UN Agroecology Report

April 28, 2011

A recent report from the United Nations (UN) shows that food production in poor countries suffering from a historical lack of investment in agriculture could double in a decade if farms switched to ecological agriculture. In these countries, where productivity is very low, a sound application of agroecological practices can significantly increase yields in a matter of years, says the report.

A recent report from the United Nations (UN) shows that food production in poor countries suffering from a historical lack of investment in agriculture could double in a decade if farms switched to ecological agriculture. In these countries, where productivity is very low, a sound application of agroecological practices can significantly increase yields in a matter of years, says the report. 

The UN estimates that the world population will reach nine billion by 2050, making the task of feeding the world even more of a challenge. With food costs rising and supply diminishing, the time is now, to start growing green and utilizing agroecology.

What is agroecology? While some people try to portray it as a return to middle-age agriculture, it’s actually the contrary. Agroecology is a modern science requiring investments in knowledge that bring together scientists and farmers and merge the scientific disciplines of agronomy and ecology. As a science, agroecology is the application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. As a set of agricultural practices, agroecology seeks ways to enhance agricultural systems by imitating natural processes, thus creating beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of the ecosystem. 

In simple words, agroecology enhances soil productivity and protects crops against pests by relying on the natural environment such as beneficial trees, plants, animals and insects. Mimicking nature is very different from copying industrial processes, which has been driving agriculture for a long time, says Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and author of the report.

“Agriculture, now part of the problem of climate change, should be made part of the solution. My report shows that agroecological projects proved to be more resilient to extreme climate-related events, while substantially reducing the use of oil and oil-based pesticides and fertilizers, which are extremely harmful for the climate and the environment,” says De Schutter.

In what may be the most systematic study of the potential of such techniques to date, Professor Jules Pretty (Essex University) and his team compared the impacts of 286 recent sustainable agriculture projects in 57 poor countries, covering 37 million hectares. They found that such interventions increased productivity on 12.6 million farms, with an average crop increase of 79%, an average food production per household increase by 73% and an increase in food production by 150%. Most recent large-scale studies point to the same conclusions as well.

Agroecology also has the potential to adapt to and to mitigate climate change, which is especially important considering the impact of agriculture on the environment. According to De Schutter, “modern” agriculture accounts for 14% of total annual emissions, with change in land-use – including deforestation for agricultural expansion – contributing another 19%. Moreover, temperature changes are expected to lower crop yields. In certain regions of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, yields are expected to fall by 50% by 2020 in comparison to 2000 levels. Globally, estimates see agricultural capacity down between 10 and 25% in 2080.

“The problem of hungry people is not that they live in regions where food is unavailable; it is that they lack sufficient incomes to buy food, or that they lack access to sufficient productive resources (land, water) to produce their own food. Today, 50% of the hungry are small-scale farmers, working on less than two hectares of land. That is why creating jobs, and improving the situation of small-scale farmers is so important. Focusing only on the volume of food production is a common mistake while referring to the ‘demographic problem’,” says De Schutter.

Agroecology can improve the resilience of agricultural systems to climate change too – which clearly fuels price volatility on the markets, he says. Land rehabilitation is the first and most important step to improve many agricultural systems in food-insecure regions, which is why agroecology puts soil fertility and diversification at its core. For instance, in Burkina Faso, rather than migrating, work groups of young men specialized in land rehabilitation techniques, such as tassas and zai planting pits, go from village to village to satisfy farmers’ growing interest in improving their own lands.

“Farmers are now buying degraded land for improvement and paying these labourers to dig zai pits and construct the rock walls and half-moon structures which can transform yields. This is one of the reasons why more than three million hectares of land in Burkina Faso are now rehabilitated and productive,” says De Schutter.

Unfortunately, he says, public policy has been slow to embrace this type of agriculture – for several reasons. First, many countries simply lacked any capacity to reinvest in farming and support small farmers. Secondly, promoting large-scale export-led farming has been done at the detriment of small-scale farmers. Lastly, some experts forget to consider that many techniques of “modern” agriculture have been in place since the 1920s when we thought there would be a never-ending supply of cheap oil.

“Today, real modernity would be to develop farming in a way which makes it less addicted to fossil energy. And that is exactly what agroecology is all about,” says De Schutter.

Both small-scale and large-scale operations can apply the principles of agroecology. For small farmers in developing countries, the scarce land they own is their only asset, so if incentives are created to avoid misuse of the land, they are likely to make good use of it. Also, family-operated farms have an intimate knowledge of their environments and are extremely flexible (family labor can be adjusted season by season, and reallocated to off-farm activities). Large-scale operations are already applying the principles of agroecology in the U.K., France, Central America and in the Pacific Northwest in the United States. In developed countries where agriculture has been well supported, agroecological techniques can get similar results to "traditional", oil-based agriculture, but with less expenditures and environmental costs.

“Farmers and scientists can build new knowledge and new systems when they truly work hand in hand. That means that participation of farmers is not merely something that is done to ensure a nice picture in an activity report, but something that is put at the core of the project,” says De Schutter.

As part of their obligation to devote the maximum of their available resources to the progressive realization of the right to food, De Schutter says that States should implement public policies supporting the adoption of agroecological practices, reorient public spending in agriculture and improve the ability of producers practicing sustainable agriculture to access markets. Meanwhile, the research community should increase the budget for agroecological research at the field level and train scientists in the design of agroecological approaches.

“These techniques improve food volumes and farmers’ incomes,” adds De Schutter.

Read the full UN agroecology report at:  http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/officialreports/20110308_a-hrc-16-49_agroecology_en.pdf.


This story is from the latest issue of Food, Nutrition & Science. To read more stories and sign up for your FREE subscription,click here.