Agroecology and the Green Revolution

30 06 2011

The promise of the Green Revolution was that it would end hunger through the magic of chemicals and genetic engineering.   The reasoning goes like this:  the miracle seeds of the Green Revolution increase grain yields;    higher yields mean more income for poor farmers, helping them to climb out of poverty, and more food means less hunger.  Dealing with the  root causes of poverty that contribute to hunger takes a very long time – but people are starving now.  So we must do what we can now  -  and that’s usually to increase production. The Green Revolution buys the time Third World countries desperately need to deal with the underlying social causes of poverty and to cut birth rates.

Today, though, growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, demand outstrips production; food prices soar. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer maintains in Eating Fossil Fuels, modern intensive agriculture – as developed through the Green Revolution -  is unsustainable and has not been the panacea some hoped it would be. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has augmented soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even (largely due to increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overtaxed cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to even greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products. More hydrocarbon-based fertilizers must be applied, along with more pesticides; irrigation water requires more energy to pump; and fossil fuels are used to process polluted water.  And the data on yields, and fertilizer and pesticide use (not to mention human health problems)  supports these allegations.  A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield” sums it up nicely. (click here).

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,  says the Achilles heel of current green revolution methods is a dependence on fossil fuels.  “The only way you can have one farmer feed 140 Americans is with monocultures. And monocultures need lots of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and lots of fossil-fuel-based pesticides,” Pollan says. “That only works in an era of cheap fossil fuels, and that era is coming to an end. Moving anyone to a dependence on fossil fuels seems the height of irresponsibility.”

So is a reprise of the green revolution—with the traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds—really the answer to the world’s food crisis?  As Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, describes it:  the good news is that feeding the world in 2050 is completely possible; the bad news is that there isn’t a lot of money to be made by doing so.[1]

It has become clear that agriculture has to shrink its environmental footprint – to do more with less.  The world’s growing demand for agricultural production must be met not by bringing more land into production, with more gallons of water, or with more intensive use of inputs that impact the environment, but by being better stewards of existing resources through the use of technological innovation combined with policy reforms to ensure proper incentives are in place.[2]

A massive study (published in 2009)  called the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”  concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, initiated by the World Bank and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices that would benefit the world’s 900 million small farmers, not just agribusiness.  As the report states:  “business as usual is no longer an option”.[3]

Dr. Peter Rosset, former Director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy and an internationally renowned expert on food security, has this to say about the Green Revolution:

      In the final analysis, if the history of the Green Revolution has taught
      us one thing, it is that increased food production can-and often does-go
     hand in hand with greater hunger. If the very basis of staying
     competitive in farming is buying expensive inputs, then wealthier farmers
     will inexorably win out over the poor, who are unlikely to find adequate
     employment to compensate for the loss of farming livelihoods. Hunger is
     not caused by a shortage of food, and cannot be eliminated by producing
     more.

    This is why we must be skeptical when Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis, and
     other chemical-cum-biotechnology companies tell us that genetic
     engineering will boost crop yields and feed the hungry. The technologies
     they push have dubious benefits and well-documented risks, and the second
     Green Revolution they promise is no more likely to end hunger than the
     first.

    Far too many people do not have access to the food that is already
     available because of deep and growing inequality. If agriculture can play
     any role in alleviating hunger, it will only be to the extent that the
     bias toward wealthier and larger farmers is reversed through pro-poor
     alternatives like land reform and sustainable agriculture, which reduce
     inequality and make small farmers the center of an economically vibrant
     rural economy.

We began this series a few weeks ago with statements from several people who said that organic agriculture cannot feed the world.  Yet increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts  are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm.  This new way of looking at agriculture is called agroecology, which is simply the application of ecological principles to the production of food, fuel and pharmaceuticals.   The term is not associated with any one type of farming (i.e., organic, conventional or intensive) or management practices, but rather recognizes that there is no one formula for success.  Agroecology is concerned with optimizing yields while minimizing negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of modern technologies.

In March, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food , Olivier de Schutter, presented a new report, “Agro-ecology and the right to food”,  which was based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature.  The report demonstrates that agroecology,  if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.  “To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available,” says De Schutter.  “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. …To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says. “Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.”

The report calls for investment in extension services, storage facilities, and rural infrastructure like roads, electricity, and communication technologies, to help provide smallholders with access to markets, agricultural research and development, and education. Additionally, it notes the importance of providing farmers with credit and insurance against weather-related risks.

De Sheutter goes on to say: “We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations.” Instead, the report says the solution lies with smallholder farmers. Agro-ecology, according to De Sheutter, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.”

