“There's room in Swiss agriculture for greater biodiversity”

Nicolas Bissardon and Agathe Crosnier, 2023 Durabilis Awards recipients © 2023 EPFL/Murielle Gerber  - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Nicolas Bissardon and Agathe Crosnier, 2023 Durabilis Awards recipients © 2023 EPFL/Murielle Gerber - CC-BY-SA 4.0

This year’s UNIL-EPFL Durabilis Awards went to two Master’s projects addressing sustainability in the food industry. Both winners – Agathe Crosnier and Nicolas Bissardon – came up with fresh ideas for producing and consuming food in a more environmentally responsible way.

The two winners – Agathe Crosnier, now a Master’s graduate in environmental science and engineering from EPFL, and Nicolas Bissardon, now a Master’s graduate from the Faculty of Geosciences and the Environment from the University of Lausanne (UNIL) – presented their research findings at the Durabilis Awards ceremony on Thursday, 30 November. These awards were introduced in 2007 to recognize outstanding student projects in the area of sustainability.

Of the 40 students who competed this year, Crosnier stood out for her meticulous approach which, according to the selection panel, provides a solid foundation for the recommendations she makes on how to improve the sustainability of Swiss agriculture. Specifically, Crosnier explored the interactions among different types of diets and farming methods.

Four scenarios for a more sustainable food industry

Food production accounts for 25% of Switzerland’s environmental footprint, while 10% of its greenhouse gas emissions come from farming. To help policymakers shrink these figures, Crosnier outlined four scenarios with different methods for producing and consuming food. The goal is to reduce the food industry’s impact on the climate, natural ecosystems, land use and resource depletion – particularly water – by 2050.

Today, 17% of the farmable land in Switzerland is used for organic produce – one of the highest percentages in the world – but 70% of its food-related land use takes place outside the country. Swiss residents eat too much meat and consume too many calories from sugar and oil, with major consequences on both the environment and public health.

The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health has introduced a Swiss Food Pyramid to encourage people to adopt healthier, more sustainable diets. Other dietary guidelines, issued by the EAT-Lancet Commission, suggest consuming fewer dairy products and eating more whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. The EAT-Lancet guidelines have a greater focus on sustainability and aim to provide as healthy a diet as possible while minimizing the environmental impact.

In the first of Crosnier’s four scenarios, Swiss people adopt the Swiss Pyramid, and food continues to be produced as it is today. In the second, Swiss people switch to the EAT-Lancet diet, but no changes are made to how food is produced. In the third, Swiss people adopt the Swiss Pyramid but all food is produced organically. And in the fourth, the EAT-Lancet diet is combined with entirely organic production.

Less meat = lower impact

Crosnier’s findings aren’t as straightforward as you might think. All four scenarios lead to a reduction in the food industry’s environmental impact and are feasible from a land-use perspective. The best scenario in terms of the climate, ecotoxicity and water use is the fourth one (the EAT-Lancet diet coupled with organic production). However, because organic crops have lower yields – a situation that will change in the future – this scenario would create environmentally harmful externalities, such as with regard to land use. Also, land at high altitudes that’s currently used for pasturing dairy cows can’t be easily converted to other types of farming.

In any case, eating less meat looks like the way to go, and the right approach to food production will involve combining different methods depending on the type of food. Crosnier points out that additional research is needed to quantify the potential of other opportunities like agroecology and regenerative agriculture. “There’s room in Swiss agriculture for greater biodiversity,” she says. She also advocates taking a “true cost accounting” approach to food – one that includes environmental, societal and health-related externalities. To that end, she just started a PhD on this topic, as part of the True Cost Accounting for Food initiative led by a consortium of organizations including EPFL.

A compass for a “permacircular” economy

Bissardon’s project also examined the issue of food sustainability. He developed a compass consisting of 53 indicators: 17 related specifically to agriculture and 36 broader ones covering production methods, energy use, labor practices and more. He tested his compass at a local cooperative called Le Panier Bio à 2 Roues, which delivers weekly baskets of organic produce grown by the cooperative along with 30 other local farmers within a 50-kilometer radius to 330 households in the Lausanne area. Bissardon’s compass helped the cooperative pinpoint ways of making its operations even more sustainable and better aligned with the principles of regenerative agriculture.

His approach gives farmers a comprehensive view of their impact on the Earth’s planetary boundaries, with a view to promoting an “integral ecology” system. Bissardon thus puts forth a novel method for supporting the transition to a “permacircular” economy – a concept developed by Dominique Bourg and Christian Arnsperger at the University of Lausanne. The Durabilis Awards selection panel noted that “Bissardon’s research provides a handy framework for organizations to assess their sustainability efforts across several areas and at several scales.” His easy-to-use compass can help various types of organizations take concrete steps towards building a more sustainable world.

As in prior years, the awards ceremony was followed by a convivial raclette meal, but the dried meat traditionally served with the dish was replaced with a selection of vegetables. And it was a zero-waste event: the attendees took home the leftovers, leaving with their stomachs full and their minds nourished.

Author: Emmanuelle Marendaz Colle

Source: Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation (VPT)

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