of Agri-Environmental Indicators (AEI) are along these lines.

24. In a sustainable economy the use of fossil raw materials and primary energy carriers is admissible only to the extent that it is compensated by the natural deposition of CO2 (especially in the form of calcification and sedimentation in the oceans) (Factor Ten Club 1 994)

25. "The generally high price of Austrian farm products is, in particular, due to the fact that the domestic agriculture is small-structured. The available agricultural area is smaller, the animal stock per farm is smaller, and the specialization is less advanced than in the KU" (Austria 1992, p. 131).


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