Why agroecology is essential to food security

A recurring claim in discussions of food security is that small-scale organic agriculture cannot feed the world, a claim used to support the continued centralisation of agriculture into the hands of a few mega-multinational corporations, who will save us all with GM crops. Arguments are posited around higher yield and decreased pesticide use with GM crops, totally eliding the high yields that can be obtained in organic agriculture and the complete lack of pesticides in these systems, just for a start. Such GM propaganda is utterly spurious and refuted in the literature.

The field of agroecology offers a rich body of work that makes the argument for moving to more sustainable, small-scale agriculture, whether organic or with reduced external inputs such as commercial fertilisers and pesticides. In a few recent discussions I’ve had with supporters of GM, I’ve sent them links to reports to back up the clear and demonstrable evidence that we must move to a very different way of producing food that works to preserve natural resources and regenerate landscape while supporting local communities, but I don’t believe any of them ever read the research.

So today I decided to tweet quotes and paraphrases from one piece of work, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food report: ‘Agroecology and the Right to Food‘, released on the 3rd of August 2011. I hoped that by reading the 21-page report myself and offering just the highlights, those who speak loudly on a topic they appear to know little about might be better informed. Of course I also knew it would offer plenty of good evidence for those already advocating for sustainable ag. I offer you the list of the quotes and paraphrases I tweeted here in one place for easy reference. Note that most of these are direct quotes from the report, and a couple of them are paraphrased – I have not added any of my own comments.

Another excellent resource of the latest research in agroecology is The Laboratory of Agroecology and Urban Ecosystems at Washington State University Vancouver – and you might like to follow Assistant Professor Jahi Chappell on twitter – he’s @mjahi – as he often tweets links to relevant research.

