Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Agroecological farming can double food produx in 10 yrs

A new UN report released today is making headlines: Agroecological farming can double food production within 10 years, while mitigating climate change AND alleviating poverty.

Yes!! I was elated to read the morning’s coverage of this highly anticipated report from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter. I’ve been writing on the very real need to prioritize policy support for and investments in agroecology for quite some time, but it is truly encouraging to see such a clear, affirming statement coming from the UN.

De Schutter cuts to the chase:

To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. 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.

Agroecology not only raises productivity at the farm level, concludes the report; it also helps farmers both adapt to and mitigate climate change (no small feat!) and conserves biodiversity and soil health. Furthermore, it creates jobs, increases income, diversifies diet and improves nutrition, and brings farmers and communities together. 

Knowing all this, there really is no excuse to continue on the path of resource-extractive industrial agriculture. As de Schutter explains:

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.

The evidence in favor of agroecological farming, by contrast, is solid. De Schutter elaborates:

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 is what is needed in a world of limited resources…

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. Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3-10 years.

Sound too good to be true? Check out De Schutter’s concise 20-page report; the evidence compiled there is compelling.

Success on the ground = science + farmers

The new UN report confirms the findings of the most comprehensive and rigorous studies to date: the UN-led International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) and the UNEP/UNCTAD report on organic agriculture and food security in Africa. Both concluded that agroecology and organic agriculture offer powerful solutions to global hunger, water scarcity, rising fossil fuel-based energy costs and climate change.

National governments are gradually getting the message and are beginning to embrace agroecological methods and support participatory farmer-scientist partnerships at the cutting-edge of innovative agroecological science and practice.

De Schutter’s report is filled with concrete examples:

  • Tens of thousands of East African farmers are adopting the “push-pull” method of ecological pest management in corn which uses intercropping to repel insect pests and suppress weed populations, while naturally increasing nitrogen in the soil, doubling yields, providing fodder for cattle and increasing milk production and household income.
  • Malawi is shifting towards agroforestry as an exit strategy from its massive chemical fertilizer subsidy program. Like Cameroon, Malawi is training farmers to plant nitrogen-fixing trees which can double or triple yields, reducing dependence on costly chemical fertilizers, while building up soil health;
  • In Japan, China, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, farmers are integrating ducks and fish into rice systems and enjoying benefits of natural insect and weed control, improved nutrient cycling, reduced labor needs and extra animal protein for families.
  • Agroecological practices are also being adopted in “developed” countries such as Germany, France and parts of the United States.

Too important to be left to the market

For agroecological farming to fulfill its potential to feed the world while conserving life-supporting ecosystem functions on the planet, governments will have to step up. These are public sector investments, and the job cannot be left to private industry. Clearly referring to major biotech and pesticide companies that dominate agriculture’s political landscape, de Schutter warns,

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.

Agroecology is a knowledge-intensive approach. It requires public policies supporting agricultural research and participative extension services. States and donors have a key role to play here.

Of course, we can expect a loud chorus of excuses from the U.S. government, which will claim that “private-public partnerships” with Monsanto and other giant agribusinesses — such as those recently announced by USAID — are a better way to go and that, in any case, it’s too expensive to change course.

But perfectly timed to demolish that tired line, comes another UN report, full of even more good news: Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication, from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). This report argues that investing just 2% of global GDP between now and 2050 can kick-start a transition towards a genuinely sustainable, low carbon, resource-efficient economy. Investing in “green agriculture” (defined in ways very similar to agroecological farming) will create 47 million more jobs and bring higher returns than can be achieved under conventional approaches. Significantly, green agriculture generates “positive externalities” of the kind De Schutter describes; the numbers show that this is absolutely do-able.

Reading these two reports together, I feel more optimistic than ever about humanity’s ability to build and fund a sustainable future.

Learn more» See also strong coverage by The Ecologist, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, a great Op Ed by Mark Bitman at the New York Times, an excellent informative piece by Jill Richardson on Alternet,and another on Slash Food. Tom Paulson at Humanosphere points out how the report reveals the misguidedness of the Gates Foundation’s approach to development.

Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii

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