Healthy food today, healthy earth tomorrow
By Daniel Moss
May 9th, 2012
A version of this piece originally appeared in Insights Newsletter.
In a hidden corner of pesticide-laden sugar cane fields in Northeast Brazil, Grassroots International’s staffer Saulo Araujo discovered a tiny oasis of agricultural diversity. “Lettuce, cauliflower, beets, carrots, beans, corn,” pointed out farmers Rubem and Maria dos Santos, members of the Landless Workers Movement. “We grow almost everything we need to feed ourselves and to sell in the local market.”
Rubem and Maria are champions of agroecology, a sustainable farming system based in part on new techniques and in part on reclaiming traditional, local knowledge. Agroecology's advocates – from the Via Campesina to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food – claim that it can preserve water resources, curb forest degradation and help rural families produce greater volumes of healthier food. Can it? To bring this debate down to earth – fertile earth – we introduce you here to some of our partners working in this agricultural transformation.
Natural Alternative to the “Green Revolution”
Put simply, agroecology recognizes that a crop lives in a complex neighborhood of pests, aquifers, land and climate patterns, and economic pressures. That doesn't sound like a radical notion, but the truth is that if applied, it might just blow the roof off of current industrial agriculture practices.
Industrial agriculture and the “Green Revolution,” on the other hand, eschew biodiversity and whole-systems approach in favor of vast fields of single crops chemically fertilized and often technologically engineered. The problem is that they don’t actually produce more (see Failure to Yield by the Union of Concerned Scientists), and do leave behind poisoned soil and indebted farmers. This high-tech, high-input method has not only failed to end world hunger, but has aggravated the climate crisis by requiring 18 percent more energy use than agroecological methods (see Who Will Feed Us? by the ETC Group).
The best place to begin to understand agroecology is through two pillars of food production - soil and water. In Haiti, agricultural cooperatives affiliated with the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) inherited a degraded environment – a devastation which started when French colonists plundered tropical woods. Today, cooperatives still struggle to keep arid soil on denuded hillsides. MPP founder, Chavannes Jean Baptiste says, “Our work has evolved from a simple reforestation program to a complex agroecological one."
The MPP’s agronomists stir debate among farmers through popular education, prompting conversation with a hand-drawn picture of a stunted corn stalk. Why is this corn so unhealthy? The soil is tired and the water inadequate, the farmers suggest. Okay then, says the agronomist, how do we enrich the soil and recharge the water table to irrigate our crops? This education and training technique builds analytical and diagnostic skills and galvanizes commitment to such agroecological techniques as composting, terracing, reforestation and groundwater protection.
But take the same picture of the same malnourished corn stalk and show it to Monsanto engineers. They might say that the corn needs [expensive] chemical fertilizer. Or that the farmer should plant a genetically modified, drought-resistant seed variety. Rather than strengthen soil composition and restore the water table, these options ultimately weaken the soil and indebt the farme.
Reviving Knowledge and Dignity
From Palestine to Brazil to Africa, Grassroots International supports farmer organizations in seed exchanges. Farmers arrive at a plaza with a sack of their strongest varieties. They speak with their neighbors about a seed’s qualities and the conditions in which a plant grown from it might thrive. It’s a simple idea – for every ecosystem, there are seeds that are better and worse adapted. Smart seed selection can provide stable harvests for generations.
Some agroecological proponents see the principal challenge as a scientific one, introducing new farming techniques. Grassroots International’s partners advocate for institutions to redirect their support from chemical agriculture to agroecology. “The biggest challenge in agrarian reform is the lack of technical support for rural families,” Rubem said with a heavy sigh. “[W]e need a sustainable agriculture policy to help small farmers like me.”
Hakima Abbas, executive director of Fahamu (a Grassroots’ grantee) and a part of the “We are the Solution” Campaign in West Africa, stresses international movement building to create an agroecology-friendly world. North America, says Abbas, “will be very supportive in countering the messaging of the agribusinesses and their supporters...I think that will be very difficult for us to do from here. We need resources but not just financial. What we need is solidarity.”
What must happen for agroecology to thrive? Three things: Good public policies busting up agribusiness trusts and offering incentives to pioneering agroecological farmers -- starting with the U.S. Farm Bill; a powerful coalition of small farmers worldwide; and growing consumer demand for healthy, local foods to drive a virtuous agroecological cycle. Grassroots International works with its partners in all three areas.
It’s a long row to hoe to feed the world and stabilize the climate. Agroecology holds great promise to do just that. Per acre yields in nutrient-rich soils have already shown themselves to be competitive with chemical agriculture. And once the real costs of “modern” agriculture are calculated – just add up the taxpayer subsidies to unsustainable farming – agroecology is the obvious economical way forward. Sowing an agricultural ethic of environmental stewardship, rather than environmental destruction, can reap a sustainable harvest for generations to come.
|Agroecology – how plants, animals, climate, water and humans interact within a specific agricultural ecosystem. It is described as a science, a movement and a practice.|
|Green Revolution – the massive promotion of industrialized agriculture, principally in Asia and Latin America. Supporters credit it with increasing agricultural productivity and preventing famine; its critics claim it has caused environmental damage, consolidated agroindustry trusts.|
|Industrial agriculture – farming based on industrial practices such as mechanization, specialization (vast extensions of one crop), synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It is increasingly reliant on hormones and genetically modified seeds.|
|Organic farming – agriculture that excludes synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It can be a subset of agroecology when it relies on locally- generated environmentally friendly inputs and socially just labor conditions.|
|Seed exchange – when farmers trade seeds and knowledge to find ones best adapted to their specific agroecological conditions. Seed exchange seeks to preserve local biodiversity and ensure that farming families have access to seeds.|
Daniel Moss is Coordinator of Our Water Commons and a consultant with Grassroots International.