“The farming bug is systemic and cultural”
Founder of the citizen lobbying movement La Bascule and the participatory agroecology funding platform Bluebees, Maxime de Rostolan, for five years, devoted his energy to promote and defend permaculture as the head of Fermes d’Avenir. For this media spokesman of a different agricultural system, more sustainable and responsible, the current model is a big bug. It is reprogrammable, but not without challenge.
Maxime, in 2019 is the bug of the French farming system systemic, cultural, or both?
It is both systemic and cultural. After the war, schemes and models of standardisation were put in place to optimise production methods. The downstream portion of this logic has been sized and designed accordingly. That is, with centralised processing and distribution units at certain points. The agricultural bug is, therefore, clearly systemic.
But it is also cultural because we have disconnected from reality. A century ago, half of the assets were peasants.Today, they represent no more than 2%. So, we lost this connection to the land, to production and to food self-sufficiency. A schism was created between the management of the natural heritage – of which agriculture is a part, and our daily life.
The agriculture we know dates back to after the Second World War. It is a pretty young model. However, there is the impression that it will not be able to change, like a bug that would not be reprogrammable ...
It was surely a reflection of the good intentions and legitimate reflections in their time. People could not do all this hard work and it was therefore necessary to mechanise and industrialise the production inputs and the counselling. On the other hand, I do not think it is necessary to consider that the intentions of the people at the time went so far as to lead us into the stalemate that we perceive today. It is not easily reprogrammable because the reasoning back then was simple:it was necessary to produce. Today, we must reintegrate and re-envision the complexity, the holistic and systemic dimension of this pillar of our civilisation; that is the way we feed ourselves. It is very complicated to do this because it requires going against the current and that takes a lot of effort.
I’ll give you an example. I was at a major sports group recently and they revealed a problem that they were facing. Textile manufacturers use fibres from petrochemicals, so they were greatly affected by the price changes of a barrel.Their question is how to re-propose collections in natural fibres. To find a solution to their problem, but also beyond that, I told them about the problem of glyphosate. This client is part of the solution to get away from glyphosate.By lengthening crop rotations and adding new channels, so that new models meet an economic reality, we create a common solution to two problems. Hemp and flax would make it possible to lengthen crop rotations for cereals, while producing natural fibres. Two problems can therefore share a common solution. Nonetheless, implementing such a solution is much more difficult than simply industrialising and standardising.
So there would be a big bug in the understanding of the issue we are looking at? We have the impression that because it's complicated, it's best to continue functioning with the bug.
The real problem of our civilisation is that we have access to cheap oil. With a barrel at $ 200, continuing as we do today will be more complicated than finding alternatives.
In this case, what is the responsibility of the consumer in this inability to understand the urgency?
The consumer can certainly make efforts, but the main levers are with industry and politics. Today, the consumer is doing its part, and the increases in demand for organic, local and seasonal farming prove it. The orders are 20% per year, while supply increases by only 10% per year. The limiting factor is therefore not the consumer in my opinion.
Is it then political?
Yes, but not only. Industrialists are not ready to give up cheap oil and reinvent their model. They either lack vision or do not believe in what they know. What we know is that oil is over. What is also known is that, in order to stay below the2-degree mark, two thirds of the known oil reserves should be left in the ground. And that, nobody is ready to consider it.
Is the biggest bug happening due to the lack of anticipation of the post-oil era?
The day we are backed into a corner, we will find alternatives, because we know how to do a lot of things technically.Some areas remain to be reinvented, such as aviation or medical. But for food and clean transport over short distances, solutions exist. It is difficult to optimise as long as we are not up against the wall.
Is permaculture the perfect anti-bug for industrial agriculture?
Permaculture is a method of designing balanced human ecosystems. And that’s what we need: to succeed in rebalancing our society in its ecosystem. Permaculture pursues this goal and proposes solutions that produce more energy than they consume.
Current agriculture is responsible for at least three disasters threatening the survival of our civilisation: first, greenhouse gas emissions, of which 20 to 40% are attributable to it; secondly, the preservation of the water resource; and finally, the preservation of biodiversity.
Agroecology offers solutions to these three issues. It can capture carbon where industrial agriculture emits. It also filters water and makes it drinkable where industrial agriculture pollutes groundwater, with the result that glyphosate, found in our urine. When Veolia or Suez clears the water, they recreate a living soil because living soil can clean water naturally.In Bavaria, they proceeded in this way. They forced the 250 local farmers to go organic, which allowed having free drinking water in the city. The last point concerns biodiversity. Industrial agriculture works with products whose aim is to destroy insects and other fungi, whereas agroecology works with these life forces and uses their strength to produce more. Olivier de Schutter says that agroecology is not a solution, it is the only one.
What to respond to the argument that agroecology cannot feed 65 million consumers?
I would tell them that they have no argument to prove it. Industrial farming costs us dearly collectively. It is subsidised directly by the CAP to the tune of 10 billion a year. That’s almost 1 million euros every hour. It is also indirectly subsidised by taxes that provide solutions to the negative externalities generated by this agriculture: health problems, water depollution, green algae, floods … while not creating employment. It should be known that industrial agriculture has destroyed almost 80% of jobs in 50 years. This agriculture is not viable. Agroecology is more efficient because it allows to produce more per unit area, and more stable than industrial agriculture.
You understand that it is almost ugly for the general public to understand why we do not change program if it is so obvious?
The reason is money. People in a position to decide are those who have large sums to commit and they have only one decision criterion: money. Natural and human capital are not taken into consideration. Hence the importance of integrating as quickly as possible triple-capital accounts that more accurately reflect the results of a model.
Finally, this moment when the oil will be gone will not it be more a founder bug than a destructive bug?
This is the destructive creation of Schumpeter. We find this idea in Japan, where the word “crisis” also means “rebirth”.We rebuild on the ruins. But if we fail to integrate the restoration of natural capital and human capital into the mission of companies, they will continue to choose the easy way that is oil. By the way, the most profitable company in 2018 is a Saudi oil company. The ecological catastrophes that we are beginning to experience are all signs that the lines that hold together our model are being unravelled.
But which of our modes of production or our modes of consumption will change the other?
The stimulus of the 20% mentioned earlier shows that the evolution of consumer demand does not cause the expected change, even if a reaction time is logical. Advertising also distorts the situation in this debate. Take the example of cars. They were responsible for almost all adverts seen and heard during Roland Garros or France Inter for example. The sums invested are astounding, we talked about 3.5 billion to create the collective imagination and condition the human brain to the fact that needs are expressed by consumption. With such sums, we cannot really say that they come to fill a need. The consumer must stay smarter than advertising, and show he is aware. That’s why the La Bascule movement was launched.
I find it crazy that the only ecological battle ever won was the hole in the ozone layer. And it goes back to 1987. The origin of the problem had been identified, it was related to CFCs, the Chlorofluorocarbons. These deadly products have been banned via the Montreal Protocol, without major consumer awareness campaigns being undertaken on the use of such products. I am convinced that the day we ban pesticides globally, we will understand that we will recreate biodiversity and employment; that we will preserve the health, the quality of the water; we will see bees … The ultimate point is to create legal framework, because it allows to deem illegal practices that are harmful.
Maxime, we end this interview with our usual conclusion questions. First, what is your own definition of a bug?
When I think of a bug, I see something stuck, blocked. In our case, the economic model is a bug because it does not help to move in the right direction. In a somewhat cynical way, the constitutional counselling is a bug in our society.
And secondly, what is the biggest bug for you, past, present or potential?
Whether a cancer or an oil spill can have a positive impact on the economy, it’s a huge bug for me.