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There is an approach that embraces complexity and change. It involves developing the capacity to listen, to grow new connections, and to build solidarity
among animals, plants and people.
The various incarnations of the sustainable food movement need a science with which to approach a system as complex as food and farming ...
There are symptoms of a political economy out of kilter with the welfare of the planet and the people who live on it. They are also nestled deep in the way food is grown, distributed and consumed today. What we sometimes call the “agri-food system” is clearly broken — just ask farmworkers and food workers (exploited and underpaid), honeybees (collapsing), forested landscapes (fragmenting), the climate (warming), and the ever-growing number of people without access to nutritious food, or the land and resources with which to produce it
“Sustainable food” attempts to heal this fragile system, and it’s been a buzzword for three decades. Its mushrooming incarnations — local, organic, biodynamic, fair trade and “slow,” among others — suggest a broad yearning for something better. But modern capitalism is wondrously efficient at disciplining outliers. It hasn’t taken much for the dynamics of competition and price to , forcing enterprises in many – not all – sustainable food niches to expand in size, adopt monoculture techniques and replicate the basic model of industrial overproduction.
What some have described as “input-substitution organic,” for
example, swaps out chemical inputs for biological ones. These farms are therefore marginally better in terms of pollution but have barely budged the needle on monoculture cropping, not to mention labour issues. In any of these alternatives, price is prohibitive:
Most low- to middle-income earners — and this includes most workers in the food system — cannot afford to buy the fruits of this so-called food revolution..
In short, there’s a systems problem with the many incarnations of “sustainable food.” Good intentions notwithstanding, most alternatives leave untouched the underlying structures and forces of the agri-food system. They don’t ask how farmers can listen to their land, scientists can listen to farmers, eaters can listen to restaurant workers and the government can listen to people’s needs. Sustainable food, it turns out, lacks a science with which to deal with a system as complex as farming and food.
But there is an approach that embraces complexity and change. It involves developing the capacity to listen, to grow new connections, and to build solidarity among animals, plants and people. It’s called agroecology.
As the name suggests, agroecology is based in ecology, a science grounded in the interactions among organisms and their environments. Agroecology has roots that go back to the 1930s, but only recently has it come into its own as a science, practice and social movement. Steve Gliessman, a modern pioneer in the field, defines the term in a nutshell: “Agroecology applies the principles of ecology to the design and management of sustainable food systems.” What that means in practice is that farmers and researchers work together to develop farming practices that enhance soil fertility, recycle nutrients, optimize the use of energy and water, and, perhaps most importantly, increase the beneficial interactions of organisms with and within their ecosystems.
A key ingredient in agroecology is agricultural biodiversity — aka agrobiodiversity — says Miguel Altieri, another leader in the field. Farms include “planned biodiversity” (the crops and livestock farmers intentionally introduce) and “associated biodiversity” (the various flora and fauna that colonize the area as a result of farming practices and landscape), says Altieri. What’s important, he says, is identifying the type of biodiversity interactions that will carry out ecosystem services (pollination and pest control, for example, or climate regulation) and then determining which farming practices will encourage such interactions — in other words, working with biodiversity to provide the farming system with ecological resilience and reduce dependence on costly, often harmful, conventional inputs.
Knowledge of how to establish agroecological systems has grown increasingly sophisticated over time. Gliessman’s first edition of his textbook Agroecology reflected 1990s thinking, where transitions moved from increasing the efficiency of conventional production, to substituting industrial inputs with bio-based alternatives to, finally, redesigning the entire farm to mimic nature. People, however, were largely absent from the “agroecosystem.” But economic, social and cultural factors slowly crept into the conversation, and by 2006 the second edition featured on its cover images of a woman Costa Rican coffee grower proudly displaying a handful of beans, a farmers market and a cow. The salient idea was connecting consumers and producers through alternative distribution networks instead of conventional supply chains — linking growers to eaters, the urban to the rural.
By 2014, agroecology had become as much a political endeavor as an ambition for farming. The third edition, published that year, showcased the interplay of science, practice and social movements. It’s a framework, says Gliessman, that has evolved because we need food systems that “once again empower people, create economic opportunity and fairness, and contribute to restoring and protecting the planet’s life-support systems.”
Cross-pollinating Diverse Knowledge
If you’re reading this in the U.S., you may be asking yourself, “If agroecology is so great, why don’t more people do it? Why have I never heard of it?”