Quotes & paraphrases from Agroecology and the Right to Food

  • agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just
  • Foreign direct investment in agriculture went from an average US$ 600 million annually in the 1990s to an average US$ 3 billion in 2005-2007.
  • …increasing food production to meet future needs, while necessary, is not sufficient. It will not allow significant progress in combating hunger and malnutrition if it is not combined with higher incomes and improved livelihoods for the poorest – particularly small-scale farmers in developing countries.
  • pouring money into agriculture is not sufficient – must take steps towards ‘low-carbon, resource-preserving agriculture that benefits poorest farmers’
  • It can only happen by design, through strategies and programmes backed by strong political will, and informed by a right-to-food approach.
  • Participation of food-insecure groups in the design and implementation of the policies that most affect them is also a key dimension of the right to food.
  • food systems must ensure the availability of food for everyone, that is, supply must match world needs.
  • At present, nearly half the world’s cereal production is used to produce animal feed, & meat consumption is increasing.
  • Problem w most widely cited need to increase ag production by 70% by 2050 is it takes demand curve as a given.
  • UNEP estimates loss of calories from feeding cereals to animals rather than humans represents the annual calorie need of 3.5 billion people
  • Planting, harvest & post-harvest waste, combined w increased production of grains for agrofuel tightens pressure on agriculture supplies
  • agriculture must develop in ways that increase the incomes of smallholders
  • hunger today is mostly attributable not to stocks that are too low or to global supplies unable to meet demand, but to poverty
  • GDP growth originating in agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as GDP growth originating outside agriculture
  • When large estates increase their revenue, most of it is spent on imported inputs and machinery, and much less trickles down to local traders
  • Only by supporting small producers can we help break the vicious cycle that leads from rural poverty to the expansion of urban slums
  • loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of water, and pollution of soils and water are issues which compromise the continuing ability for natural resources to support agriculture.
  • Climate change, which translates in more frequent and extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods and less predictable rainfall, is already having a severe impact on the ability of certain regions and communities to feed themselves. It is also destabilizing markets.
  • Most efforts in the past mimicked industrial processes where external inputs serve to produce outputs in linear model of production
  • agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking nature instead of industry
  • This report suggests that scaling up agroecological practices can simultaneously increase farm productivity and food security, improve incomes and rural livelihoods, and reverse the trend towards species loss and genetic erosion.
  • The core principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in agroecosystems over time and space; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species. Agroecology is highly knowledge-intensive, based on techniques that are not delivered top-down but developed on the basis of farmers’ knowledge and experimentation.
  • agroecology is more overarching as it supports building drought resistant agricultural systems (including soils, plants, agrobiodiversity, etc.), not just drought-resistant plants.
  • Integration of livestock into farming systems, such as dairy cattle, pigs and poultry, provides a source of protein to the family, as well as a means of fertilizing soils
  • it was found that the average crop yield increase was even higher for agroecology projects than the global average of 79 per cent at 116 per cent increase for all African projects and 128 per cent increase for projects in East Africa
  • Kenya: ‘push pull’ strategy – plant insect-repellent, stock fodder crops amongst corn & Napier grass at edge to attract & trap pests. The push-pull strategy doubles maize yields and milk production while, at the same time, improves the soil.
  • In Japan, farmers found that ducks and fish were as effective as pesticide for controlling insects in rice paddies, while providing additional protein for their families.
  • An optimal solution that could be an exit strategy from fertilizer subsidy schemes would be to link fertilizer subsidies directly to agroforestry investments on the farm in order to provide for long-term sustainability in nutrient supply, and to build up soil health as the basis for sustained yields and improved efficiency of fertilizer response.35 Malawi is reportedly exploring this “subsidy to sustainability” approach.36
  • By enhancing on-farm fertility production, agroecology reduces farmers’ reliance on external inputs and state subsidies
  • Agroecological approaches can be labour-intensive during their launching period, due to the complexity of the tasks of managing different plants and animals on the farm, and recycling the waste produced. However, research shows that the higher labour-intensity of agroecology is a reality particularly in the short term. In addition, while labour-saving policies have generally been prioritized by governments, creation of employment in rural areas in developing countries, where underemployment is currently massive, and demographic growth remains high, may constitute an advantage rather than a liability and may slow down rural-urban migration.
  • According to peasant organizations, agroecology is also more attractive to farmers, because it procures pleasant features for those working the land for long hours, such as shade from trees or the absence of smell and toxicity from chemicals.
  • need to produce equipment for conservation agricultural techniques such as no-till and direct seeding actually results in more jobs being created in the manufacturing sector
  • The shift from diversified cropping systems to simplified cereal-based systems thus contributed to micronutrient malnutrition in many developing countries
  • The use of agroecological techniques can significantly cushion the negative impacts of extreme weather events, for resilience is strengthened by the use and promotion of agricultural biodiversity at ecosystem, farm system and farmer field levels, which is materialized by many agroecological approaches.
  • Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch: On average, agroecological plots lost 18 per cent less arable land to landslides than conventional plots and had 69 per cent less gully erosion compared to conventional farms
  • on-farm experiments in Ethiopia, India, and the Netherlands have demonstrated that the physical properties of soils on organic farms improved the drought resistance of crops
  • agroecological practice of cultivar mixtures bets on genetic diversity in the fields in order to improve crop resistance to diseases
  • In the Yunnan Province in China, after disease susceptible rice varieties were planted in mixtures with resistant varieties, yields improved by 89 per cent and rice blast disease was 94 per cent less severe than when the varieties were grown in monoculture, leading farmers to abandon the use of fungicidal sprays.
  • Agroecology also puts agriculture on the path of sustainability by delinking food production from the reliance on fossil energy
  • It contributes to mitigating climate change, both by increasing carbon sinks in soil organic matter and above-ground biomass, and by avoiding carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions from farms by reducing direct and indirect energy use
  • Farmer field schools have been shown to significantly reduce the amounts of pesticide use, as inputs are being replaced by knowledge
  • Large-scale studies from Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh recorded 35 to 92 per cent reduction in insecticide use in rice, and 34 to 66 per cent reduction in pesticide use, combined with 4 to 14 per cent better yields recorded in cotton production in China, India and Pakistan
  • The incentive structures which such policies create to encourage the shift towards sustainable farming should be regularly tested and re-evaluated with the participation of the beneficiaries, transforming policy into a mode of “social learning rather than an exercise of political authority.”
  • Agroecological techniques are best spread from farmer to farmer, since they are often specific to an agroecological zone.
  • Agroecological practices require supply of public goods, but investment is significantly more sustainable than provision of private goods….such as fertilisers or pesticides that farmers can only afford so long as they’re subsidised
  • agricultural research has the greatest overall impact on poverty and agricultural productivity in developing countries
  • perhaps bc this sort of research cannot be rewarded by patents, private sector has been largely absent from it’
  • Rather than treating smallholder farmers as beneficiaries of aid, they should be seen as experts with knowledge that is complementary to formalized expertise
  • participation can ensure that policies and programmes are truly responsive to the needs of vulnerable groups, who will question projects that fail to improve their situation
  • participation empowers the poor – a vital step towards poverty alleviation
  • Participation of food insecure groups in the policies that affect them should become a crucial element of all food security policies
  • Specific, targeted schemes should ensure that women are empowered and encouraged to participate in this construction of knowledge.
  • gender issues are incorporated into less than 10 per cent of development assistance in agriculture, and women farmers receive only 5 per cent of agricultural extension services worldwide
  • Farmers should also be encouraged to move up the value chain by adding value to raw products through assuming increased roles in packaging, processing, and marketing their produce
  • support for agroecological practices will fail to achieve the desired results if markets are not organized to protect farmers from volatile prices and the dumping of subsidized products on their local markets, which can seriously disrupt local production

