The turbulent times we are going through must make us aware of the importance of shoring up our strengths and addressing our weaknesses. Spanish society must be aware of the immense cultural and social heritage provided by family farming and livestock farming, which guarantee food for all in a sustainable, responsible and conscious way.
We are living in turbulent times. Some may say – not without reason – that conflict is inherent in society, in nature and in life itself. The universe is made up of matter, energy and living beings in permanent conflict, imbalance and rebalance. Societies are no exception, and also respond to this convulsive dynamic. But it is true that in recent times, doubts and conflict over different aspects of our lives have been on the rise.
The agri-food system that we have created in the most developed societies over the last few decades has allowed us to enjoy all kinds of food in quantities, varieties and quality guarantees never before seen in the history of mankind. In Spain we have managed to create an exemplary, modern, advanced and competitive agri-food chain, without losing the mainly family farm structure.
Spain is, due to our climate, our agricultural and livestock culture, together with our gastronomic tradition, a powerhouse in food production and distribution. Our primary sector is the basis of much of our country’s success. It is a certainty that our food and our gastronomy have been a vector of success for our tourism or for our most important industrial sector: the food industry.
Agriculture and livestock farming in Spain have been modernised and technified in recent decades in a revolutionary way. Today we produce and export more and better than we did a few decades ago. Rural areas are today as decent a place to live as cities, despite the fact that there is still an urban-rural divide in many respects, and food production continues to underpin the economy and life in rural areas, remaining the main economic activities.
The footprint of food production
Society is increasingly aware of the impact of human activities on the environment. Climate change has risen to the top of the environmental agenda of governments and the media. And as always when there is a problem, we are more concerned with looking for culprits than solutions. There are voices that have decided that farmers and their animals are partly to blame for global warming. This is a great falsehood.
Livestock farming is an ancestral activity, which emerged in Mesopotamia more than 10,000 years ago, closely linked to our evolution as a species, and which allowed the development of modern and advanced human societies. Homo sapiens realised that raising and caring for animals was a very interesting practice to satisfy the most basic need: to feed themselves. Animal husbandry, together with agriculture, facilitated sedentarisation and improved the nutrition and health of prehistoric humans.
Thousands of years later, the situation is quite different: Unstoppable technological and scientific advances in all areas have made more food available to humanity than ever before in history, not to mention the fact that 800 million people in the world are still going hungry because of the misallocation of food production and consumption.
Societies’ concerns and problems vary according to their level of development. In modern societies today, it is no longer the production of food (whether or not there will be enough food for everyone) that is the concern, but the systems used for food production and the environmental impact of food production.
Society’s environmental awareness is much greater today than it was only a few decades ago. Many people are concerned about the state of the planet and make decisions (political, personal or consumer) based on that concern. A concern that, however, is not always well-founded or well-directed, as we all receive so many impacts through the media or social networks that we are largely infoxicated.
What is sustainable?
Nowadays it is not easy to know what is or is not sustainable, although if we think a little, with the help of history and science, it is not difficult to draw conclusions:
– It is logical to think that if Spain has the fourth highest average longevity in the world (WHO, 2022) after Japan, Switzerland and South Korea, our diet, based on the Mediterranean Diet, has elements that contribute greatly to that reality. – It is logical to think that a balanced diet, which includes foods of all kinds, with a predominance of fruit and vegetables and which does not rule out any type of meat, fish, dairy products or eggs, contributes to the good development and good health of the population. – It is logical to think that the majority of farms in Spain, which are small and medium-sized and based on a family structure, seek, by definition, generational replacement and respect for the environment in which they are developed. – Environmental sustainability must go hand in hand with economic and social sustainability: if livestock farmers do not obtain a return on their activity, they will be forced to abandon it, and the problem of depopulation and the demographic challenge in rural areas will worsen. – Extensive or semi-extensive livestock farming, practised to a large extent in Spain, is a good example of a circular economy and a sustainable relationship with the environment. Animals grazing in meadows, pastures and farmland feed on a resource that would be difficult to use otherwise. – Small and medium sized livestock farming is also sustainable, by properly managing energy consumption or the by-products generated in the form of manure, which can and should be put to much better use, to fertilise fields or to generate energy.
To be sustainable is, in short, to produce today without risking tomorrow’s production. This is essential in a world where the population and its needs are growing all the time. Do we have to produce less to do this? No. We have to produce and consume better. The key is efficiency and all the links in the food chain, from producers to consumers, can do more to achieve it.
The majority production model in Spain, based on small and medium-sized family farms, is sustainable by nature. In most cases, several generations of the same family work and live off the farm. We producers carry out our work on a land that is ours, and we protect and care for it because it gives us so much back.
Evolution without exclusion
Food production, like all aspects of society, never stops evolving. We, the small family farmers and stockbreeders, are clear that the agriculture and stockbreeding of the future will be more sustainable, more modern and more technified, but without losing a foot in a productive tradition that has enormous advantages. There are examples of age-old practices such as transhumance or organic production, the advantages of which are increasingly being highlighted.
What is not so clear is whether we will come out of this evolution “alive”, which is unstoppable, but whose path is made by walking and whose costs, both social and economic, we must carefully analyse in order to protect the most vulnerable and at the same time the most necessary: the small producers.
There are speculators who are rubbing their hands with the idea of a food chain without farmers or breeders, with large synthetic meat production plants, for example, controlled by the same investors who control the industrial or distribution groups. We must strongly oppose this trend.
Society must be aware of food production systems and be proud of them. European society must know that it has the best food system in the world, with standards of excellence, safety, variety, quality and sustainability that are unique in the world.
There is a key element that is not usually talked about when we talk about food production and consumption and yet it is fundamental: food culture. People live in a historical and social context and there is knowledge, ideas, traditions and customs that characterise, guide and unite people. It is clear that we belong to a tradition, Mediterranean and European, inseparable from the historical advances that have marked us over the centuries.
Food marks us, as a society and as individuals. Eating should not be an obligation, but a pleasure. A sustainable, responsible and conscious pleasure. Linked to a more social and natural way of life. In the case of Spain, we also have a very clear and pleasurable reference: the Mediterranean Diet which, without being the only one that can be followed, is probably the best.
Let us enjoy a varied and balanced consumption of cereals, pulses, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, dairy products, eggs, meat of all species (poultry, sheep, goats, cattle, rabbits and pigs), fish and seafood, nuts, olive oil and, in the case of adults, washed down with a good wine. All of this should be accompanied by daily physical exercise and active, healthy, face-to-face social relations. Only in this way will we achieve a long and full life and a more sustainable and respectful relationship with our environment.