A Better Way to Feed the World

Global food issues are grabbing our attention and for good reason: the industrial system of the last sixty years is fraying at the edges, causing a cascade of environmental and social problems. Worldwide, a billion people go hungry. A similar number over-eat the wrong foods. And yet one-third of food produced for human consumption is wasted.

Industrialized food production promised liberation from the constraints of Earth’s natural cycles. And unfettered trade seemed to enable culinary abundance wherever there was money to buy it. But the over-use of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and precious groundwater supplies has levied significant costs on our planet. We are now overshooting Earth’s bio-capacity by 40 percent.

There’s a better way. It’s called agroecology, and it integrates scientific understanding about how particular places work – their ecology – with farmers’ knowledge of how to make their local landscapes useful to humans. Only by re-orienting our approach to food production in this way can we begin to solve the food, energy and development crises afflicting our planet.

Industrial food production is destabilizing Earth’s life-support systems. Every calorie it provides requires so much oil and gas to produce that our agricultural system generates nearly a third of the globe’s greenhouse gases. And through massive use of fertilizer, we have disruptively tripled the nitrates in Earth’s natural nitrogen cycle.

Soils have been treated as inert – and are consequently dying. The productivity of nearly half of all soil worldwide is decreasing. Another 15 percent can no longer be used for farming because its biology has been so depleted.

Biodiversity is fading, too. Eighty percent of the world’s arable land is dominated by genetically homogeneous monocultures – that is, single crops grown over wide areas. Only weeds and pests can thrive in such environments.

Agroecology, by contrast, celebrates the value of diverse and complex methods of land stewardship. The approach re-integrates livestock, crops, pollinators, trees and water in ways that work resiliently with the landscape.

Agroecological techniques replace the “vicious cycles” bringing down our planetary support systems with “virtuous circles” that mimic nature’s own systems.

For instance, agroecology can restore soil fertility and sequester carbon naturally rather than spewing it dangerously into the atmosphere or as acid into the ocean. Its nutrient cycling approach – whereby nitrogen passes again and again through food systems, roots, and soils – can turn waste into raw materials rather than pollutants.

Indigenous agro-ecology, practiced for generations in the Gamo Highlands of Ethiopia, maintains a balance between culture and local natural resources, mixing a variety of crops with animal proteins, trees and traditional agricultural knowledge. It can repair damaged lands, improve nutritional diversity and create vibrant local food economies

In essence, agroecology seeks out nature-based solutions by empowering farmers to do what they know works best on their own lands – and then to spread those lessons far and wide.

And agroecology is now set to rise beyond the fields of marginalized small landholders – and onto the global stage.

We can learn from examples like those set by farmers in Kenya, who have created a “push-pull” system to control parasitic weeds and insects without chemical insecticides. The system “pushes” pests away by planting insect-repellant species among corn crops while “pulling” pests to plots of napier grass, which excretes a sticky gum that attracts and traps insects.

The results have been remarkable. “Push-pull” doubled yields of maize and milk and is now used on over 10,000 farms in East Africa.

Such results can scale up. One study examined 286 agroecological projects covering 37 million hectares in 57 poor countries. Researchers found that these interventions increased crop yields by a stunning 79 percent.

The Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project reviewed 40 agroecological projects in 20 African countries. Between 2000 and 2010, these initiatives doubled crop yields, resulting in nearly 5.8 million extra tons of food.

But agroecology doesn’t just increase the output of farms. It also values farmers’ relationships with and knowledge of their lands – and does not treat them as passive recipients of aid or external inputs. As such, it is a powerful, cost-effective and sustainable model for development.

Many foundations already have experience, especially in the US, with how supporting small-scale sustainable agriculture can revitalize local economies and communities (through farmers markets and other approaches), and transform diets and health. Groups such as the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders are helping to scale such work. We need to re-double our efforts to expand this movement internationally and link it more explicitly to agro-ecological approaches. Another effort is the International Fund to Amplify Agro-Ecological Solutions, a multi-donor fund that represents some of the most effective actors in the field in Asia, Africa, and South America.

These evolving alliances are exploring how the fields of conservation and agriculture can work more effectively together. A similar effort is needed to integrate agriculture into the climate change agenda, and Mr. Howard Buffet’s call for a “brown revolution” that recognizes the central importance of living soils to planetary wellbeing is a step in the right direction.

All of these efforts should be embraced by foundations and agricultural specialists as parts of an agro-ecologcal approach to fitting within our shrinking, but still delicious planet.

To see a detailed info-graphic on the differences between industrial agriculture and agro-ecology, click here

Dr. Ken Wilson is the Executive Director of The Christensen Fund