An agroecological paradigm shift in agricultural development

Below is a guest post from my colleague Thomas Hahn, an institutional economist and Assoc. Professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

On March 8, 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food , Olivier De Schutter, delivered his report on food security. The report Agroecology and the right to food (click on link to download a copy), identifies agroecology (enhancing agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes by recycling organic matter and diversifying species) as a means to increase harvests in areas areas where the poor live. The message is very different from the conventional view of agricultural, for example see Jonathan Foley’s articulation of agricultural development in a lecture at SRC last year.

The report’s first point is that food production needs to increase in the areas where hungry people live. At the resolution of the planet I believe Foley is correct in his analysis that we need to blend the benefits of conventional and organic agriculture. But the poorest farmers with no cash can lower their vulnerability (increase food security and safety and self-reliance) by relying on place-based resources.

The report’s second point is more political. The report suggests that supporting La Via Campesina and similar organizations is an effective way of scaling up agroecological best practices. This requires a shift in pubic policy from supporting the “green revolution” paradigm of subsidizing inputs to instead supporting the knowledge generation and dissemination done by networks such as La Via Campesina.

From a resilience perspective the language of “scaling up best practices” is always problematic because all agroecosystems are complex interactions between people and nature and “best practices” always need to be adapted. But supporting grassroot movements for disseminating agroecological practices is likely to involve much more adaptation to local contexts than other ways of dissemination.

The need for this type of activity is stated in the report as  “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.” While this is common knowledge among critical agronomists, it is rarely admitted in UN Reports.

Agroecology and the right to food calls for quite radical change in research and development priorities.  Below are a few selected citations from the report:

“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.”

“We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations. The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

“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.”

“Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today,” De Schutter stresses. “A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and climate change mitigation — and this this is what is needed in a world of limited resources. Malawi, a country that launched a massive chemical fertilizer subsidy program a few years ago, is now implementing agroecology, benefiting more than 1.3 million of the poorest people, with maize yields increasing from 1 ton/ha to 2-3 tons/ha.”

“Agroecology is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services,” De Schutter says. “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 research community, should: increase the budget for agroecological research at the field level (design of sustainable and resilient agroecological systems), train scientists in the design of agroecological approaches, participatory research methods, and processes of co-inquiry with farmers, and ensure that their organizational culture is supportive of agroecological innovations and participatory research;”

“Donors should:engage in long-term relationships with partner countries, supporting ambitious programs and policies to scale up agroecological approaches for lasting change, including genuine multi-polar engagement with public authorities and experts and existing local organizations of food providers (farmers, pastoralists, forest dwellers) and the networks they form, such as ROPPA, ESAFF, La Via Campesina, and PELUM, which have accumulated experience that could be the basis for rapid scaling-up of best practices;”

Or in other words, another world is possible.

2 thoughts on “An agroecological paradigm shift in agricultural development”

  1. De Schutter relies on agroecology, which claims to be the application of ecological science to sustainable agriculture. However, agroecology is unable to contribute to two apparent paradoxes of global food production:

    1) most of our food, from small plots of rice to vast fields of soyabean, comes from monocultures – supposedly biologically unstable;

    2) most food, certainly Latin America and Africa, comes from introduced, and not native, crops. But agroecology would suggest that local crops are locally adapted, and therefore somehow better than introduced crops.

    Until agroecology can explain these two paradoxes it should remain a harmless academic study, rather than an untried and dangerous approach to feeding people.

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