The main agricultural systems of wealthy countries, called ‘industrial agriculture’, are based on a high dependence on inputs such as (i) fossil fuels (oil, gas) for the production of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides or for the operation of machinery (tillage), but also (ii) phosphate fertilizers from quarrying. However, the peak production of conventional oil was reached in 2008 and the peak production of phosphorus is expected in 2030. Such a prospective could imply a significant increase of prices of products from industrial agriculture
Moreover, the environmental consequences of industrial agriculture increase the risks of a collapse of food production. The agricultural sector is responsible for the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world (about 20%), with the transformation into electrical energy from coal combustion. However, the global GHG emission capacity is part of a framework to limit climate change in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and thus not to exceed a 2 °C increase in the average global temperature by 2100. In addition to the sea-level rise, biodiversity loss or slowing global growth, low crop diversity and monoculture practises make farming systems less resilient to climate change. The carbon sequestration ambitions through potential reforestation programs or increased organic material in soils seem far from being able to sustainably offset the current global GHG emission level, which has been constantly increasing since the massive use of fossil fuels.
Moreover, the complex dynamics within natural ecosystems lead to ‘natural’ losses of biodiversity, but human activities have accelerated the extinction rate by about 1000 times since the beginning of the 20th century: nearly 80% of mammals and 50% of wild plant species have disappeared since the beginning of human civilization. These major trends have a deep impact on the functioning of natural ecosystems, yet biological processes are at the origin of ‘ecosystem services’ that humanity benefits freely. For example, depending on environmental conditions, biotic interactions (ecological functions) can lead to disease management or development (ecosystem services) of crops. The high use of synthetic chemical inputs such as pesticides and mineral fertilizers dramatically threatens these ecosystem services. All agricultural practices applied in current agricultural paradigm entail soil erosion and water, soil and air pollution.
Pesticides protect crops from pathogens and pests, thus ensuring yield. However, the benefits derived from crop production are less important than the real costs of pesticides from their production to their impacts on the environment and human health. The most important factor responsible for this poor benefit-cost ratio would be the costs of health systems induced by diseases related to synthetic pesticide exposure, which seems to be at the origin of chronic diseases such as cancers or Parkinson’s disease, particularly among farmers.
This leads to nutritional deficiencies in humans, as global food production does not meet daily requirements for nutrients and secondary metabolites such as vitamins.
From an economic and social point of view in France, the number of jobs in the agriculture sector has been reduced by 90% since the late 1950s in France, to reach nearly 800,000 workers today. There are strong inequalities among the workers, more than 30% of them earn less than 350 euros per month. They are the most affected by psychosocial risks since a farmer commits suicide every other day in France. A double financial pressure seems to be partly responsible for the decline of rural development via (i) the system of granting subsidies within the highly regulated framework of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and (ii) the medium to long-term debt with banking institutions linked to operating costs and heavy investments.
Even though public research activities, especially in the field of agroecology, are being developed to propose alternatives to farmers, policy actions in favour of farmers are far from meeting the challenges explained above, since more than 90% of farms remain in conventional systems in France today.
Conventional agricultural production systems are not sustainable in the short to medium term, either socially, environmentally or economically.
A radical paradigm shift is needed, and agroecology represents a coherent alternative. Agroecology as a scientific discipline aims to study the functioning and dynamics of different agricultural ecosystems in order to limit the use of synthetic inputs (pesticides and mineral fertilizers) and to improve the management of ecosystem services for agricultural production; it also refers to a set of practices put in place by the farmer to promote these processes. Agroecology includes socio-economic aspects on all sectors at the territorial level, i.e. by including the players involved in the processing and distribution of agricultural products.