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Can eco-farming help fight hunger?

A recent UN report says that combining ecology and agronomy can help smallholder farmers to increase food production. Jill Richardson examines the implications.

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With food prices at an all time high, the number of people going hungry in the world may once again rise above one billion. For many years now, world leaders and international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank have grappled with how to increase food production to feed a growing population while simultaneously mitigating climate change and confronting a shortage of resources like oil, water and topsoil.

Now a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, has said that the approach known as agroecology has the potential to double food production in key areas within 10 years, while simultaneously providing rural livelihoods, sequestering carbon and building in resilience to climate extremes.

“To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. And today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilisers in boosting food production in regions where the hungry live,” said de Schutter. He added, “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations.” The majority of the world’s hungry are smallholder farmers. The evidence shows that, using agroecology, these farmers can increase their food production to provide for their families.

Agroecology combines the fields of ecology and agronomy, seeking to build sustainable, diverse and productive agroecosystems by mimicking nature. Often, agroecology begins by observing traditional or indigenous agriculture and analysing the scientific principles underlying them. In this way, modern science can help improve -- but not discard and replace -- traditional agricultural systems, effectively making use of local knowledge and resources. The new report describes one agroecological system used in east Asia, in which a farmer raises rice, ducks and azolla (an aquatic fern) together. The azolla suppresses weeds and provides nutrients to the rice and food for the ducks, while the ducks eat bugs that might otherwise become pests to the rice. Thus, the farmer will not need to purchase additional inputs like fertiliser, herbicides or insecticides in order to produce both rice and ducks.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist with Pesticide Action Network, summarised the benefits of agroecology: “Through ecological practices, farmers can increase biological diversity, decrease erosion, improve water and nutrient cycling, provide habitat for pollinators and build the soil’s organic matter.” Ishii-Eiteman was one of over 400 scientists who worked on the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, published in 2008. This report also found that agroecology promised a powerful means for smallholder farmers to increase food production and decrease hunger in the world.

According to Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First, an organisation that works to eliminate the injustices that cause hunger, agroecology is used by peasant farmers throughout the developing world. For example, the Campesino a Campesino Movement has spread it throughout many parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia over the past two decades. Noting that agroecology has largely been ignored or even criticised by industry and governments as being unable to produce enough food to end hunger, he said: “Agroecology has been spread primarily by peasant and smallholder groups and NGOs, often working with independent scientists… Because of this, practice is racing far ahead of theory. It is actually a very exciting field of science because of its tremendously positive impact on the ground with relatively little investment.”

The only government in the world to promote agroecology in a significant way is Cuba, which adopted agroecology out of necessity: after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the communist state was left outside the network of international trade others relied upon to produce and import food. Cubans refer to the years that followed as the “Special Period”. It was a time when Cubans, without access to the necessary oil, fertiliser and pesticides to grow their food using industrial methods, had their lives turned upside down. But Cuba acted quickly to adopt and disseminate agroecological farming methods among its people. Because of fuel shortages, it also had to locate farms and gardens in and around urban areas to minimise transportation needs. Holt-Gimenez calls Cuba “a very hopeful example of what could be if government really got behind the agroecological approach.”

To date, the United States has not embraced agroecology, either among its own farmers or in its efforts to provide agricultural aid abroad. In the US, a small percentage of farms are now organic and grow food without nitrogen fertiliser, toxic pesticides or genetically modified seeds. However, most American organic farms practice input substitution, an intermediary step between industrial agriculture and agroecology. In the input substitution stage, chemical inputs are each replaced with organic ones; manure is used instead of nitrogen fertiliser; and organic pesticides like Bt are used instead of more toxic and persistent ones. However, true agroecological design is “probably rare” in the US, said Holt-Gimenez, though he noted that some wineries were converting to agroecology.

One of the most famous agroecological farms in the US is Polyface Farms, the Virginia farm of Joel Salatin. Salatin has carefully choreographed an “orchestra” of livestock, rotating each species around his farm to maximise productivity and ecological benefit. First, his beef cattle will graze a pasture before they move on to a new location. A few days later, after fly larvae have hatched and grown fat in the manure the cattle left behind, Salatin will bring in his portable chicken coop. The chickens eagerly eat the fly larvae, ridding Salatin of an insect problem while also spreading the manure so it can fertilise the soil. In this way, the cattle and chickens are moved around the farm, allowing each pasture to recover from grazing before the cattle return once again. He has similarly clever strategies for raising his pigs, rabbits and turkeys.

In his report, de Schutter wrote that agroecology’s “resource-conserving, low-external-input techniques have a proven potential to improve yields,” citing a study that found an average increase in crop yields of 79% once agroecological techniques were adopted. The report also noted the importance of biodiversity in improving the diets of smallholder farmers. While the majority of one’s calories may come from staple grains like rice, wheat or maize, supplementary foods grown in biodiverse agroecological systems will provide vital nutrients or even provide an important source of food during lean times.

