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

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

National Sustainable Food Summit 2011

The National Sustainable Food Summit was put on in Melbourne 5/6 April by 3 Pillars Network – on their website they say they ‘will be the leading knowledge network for sustainable business in Australia.’

When I saw the event advertised, I knew immediately that I wanted to go. Unfortunately, my $1500 research funding allowance over the duration of candidature from my School at the University of Melbourne was exhausted last year, and I used up my one funding opportunity for an overseas conference and research on last year’s trip to Finland and Italy, so I had to come up with the registration fee myself, which was not insignificant at $655 (the student price) for two days. Given that no papers were printed (for sustainability reasons – not even the program), I honestly cannot imagine why it cost so much except that it must have been a tidy profit-making enterprise for 3 Pillars. The catering was mostly sustainable, ethical food – free range meats, organic milk and the like, but I still think the price was very high, and sadly meant a lot of people who would have had a lot to contribute (such as small, ethical producers?!) weren’t able to attend.

But on to the event! Because it was organised by a private organisation rather than government or higher education, I was unsure what to expect, and even more unsure what the outcomes would be. A Summit implies gathering the best minds to apply to a problem with a view to informing policy, regulation and community leadership. I’m not entirely clear how 3 Pillars intends to pursue the former two, but it’s obvious that they and many attendees are in fact community leaders, and that this event brought a diverse group together to talk about climate change, food security and a sustainable food future.

I’ll leave it to you to ask questions about the sponsors – I was just relieved neither of Australia’s grocery duopoly were on the list, and the diverse representation from across Australia’s food production, distribution, retail and consumption spectrum was important, in my view.

The key messages I took away were simple: we need good policy and regulation to support sustainable food production and recognise the important role farmers play as custodians of our natural resources, the free market has caused private interests to corrupt aspects of the food system for personal gain that is not in the public interest, and we need to dramatically increase the public’s knowledge and respect for food from paddock to plate.

I’ve quite simply typed up my notes as I took them throughout the Summit (I also tweeted a lot of this on the hashtag #SFS). They are not exhaustive, and I do hope I’ve recorded what I heard accurately. Any corrections would be welcome. The full presentations are up on the 3 Pillars Network Event Blog.

Professor Robin Batterham – ‘What does food security mean and why is it important to Australia?’

  • Population is projected to grow from 6 billion currently to 9 billion by 2050
  • A greater proportion of the world, due to increasing affluence, will (want to) consume more meat and dairy.
  • Increases in aquaculture.
  • Markets are fully globalised
  • France is subsidising farmers because they’re part of the environment and need preserving – a precious heritage and future?
  • Points from The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb
    • A price on emissions and rising energy costs will lead to more expensive fertilisers
    • Peak phosphorus is upon us (Cribb argues we passed it in 1989)
    • 70% of ‘blue water’ is already withdrawn from the system
    • More soil degradation and erosion
    • Productivity gains have lessened/plateaued
    • Food prices track fuel/energy prices
    • Food riots track grain prices
  • Australia produces enough food for 60 million people
  • Although Australia produces less than 3% of global wheat supply, we are the 4th largest wheat exporter
  • More droughts and floods (climate change)
  • Increasing price volatility due to global connectivity
  • Increased reliance on imports
  • The UK throws out 3 billion cartons of uneaten yoghurt per annum (use by dates are very bad policy/regulation)
  • Australian expertise in low input agriculture can help us:
    • develop a carbon neutral food sector
    • develop innovative resource management
  • Land planning focus must improve
    • should decrease taxes on peri-urban land still being used for food production

Dr Amanda Lee, Queensland Health

  • Adults eat:
    • 20% too much red meat (yet young women eat too little)
    • 40% too much starch
    • 30% too many refined grains
  • If 35% of the population is overweight or obese, has the free market failed us?

