Small-scale agriculture: appealing though it may sound, it’s not going to feed the world. The Dutch professor and author Louise O. Fresco does not fight shy of speaking the – sometimes counterintuitive – truth. She is all too aware that food is about emotion, but facts are still facts. “Generalising moral statements such as ‘sugar is bad’: scientists should steer clear of them.”
The perfect introduction to Louise O. Fresco is her Ted Talk from 2009, which has almost 900,000 online views. In this 18-minute video (see below), Fresco explains how we have become alienated from the production of the bread we eat every day. Holding a supermarket-style white bread, she tackles all our ready-made truths. Pre-packaged bread bad? Nonsense, it provides basic food to a lot of people. When food is concerned, nothing is simple, Fresco concludes. “Everything is linked together. Food is as important as energy, as security, as the environment.”
Pre-packaged bread bad? Nonsense, it provides basic food to a lot of people.
For years now, Fresco has been a household name in the Dutch public debate on sustainable food production. Holding a doctoral degree in bioscience engineering, she conducted research on tropical plant-breeding in Africa before travelling around the world for the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Her writing on sustainable farming is as inspired as that on eating culture. In 2012, Fresco turned her comprehensive experience into the masterly book Hamburgers in Paradise. The Stories behind the Food We Eat. Our interview takes place at Wagening UR, Fresco’s alma mater, where she has been President of the Executive Board since 2014.
It’s safe to call Louise Fresco an incorrigible optimist: she refers to agriculture of the past hundred years as a stunning success story. “A century ago, sixty percent of the world population was underfed, today eleven percent. And this eleven percent lives in areas where the state is not functioning.” In the near future, we will be able to feed the entire world population in a healthy and sustainable way, Fresco believes.
And yet, agriculture tends to make people worry, with stories about agricultural surplus, pollution, and subsidy-wasting stock breeding. “And yet, the overall trend is positive. This doom and gloom has a different cause. The distance between the consumer and the farmer in the field has become too big. The days are gone when everybody in the countryside grew their own food. We no longer understand how our food is really produced. We feel nostalgia for a non-existent past because we have forgotten what it was really like. Working conditions in agriculture were appalling. Food was scarce: in the countryside, winter came with hardly any choice when it came to food.”
We feel nostalgia for a non-existent past because we have forgotten what it was really like. Working conditions in agriculture were appalling, and food was scarce.
Therefore, Fresco doesn’t see the point of returning to the small-scale production of those days: that is the past, not the future. “The resistance to large-scale production is largely based on emotion. Growing your own tomatoes, baking your own bread – it’s obviously appealing and fun. But don’t we also want to produce food for those with less options? We really can’t feed Belgium or the Netherlands with small-scale production only. The yield from your own garden is often disappointing, but with the right methods you can produce up to forty kilos of tomatoes per square metre.”
“It’s simply not true that ‘large-scale’ means ‘bad for the environment’ by default. Processing vegetables can often be done in a much more environmentally friendly way on a large scale – it takes less water to wash the salad, for instance – and losses are reduced. Our food safety benefits from professional processing as well, and not from small, tough-to-inspect companies in the farmyard.”
“The distinction between large-scale and small-scale is purely rhetorical. What is large and small depends on the context. Large international companies may very well offer the consumer specialised brands with a small-scale feel.”
Casting doubt on small-scale production, or on organic farming: it sounds like blasphemy. “I never look for confrontation for the sake of confrontation,” Fresco replies. “As a researcher, you have to be straight about the facts, even if they’re not popular. Of course some of the concerns about our abundance are justified – we throw away 30 percent of our food – and of course we have to find a way to combine producing with being animal-friendly. But facts are still facts: farmers really don’t want to go back to the old days, they’re happy with the milking robot for their cows.”
Cows in the landscape
It’s one of Louise Fresco’s pet ideas: look at the bigger picture, and your judgement will be less black-and-white. “I’ll admit that it often feels counterintuitive. I like to see cows in the landscape too. It seems sad to keep them in the cowshed. But a cow sent out to grass uses more energy than one in the cowshed, and the emission of greenhouse gases cannot be kept under control. Bad for the environment, in other words. When I see 30,000 chicken together, it doesn’t make me happy either. But free-range chicken scraping outdoors run a significant risk of getting bird flu. Chicken in battery cages also have lower levels of stress hormone. You have to acknowledge all these elements if you want to talk about the environment and animal welfare. Only then can society make choices.”
Can’t this be solved by taking meat off the menu? “There is no magical solution. Meat can remain a part of our diet in limited amounts. Ruminants, chicken, fish, pigs: they can continue playing a role. Here at Wagening UR, we ran various simulations that show that animals definitely still have a place in the agriculture of the future. Cattle at graze, for instance, get their proteins from land that is otherwise unsuitable for agriculture. We don’t have to go for zero animals, but for the optimal number of animals.”
It seems sad to keep cows in the cowshed. But a cow sent out to grass uses more energy, and the emission of greenhouse gases cannot be kept under control. Bad for the environment, in other words.
“I’m not saying that nothing needs to change. The shipping of massive amounts of soy and corn, purely for animal production, will reduce in the future. Here in the West, we’ll have to eat less meat. We have to look at technological innovation as well: can we, for instance, produce synthetic milk? Is something like that acceptable for the consumer?”
We will also have to manage expectations, Fresco thinks. “We have gotten used here to becoming richer, generation after generation. That won’t last: growth will be not be what it used to be. Young people will have to adjust their expectations.”
“But it’s not up to us to tell, say, the Chinese or the Africans that they cannot eat meat. The world has changed, the West is no longer the norm. Here at Wageningen UR, we train many agricultural engineers from Africa. They will have to become the new leaders there, they have to make African agriculture more efficient, because it is under great strain as many people flee to the city.”
What is good, what is healthy? Food is the source of much confusion today, writes Louise Fresco in Hamburgers in Paradise. Our irrational aversion to the white pre-packaged bread from her TED talk is a case in point. “Food has always determined our identity,” she explains. “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are. And today, in these times of abundance and options, this is more true than ever. This is not a problem, as long as your approach is not too dogmatic.”
“About cigarettes you can plainly say: don’t touch them, smoking is bad. But you can never say that one specific food product is bad, as long as the diet is varied enough.” So why are newspapers full of such claims? “There’s a difference between what a scientist says and what the newspapers turn it into. And it is a tricky message to convey, that nothing is absolutely bad or absolutely good. People prefer messages like ‘eat pineapple all the time and you’ll be fine.’”
So no dogmas for Fresco. She herself has mostly been a vegetarian ever since she was a student, but she considers a ban on fast food – the hamburger in her book – to be nonsense. Besides, hamburgers are made of residual meat, which might otherwise be wasted. “In my own kitchen, meat is still nowhere to be found. But you will never hear me say that everyone should become a vegetarian. Flexitarian is already a good start.”
But still. In the food and health debate, gut reactions quite often trump science. “Science has lost the unassailable position it used to have, that’s a simple fact. There’s the internet, a supermarket of opinions where absolutely anything counts as a fact. ‘Bread will kill you’, ‘everyone gluten-free’, ‘sugar is bad’: these are moral statements. Scientists must not be tempted to use such statements themselves. They have to keep the focus on the actual problems and provide the proper context.”
“But you always have to bear in mind that many positive emotions are attached to food as well. Our food culture is very rich, and eating together brings us closer to each other. We really need to do this more often again, and to start cooking our own food again. It’s high time: our millennials are growing up with the notion that cooking equals heating something in the microwave (laughs).”
Source: KU Leuven