Book Club

The Chair read for you Les agriculteurs ont la Terre entre leurs mains by Paul Luu with Marie-Christine Bidault

Published on 15 February 2023

The author of Les agriculeurs ont la Terre entre leurs mains [1], Paul Luu, is an agricultural engineer and the Executive Secretary of the International Initiative “4 by 1,000”. In this book, he sets out the main principles of the naturals cycles, examines the development of contemporary agricultural systems and explains the differences between the various modes of agriculture that coexist today.

The aim of this book is to “take stock simply and objectively” and “to provide everyone with the means to understand the issues at stake without evading the difficult questions”, as described by Stéphane Le Foll, Ibrahim Assane Mayaki and Gabrielle Bastien in their joint preface.

Is this promise kept?

Paul Luu’s book begins with a bleak observation. Producing food to eat is vital, but the way we do it now is unsustainable. In order to meet an ever-increasing demand for food, and to free ourselves from natural constraints, our agriculture has been put on steroids. It is artificially enhanced with chemical inputs (fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides), irrigation (70% of the world’s fresh water is used in agriculture), tillage and mechanisation. Production has become more intensive, specialised, and localised.

As a result, the FAO estimates that 75% of the world’s soils are particularly degraded and could be impossible to cultivate in the coming decades. Soil, water, animal, and plant biodiversity have been impacted to an immeasurable extent and in a particularly short timeframe.

This picture does not even take into account the main threat to our agricultural systems: climate change. Agriculture (and forestry) is partly responsible, partly the victim and partly the solution to the problem. It is responsible for about 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions, due to nitrous oxide (N2O) from fertiliser application, methane (CH4) from livestock farming and carbon dioxide (CO2) from mechanisation and transport. It is an obvious victim of increased drought episodes, degraded growing conditions and the occurrence of other extreme events. And it is also an integral part of the solution because of the amount of atmospheric CO2 that its biomass (fields, meadows, and forests) captures.

It is necessary to produce better, i.e., to increase the efficiency of our inputs in order to reduce their use, to adopt a much more sustainable management of land use and to start a dynamic of increasing capture of atmospheric CO2, all the while providing a sufficient volume of food to feed 8 (and soon 10) billion people at affordable prices.

Over ten pages, Paul Luu retraces the evolution of our farming methods. From the settlement and domestication of animals to the promotion of so-called “precision agriculture”, and including the agricultural revolutions and the “green revolution”, the author highlights the importance of certain major innovations and the correlation between the volume of agricultural production and population growth.

Throughout these 130 pages, Paul Luu, Executive Secretary of the International “4 by 1,000” Initiative, stresses the vital importance of soil. As a source of fertility, biodiversity and carbon capture, the interest shown in it today is not commensurate with the role it currently plays. The “4 by 1,000” Initiative aims to promote the use of better soil management practices because, according to estimates, “if we were able to increase the carbon stock of soils by just 0.4% [= 4 per thousand] in the top 40 centimetres of soil each year on a global scale, this could theoretically compensate for the net carbon emissions from human activities in that same year” (p.66).

The challenge will therefore be to maintain the space currently used for agriculture or even to restore some of it in order to increase our carbon storage capacity. Thus, producing better on a defined area will necessarily require a transformation of our production processes and the adoption of the major concepts of “agroecology”.

This expression, widely used in the public debate, is nothing other than a generic term qualifying practices aimed at increasing natural interactions (nature-plant-animal-human). The FAO has drawn up a set of 13 major “agroecological principles” (p.72) that are promoted to a greater or lesser extent in the different types of agriculture included in this broad category (conservation agriculture, organic agriculture, regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, etc.).

In the last part of his book, Paul Luu defines the history, concepts, advantages, and disadvantages of these different forms of agriculture, taking great care to quantify and illustrate his point with concrete examples. This section, which is particularly informative on the development and foundations of these different agricultural practices (which are often confused by the general public), concludes with the observation that no single form of agriculture is the answer to all future challenges. On the other hand, one observation is clear: farmers have a decisive role to play. Due to being often stigmatised and facing increasingly difficult working conditions, there are fewer and fewer farmers today. However, they are the only ones who can feed the population and shape the landscape. It is therefore essential to accompany them, support them, and inform, as they are the most relevant actors to contribute to the necessary transformations of the agricultural system. Thus, companies, research, politicians, and consumers all have a role to play.

A promise kept.

This book will meet the expectations of any reader looking for clear, synthetic, and reliable information on today’s agricultural systems. It is neither too technical nor too militant. It is in no way revolutionary, but it does have the merit of making a lucid assessment: where does our agricultural model come from? What is it based on? What challenges must it meet? What directions can we take?

Agriculture, forests, and soil (particularly highlighted here) are key elements in the fight against climate change. Representing the “living carbon” component of environmental policies, they require an understanding of natural cycles and the interactions between humans and their environment, which our development path has particularly distorted. On the other hand, solutions do exist, and this type of book helps to remind us of them in a lucid manner.

Richard Koenig, PhD student, Crop insurance as a mitigation and adaptation too in a climate change context.

[1] Paul Luu with Maric Christine Bidault (2022), Les agriculteurs ont la Terre entre leurs mains , Editions la Butineuse, 128p.