The majority of the world’s hungry are smallholder farmers, capable of growing food but currently not growing enough food to feed their families each year. A net global increase in food production alone will not guarantee the end of hunger (as the poor cannot access food even when it is available), but an increase in productivity for poor farmers will make a dent in global hunger. Potentially, gains in productivity by smallholder farmers will provide an income to farmers as well, if they grow a surplus of food that they can sell.

As an example of how this process works, the UN report suggests that “rather than treating smallholder farmers as beneficiaries of aid, they should be seen as experts with knowledge that is complementary to formalized expertise”. For example, in Kenya, researchers and farmers developed a successful “push-pull” strategy to control pests in corn, and using town meetings, national radio broadcasts, and farmer field schools, spread the system to over 10,000 households.

The push-pull method involves pushing pests away from corn by interplanting corn with an insect repelling crop called Desmodium (which can be fed to livestock), while pulling the pests toward small nearby plots of Napier grass, “a plant that excretes a sticky gum which both attracts and traps pests.” In addition to controlling pests, this system produces livestock fodder, thus doubling corn yields and milk production at the same time. And it improves the soil to boot![4]

Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks.  If you read the  story by Justin Gillis in the New York Times on May 5, which discusses the effects climate change is having on crop yields, this can only be a good thing.

Significantly, the UN report mentions that past efforts to combat hunger focused mostly on cereals such as wheat and rice which, while important, do not provide a wide enough range of nutrients to prevent malnutrition. Thus, the biodiversity in agroecological farming systems provide much needed nutrients. “For example,” the report says, “it has been estimated that indigenous fruits contribute on average about 42 percent of the natural food-basket that rural households rely on in southern Africa. This is not only an important source of vitamins and other micronutrients, but it also may be critical for sustenance during lean seasons.” Indeed, in agroecological farming systems around the world, plants a conventional American farm might consider weeds are eaten as food or used in traditional herbal medicine.

States and donors have a key role to play here. 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.  The flood-tolerant rice mentioned above was created from an old strain grown in a small area of India, but decades of work were required to improve it.  But even after it was shown that this new variety was able to survive floods for twice as long as older varieties, there was no money for distribution of the seeds to the farmers.    Indeed, the distribution was made possible only through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

American efforts to fight global hunger, to date, have focused more on crop breeding, particularly genetic engineering, and nitrogen fertilizer than agroecology. Whereas the new UN report notes that, “perhaps because [agroecological] practices cannot be rewarded by patents, the private sector has been largely absent from this line of research.”   The U.S. aggressively promotes public-private partnerships with corporations[5]  such as seed and chemical companies Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, and BASF; agribusiness companies Cargill, Bunge; and Archer Daniels Midland; processed food companies PepsiCo, Nestle, General Mills, Coca Cola, Unilever, and Kraft Foods; and the retail giant Wal-Mart.[6]

We need to look closely at all options since there is so much at stake.  To meet the challenges listed above, perhaps we need what Jon Foley calls a “resilient hybrid strategy”.   Foley, director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota, puts it this way:

I think we need a new kind of agriculture – kind of a third agriculture, between the big agribusiness, commercial approach to agriculture, and the lessons from organic and local systems…. Can we take the best of both of these and invent a more sustainable, and scalable agriculture?[7]

The New York Times article pointed out the success of a new variety of rice seeds that survived recent floods in India  after being submerged for 10 days.  “It’s the best example in agriculture,” said Julia Bailey-Serres, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside. “The submergence-tolerant rice essentially sits and waits out the flood.” (8)

But this path raises many concerns – for example, genetically modified seeds are anathema to much of Europe and many environmentalists.   And so far, genetic breakthroughs such as engineering plants that can fix their own nitrogen or are resistant to drought “has proven a lot harder than they thought,” says Michael Pollan, who says the  major problem with GMO seeds is that they’re intellectual property.   He is calling for an open source code  (i.e., divorcing genetic modifications from intellectual property). De Sheutter sees promise in marker-assisted selection and participatory plant breeding, which “uses the strength of modern science, while at the same time putting farmers in the driver’s seat.”

So what can be done?


[2] 2010 GAP Report, Global Harvest Initiative, http://www.globalharvestinitiative.org

[3] Synthesis Report: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development”, 2009

[6] Richardson, Jill, “Groundbreaking New UN Report on How to Feed the World’s Hungry:  Ditch Corporate-Controlled Agriculture”, March 13, 2011

[7] Revkin, Andrew, “A Hybrid Path to Feeding 9 Billion on a Still-Green Planet”, New York Times, March 3, 2011,

(8)  Gillis, Justin, “A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself”, New York Times, May 5, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/science/earth/05harvest.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp








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