The (R)evolution of Agroecology

Future Farms as Ecosystems

Modern mechanised agriculture is already the most fossil fuel intensive industry. This feature will increase when, in order to feed a growing world population, we have to grow more than 50% of our food; as representatives of global agribusiness currently assert. Ethel Chiodelli explains why this is wrong and biased thinking, and why agroecology and small farms are the future of modern farming. If we shift paradigm, the problem becomes the solution.

Between two paradigms: farming for money or for people? An important debate is going on about the future of food. It usually pits advocates of large scale industrialised food systems against those who promote more ecological and local alternatives.

The mainstream narrative is that large-scale industrial farming is necessary to feed the world. It is supposedly more productive and efficient, especially in regard to labour. Conversely, it is said that small farming is designed to serve a niche market, at best.

At worst, small holders and farmers are seen as inefficient, and primitive in their methods, supposedly confined to the status of outdated anachronism, being basically incapable of meeting the growing need of the world population.

Large scale agriculture tends to see the farm as a factory, with inputs and outputs, where everything is measurable, repeatable, and, more importantly, devoted to saving labour and decreasing the amount of skills required so that people can be hired as cheaply as possible.

In reality, according to Dr. M. Jahi Chappell of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, its efficiency has been oversold and never quantifiably measured in terms of the totality of resources used.

Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, and is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Peak Oil educators. In an interview, he claims that, aside from transport, modern mechanised agriculture is the most fossil fuel intensive industry, using 10 calories of energy for every calorie of food produced. This comes as no surprise if we think about the huge amount of oil involved in irrigation, transportation, the production of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and all the machineries used in processes such as harvesting or sowing.

The issue with efficiency is also related to the methods we choose to measure it: a particular value, or goal, such as profit maximisation, with as little labour as possible, versus reasonably sustainable and healthy food, the use of less land, dignified employment, and the maintenance of prosperous livelihoods.

This is a critical, and too often ignored, point, given that the way we evaluate different farming methods informs or misinforms the policy decisions that help shape our food system. Is the output measured per unit of labour, land or energy? Does it measure productivity in terms of profit or yield? The advocates of the agribusiness industry conveniently measure productivity in terms of unit per labour. It doesn't seem to bother them that the overall amount of resources used in the process far exceeds not only the energy produced as food, but also the overall benefits we receive in return.

On the other hand, agroecology works differently. There is not just one crop, but an integrated and biodiverse system of crops, and evidence suggests that agroecological methods - in relation to the quantity of food produced per hectare - are at least as productive as conventional agriculture.

According to Dr. M. Jahi Chappell, these methods are definitely more productive per unit of energy; use much less water (two to ten times more efficient); are less mechanised; and create better livelihoods and labour conditions.

Most importantly, agroecology is not just about productivity at all costs. The real task is to grow as much as we do now (or perhaps less), but to a higher standard, more humanely, and with less damage to the wider environment. We need farming that is more sustainable, resilient and, in this way, natural ecosystems have much to teach us.

With regard to the issue of efficiency, the agrochemical industry concentrates capital and wealth in a few hands - particularly in the USA and the EU - thanks to artificially generous direct and indirect subsidies. However, as stated in the report 'Wake Up Before It Is Too Late' - prepared for the 2013 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) - despite this unfair competition, organic systems seem to be more profitable; although there is an unequal availability of studies and an urgent need to direct much more research and investments into supporting them.

In his book, Good Food for Everyone Forever, Colin Tudge (biologist, writer and founder of The Campaign for Real Farming), warns against considering farming a business like any other, particularly in the actual economic context, where competition and the maximisation of profit seem to be the dominant mantras.

Adhering to this model requires that you have to maximise turnover (the more you sell, the more you earn), add value (turning raw materials into 'goods' that somebody wants to buy), and minimise costs (go through the entire process as cheaply as possible). This simplistic approach has created overproduction and distribution systems, that are failing to feed people properly, where injustice is the norm, and costs are externalized on to the environment.

Externalities such as climate change due to soil erosion, carbon release from soils, and deterioration of livelihoods and biodiversity (just to mention a few), are not taken into consideration. Vast fields are increasingly devoted to monoculture, that turns the land into a biological desert. Furthermore, depleted soils create a vulnerability to pests and disease, requiring even more pesticides.

This requires fossil fuels in order to grow plants in soil that would be otherwise dead. In the BBC documentary, A Farm for the Future, the wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking, investigates how to transform her family's farm into a low energy farm for the future.

One of the things she noticed is that back in the 1980's ploughing the fields was a feast for the birds because the soil was full of life. Now, after 20 years of the same treatment, there are no birds banqueting after the tractor; the fields are devoid of life.

