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Is industrial agriculture denying us fundamental human rights?

Section 24 of the South African Constitution states: “Everyone has the right to: an environment which is not harmful to their health or well-being.” Yet industrial agriculture is part of a global system that is contributing to an unsustainable and unhealthy relationship with our environment. Are modern industrial agriculture practices denying us fundamental human rights?

The FEW nexus

The food-energy-water (FEW) nexus is increasingly being recognised as central to a healthy environment: healthy water is connected to healthy soil, healthy trees, healthy food, and the sustainable use of clean energy.

The aim of permaculture is to create a sustainable way to produce healthy food using fewer resources from the FEW nexus. Along with other agroecology processes, the idea is to have minimal impact on the natural environment – to work with, rather than against, Nature. 

Permaculture has a significant role to play in sustainably supporting the FEW nexus as a step towards securing basic human rights. The core principles of permaculture include obtaining a yield (input produces increased output), working with nature to build systems and ecosystems, producing zero waste, and sequestering carbon.

The Food-Energy-Water Nexus explained:

Fertile ground for change 

Healthy soil is at the heart of these principles. It acts as a carbon sink, storing accumulated carbon, thereby lowering the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. The award-winning 2020 documentary Kiss the Ground covers this topic in eye-opening detail.

Dr Romy Zyngier, Senior Research manager at Australia’s Climateworks Centre, says that soil organic carbon content is a key indicator of soil health: “It supports ecosystem processes such as water storage capacity and availability to plants, nutrient and waste cycling, soil structure and biodiversity. Healthy soil underpins food and fibre production.”

The damage done to the soil by the unsustainable approaches used in industrial monoculture farming can and should be seen as an infringement on our basic human rights. How else, after all, should we view practices with so many negative impacts? 

Monoculture strips our soil of its nutrients, forcing farmers to overuse chemical fertilisers, which can cause further soil degradation in the long-term. “Soil degradation leads to a reduction in soil organic matter (SOM), which is where carbon is stored,” explains Dr Dragutin Protic, CEO of GILab, a company dedicated to developing a variety of solutions based on information and communications technology and geoinformatics.

Protic goes on to point out that not only does degraded soil stop sequestering carbon, but it also actually starts to release it back into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.

Close up - hands and soil

Soil organic carbon is a key indicator of soil health

Locking in moisture and building soil health supports soil structure and healthy food production

Agri techniques that work with nature create sustainable food production systems, leading to high yields

Wasted energy, dirty air

Industrial agriculture is energy-intensive, relying on the unsustainable fossil fuels that pollute our atmosphere and are driving the global climate crisis. Once again, having clean air to breathe is a fundamental human right. The problem is, how to change a system that is so pervasive that it touches on virtually all aspects of our existence?

A good start is to shift as much as possible to more sustainable sources of energy. Widespread and meaningful change, however, requires a shift in mindset. There is currently a chronic over-reliance on energy-intensive, mass-produced agriculture that produces nutrition-deficient food. This food is distributed by a global supply chain that emits 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) each year, while one study claims that as much as one quarter of all food produced is lost within the food supply chain.

Food is a basic human right, and these researchers state that by halving food supply losses, one billion more people could be adequately fed. Localising food production to cut out links in the food supply chain not only helps to minimise waste, but also drives economic upliftment within communities.

Agri solutions that work with nature help to regenerate and retain water, improving soil health and carbon sequestration.

Where has all the water gone?

The fossil fuels that power industrial agriculture and its global supply chain also require a lot of water to produce. On top of this, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points to the fact that agricultural irrigation alone accounts for 70% of water use worldwide.  

Industrial agriculture is also the source of significant pollution of waterways and groundwater resources, through agricultural fertiliser runoff, pesticide use, and livestock effluents.

Permaculture, on the other hand, is regenerative, retaining water and putting nutrients back into the soil rather than adding chemical fertilisers. Preventing agricultural runoff also helps to combat the increasing problem of eutrophication and harmful algae blooms in downstream freshwater sources.

Closing the circle

Food supply chains, energy use, and water consumption and treatment are all currently based on increasingly stressed and wasteful linear models. The best way to ensure the basic human right of access to a healthy environment is to go back to basics, minimising the resources we put in and the waste we produce. 

To achieve this, we must focus on creating self-sustaining, localised circular economies supported by permaculture and other agroecology principles and practices. Only by maximising the integration and potential of the FEW nexus can we improve global food security in times of increasing global uncertainty.

Human rights encapsulate what Food & Trees for Africa strives for as an organisation – empowerment, sustainability, and the right to a clean and healthy environment. Read more about our efforts towards human agency and healthy environments, or donate toward our mission.

agroecology, energy, FEW nexus, Food, human rights, permaculture, water
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