Why agroecology is the answer to reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions

The following excellent essay is by our current volunteer resident, Grace Jirik, who is currently nearing completion of a Bachelor of Ag Science & International Development. Grace has precisely captured why so many young people are turning hopefully to agroecological farming at the same time that others are running from industrial agriculture. With emerging young farmers like Grace lined up to take over the reins, I reckon the future looks bright!

* * *

Approximately one third of total greenhouse gases are attributed to agriculture and the food systems that support it.[1] It is predicted by climate scientists that warming of more than two degrees celsius will cause irreversible damage to the environment and catastrophic consequences for humanity.[2] Thus, it is of vital importance that the sector drastically shifts away from further industrialisation and instead adopts methods to reduce the contribution to the climate change crisis. The population is expected to reach 8.9 billion by 2050 and increase the demand for food, particularly in the world’s poorest countries.[3] However, the calls to drastically increase food production to meet demand with further industrialisation of the sector and deforestation of arable land is an unsustainable trajectory. In reality, food systems may only need to increase production by 25% to meet demand [4] which can largely be achieved by adopting agroecological models of farming. Without a drastic remodelling of world agricultural systems, the increase in food production will have catastrophic environmental consequences and further reduce the agricultural systems capacity to produce enough food.

The emergence of the so-called “Green Revolution” and the proliferation of industrial farming in the 1960s [5] greatly increased agricultural production through the introduction of artificial fertiliser and the breeding of cultivars to respond to these inputs.[6] But after 50 years, the sector is now faced with the reality that these farming methods are unsustainable and have resulted in a drastic loss of productivity in recent decades.[7] Despite this, industrial agriculture continues to hold a powerful position due to the vicious cycle that it has forged in the sector, paired with the continued availability of cheap fuel.[8] In order to change this trajectory, farming systems need to transition to agroecological models; that is, farming that strives to “mimic natural processes, thus creating beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of the agroecosystem”.[9] This model must be widely adopted to help curb global warming and maintain sustainable food systems that can feed the world into the future. In the words of Fuhrer and Gregory, “There is no doubt that agriculture can (and must) be part of the solution to the problem of global warming.”[10]

Agroecological farming systems can mitigate much of the greenhouse gas emissions currently produced by agriculture. Currently, 10-12 percent of global emissions are directly from agriculture [11] and a further 4-13 percent from land clearing for agricultural land use.[12] Much of these emissions come from industrial farming methods that require high inputs of fertiliser, energy and water.[13] In contrast, agroecological farming models use more holistic land management methods. For example, the use of integrated pest management uses beneficial insects, plant deterrents, and staggered crop planting to control pests instead of heavy applications of chemical pesticide.[14] Studies have shown that on farms where integrated pest management was adopted, there was a 71 percent decrease in pesticide use and a yield increase of 42 percent.[15] If such methods were embraced across the world, the energy required for manufacture and transport of pesticide would be enormously reduced and those emissions successfully mitigated.

Similarly, the overuse of fertiliser is a significant area for mitigation potential. The greenhouse gas emissions released in fertiliser manufacture and transport represent the majority of total emissions released in agricultural ‘preproduction’.[16] In addition, direct application of nitrogen fertiliser on soil is the source of most (58%) [17] of total global nitrous oxide production; a gas that has 310 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.[18] By employing the use of green manures, crop rotation and regenerative methods of farming, the use of fertiliser can be cut down without sacrificing yield [19] and consequently mitigate a significant portion of the agricultural sector’s emissions.

Another area with arguably the most significant potential for greenhouse gas mitigation is carbon sequestration in soil. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 89 percent of agricultural carbon could be mitigated using better practices to ensure soil carbon storage.[20] Soils that contain more organic matter have a much greater ability to store carbon in the long term.[21] Due to the regenerative nature of agroecological practices such as not tilling the land, crop rotation and low stocking density, the soil on these farms tends to have far higher rates of ‘soil organic carbon’ than industrial farms [22], hence releasing less carbon into the atmosphere directly from the soil. And finally, the role of plants in metabolising carbon in the atmosphere is known, the IPCC estimates that “1,146 GtC is stored within the 4.17 b ha of tropical, temperate, and boreal forest areas”.[23] Agroforestry, the planting of trees on farmland, is a key part of agroecological farms and can be a part of the solution to widespread land clearing.[24]