Robert Pekin, Food Connect

  • A reflection – while driving, you see manicured lawns and gardens. On the train, you see backyards, get a perspective of where and how much home food production is happening (not much in many areas?)
  • Fresh produce consumption increases when people sign up with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box drop system
  • In a CSA, 55% of the retail dollar goes back to the farmer compared with normal average of 15%
  • We need to shift our focus from purely production to issues around distribution and consumption

Jock Laurie, National Farmers Federation

  • Don’t blame farmers for lack of access and over-processing of food – that’s bad policy and business
  • Bad policy and supermarket wars in the face of increasing costs of production are pinching farmers

Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine

  • Farmers must double production (by the 2060s) with:
    • half the water
    • less land
    • no fossil fuels (eventually)
    • scarce and costly fertilisers
    • less technology
    • more climate instability
  • Food stress leads to conflict, government failures, ‘refugee tsunamis’ and inflation
  • Solutions:
    • Develop a new eco-agriculture
    • Urgently develop renewable energy sources for agriculture
    • Increase research and development
    • Fair incomes for farmers
    • Recycle urban sewerage for fertilisers
    • Bio-cultures and algae farms
    • New diet: 23,000 edible plants
    • Rehydrate, revegetate, re-carbonise
    • Teach respect for food

Kirsten Larsen, Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL)

‘Future Scenarios for Food? Victorian Food Supply Scenarios’

You really have to have a look at the full report to appreciate what an excellent bit of research this is from VEIL. I can’t do justice to the scenarios they propose here!

  • Adjustment scenario – net food availability decreases
  • Control scenario – food stability
  • DIY scenario – mixed results

Michael McCallum, Global Foresight Network

  • Transactional thinking and effort won’t get us there
  • People have short-term agendas
  • We need transformational thinking
    • Understand why (the shapers)
    • Deconstruct assumptions
    • Focus on where we need to go beyond now (transcendence – transformation is required)
    • Reconstruct meaning and new systems
    • Design integration pathways
    • Drive a change agenda at speed (urgent)
  • Fundamentals of the new curve:
    • resilience – adaptability – sustainability – future focused

Consumption break out session

‘Obesity and climate change are two huge market failures’ (UK)

  • In January 2007 (Australia) 78% of people were concerned about the environment
  • Now it’s 60%
  • Concern rarely translates into action
  • A higher tendency towards green consumption generally leads to decreased consumption
  • There is no consistent market segment that exhibits more sustainable behaviour – higher levels of knowledge correlates to less behaviour change?

Local food economies break out session

  • When the population rapidly increased and food availability decreased in Cuba, people moved to cities – so the government invested in rural areas to draw people back out.
  • Overly strict food safety is a barrier to local food production and distribution, including things like food swaps (pig days, etc)

Dr John Williams, Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists

  • Must increase production while decreasing impact on the environment.
  • Must make farming mimic natural ecosystems – they must generally be closed systems
  • Pricing food for sustainability:
    • Reward the provision of ecosystem services (by farmers)
    • Need investment in the economic valuation of ecosystem services
    • Reward farmers for sustaining the land as a matter of public good
    • Cost of food doesn’t include the cost of maintaining natural resource base
    • Need government to create/adjust policy that creates incentives for sustainable practice and costs to the environment being internalised
    • Need market and trade policies that remove perverse subsidies
    • Regulatory framework to ensure food production does not lead to damage to natural resources and environment
    • Need an Australian Standard for sustainable agriculture for local and imported goods

Dr Tim Flannery, Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission

  • To address issues of an increasing population you need to address education and women’s rights in the developing world – alleviate poverty and you address population issues

Michael McCallum, Global Foresight Network

  • Beyond an economic lens
  • Pressures in current systems deliver poor returns
  • Opportunities:
    • producing with constraints
    • food cycles not waste
    • focus on optimising high nutrition
  • Reconnect people with food
  • Accelerate knowledge and dialogue to deliver a new system

Richard Hames, Asian Foresight Institute

  • We became ‘consumers’ in the 1920s – an audience member suggested we should be ‘food citizens’ rather than the more passive ‘consumers’
  • Australia21 is setting up a Sustainable Food Lab
  • Beyond today’s worldview:
    • Production – increase biodiversity, sustainable practices, conserve ecosystems, local and organic investment
    • Environment – resilient design, protecting diversity, valuing ecosystems, stewardship, adaptability
    • Consumption – not more, but healthier, national food reserve, greater equity, education and information