The report also emphasised the importance of adopting agricultural techniques that can both mitigate climate change and provide resilience to the increasing climate extremes the world will likely experience in the coming years. First, it lauds agroecology for “delinking food production from the reliance on fossil energy (oil and gas)” and contributing to “mitigating climate change, both by increasing carbon sinks in soil organic matter and above-ground biomass, and by avoiding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from farms by reducing direct and indirect energy use.” Additionally, it notes agroecology’s ability to “significantly cushion the negative impacts” of extreme weather events like droughts or hurricanes.

In his report, de Schutter calls for nations to take actions to help smallholder farmers in developing nations adopt agroecological farming, like reinvesting in agricultural research and extension services, investing in forms of social organisation that encourage partnerships, empowering women and “creating a macro-economic enabling environment, including connecting sustainable farms to fair markets.”

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that the world must increase food production by 70% by 2050 in order to feed a population of over 9 billion. If the world follows the path outlined in de Schutter’s report and attains the productivity gains that the research indicates are possible, then it could even exceed that necessary increase in food production -- and it could do so long before 2050.


Jill Richardson is
founder of La Vida Locavore and the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do To Fix It.

Homepage image from David Bradbeer

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Default thumb avatar
anumakonda

生态农业

好文章,

生态农业学家研究各种生态农业系统,生态农业的定义与耕种方式无关,无论是有机的、商业的、密集型的还是广播型的;它与特定管理方式也无关,无论是以天敌替代杀虫剂,还是以混播代替单一播种。
另外,生态农业学家并非是毫无异议地反对在农业中的一切技术与投入,而是评估如何、何时使用这些技术以及是否能够与自然、社会和人类学手段结合使用。生态农业学提出一种背景,或者说是一种结合实地情况研究生态农业系统的态度,正因为如此,它不认为会有一种放之四海而皆准的公式或操作流程来使生态农业取得成功。

A.Jagadeesh 博士(美联社),印度内洛尔

Agroecological Farming

Good Article,

Agroecologists study a variety of agroecosystems, and the field of agroecology is not associated with any one particular method of farming, whether it be organic, conventional, intensive or extensive. Furthermore, it is not defined by certain management practices, such as the use of natural enemies in place of insecticides, or polyculture in place of monoculture.
Additionally, agroecologists do not unanimously oppose technology or inputs in agriculture but instead assess how, when, and if technology can be used in conjunction with natural, social and human assets. Agroecology proposes a context- or site-specific manner of studying agroecosystems, and as such, it recognizes that there is no universal formula or recipe for the success and maximum well-being of an agroecosystem.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Default thumb avatar
iseastars

眼光要放长远

我很惊讶,作者忽略了一个事实,生态农业的元素在中国农业中已经很平常了。鲤鱼和生活在水田里的两栖动物间的共生关系形成了正向的反馈回路。

大量使用化学农药的支持者声称这些做法的高收益对养活日益膨胀的世界人口是必要的。

事实上,大量使用能源和化学农药的耕作方式所带来的毒害性影响往往远甚其利。

径流中氮过量而引起的富营养化使藻类大量繁殖,危及到河流生态系统。肥料和杀虫剂使土壤养分大量流失,久而久之,农民们不得不舍弃这片贫瘠的土地而另寻新田,也就导致了乱砍滥伐等等。

但是如果你正在读这篇文章,你居然熟悉这样的主题,真的很凑巧。看到中外对话上的生态农业的讨论,我很高兴,因为我们真的需要扩大生态农业的实施范围。

附:美国之所以没有接受生态农业是受孟山都公司和卡吉尔公司的政治影响之故。

Let's Think Long Term

I'm surprised the author didn't mention the fact that elements of agroecology are already common in Chinese agriculture. The symbiotic relationship between carp fish as well as amphibians that live in rice paddies create positive feedback loops.

Proponents of GE and chemical intensive agriculture claim that high-yields from these practices are necessary to feed the growing world population.

When in fact the deleterious effects of energy and chemical intensive agricultural methods often outweigh the benefits.

Algal blooms trigged by eutrophication due to Nitrogen runoff choke river ecosystems. Fertilizers and pesticides strip soils of their nutrients over time forcing farmers to abandon this barren land and till new fields. Thus leading to deforestation etc.

But if you are reading this article, chances you are familiar with such themes! I'm very happy to see argroecology discussed on China Dialogue, as we really to need to expand the scope of it's implementation.

PS. The US doesn't embrace Agroecology due to the political clout of Monsanto and Cargill Corporation :X