In addition to mitigation, agroecological farming systems will be important in the adaptation required in the face of climate change. There are a plethora of studies that show that agroecological systems are more resilient to climatic shocks than conventional systems.[25,26] This is mainly due to the increased ground cover, higher levels of organic matter within soils and the diversified species on farm that are common in agroecological systems.[27] With the expected increase in damaging climatic events such as cyclones, floods and droughts[28], it is vital for farmers to be able to protect themselves from these events. For example, when ‘Hurricane Mitch’ hit Nicaragua in 1998, those farmers who had adopted agroecological methods such as agroforestry, had 69 percent less gully erosion and retained 40 percent more topsoil than those who had not.[29] Agroforestry is also extremely beneficial in providing shade and preventing heat stress in livestock.[30] It is also known that agroecological farms require less water[31] which will become increasingly important as temperatures start to rise and droughts become more prevalent.

Further to the physical environmental benefits, agroecological systems also build community and individual adaptive capacity. The IPCC has recognised that people who are “socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change”.[32] Thus, for the majority of the world’s poor living in rural areas and working in agriculture[33], the challenges of global warming will be especially debilitating. Many efforts in the past that attempted to improve the livelihood of these farmers simply replicated the industrial farming model of increasing inputs in order to raise yields of a globally marketable cash crop.[34] However, the failures of this method are evident, as “815 million hungry people are family farmers who produce most of the planet’s food”.[35] Agroecological farming systems can help protect from shocks in climate and in the market that would otherwise undermine these livelihoods. By diversifying what is farmed instead of producing a monocultural cash crop, the farmer is less at risk of climate related plant defects or market failure of that particular product.[36] Additionally, an agroecological model that is less reliant on external inputs such as fertilisers, chemicals and diesel fuel makes farmers less dependent on a potentially vulnerable supply chain.[37] Agroecology has also been shown to bring a strong social dimension to farming in strengthen the social security networks that are essential to resilience.[38] This is especially true when agroecological methods of farming has been disseminated from farmer to farmer through self organisation, collective action and reciprocity.[39] 

To conclude, agroecological farming can be a powerful tool in reducing the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. The methods can successfully mitigate the majority of emissions currently released. Agroecology will also be vital in societal adaptation to the effects of climate change. It will also strengthen adaptive capacity for individuals and communities. Agroecology has the power to divorce agriculture from the industrialisation that causes global warming.

Emotional Dimension

My emotional reactions to this topic were strong because much of my life outside of university revolves around this exact issue; how can I fix farming? Half of my degree is agricultural science and in a matter of months I will be on my journey to be a farmer, outside the walls of La Trobe. Researching this topic was exciting because I was able to find actual data and evidence that showed the way I want to farm is actually the best model for the planet and for my own profit.  It was encouraging and enlightening information that I will take with me on my future farming ventures.

However, researching was also incredibly frustrating at times. To be faced with the evidence that agroecological farming could be the answer to curtailing the agricultural sector’s contribution to global warming, but no evidence of wide adoption is infuriating as well as confusing. The models that are in place at the moment are undermining farmers by locking them into a heavy reliance on fossil fuels and putting money into the pockets of middle men.[40]

Recently I have had my eyes opened to the food sovereignty movement, mainly as a consequence of being an intern for Tammi Jonas, the current president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. Food Sovereignty “asserts the right of peoples to nourishing and culturally-appropriate food produced in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and their right to collectively determine their own food and agriculture systems”[41]. With my new knowledge of the movement and its importance around the world, researching how ‘big agriculture’ is dismantling farmers’ and consumers’ right to food sovereignty, was particularly emotional.

At times throughout the research I also felt helpless. Many of the industrial systems have been implemented around the world to create a dependency on the model through regulations, retail imperatives and policies that keep fossil fuels cheap.[42] This is why many farmers are ‘locked in’ to an industrial model despite how they may feel about the environmental damage they’re causing. Although I believe that there is huge opportunity for change, researching the vicious cycle of industrial farming that so many people are caught in made me feel somewhat helpless.

Existential Dimension

Much of the research on the topic confirmed my place in the world. Throughout my degree I have been exposed mainly to industrial practices of farming; however, through my own exploration I had found the agroecological alternative. I feel like I belong firmly within this space and am excited for my future in farming and being apart of the uptake of agroecology.