Though not yet widely used in the U.S., agroecology is more recognized and established in countries such as Mexico and Brazil, stemming from their response to Green Revolution interventions when packages of standardized seeds, fertilizers and chemicals were introduced across much of the developing world. As much scholarship has since concluded, the Green Revolution contributed to temporary yield increases in some regions, yet its resulting monocultures also led to widespread loss of traditional seed varieties, environmental pollution, increased dependence on fossil fuels and human exposure to harmful chemicals. In addition, this technological revolution was not scale neutral: wealthy, large-scale farmers could more easily afford the irrigation systems, tractors, plows and large tracts of land required to make “magic seeds” work than could poorer, smaller-scale farmers. From the 1940s through the 1980s, many smallholders lost their farms under combined forces of debt, land concentration and deteriorating health, swelling the ranks of the rural and urban underemployed.
Latin America has led the agroecological revolution in recent years, with the governments of Brazil and Ecuador creating the first national policies in support of agroecology, a farmer-to-farmer agroecological tour de force underway in Cuba, and the emergence of SOCLA, a lively network of agroecology scientists (including this TEDx storyteller). Indeed, many nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America most affected by the turbulences of the Green Revolution are anticipating the rollout of a “New Green Revolution” today by recognizing agroecology as key to both rural and urban food security. Simultaneously, the largest international coalition of peasant farmers, La Via Campesina, representing some 300 million small-scale farmers, has formally recognized and adopted agroecology as its preferred paradigm for rural development. Urban farmers and eaters are increasingly a part of this global movement.
Unlike some other food movements, agroecology is not confined to an academic or social elite. To the contrary, agroecological knowledge began with indigenous and smallholder practices from which researchers learned to abstract unifying principles. Systems such as “three sisters” (corn, beans, squash) agriculture from Mexico and integrated rice-fish-duck culture from China have taught researchers volumes about complex interactions of life, water, energy, minerals and soil. Seed savers (usually women) and community seed networks have opened a world for researchers to survey the flow of genetic materials, the way in which crops change over time and space, and the co-evolution of people and agriculture.
In other words, agroecology creates a space for cross-pollinating knowledge from diverse participants: scientists, farmers, policy-makers — even the insects, wild plants, animals and microbes whose significance is still vastly underplayed.
But Can Agroecology Feed the World?
From Stockholm to India to Washington, D.C., to Milan, “feeding the world” is increasingly on the lips of policy-makers, NGOs, philanthropists and researchers in disciplines from agriculture to public health. But agroecologists suggest we might be asking the wrong question.
The Green Revolution taught us that yields can increase — sometimes by 200 to 300 percent — and yet malnutrition and hunger persist. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that roughly 2,800 kilocalories of food are produced per day for each person on the planet, yet at least 800 million people remain undernourished and at least 2 billion suffer micronutrient deficiencies. As Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen long ago recognized, poverty and inadequate distribution of healthy food — not lack of aggregate production — shape the contours of food insecurity. Meanwhile, racial, gender and ethnic discrimination are also deeply entwined with access to nutritious, sustainably produced food. Agroecology counters the “feed the world” framing by arguing that farmers can be empowered to feed themselves — and can reach all eaters more equitably through revitalizing rural economies and prioritizing local food security before engaging in global trade.
This doesn’t mean, however, that plenty of food won’t come from agroecological farms. Research out of Iowa shows
that agroecological systems can exceed yields from U.S. industrial grain production and provide equal or higher profits to farmers. And UC Berkeley scientists reported thats biodiversity-based agriculture can be highly productive and concluded that, when it
comes to organic farms, the more agroecological they were, the more plentiful their harvests.
Other provocative evidence of yield and income benefits has recently emerged from NGO research in Africa. In Malawi, an estimated 200,000 farm families have begun embracing agroforestry, an agroecological technique that integrates trees in farms and landscapes to play multiple roles: fertilizing the soil, providing fruit for nutrition, giving fodder for livestock, and offering timber and fuel wood for shelter and energy. Curious to learn how agroforestry farmers were faring compared with their conventional-based counterparts, researchers studied several communities of maize growers.
Average profitability of maize, they discovered, was US$259 per acre (0.4 ha) for agroforestry farmers versus US$166 for conventional farmers — a significant difference in Malawi, where the average annual income is only about US$270. The revenue boost resulted from a combination of lower spending on inputs — less than one-third of what conventional farmers spent on chemicals — and increased maize yields: 2,507 pounds (1,137 kg) per acre versus only 1,825 pounds (828 kg) per acre for conventional farmers. Malawi’s government has become famous for its large-scale subsidy of chemical fertilizers (a massive 43 percent of the agricultural budget in 2013–14); these results suggest that state funding could be better invested in forested farming.