‘60% of the world’s investments at the moment go to weapons’

  • Our opportunities:
    • Move swiftly to a steady state, low carbon economy using existing technologies
    • focus new investment on climate change adaptation
    • Conserve biodiversity and increasing nutritional diversity
    • Build resilience into the supply-demand cycle
    • Increase investment in sustainable rural farmers
    • Less the power and profit motives of Food, Inc (entire supply chain of big agro-industry through to retailers)
    • Embed sustainable practices – biomimicry, permaculture
    • Move from profit motive as a social priority to other forms of value
    • Legislate unintended consequences out of the system

Waste break out session

  • Sustainability Victoria survey
    • 40% of household waste is food
    • Households report they throw out $2000 worth of food per annum
    • That’s 8L/week per household of food waste
    • 700,000 tonnes, or 7% of waste in Victoria
    • Identified four broad groups of people: Zealots, Planners, Triers and Wasters in order of minimal to maximum food waste. Education programs should target Triers.
  • Katy Barfield, Second Bite
    • 7.5 million tonnes of food wasted per annum in Australia
      • ‘leakages’ and surplus food
      • pre-harvest
      • harvested – inefficiency/quality rejection
      • post-harvest
      • retail
      • edible
    • 1.2 million people in Australia are regularly at risk of not having enough food
    • We need to value food waste
      • economic value – food donors save on landfill, possible tax savings; real $$ value to community programs
      • social value
      • environmental value
      • health value

Don’t just ask ‘how do we produce more?’ but also ‘how do we effectively redistribute food throughout the system?’

Michael Velders, ARUB

One person’s urine provides enough NPK to fertilise 400-500 square metres of agricultural land

Ideas

  • there should be a total ban on organic waste to landfill
  • hospitality must separate all waste – compost and re-saleable/useable
  • triple bottom line reporting
  • ‘humanure’ should be accepted – ban on any sewerage into the sea

Michael Raupach, PMSEIC Expert Working Group on Energy-Water-Carbon (EWC)

PMSEIC – 2010 – ‘Challenges at Energy-Water-Carbon Intersections’

  • Connectivity challenge – trade, media, education, information
  • Resilience (from Resilience Alliance)
    • can recover from disturbances and shocks
    • can adapt by learning
    • can undergo transformation when necessary
    • resilience is a product of evolution
  • Finite planet and connectivity challenges require new foci:
    • integrative thinking
    • holistic education (eg food knowledge)
    • holistic innovation
  • Recommendations from the PMSEIC Report
    • Consistent principles for the use of finite resources:
      • ensure markets transmit full, linked, long-term costs to society
      • require resource accounting to be comprehensive and consistent
      • make markets work with non-market strategies
    • Develop and implement smart network methods
    • Build EWC resilience in landscapes
      • joint food, fibre, water production
      • innovative new technology (eg algal systems)
      • viable farms and rural communities
      • increase resource efficiencies and yields
    • Build EWC resilience in cities and towns
      • increase energy and water efficiency
      • recycle water with energy cogeneration
      • improve microclimates
      • change behaviours to reduce demand
      • stop sprawl with good planning, incentives
      • increase urban food production
    • Develop integrative perspectives
      • enhance incentives for integrative research
      • implement a new core research effort
      • ensure stable and ongoing delivery of essential information
      • a new education paradigm (Earthcare?) – preschool to adulthood, food awareness

Brad, CSIRO

  • The public welcomes supply chain transparency, but then tackling environmental issues head on such as by pricing pollution, etc, is a very hard sell
  • Different forms of reporting available – not everything needs to be on the label
  • Perhaps on the label should include – carbon, water and land?

There’s a lot of information here, and many conversations to have about it all. I’ll pick up some of the threads in future posts. Thanks to 3 Pillars Network for putting on a very stimulating and informative Summit!

If you’re interested in Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical (SOLE) food, you should check out Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. 🙂