What is agroecology?


As we consider a world of 7 billion and counting, the same two questions are coming up over and over again – how will we ever have enough water? And how on earth can we feed that many people?

The issue of food is a controversial one – everyone has an opinion. They’re widely divergent opinions too – from those who believe that Big Ag and genetic modification is the solution to billions of hungry mouths, to those who promote an aggressively local and small-scale farming system as the only way to stave off global hunger.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not in that group of folk who think that GM and monoculture cropping are going to save the world. In fact, a future like that seems very bleak and dystopian to me – the idea of a handful of companies essentially owning our food and thus our bodies is abhorrent to me. Local and small-scale is wonderful, but not always realistic on its own – every city would have its challenges in producing clean and healthy food, other regions lack the fertility of soil and availability of good weather conditions to be able to fully sustain their populations. It’s a good start though, especially when it incorporates the principles of agroecology.

Image from agroecology.org

But what is agroecology? The word hasn’t yet acquired that buzz-word status, like ‘local’ or ‘organic’ (and, thankfully, hasn’t been diluted into a fuzzy meaninglessness like those words). And while agroecology can be seen as a relatively recent reaction to the shortfalls of industrial agriculture, it is based on farming techniques that are often hundreds of years old. Essentially, agroecology is a movement towards more sustainable farming methods, based on ‘time proven farming methods, new ecological science, and local farmer knowledge’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006). UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems describes it as the development of ‘sustainable food and agricultural systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable, socially responsible, nonexploitative, and that serve as a foundation for future generations.’

From the Union of Concerned Scientists. Click through to embiggen.

Agroecology is therefore the antithesis of Big Ag. That sounds pretty appealing, for sure. But does it work?

Yes. Plus, it kind of has to. The 2013 Trade and Environment Review from the UN Commission on Trade and Development concluded that major changes in agriculture are necessary, recommending a ‘rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.’ Our current systems are not resilient (monoculture cropping is by its nature more vulnerable than polycultures), nor are they sustainable – the extensive requirements for chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides contributes to degradation of soil, of water supplies and climate change. Business as usual will end up business-as-it-used-to-be.

Agroecology has the potential to stop this damage to our agricultural systems and ensure a lesser environmental impact in three ways:

1)  A variety of crops are usually planted on each farm, rather than monocultures.  This also reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.

2) Crop biodiversity is preserved.  As discussed earlier, in situ conservation is vital to the preservation of the wide variety of maize landraces

3) Less land is required to produce a similar amount of food, thus posing less of a threat to the local environment

We need to make a change and agroecology has a small but positive track record – at the very least, running more trials, replicating these on a large scale and thus collecting more evidence of its efficacy is worth a shot, as it may well provide us with a solution to an eventual crisis.

Notes on Corn: Part 3


 

Today I’m finishing up my wee Notes on Corn series with a bit about food sovereignty and agroecology.  It’s the good part of the story, the part where people work towards change for the better and unite to retain their identities and protect the agricultural future of the planet.  Food sovereignty and agroecology movements= awesome.

Such movements are not limited to maize farmers and involve producers of a range of crops from a range of countries, both in developed and developing nations.  As McAfee describes it, farmers and peasants worldwide ‘are challenging liberal views of citizenship as a set of rights and responsibilities granted by the state’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006).  The movements that have stemmed from such challenges to identity have included the international peasant organisation, La Via Campesina, as well as new models for global agriculture and food production, such as food sovereignty and agroecology.

La Via Campesina is one of the most important organisations to draw together the movements that have stemmed from these new global identities to work for change in the international food system.  Firstly, it ‘[consolidates peasants] collective identity […] building alliances with other social movements and progressive non-governmental organisations (NGOs)’ (Desmarais 2008).   This ability coalesce the aims and values of disparate movements – it comprises around 150 local and national organisations from  70 countries – has shaped La Via Campesina’s overall goal, i.e. the movement away from industrial agriculture to a system based on food sovereignty.  Secondly, since its inception in 1993, it has become a broad enough social movement that it is heard by organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

Food sovereignty, as defined by La Via Campesina, is:

  • The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems… It puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
  • Food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption. It gives a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control production. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector. Therefore the implementation of genuine agrarian reform is one of the top priorities of the farmer’s movement. (La Via Campesina 2011).

Food sovereignty thus describes an alternative economic, political and ecological system.  It removes peasants from their role as contract farmers to large agribusinesses, allowing them choice in what they grow and how they sell their produce, which may, in its turn, improve food security.  Furthermore, proponents of food sovereignty suggest that when ‘livelihoods […] are tied to the longer-term health and productivity of the land […] farmers have more incentive to conserve and improve soils, landscapes and water systems’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006).  As such, food sovereignty represents a paradigm shift, from corn as commodity back to corn as food.  For large agribusinesses, the trade of corn as a commodity means that such externalities as the environment are of less interest – they can easily move elsewhere if the land ceases to be productive.

Food sovereignty is not the only movement towards more sustainable farming that has developed in response to the neoliberal agricultural system.  Agroecology is also a growing international movement towards more sustainable farming methods, based on ‘time proven farming methods, new ecological science, and local farmer knowledge’.   While the movement itself can be seen as a relatively recent reaction to the shortfalls of industrial agriculture, it is based on farming techniques that are often hundreds of years old. Agroecology has been described as a genuine alternative to current agribusiness models, with some authors suggesting that over the next 10 years, small-scale farmers will be able to double food production using currently available agroecological methods (Altieri et al 2012).   In terms of its environmental impact, it involves greater biodiversity than conventional agriculture in three ways:

1)  A variety of crops are usually planted on each farm, rather than monocultures.  This also reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.

2) Crop biodiversity is preserved.  As discussed earlier, in situ conservation is vital to the preservation of the wide variety of maize landraces

3) Less land is required to produce a similar amount of food, thus posing less of a threat to the local environment

In addition to the environmental advantages of agroecology,  its impact on re-peasantisation and the overall survival of rural and peasant culture should also be considered.   Agroecology is thus a particularly interesting movement because it suggests that agriculture, prosperity in both developed and developing nations, and the health of the environment are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Such reactions to industrial agriculture and unsustainable farming techniques are also not exclusive to farmers in developing nations.  Alternative agricultures are also emerging in developed nations such as the United States, where the ongoing sustainability of productivist farming methods has been questioned, in terms of both their human and environmental impacts.  In a parallel to ideas of food sovereignty, movements towards alternative food networks that encourage ‘ healthier food and environments […] long term maintenance of farming livelihoods, the provision of quality food and nutrition to individuals regardless of socio-economic status, and the distribution of public goods’ are gaining momentum (Trauger and Passidomo 2012).  Such alternative notions of agriculture, like food sovereignty, reimagine economies as local rather than international networks, reimagining producers as economic actors in their own right, rather than as subservient to major agribusinesses.

Food sovereignty and agroecology, as well as moves towards post-productivist agriculture in developed nations are thus challenging the status quo and the notion that prosperity in the developed world must come at the expense of the health of the environment and the prosperity of developing nations.  Given that most of these movements are still relatively young though, the full extent to which such movements are able to truly challenge the power of global capitalism in corn agriculture, still remains to be seen.  Exciting, no?

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