The same is true for the U.S., where a recent study revealed tremendous research and development gaps between agroecology and conventional agriculture. Over the past 100 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent less than 2 percent of its research budget on bio-diverse methods, creating not only a legacy of fewer scientists interested in pursuing such work (a knowledge gap), but also a measurable difference in the farm fields. Given the chronic underinvestment, it is little surprise when conventional agriculture still tends to outyield its competition.
Learning to Speak Agroecology
Today, agroecology is slowly gaining official traction. In 2011 Olivier De Schutter, then U.N. special rapporteur, wrote a watershed report plumping for agroecology, and he’s since been urging governments to recognize and affirm the farming practice. In 2014 the FAO held its first-ever international summit on agroecology in Rome. In his closing remarks, director-general José Graziano da Silva said, “Today a window was opened in what for 50 years has been the cathedral of the Green Revolution.” Meanwhile, there are myriad ways for individuals to become involved in the science, practice and movement, including reading about it in a popular magazine, subscribing to an open-access journal dedicated to the topic, purchasing Agroeco coffee, and even signing up for a two-week intensive summer course held each year in a different part of the world.
Like anything, agroecology is no panacea. But it can be part of the solution. It offers a scientific precision that our overstretched limbs of “sustainable agriculture” lack. And while it may at first seem complicated, principles such as beneficial connections and diversity aren’t really so difficult to grasp. We are only long out of practice, demoralized by messages that change is too hard. But the structures and processes that underpin modern agri-food systems are no less than those underlying the world economy, and our current brand of capitalism is socially, ecologically and morally untenable.
Subconsciously, we know this, even if it’s seldom spelled out in ink. What we need is a language and logic to guide the transition. So use agroecology. Say it aloud. Spread the idea that models grounded in solidarity, complexity and interdependence are not only valuable and possible, they are already underfoot.
The air we breathe leaves much to be desired. Coal plants belch harmful CO2, 18-wheelers spew filthy exhaust and cows add methane to the mix. Sometimes just looking out your window at all the pollution may be enough to make you shun the outdoors.
But what’s inside may be even worse. Indoor air pollution, the degradation of indoor air quality by harmful chemicals and other materials, can be up to 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution. This is because contained areas enable potential pollutants to build up more than open spaces do. You can easily visualise this if you think about dumping a can of oil into the ocean versus dumping a can into your bathtub. The oil in the ocean will dissipate and be diluted within the massive volume of water. That same oil in your bathtub will linger because it has nowhere else to go. The same thing happens with pollutants released into a small enclosed area, like your home or office.
You may think indoor air pollution doesn’t apply to you. After all, you live nowhere near a highway, farm or industrial plant. You don’t smoke and you don’t use a wood-burning stove. But indoor air pollution comes from some places you wouldn’t normally think of, like your house, the land it’s sitting on and everyday items you can purchase at the store. In addition, if you consider that people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, and around 65 percent inside their homes in particular, you can see why indoor air pollution is an important issue.
Some of the side effects caused by indoor air pollution are little worse than those of the common cold, but long-term exposure can lead to a coma, lung cancer, and death. Got your attention, yet?
The odds are that you encounter at least one harmful chemical in your home every day. If not, you’re not out of the woods just yet. Indoor air pollutants can be released at high levels in short bursts, like when you use spray paint, or at lower levels over time, like chemicals leaching out of your carpet.
Let’s look at a few of the causes of indoor air pollution and see where they originate:
Radon: often found in the bedrock underneath a home and in building materials.
Environmental tobacco smoke: the combination of smoke coming from the burning end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar, as well as the smoke exhaled by the smoker.
Biological contaminants: bacteria, mould, mildew, viruses, animal dander, dust mites, cockroaches and pollen. Many of these grow in damp, warm environments or are brought in from outside.
Combustion: unvented gas space heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces and gas stoves emit carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and small particles. More than 3 billion people worldwide continue to rely on solid fuels like wood and coal for their energy needs [source: World Health Organization].
Household products: paints, varnishes, hobby products and cleaning products all contain organic chemicals that are released during use and storage.
Pesticides: 80 percent of most people’s exposure to pesticides happens inside; measurable levels of up to 12 pesticides have been detected in indoor air.