Conversely, agroecological farms are conceived as ecological and social systems where all the different parts interact synergistically in a kind of 'win-win-win' attitude where humans, livestock and the land thrive. They adopt nature's principles of maximum diversity - no monoculture, but a wise integration of beneficial biological interactions among livestock, polycultures and trees called agroforestry. They are low input - no or very little fossil fuels use - with maximum recycling of what's available, while promoting the regeneration of soil biotic activity. Using this method, we can go on farming forever, while gradually increasing the fertility of the land for the future generations. These farms will be mixed, organic, complex, and labour and skills intensive.

Now, I can hear the politicians and industrialists screaming that one billion people are already undernourished (UN estimate), and that by 2050 the population will increase from the actual 7, to 9.5 billion. Add the competition from biofuels, plus the rise of the number of meat eaters, and it won't take much to believe 'Foresight' reports that claim we need to produce 50% more food by 2050.

Luckily, if we manage to cut through the noise of the mainstream propaganda and listen to some alternatives voices, we can draw a different picture of the situation. Firstly, according to other authorities, we already produce enough macro-nutrients (food energy and protein), to support 14 billion people - twice the present population.

Secondly, we waste from 25 to 50% of our food. Thirdly, the main cause of malnutrition in the so-called 'Third World' is not a lack of productivity but, according to Dr. M. Jehi Chappell of the Institute for Agriculture and trade Policy, a political issue. In an interview, he claims: “We know that in the vast majority of places a lack of food availability has never been the problem when people were hungry. The food was there, but wasn't affordable. So it's not much about productivity, but distribution and access; it's also about food sovereignty and right”.

At this point, is relevant to remember what the 'Green Revolution' was really about. Back in the 1960's and 70's, oil was cheap and abundant, and a variety of 'miracle seeds' - the short-stemmed, high yielding (if heavily fertilised) strains of wheat, rice and maize - were developed by plant breeders with the promise of ending hunger. Did any of these grains go to the hungry? Of course not! They started being used to feed farm animals, with detrimental consequences both for our health and the environment. It takes 8 kilograms of wheat to produce one kilogram of meat; wheat that could nourish a lot more people if consumed directly.

As Colin Tudge pointed out, this is “the most flagrant and widespread exercise in value adding of all". Furthermore, Graham Harvey in his book, The Carbon Fields adds: “it would be hard to devise a more wasteful pattern of food production than this”. Definitely nothing to do with feeding people, but more with generating profits, mostly for large corporations.

If this isn't enough, there is the impact of trade policies forced upon 'developing' countries by the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, that has progressively undermined their ability to feed themselves. As Vandana Shiva pointed out in her book Making Peace with the Earth, all these agreements are drafted by the agribusiness corporations in order to grant themselves access to foreign markets. Thanks to billions in subsidies, “they dump artificially cheap food commodities on countries of the South”, destroying the local production. Hence, poverty and hunger.

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Is it all lost then? Of course not, a whole wealth of agroecology related grassroots projects are mushrooming everywhere in the world. Studies like the ones in the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development report, Wake Up Before It Is Too Late, are piling up. They strongly suggest that we can reverse the design of famine and scarcity if we dare to look in the right direction, that is beneath our feet. Rehabilitation of degraded land has the potential to double the amount of agricultural land globally, without further destroying virgin ecosystems while actually 'rewilding' some of them.

As remarked by David Pimental and Michael Burgess of the Cornell University of New York, worldwide, the 1.5 billion hectares of land now under cultivation are almost equal in area to the amount that has been abandoned by humans since farming began.

Anita Idel from the Federation of German Scientists, and Tobia Reichert of Germanwatch, emphasize the capacity of well managed grasslands to act as effective carbon sinks, which could make extensive pasture-fed livestock rearing a highly sustainable option, instead of being one of the major contributors to climate change.

According to a Royal Society estimate, if we managed our world farmlands properly, we could capture as much as ten billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. It is estimated that if the organic matter content of the word's farmed soils were increased by just 1.6 percent, the problem of climate change would be solved. A different form of agriculture wouldn't merely help with the problem of global warming, it could solve it. If we shift paradigm the problem becomes the solution.

The point is that our corporate-led governments won't assist us in the process, it will have to come from the people, for the people. For that matter, it would be a precious opportunity for humanity to fully mature and realise its full potential when we work as part of a whole, and not one against each other. In a next article we are going to focus on that emergent part of humankind that has undertaken the paradigm shift path, that ultimately means nothing less than reconnecting to the matrix of life. In so doing, we will tap into the incredible healing powers of our planet and its incredible stories.
Stay tuned!


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