Last month, Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, convened a two-day meeting on agroecology in Brussels (press release here). At the end of the meeting, experts concluded that agroecological farming can feed the estimated 2050 global population of 9 billion people.
This conclusion directly contradicts what proponents of industrial agriculture advocate. A leading line of argument is that in order to avoid the need for more farmland to feed a growing population, the only useful option is to intensify production on existing agricultural land. Here intensification simply means yield increase. This is Green Revolution thinking with contemporary application, and a study out of Stanford’s Program on Food Security and the Environment is one of the most recent examples of this logic at work. The authors of the report, “Greenhouse Gas Mitigation by Agricultural Intensification” argue that crop yield increases realized over the past 50 years have greatly reduced the need to convert forest into farmland, thereby preventing huge amounts of greenhouse gases from entering into the atmosphere when trees and plants are burned in the process.
Studies like this fuel the fire of investment in an incredibly narrow line of agricultural research, based on the development of an incredibly narrow range of high-yielding crops, mostly grown in monoculture, and largely grown for animal feed. AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), the campaign to turn Africa into several large plantations that use “improved seeds” to produce commodity grains, is perhaps the best example of this type of ideology in action today. Eric Holt-Gimenez, Miguel Altieri, and Peter Rosset published a fantastically scathing report in 2006 on AGRA’s prospects for solving poverty and hunger in Africa.
The main point I want to make about agricultural intensification arguments and the projects that carry them out is that they start from a false sense of reality and a limited sense of what’s possible. The recent Stanford report, for example, draws conclusions based on solid calculations about land conversion and greenhouse gas emissions. BUT the authors take industrial agriculture, and agriculture based on the international trade of feed grains, as a given. It’s easy to say that the “intensive” agriculture they use as a model has saved us massive greenhouse gas emissions, only because they are working from the assumption that there have never been viable alternatives, let alone that this form of production is itself an alternative to longer-practiced agroecological farming systems. If we weren’t cutting down forests to grow feed crops in the first place, imagine all the additional carbon that would have been kept safely in the soil and in the forest canopy. AND imagine how many smallscale farmers would have been able to survive, instead of being pushed out of production and often off of their land. On this point, Mr. De Schutter wrote a incisive essay in June called, “Responsibly Destroying the World’s Peasantry” that is a call to develop agriculture in a more socially and ecologically responsible manner.
When we talk about “feeding the world” and “population growth” and how the two shall meet, agroecology must be at the heart of that discussion. For too many years, commentators and policy makers have focused only on Green Revolution-style agriculture, co-opting terms such as “high yield” and “intensive”, which when analyzed on a per-hectare basis, are much more descriptive of smallholder farming than of large-scale monocultures. Those in power seem completely blind to the fact that smallholders produce food for most of the world’s population, and do so without expensive inputs or contracts with agribusinesses. Agroecology has been around for thousands of years, and provides a sold basis for continued innovation and sustainability, but it needs support and attention. The people who practice agroecology deserve a place at the decision-making table where funds and investment for agricultural research and development are doled out. The conclusions of the UN meeting, and the light Olivier De Schutter is shedding on agroecology and peasants, can help make this high-yielding, intensive agriculture and the livelihoods of those who practice it less invisible. Of this, we can be cautiously hopeful. Turning that attention into policies and investments that actually support small-scale agriculture is another thing entirely.