Additionally, I feel more encouraged to be involved in the push against industrial farming. Before researching the topic, I felt comfortable in my future of being an outlier in agriculture with alternative methods. Now I feel strongly about being a part of a global movement away from intensive farming and spreading the information that farmland will be more productive if the agroecological methods are adopted. The research showed that there are members of the industry that rely on this information not becoming wide knowledge due to their reliance on exploiting farmers. These members include fossil fuel companies, fertiliser and pesticide manufacturers and GMO companies who breed specific products to flourish in intensive environments.

However, throughout the research I found that ‘scaling up’ was a popular topic.[43] Arms of the UN such as the Human Rights Council and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) are particularly interested in how we can scale up production via agroecology.[44] This made me question my position on the issue. Although we do need to adopt better farming methods to feed the future population, one of the most significant barriers to greenhouse gas mitigation is growth.

The capitalist ideal of constant growth goes hand-in-hand with environmental degradation. And, as Herman Daly puts it; “the term ‘sustainable growth’ when applied to the economy, is a bad oxymoron – self-contradictory as prose, and unevocative as poetry”.[45] An issue that is too big to address in this essay, but unavoidable when talking of this topic, is the fact that as the population and economies continue to grow, so will greenhouse gas emissions. Agroecological agriculture will certainly bring a better environmental future, but the pressure of population is difficult to limit.

Empowerment and Action Dimension

Researching alternative methods of farming has definitely fostered a sense of responsibility to be ecologically conscious in my future farming ventures. I already knew that I wanted to run a ‘sustainable’ farm, but now I feel as if I have a better sense of direction and can better picture what form it might take.

I am at a point in my life where I believe I have the privilege to farm how I like and think that I would have enough engaged and environmentally conscious customers to be able to prosper. However, I haven’t even made it to the planning stage of my future career and I imagine that eventually I will come up against barriers and be moved to protest. For example, in Australia there has been numerous cases of overregulation of small scale farms due to the lack of differentiation between intensive and agroecological models.[46]

Though I admit that I may not be the most “engaged actor” in the near future, I believe that as I establish myself as a farmer I will become more engaged as time progresses. I will be directly exposed to the difficulties faced by small scale farmers and feel a stronger sense of responsibility to stand up for our rights. Through researching this topic and other extracurricular exploration, I have discovered peasant movements and groups small scale farmers doing exactly this and I already feel a sense of belonging among them. This subject has helped me immensely by further opening my eyes to the reality of fossil fuel domination of our society and the need to dismantle their power structures.

