Agroecology is the way to go: UN report
Save climate and double food production with eco-farming
Uxbridge, 8 Mar (IPS/Stephen Leahy) -- Eco-farming could double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change, according to a new UN report released Tuesday in Geneva.
An urgent transformation to "eco-farming" is the only way to end hunger and face the challenges of climate change and rural poverty, said Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, following the presentation of his annual report focusing on agro-ecology and the right to food to the UN Human Rights Council.
"Agro-ecology mimics nature, not industrial processes. It replaces the external inputs like fertiliser with knowledge of how a combination of plants, trees and animals can enhance productivity of the land," De Schutter told IPS, stressing that, "Yields went up 214 percent in 44 projects in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agro-ecological farming techniques over a period of 3 to 10 years... far more than any GM [genetically modified] crop has ever done." Other recent scientific assessments have shown that small farmers in 57 countries using agro-ecological techniques obtained average yield increases of 80 percent. Africans' average increases were 116 percent.
"Today's scientific evidence demonstrates that agro-ecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilisers in boosting food production in regions where the hungry live," De Schutter said.
Agro-ecology applies ecological science to the design of agricultural systems. It enhances soil productivity and protects crops against pests by relying on the natural elements.
Eco-farming doesn't require expensive inputs of fossil-fuel-based pesticides, fertilisers, machinery or hybrid seeds. It is ideally suited for poor smallholder farmers and herders who are the bulk of the one billion hungry people in the world. Efforts by governments and major donors such as the $400 million Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to subsidise fertilizer and hybrid seeds will produce quick boosts in yields but are not sustainable in the long term, De Schutter said.
Malawi is touted as an AGRA success story by funders such as the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation who have massively subsidised fertilizer and created a corresponding improvement in food production. However, the country simply cannot afford to continue those subsidies and is shifting its strategy to agro-ecology. "The [Malawi] government now subsidises farmers to plant nitrogen-fixing trees in their fields to ensure sustained growth in maize production," he said.
De Shutter says AGRA is looking for quick results and is getting them. He has found it difficult to overcome AGRA proponents' suspicions about the effectiveness of agro-ecology, despite the mounting evidence. "I expect countries to express scepticism towards these solutions because they are not in accord with the dominant paradigm," De Schutter said.
The dominant view of agriculture is the industrial approach - of maximising efficiency and yield. However, that system is utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuels and never having to be held accountable for environmental degradation and other impacts. One the most under-acknowledged but astonishing impacts is on the global climate. "It is fair to say that between 45 and 50 percent of all human emissions of global warming gases come from the current form of food production," De Shutter says.
Climate-damaging emissions from industrial agriculture are more than just carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. They include massive amounts of the super-heating greenhouse gases like methane from animals and nitrous oxide from chemical fertiliser. Add in deforestation - which is mostly done to increase farmland or plantations - and that's around a third of all emissions. Now, add on the emissions from food processing and the long distance transport of foods around the world and it comes close to half of all human emissions.
The food system doesn't have to be a major source of emissions, the problem is just the way we have designed it around cheap fossil fuel energy, he said. Eco-farming can produce more food for the world's poorest people, while also resulting in a fraction of the emissions. It can even store carbon in the soil.
"The evidence is irrefutable. If we can change the way we farm and the way we produce and distribute food, then we have a powerful solution for combating the climate crisis," said Henk Hobbelink, coordinator of GRAIN, an international non-governmental organisation that produced a report in 2009 showing that industrial agriculture was by far the biggest source of climate-disrupting emissions of greenhouse gases.
"There are no technical hurdles to achieving these results, it is only a matter of political will," Hobbelink told IPS. Trade, economic and agricultural policies are all skewed in favour of the current industrial food production system. And many of those policies are pushing small farmers - the ones who are by far the most efficient in terms of carbon emissions and energy use, according to GRAIN - off the land.
De Shutter says the techniques and benefits of agro-ecology are now well established, so his role is to push governments to change policies and support the transformation of food production. His report offers policy-relevant recommendations for countries, such as increasing public funding for research and training.
"Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don't open markets for chemical products or improved seeds," De Shutter said. "If we don't radically transform the direction of the global food system, we will never feed the billion who are hungry," De Shutter warns. "Nor will we be able to feed ourselves in the future."