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How to Feed the World

By Alvaro Rodriguez

Oliat Mauramba is a farmer from the small, arid village of Topora in Masvingo province, Zimbabwe. He produces organic tomatoes, spinach, and sugar beans, using local knowledge and traditional skills. Oliat meets other farmers from different villages at least twice a week to exchange farming tips. The local market for organically grown products is steadily growing, and more Zimbabwean farmers are applying for the organic certification necessary for export. Organic farming in the area has taken root—8,000 farmers like Oliat formed the Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmer’s Forum, a national organization committed to the promotion of a small but potentially world-changing concept called “agroecology.”

Our current industrial food system is failing to feed the world. The food needs of growing populations in the mid-20th century were met by the development and expansion of fertilizers, irrigation infrastructure, and the modernization of management techniques in what was called the Green Revolution. The industrialization of agriculture helped save millions from starvation. But the world needs a new agricultural revolution to feed the planet.

Today roughly 15 percent of the world’s population, some 1 billion people, goes hungry. At the same time, fertilizer overuse remains a major cause of environmental degradation. The dominant agricultural production model also wastes an astounding amount of food. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), over a third of all food produced gets lost in present production and consumption systems. With our world’s population projected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050, feeding the world is not going to get any easier. Industrial agriculture fails to provide safe and abundant food production and damages the environment, putting long-term food production at risk.

The sustainable farming techniques taking hold in Zimbabwe can be applied globally to end food crises and address climate change and poverty challenges. “Only by switching to more sustainable farming methods,” says Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division, “will the world’s farmers be able to grow enough food to meet the demands of a growing population and respond to climate change.”

Agroecology applies ecological science to the design of agricultural systems. It uses recycled biomass to create favorable soil conditions, minimize losses of resources, and manage organic matter. It also emphasizes the importance of having diverse crop species. It is a comprehensive approach that considers the interactions of important biophysical, technical, and socioeconomic components of farming systems.

Olivier De Schutter, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food and expert in agroecology, says, “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live, especially in unfavorable environments. In addition, a study at the University of Michigan found that organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries, as low-intensive methods on the same land,  to sustainably feeding both the current and future human populations using today’s agricultural land base.

Agroecology is sustainable and productive. In contrast, our current industrial system is increasingly less productive, and environmentally damaging. In an industrial agriculture system there are no life forms in the soil, which is sterilized, requiring constant chemical input which causes soil erosion. That process produces soil compaction resulting in decreased ability to retain water worsening crops’ drought resistance. According to Worldwatch institute, the productivity of nearly half of soil worldwide is decreasing. But conventional agricultural methods are deeply entrenched in developed nations and prevalent worldwide. Most of the meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables available in supermarkets are produced using these methods of industrial agriculture. The best way to tackle these endemic structures is by scaling up the existing agroecology.

Villages or small communities that are less inserted into the industrial system can—as in the case of Oliat’s Topora in Zimbabwe—replicate their techniques in other villages and then expand it gradually, attracting more and more investment, beginning to repair the damage caused by industrial production.

In order for agroecology to succeed, states must play the role of coordinators and facilitators. They must create institutional structures for small farmers to have access to know-how, credit and markets, and the ability to promote active participation of donors and private investments. Moreover, since agroecology is a knowledge-intensive approach, states should direct policy to support education and research. In Brazil, for example, under the Ministry of Science and Technology, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development incorporated agroecology into its research initiatives, as did the Coordination of Improvement of Higher Education Personnel under the Ministry of Education.

There are also opportunities in the private sector for enterprising investors who can see beyond the mainstream agricultural paradigm. Partnerships between agroecological producers and private sector backers can play a huge role in supporting agroecology. In the US, for example, the Community Agroecology Network (CAN)—an organization that promotes agroecology in Central America—has launched AgroEco Coffee, a single-origin coffee from a small cooperative in Costa Rica that produces coffee as part of an agroecological farm system. "CAN creates links between agroecology and consumer markets to support agroecological practices and the creation of sustainable livelihoods for small rural farmers," says Rose Cohen, assistant director of CAN.

Cuba’s agricultural turn-about is additional evidence for the promise of a scale-up approach. Agroecology played a key role in helping Cuba survive an agricultural crisis precipitated after the collapse of the socialist bloc in Europe and the tightening of the U.S. trade embargo. Cuba lost 70 percent of its agrochemical and fuel imports and 50 percent of its livestock feed imports. Since then, Cuba has successfully introduced a large-scale conversion to agroecology to feed the country. This change included a number of policies led by the central government, such as price subsidies, education, and land reforms, whereby state farms were replaced by smaller, self-managing cooperatives. It also included biophysical aspects, such as a focus on soil fertility, diversification, biological pest control, and reuse of waste. Scientific infrastructure on the island also played an essential role. As a result, it is estimated that agroecological practices are now used to produce over 70 percent of the domestic food production.

The spread of Agroecology would help increase yields, restore soil health, and conserve water and energy. The scale-up of this sustainable farming will likely start on the local level, but this doesn't necessarily mean they have to be small-scale or restricted to local markets. What is needed is a widespread and coordinated effort led by multinational institutions and governments to promote agroecology. NGOs, government, and the private sector can work together to incentivize local farmers around the globe to switch to agroecology. Humanity needs an alternative agricultural paradigm, one that is ecologically sustainable.

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Alvaro Rodriguez is a master’s degree candidate at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

[Photo Courtesy of SuSanA Secretariat]

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