The potential for harm from any of these pollutants depends partly on our individual sensitivity. The elderly, the young and those with compromised immune systems tend to be more susceptible. Ventilation also plays a role in how these pollutants harm you.
If fresh air frequently circulates throughout the area, the culprits won’t have as much time to accumulate and reach dangerous levels. Open windows and doors when the weather is nice, and especially after a lightning storm when the air is cleaner.
‘We Are Destroying Life on Earth’
UN Conference Claims
A recent U.N. biodiversity study said global environmental damage caused by human activity in 2008 totaled $6.6 trillion.
A U.N. biodiversity conference aims to address a simple problem: “We are destroying life on Earth,” said the head of the U.N. Environment Program.
The world cannot afford to allow nature’s riches to disappear, the United Nations said on Monday at the start of a major meeting to combat losses in animal and plant species that underpin livelihoods and economies. The U.N. cited the worst extinction rate since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago, saying it’s a crisis that needs to be addressed by governments, businesses and communities.
A U.N.-backed study this month said global environmental damage caused by human activity in 2008 totaled $6.6 trillion, equivalent to 11 percent of global gross domestic product.
Despite the U.N.’s fear that biodiversity may be at risk, scientists over the past decade have identified new species at an unprecedented rate. The 2008 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study First Contact in the Greater Mekong reported that 1,068 species were discovered or newly identified by science between 1997 and 2007 — averaging two new species a week. And the Census of Marine Life — an ambitious, 10-year project to catalog the diversity of the world’s oceans — recently concluded, having identified more than 6,000 potentially new ocean-going species.
Scientists have a growing understanding of the wealth of life on Earth, and the conference argues that our diversity is being threatened. The two-week U.N. meeting faces an uphill battle as it tries to institute sweeping steps to protect and restore ecosystems such as forests, rivers, coral reefs and the oceans that are vital for an ever-growing human population. Issues of funding will be a key problem delegates will need to iron out — both who pays for the program and who reaps the rewards of the world’s biodiversity.
Delegates from nearly 200 countries are being asked to agree to new 2020 targets after governments largely failed to meet a 2010 target of achieving a significant reduction in biological diversity losses, a goal set at the last biodiversity conference in 2002. And one of the same issues that led to failure the first time around could jeopardize this meeting: money.
Developing nations say more funding is needed from developed countries to share the effort in saving nature. Much of the world’s remaining biological diversity is in developing nations such as Brazil, Indonesia and in central Africa.
“Especially for countries with their economies in transition, we need to be sure where the (financial) resources are,” Eng. B.T. Baya, director-general of Tanzania’s National Environment Management Council, told Reuters.
“It’s not helping us if you set a lot of strategic targets and there is no ability or resources to implement them,” Baya said. Poorer nations want funding to protect species and ecosystems to be ramped up 100-fold from about $3 billion now.
“What the world most wants from Nagoya are the agreements that will stop the continuing dramatic loss in the world’s living wealth and the continuing erosion of our life-support systems,” said Jim Leape, WWF International director-general.
One of the issues certain to prove contentious: The WWF and Greenpeace called for nations to set aside large areas of linked land and ocean reserves.
“If our planet is to sustain life on Earth in the future and be rescued from the brink of environmental destruction, we need action by governments to protect our oceans and forests and to halt biodiversity loss,” said Nathalie Rey, Greenpeace International oceans policy adviser.
Another area of contention: how to deal with the economic benefits of biodiversity, notably the success of big pharmaceutical companies. The conference will try to set rules on how and when companies and researchers can use genes from plants or animals that originate in countries mainly in the developing world.
Developing nations want a fairer deal in sharing the wealth of their ecosystems and back the draft treaty, or “access and benefit-sharing” (ABS) protocol. For poorer nations, the protocol could unlock billions of dollars — but some drug makers are wary of extra costs, squeezing investment for research while complicating procedures such as applications for patents.
Conservation groups say failure to agree on the ABS pact could derail the talks in Nagoya, including agreement on the 2020 target that would also set goals to protect fish stocks and phase out incentives harmful to biodiversity.
Japan, chair of the meeting, said agreement on an ambitious and practical 2020 target was key.
“We are nearing a tipping point, or the point of no return for biodiversity loss,” Japanese Environment Minister Ryu Matsumoto told the meeting.
“Unless proactive steps are taken for biodiversity, there is a risk that we will surpass that point in the next 10 years.”