Tag Archives: agroecology

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.

Two reflections on agro-ecological research

Below are two reflections on recent agro-ecological research.  The first is from The World’s Fair and the second the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.

Benjamin Cohen on The World’s Fair presents a discussion A Scientific Response to Agro-environmental Crises about Agroecology in Action: Extending Alternative Agriculture through Social Networks (MIT Press, 2007), with its author Keith Warner. The book aims uses interdisciplinary science studies and ecology to address current agricultural problems.

WORLD’S FAIR: How did your interest in agrofood issues lead you into the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS)?

KEITH WARNER: I have been interested in alternative agriculture (or sustainable agriculture) for more than a decade. I am a California native, and I have witnessed alarming losses of farmland due to development, and when I decided to pursue doctoral studies, I wanted to study the intersection of sustainable agriculture policy and land use. …

As I began to poke around rural California looking for some way to formulate a study that would interest me, I learned about the “agricultural partnerships” by which a range of social actors were simultaneously addressing environmentally problematic farming practices and the power dynamics in the relationships between scientific experts and farmer-practitioners. I discovered that underneath the discourses of omniscience on the part land grant universities and the farm bureau, a significant portion of the farming community questioned the inevitability of contemporary, polluting practices. This rarely looked like an insurgence, but more like a questioning of the singularity of the science. Farmers (or as we say in California, growers) are a pragmatic lot, always looking for opportunities to cut costs and often, to informally experiment with new technologies and practices. Often, the success of these experiments is determined by local ecological conditions, many of which are invisible to university scientists.

I became interested in these partnerships — and their challenge to conventional wisdom – at the same time that I began reading Bruno Latour, in particular Science in Action, and Pandora’s Hope. These two unwrapped some of the cloaking of the “official story” of science, and inspired me to undertake an effort to explain what was really happening in California agriculture, or at least part of it. Latour contributed a couple of key concepts that I found essential. First, he proposed following scientific actors around to find out what they really do, not just what they say they do. Second, he explained how scientists work in networks, and how technologies, knowledge and resources circulate through networks. Third, he described the essential role of non-scientists in scientific networks. With these ideas rolling around in my head, I set off to do my field work. I interviewed roughly 225 people, plus attended dozens of field days and indoor meetings where growers, scientists and others debated the feasibility and desirability of novel, alternative farming practices. …

WF: How did science and social power intersect in your study?

KW: A particularly salient feature of my field work was the divergent assumptions held by actors about the evaluation of novel practices in farming. Many advocates of alternative agriculture argue for a systems-based approach to selecting and managing technology in farming systems, and critique dominant forms of agriculture as reductionistic (or simply narrow minded). Ironically, many of the university researchers, even those in favor of “sustainability,” insist on being able to “prove” the scientific advantage of new practices or technology, but use reductionistic approaches to do so. One of the reasons I used “agroecology” in my title is because ecology asserts the need to take a systems approach to evaluating the relationship between the biotic and abiotic. Many small to mid-sized growers take a whole-system approach to evaluating a reduction in the use of pesticides, or an alternative practice of cultivation. Some of them are skeptical of what they perceive to be narrow scientific criteria used by research to establish viability in farming. Leaders of several partnerships critiqued the “transfer of technology” pipeline approach to extension (or field education) as well as the expert-lay imbalance of social power.

On the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, geographer Jacob van Etten reflects on some of Harold Brookfield‘s in his article Combining intervention and research:

Harold Brookfield and Edwin A. Gyasi now write in Geoforum about geographical action research. They argue it is time for geographers to get their hands and boots dirty. PLEC and the Wageningen-led Convergence of Sciences (CoS) project illustrate that research and service can and should go hand in hand. Geographers are late to recognize this, and in sister-discipline anthropology there is a far longer tradition of activism.

PLEC started by making inventories of farmers’ practices and knowledge in the areas they worked. As a result, the researchers got to know the most knowledgeable and innovative farmers. These farmers, they write, are likely to be hiding in the corners.

They cite Kojo Amanor’s poetic comment that “rather than sitting under the fig tree at the chief’s palace with dignitaries, [indigenous environmental knowledge] is best explored by taking off along the winding paths and discovering the extremities of the village, the chop bars with their bush-meat soup, the drinking spots, the jokers, the old women with their pithy comments, and the young women carrying water.”

The contacts with innovative farmers helped to set up networks in which knowledge was exchanged and new things were tried. Projects like this demonstrate how much academic scientists have to offer to the people among whom they work, and how research interests can be both broadened and deepened in so doing. There is profit in combining a measure of intervention with research.