by Grace Jirik

Endnotes

  1. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity; A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, IPES Food [webpage], (2016) <http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/IPES_ExSummary02_1606_BRweb_pages_br.pdf> accessed 4th June 2018
  2. IPCC, IPCC: Greenhouse gas emissions accelerate despite reduction efforts Many pathways to substantial emissions reductions are available [media release], 13 April 2014, <http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/ar5/pr_wg3/20140413_pr_pc_wg3_en.pdf>, accessed 3 June 2018
  3. Hunter, M, ‘We don’t need to double world food production by 2050 – here’s why’, The Conversation [webpage], (2017) <https:// theconversation.com/we-dont-need-to-double-world-food-production-by-2050-heres-why-74211> accessed 21 July 2018
  4. Hunter M. et al., ‘Agriculture in 2050: Recalibrating Targets for Sustainable Intensification’ BioScience, vol. 67 (2017), 386–391
  5. Fitzgerald-Moore, P and Parai, BJ, The Green Revolution (Calgary: University of Calgary, 1996), 2
  6. Gliessman, S, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems (Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis Group, 2007), 3
  7. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity; A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, IPES Food [website], (June 2nd 2016) <http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/ IPES_ExSummary02_1606_BRweb_pages_br.pdf> accessed 4th June 2018
  8. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity; A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, IPES Food [website], (2016) <http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/ IPES_ExSummary02_1606_BRweb_pages_br.pdf> accessed 4th June 2018
  9. Human Rights Council, ‘Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, (2010) <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf>, accessed 30 May 2018, 2
  10. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 94
  11. B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds), Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 499
  12. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 94
  13. Vermeulen, Sonja, Campbell, Bruce, Ingram John, ‘Climate Change and Food Systems’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 37 (2012), 198
  14. Reddy, Parvatha, Climate Resilient Agriculture for Ensuring Food Security (New Delhi: Springer, 2015), 207
  15. Reddy, Parvatha, Climate Resilient Agriculture for Ensuring Food Security (New Delhi: Springer, 2015), 208
  16. Vermeulen, Sonja, Campbell, Bruce, Ingram John, ‘Climate Change and Food Systems’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 37 (2012), 195-222
  17. IPCC, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University, 2007), chp 8
  18. Environmental Protection Agency of the United States, ‘Understanding Global Warming Potentials’, EPAUS [webpage], (14 February 2017) <https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/understanding-global-warming-potentials>, accessed 6 June 2018
  19. Rosset, PM & Altieri N, Agroecology; Science and Politics (Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing, 2017)
  20. Human Rights Council, ‘Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner [website], (2010) <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf>, accessed 30 May 2018
  21. National Academy of Sciences, ‘ Breakthrough study shows organic cuts agriculture’s contribution to climate change’, NASDAQ OMX’s News Release Distribution Channel, 11 September 2017, ProQuest Central [online database], accessed 28 May 2018
  22. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 75
  23. Danesh Miah, Man Yong Shin and Masao Koike, Forests to Climate Change Mitigation (Heidelberg: Springer 2011)
  24. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 77
  25. Gliessman, S, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems (Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis Group, 2007), 3
  26. Rosset, PM & Altieri MA 2017, Agroecology; Science and Politics (Warwickshire, Practical Action Publishing, 2017), 68
  27. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ‘FAO’S Work on Agroecology’, FAO [website], (2018) <http://www.fao.org/ 3/i9021en/I9021EN.pdf>, accessed 30th May
  28. IPCC [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)], Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Geneva: IPCC, 2014)
  29. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ‘FAO’S Work on Agroecology’, FAO [website], (2018) <http://www.fao.org/ 3/i9021en/I9021EN.pdf>, accessed 30th May
  30. Stocks, Caroline, ‘Why you should plant trees on your farm’, Farmers Weekly, 15 December 2017, 18-19
  31. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Summary for decision-makers: FAO Regional Symposia of Agroecology (Rome: FAO, 2016), 7
  32. IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaption, and Vulnerability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 6
  33. World Bank, ‘Poverty Overview’, The World Bank [website], (11 April 2018) <http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview>, accessed 6 June 2018
  34. Human Rights Council, ‘Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner [website], (2010) <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf>, accessed 30 May 2018, 6
  35. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ‘FAO’S Work on Agroecology’, FAO [website], (2018) <http://www.fao.org/ 3/i9021en/I9021EN.pdf>, page 6, accessed 30th May
  36. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014)
  37. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 10
  38. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Summary for decision-makers: FAO Regional Symposia of Agroecology (Rome: FAO, 2016), 10
  39. Rosset, PM & Altieri N, Agroecology; Science and Politics (Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing, 2017), 92
  40. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity; A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, IPES Food [webpage], (2016) <http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/ IPES_ExSummary02_1606_BRweb_pages_br.pdf> accessed 4th June 2018
  41. AFSA, ‘About us’, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance [website], <https://afsa.org.au/blog/2017/11/29/nsw-planning-policy- reforms/>, accessed 8 June 2018
  42. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity; A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, IPES Food [webpage], (2016) <http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/ IPES_ExSummary02_1606_BRweb_pages_br.pdf> accessed 4th June 2018
  43. Human Rights Council, ‘Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, (2010) <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf>, accessed 30 May 2018
  44. FAO, ‘Scaling Up Agroecology Initiative’, FAO, (2018) <http://www.fao.org/3/I9049EN/i9049en.pdf>, accessed 8 June 2018
  45. Daly, H., ‘Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem’ in Dawson, J et al. (eds.), Living Within Planetary Limits, (Hampshire: Permanent Publications 2010)
  46. De Wit, S., NSW Planning Policy Reforms, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance [website], 17 Novemer 2017 <https:// afsa.org.au/blog/2017/11/29/nsw-planning-policy-reforms/>, accessed 8 June 2018

Bibliography

AFSA, ‘About us’, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance [website], <https://afsa.org.au/blog/2017/11/29/nsw-planning-policy-reforms/>, accessed 8 June 2018

Burney, JA et al., ‘Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107/26 (2010), 12052-12057

