The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier de Schutter released a report on agroecology today, which you can access at http://www.srfood.org. And. It. Is. Amazing. Seriously. It says that eco-farming (agroecology) can DOUBLE food production in 10 years.
I've had a secret crush on de Schutter (well maybe not so secret) for some time now, because he's constantly fighting for the right of all people to healthy food that was produced in a fair way. It's amazing to see someone in a high profile role like his, ACTUALLY DO HIS JOB. It's so rare, in fact, that a recent Guardian article called him "an unapologetic radical" for trying to "feed the world and still save the planet." That's a radical agenda? That's, like, what every fourth grader will tell you they want to do when they grow up. It shouldn't be radical. And yet, when you see how few of the rich and powerful people in the world actually follow De Schutter's recommendations, well...
More below. You can also see my piece on Alternet about this.
What Is Agroecology
Agroecology is probably what you would call "organic." But it's so much more. I recently asked Food First Executive Director Eric Holt-Gimenez for his take on how much US farmers have actually embraced agroecology. He answered it by noting that most US farmers are in "stage 1" of agroecology (although I think is overly generous to call it even stage 1) and that is reducing farm inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. (For those who don't know, it takes a LOT of natural gas to produce fertilizer, and the fertilizer then depletes the soil and adds to greenhouse gas emissions in the form of nitrous oxide, which is 296 times worse than CO2.)
Stage 2 is where most organic farmers in the U.S. are, according to Holt-Gimenez. That's particularly true on large, industrial organic operations. Stage 2 is "input substitution." That means I stop using nitrogen fertilizer and start using manure. I stop using highly toxic pesticides and I start using organic approved ones like Bt instead. I stop using herbicides but I till a lot to kill the weeds, which ruins the tilth of the soil.
But true agroecology? That's rare in the U.S. Joel Salatin is probably the best known example of somebody who is truly practicing agroecology. It means mimicking nature to accomplish agricultural goals. Tanya Kerssen of Food First also adds:
Agroecology also values traditional and indigenous farming methods, studying the scientific principals underpinning them instead of merely seeking to replace them with new technologies. As such, agroecology is grounded in local (material, cultural and intellectual) resources.
While rare in the U.S., agroecology is practiced by peasants worldwide. When I was recently in Chiapas, the Zapatistas I visited with actually had an agroecology team in each of their five zones that was assigned to help local farmers. We Americans don't like to think that peasants with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing are more sophisticated than us, but in this one way, they are.
Examples of Agroecology
One example of agroecology, mentioned in the report, was also described to me by Michael Hansen of Consumers' Union. He saw it used in China when he toured the country in the late 1970's. You first start growing your rice plants and then you time the hatching of your ducklings so that the rice plants are just a little too big for them to eat. As your rice grows, the ducks grow too, pooping out fertilizer and snacking on weeds and bugs that might otherwise harm your rice. And you can also grow azolla, an aquatic fern, in this system. Azolla crowds out weeds, fixes nitrogen, and serves as duck food.
Another agroecological system described in the report is called the "push-pull" system, and it is used widely in East Africa. From my piece on Alternet about this:
The “push-pull” method involves pushing pests away from corn by interplanting corn with an insect repelling crop called Desmodium (which can be fed to livestock), while pulling the pests toward small nearby plots of Napier grass, “a plant that excretes a sticky gum which both attracts and traps pests.” In addition to controlling pests, this system produces livestock fodder, thus doubling corn yields and milk production at the same time. And it improves the soil to boot!
Feeding the World
In the U.S. we often hear calls for doubling food production by 2050 to feed a population of 9 billion people. This report promises that agroecology can double food production in key areas within 10 years based on studies of yield increases where it has been implemented already. That means could be done by 2021 if we start now. But I think a few things should be added to this discussion.
First, I went looking into the "double food production by 2050" claim. It turns out that it's complete and utter bullpucky. The UN FAO says we need an increase of 70 percent by 2050, and even that's questionable, given that it assumes that we Americans continue to eat ourselves sick and spew greenhouse gases into the air at the rate we do now.
But one thing is for sure. When you go to a country in the Global South and you meet with peasant farmers who have maybe an acre, maybe two, where they grow crops and raise a few chickens and maybe a pig or two, if that farmer could increase their yields, THAT would be significant. There's a difference between an increase in global food production coming from large farms in Iowa or Brazil, or from an increase coming from small peasant farms. And it's the latter that's going to end hunger, and it's the latter that will truly benefit from agroecology. The former just means more factory farms and ethanol.
Why Not Fertilizer, High Yielding Seeds, Etc?
I've been closely following U.S. efforts to "Feed the Future" over the past few years. Our efforts focus around fertilizer and high yielding seeds, many of which are genetically modified. And in this context, it's not the fact that they are GMOs that counts. I mean, that's significant, but even the non-GM seeds are typically hybrids. And, thus far, the high-yielding stuff is usually better characterized as "high response." As in, it responds very well to fertilizer and irrigation.
What does that all mean? Both hybrids and GMOs would need to be purchased (or donated) each year. So do fertilizer and pesticides. Irrigation often takes electricity, and it obviously takes water. This means that people who often live far away from the nearest road, who often don't even have running water, would need all of these things in order to make use of high yielding seeds. And they would need them every year.
For those who can't afford them - and let's face it - the ones who CAN afford the inputs are not the poorest or the hungriest who we want to help - they either need to obtain these things for free somehow (donations?) or they might need credit to buy them. And credit might come from a local moneylender. One failed harvest will put them into a nasty cycle of debt.
Even if they have the money for the inputs, let's say, which would you prefer: double your yield for a price (to buy the seeds and fertilizer) or double the yield for free (via agroecology)? You'd prefer to save your money and to use it for a medical emergency, or for a grain mill, or school for your kid, or whatever.
This is a trap that was a problem for many during the Green Revolution. When the inputs were first introduced, often they were for free or for a subsidized price. And chemical inputs are a bit like drugs. Your land gets hooked. Once you've killed your soil and you no longer have the local varieties of seeds you used to use, you NEED those seeds and fertilizer every year. When the inputs are no longer free or subsidized, you're screwed. And often, over time, you'll need MORE fertilizer and pesticides just to get the same yields, once your soil is depleted and the bugs begin to evolve resistance to the pesticides.
There's a lot more to say here. A lot. There's a lot to say about trade, about agroecology, about U.S. policy, and more. For now, please check out the report by Olivier de Schutter at http://www.srfood.org and if you'd like, you can also see my piece on this on Alternet (I interviewed de Schutter so there's a few nuggets of extra stuff in my Alternet piece that you won't get here or from the report itself... as of 5am it wasn't up yet but it will be). For continued coverage of this, you can check out my blog http://www.lavidalocavore.org where I frequently cover this topic whenever any news comes up.
The Ecologist has a piece up on this.