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community.

8 thoughts on “Why agroecology is essential to food security”

  1. This is very interesting, thank you for this. I am one of those who has held the opinion that large-scale and GM are our best bet for feeding 7 billion people. I must admit I get uncomfortable with much promotion of small-scale, localised “organic” gardening as it seems something only the wealthy can access, crazy as that should be. This post makes me realise I need to read up further before cementing my opinion.
    Still, it sounds like the world has a lot of work to do to rearrange things, to accommodate the recommendations quoted here. Do you see this as achievable?

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Jackie, and your desire to keep learning more about how we’re actually going to pull this ‘feed the world’ problem off. 🙂 Ultimately, I definitely think we can make the changes necessary to tread more lightly and so leave a world for many future generations to enjoy, respectfully. But there’s a lot of work to be done, and many people to educate to get there, and we have what the Americans call Big Food and Big Agri (and their relationships with governments) who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo with which to contend.

  3. I read the report you linked to and nothing in it made me question that GE is a good way to make better cultivars. It’s a good read, but it doesn’t really provide much evidence, just claims and citations (to papers which presumably provide the evidence).

    It’s not really my field, but I have an interest. Can you link to the literature that refutes higher yields and reduced pesticide use with GE?

    Also I’m puzzled by the focus on small scale – is there something about large-scale agriculture that means agro-ecological principles can’t be used?

  4. Tammi, Thanks for collecting the info. If you are going to all the trouble to copy direct quotes for many of your entries, quotation marks would be a help, so I could know which I could use as quotes, if that’s what I need.

  5. Hi Jane, thanks for reading. 🙂 I would usually quote my sources, but this was one long summary that I had tweeted as I read it, and in the interest of efficiency, I simply popped up all the quotes & paraphrases as bullet points. The report is short, and I would recommend if you want to cite it, you’d be best to look at it for the context of the quotes anyway.

  6. “In Japan, farmers found that ducks and fish were as effective as pesticide for controlling insects in rice paddies, while providing additional protein for their families.”

    This is a great example of living in harmony with animals, but in no way justifies slaughtering them. Protein is not a limiting nutrient, as it is found in all fruit and veg. The only people who develop a protein deficiency are those who are starving to death.

    I can see that animal-based fertilisers may improve the sustainability of some crop farming, but this in no way justifies animal exploitation for food.

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