De Wit S., NSW Planning Policy Reforms, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance [website], 17 Novemer 2017 <https://afsa.org.au/blog/2017/11/29/nsw-planning-policy-reforms/>, accessed 8 June 2018

Daly, H., ‘Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem’ in Dawson, J et al. (eds.), Living Within Planetary Limits, (Hampshire: Permanent Publications 2010)

Environmental Protection Agency of the United States, ‘Understanding Global Warming Potentials’, EPAUS [webpage], (14 February 2017) <https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/understanding-global-warming-potentials>, accessed 6 June 2018

Fitzgerald-Moore, P and Parai, BJ, The Green Revolution (Calgary: University of Calgary, 1996)

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ‘FAO’S Work on Agroecology’, FAO [website], (2018) <http://www.fao.org/3/i9021en/I9021EN.pdf>, accessed 30th May

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Summary for decision-makers: FAO Regional Symposia of Agroecology (Rome: FAO, 2016)

FAO, ‘Scaling Up Agroecology Initiative’, FAO, (2018) <http://www.fao.org/3/I9049EN/i9049en.pdf>, accessed 8 June 2018

Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014)

Gliessman, Stephen, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems (Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis Group, 2007),

Human Rights Council, ‘Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner [website], (2010) <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf>, accessed 30 May 2018

Hunter, M, ‘We don’t need to double world food production by 2050 – here’s why’, The Conversation [webpage], (2017) <https://theconversation.com/we-dont-need-to-double-world-food-production-by-2050-heres-why-74211> accessed 21 July 2018

Hunter M. et al., ‘Agriculture in 2050: Recalibrating Targets for Sustainable Intensification’ BioScience, vol. 67 (2017), 386–391

IPCC [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)], Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Geneva: IPCC, 2014)

IPCC, IPCC: Greenhouse gas emissions accelerate despite reduction efforts Many pathways to substantial emissions reductions are available [media release], 13 April 2014, <http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/ar5/pr_wg3/20140413_pr_pc_wg3_en.pdf>, accessed 3 June 2018

IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaption, and Vulnerability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

IPCC, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University, 2007)

Metz, B, Davidson, OR, Bosch, PR, Dave R, Meyer, LA (eds), Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Rosset, PM & Altieri N, Agroecology; Science and Politics (Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing, 2017)

Stocks, Caroline, ‘Why you should plant trees on your farm’, Farmers Weekly, 15 December 2017, 18-19

Vermeulen, Sonja, Campbell, Bruce, Ingram John, ‘Climate Change and Food Systems’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 37 (2012), 195-222

World Bank, ‘Poverty Overview’, The World Bank [webpage], (11 April 2018) <http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview>, accessed 6 June 2018

French Farming: Small is beautiful

Would you rather sleep under a patchwork quilt made by your grandma and her friends or a synthetic bedspread from K-mart? It’s not a tough decision, right? So why do we accept what’s happened to our landscape more readily than our beds? (Maybe we don’t and you’re all sleeping under synthetic doonas, in which case my apologies.)

Driving through the French countryside over the past two weeks, I was constantly struck by the smallness of the farms. Having driven plenty of rural routes in Australia and America, I’ve seen what monolithic monocultures look like, and it’s a very different vista from the French farmlands we passed.

Where in America or some parts of Australia there might be hundreds or thousands of acres of the same crop blanketing the land (less a blanket than sheets of pesticide-laden plastic wrap robbing the very soil of its breath), in France each paddock is defined well before the next horizon. Patchworks of corn, sweetbeets and cheery sunflowers roll diversely amongst copses of forests old and new.

Sunflowers!

The patchworks are seamed together with kilometres of byways that run through countless small villages, the charming life-story embroidery of generations that warm the countryside.

Even the dairy herds are small – we regularly saw paddocks with 20-40 cattle in them attached to what we would consider a micro-dairy in Australia. Given the very different regulations around raw milk, it’s perhaps unsurprising how many of these small dairies are able to maintain control of their supply chains and sales.

The dairy paddocks are typically dotted with compost piles around the boundaries, as the most environmentally and economically sustainable means of fertilizing the paddocks is to collect the cattle’s manure and compost it on the farm. Happily I’ve seen some resurgence in these practices in Australia, with examples like Camperdown Compost helping dairy farms close the loop and reduce synthetic inputs.

