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Who Will Feed Us in a Planet in Crisis? The Agroecological Solution
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17 June 2013

Who Will Feed Us in a Planet in Crisis? The Agroecological Solution
Benjamin Davis, Paula Fernandez-Wulff Barreiro and Nathan Swaigen

Dr. Raquel Moreno-Peñaranda (left) introducing Prof. Miguel A. Altieri and Prof. Clara I. Nicholls.
Photo: UNU-IAS


In a presentation delivered at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) on the 27th of May 2013 upon the invitation of UNU-IAS/OUIK Research Fellow Dr. Raquel Moreno-Peñaranda, Prof. Miguel A. Altieri and Prof. Clara I. Nicholls, from the University of California, Berkeley (USA), shared their insights on how agroecology can provide sound solutions to the current global challenge of food security and agricultural sustainability worldwide.

Prof. Altieri identified three overarching crises – economic, energetic and ecological – that currently affect the livelihoods and well-being of human populations the world over. Climate change is merely one out of many global ecological challenges, which also include inter alia widespread soil erosion and ocean acidification. These crises correlate with formidable global peaks in overall consumption, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and species extinctions, which have already led to system-level collapses in multiple forestry and fishery industries. Moreover these types of collapse are associated with serious socio-economic problems such as ecological refugees, poverty, hunger and inequity. As our troubled economic and ecological systems give way to further difficulties for accessing petroleum and achieving environmental security, the implications for worldwide food security are disturbing.

The twenty-first century’s goals for agriculture have to be quite ambitious: we must not only increase production in the wake of rising population, but do so on the same amount of arable land, using less petroleum, less water and less artificial nitrogen, all within an atmosphere marked by climate change and other forms of global turmoil (e.g. financial). The situation begs the question asked in the title of this presentation: “Who will feed a planet in crisis?”

Conventional agriculture has numerous promises of how to address the situation – genetic engineering, improvements in technologies such as precision application of agricultural inputs, intensification of agriculture on existing agricultural land, etc. – but Prof. Altieri points out that most of these promises rely on a set of basic assumptions that might not be safe to make in the potential coming turmoil. First, conventional agriculture is based on the idea that there will continue to be access to cheap, virtually unlimited energy to produce agricultural inputs and power machinery. Second, it presumes access to abundant water and a stable climate. Third, it assumes that nature can be controlled with technology, indefinitely, without having any counter response. According to Prof. Altieri, all these assumptions have been proven wrong: we are depleting fossil fuel resources, water is becoming an ever more scarce and contested resource, climate change is having more devastating effects, and we are only beginning to see the potential impacts of biotechnology, together with the well-known impacts of widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, on both humans and the environment.

Prof. Miguel Altieri giving his presentation.
Photo: UNU-IAS 

Instead, Prof. Altieri suggests, in line with Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, that agroecology is the answer for feeding a world in crisis. Despite the tall order of increasing production while using less energy/resources, with sounder ecological results, he claims that this is not only possible, but that there are strong precedents of success across the world. He pointed out that however much emphasis might often be placed on the "success" of the Green Revolution, in reality, small peasant farmers continue to feed 70 per cent of the world today, with 1.5 billion people across 380 million small farms producing 50 per cent of the world's food. Rather than looking at this situation as room to continue to spread Green Revolution-style thinking, he said, we should consider how productive and effective these small farmers actually are. Studies of farming strategies across the world have indicated that output per unit of area tends to decrease as farm sizes get larger. Small farms, on the other hand, are often marked by effective use of polyculture, high diversity, and low energy/resource requirements, with the most productive systems per unit area being highly integrated agroecological systems.

Prof. Altieri took the audience on a brief tour of agroecology in Latin America, where there are many examples of remarkable success in fossil fuel efficiency and disaster resilience/recovery. He pointed to the Cuban experience to see what effective agriculture looks like in a "post-oil" economy, where case studies on farms suggested energy efficiencies as high as 30+ to 1, whereas best cases in the US are often around 1.5 to 1. Recent studies of hurricane damage in Honduras and Cuba indicated that diversified agroecology systems fared considerably better in terms of both initial damage suffered and speed of recovery.

The presenter highlighted the key role of the “Campesino a Campesino” movement and the valuable role of farmer-to-farmer knowledge transmission. He mentioned tremendous innovations, e.g. in biological fertilizers, coming out of such interactions, and pointed out that success of food production strategies is not only about knowledge, knowhow or germplasm (genetic material), but about locally appropriate combinations of all three. He also spoke of the potential of farmers to be restorers of ecosystems, using agroecology-based techniques. In looking to the future, Prof. Altieri said, we should speak not only of producing enough food, but also of food sovereignty: the right of peoples to define and operate their own food production systems. In this, entities like local governments can play an important role, for example by subsidizing local agriculture sold at local markets in order to undercut industrial crops or encouraging small-scale local agroindustry through contracts to institutional markets like schools and hospitals.

The lecture finished with a brief summary by Prof. Clara I. Nicholls, who emphasized the need for non-linear solutions that are demonstrable in the field: "the debate ends in the field, when you demonstrate that it is possible to do it", she concluded.

A seminar participant asking questions during the discussion session.
Photo: UNU-IAS

The moderator then gave way to an interactive discussion with the public. Questions ranged from the impact of policies pushed by international organizations, social movements in Africa, agroecology in higher latitudes, urban agriculture and urbanization processes, to incentives for consumers and how to scale-up agroecological principles. One theme that popped up multiple times was the worry about how agroecology can succeed in a world where many important international and national organizations continue to actively promote the Green Revolution paradigm. In response, Prof. Altieri emphasized the importance of asking who is backing these promotions, who generally benefits from their implementation (and who does not), and what the socio-economic and food sovereignty track records are for regular people on the ground. Another was how agroecology can be supported within a capitalist/urban/industrial society, to which Prof. Altieri pointed out that figuring out creative ways to support local markets, make direct connections between producers and consumers, and bypass the industrial food empire is a challenge of continuing importance, and reminded us that eating is a political and ecological act.

More information about this seminar, including videos, is available here.

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