The countryside is also dotted with pigeon towers (or dovecotes…), where pigeons were once grown for both their meat and their excellent fertilizer. While I don’t think many are still in operation, they tell a tale of a time before exploitation of the world’s finite phosphate supplies led to our current system of externalizing environmental costs.

IMG_5092

A great example of working in agro-ecological ways is the Chapolards’ farm near Nèrac – they call it short circuit, or full circle farming. We spent time with the wonderful Dominique & Christiane Chapolard, where along with Dom’s brothers and their families they run a ‘seed to sausage’ pig farm. They grow nearly all their own feed for the pigs on their 100 acres, where they have 30 sows. Effluence is stored in an on-farm lagoon before being applied to the fields growing maize, fava beans and grains in rotation. They do all their own butchering and charcuterie making on the farm and sell directly through their local farmers’ markets – and the enterprise supports five families.

Dom & Chris

We were fortunate enough to host the Chapolards at Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths along with Kate Hill of Kitchen-at-Camont just a few months ago. I’ll write in more detail about their farm in a further post…

The next generation of Chapolards is also involved in the business, and one of Dom’s nephews Roman Chapolard has added another enterprise on the farm – a full-circle dairy. He runs 40 head of dairy cattle and packages his milk on farm as well as doing some simple further processing such as yoghurt and crème fraiche to sell at the local markets.

Roman Chapolard's raw milk

The capacity to value add and sell directly obviously enables farmers to remain much smaller than if they’re forced into long supply chains where everyone gets a smaller cut of the dollar. I understand this not just from a fair food advocate’s perspective, but also from a successful small producer’s view.

And while France may have millennia on which to have grown these communities and sewn them together, a key point is that they still maintain them and enjoy the benefits of thriving rural communities as a result.

Dom and Christiane shared their concerns with us that the next generation is losing interest in manual labour, and leaving the land for white-collar professions, following a trend seen the world over. We all agreed that if people like them keep up their political work within and beyond their cooperative, and spreading the word at the markets, there is hope that the fair food revolution will gain strength in France just as it is growing in Australia, which started off skiing along in the wake of America’s food revolution (though I think we’re set to drive our own boat now).

When you lose family farms from the land, you lose families from communities. Australia’s farming statistics on the decline of the family farm mirror the decline of our rural communities. We should be very worried about this loss and its ramifications for not just the quality of life of rural Australians, but also the quality of food produced in large, intensive agriculture.

We need to value the many environmental and social benefits of families growing food for families, rather than corporations growing food for supermarkets where families happen to shop.

It’s time for a Local Food Act!

Should Animals Be Off the Menu?

Last week I went along to one of the Wheeler Centre’s IQ2 debates, ‘Should Animals Be off the Menu?’ with my usual high hopes of learning something new, and in a way, I suppose I both learned something new and confirmed something old.

New: vegans can stack the Town Hall.

Old: most people don’t actually want to learn, they just want to be right.

So allow me to take you through the ‘debate’, such that it was…

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of Animal Liberation (1975), was the first speaker for the affirmative. Singer is what I usually refer to (perhaps sloppily) as an ethical pragmatist, but I gather he is more rightly classified a secular, preference utilitarian ethicist… (Although I have some training in philosophy, it’s not actually my field, so please correct me insofar as it is useful to the discussion we will have here, but not for the pure pleasure of pedantry, if you please.)

Singer opened with the arguments I would expect from him, and ones I agree with:

  • ‘we can live a healthy life without eating animals’, and
  • ‘misuse of grain to feed animals is wasteful’.

On the first point, I agree with Singer that the majority of the global north could lead a healthy vegetarian life. I certainly did for seven years of my life. I’m not sure it would solve our environmental woes given the state of industrial monocropping, industrial-scale dairy and intensive poultry raising for the majority of the world’s eggs, but he’s right, most of us could be healthy as vegetarians. As for how healthy even we in the global north could be as vegans, there are healthy vegans around (and some less healthy), but I’d be interested in research around how many are taking supplements (especially B12…), and what sustainability would really look like if we all ate fridgeloads of processed soy products.

In many parts of the global south, strict vegetarianism or veganism is clearly less healthy given lack of availability of nutrient-dense foods, but I’ll return to that point later.

Continue reading Should Animals Be Off the Menu?

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.

Continue reading Why agroecology is essential to food security