Farming with Nature
By Miles Bolton
With the dominance of monoculture farming along with the profuse use of pesticides and fertilizers; the fruits of the green revolution have all but exhausted the soil resulting in decreases in production, land efficiency, desertification, habitat loss, etc. The Green Revolution, also known as the third agricultural revolution, refers to a model of agriculture that was adapted in the 1950s and 1960s across the world to increase agricultural production. Norman Borlaug (“Father of the Green Revolution”) was credited with the implementation of this agricultural model, which focused on the cultivation of high-yielding cereal grains, the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, hybridized/genetically modified seeds. synthetic fertilizers and the use of pesticides. At the time this model was very successful and greatly reduced hunger worldwide, however the environmental consequences resulted from this exploitative form of agriculture have greatly underscored the movements early gains.
Hindsight is 20/20, although I’m sure plenty of biologists during that time were wary of applying chemicals to our crops ex: Rachel Carson “Silent Spring”. Nonetheless farmers, scientists, and countries are starting to adjust and realize that the current agricultural model needs to be radically changed if production levels are expected to keep pace with population growth while compensating for climate change related losses in production. Agroecology is a new approach to agriculture that takes natural ecosystems into account and utilizes local knowledge to plant a wide diversity of plants to maintain soil fertility and biodiversity. Agroecology doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, instead it employs natural, ecologically based solutions to divert pests and maintain soil fertility. Instead of fertilizer, an agroecological farm would maybe use compost or manure to recycle the farms organic matter; instead of spraying pesticides you could release natural predators or plant fodder crops alongside crops to divert pests.
Agroecology isn’t a new concept conceived in a think tank but rather old wisdom that harkens back to a deeper understanding of nature and the soil you cultivate that values sustainability and biodiversity. Many of the methods employed in agroecologically-minded farms derive from old agricultural methods developed by indigenous peoples and ancient societies that are now being re-adapted to fit the demands of modern society. Agroecology is broad field that is built on centuries of research and innovation by civilizations throughout the world so while it’s impossible to sum it up in one article, here are some example of agroecology and its uses both past and current.
EXAMPLES OF AGROECOLOGY
Most agroecological techniques are relatively simple and stem from an understanding of basic ecological concepts. The “Push-Pull” method is a good example of an alternative to pesticide use, this method calls for simply planting fodder plants and wild grasses alongside crops to “push” pests away or “pull” them towards decoy plants to divert them from crops. In East Africa, more than 96,000 farmers have adapted the “push-pull” method which has resulted in an increase of an average 1.5-3 tonnes per hectare in maize yields. In Japan and other parts of Asia, ducks are being released in rice paddies to cut down on pest populations, oxygenate the water, and fertilize the sediment with their droppings. The idea for duck use in rice paddies comes from ancient traditional Japanese practices that are now being re-implemented to phase out synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Why kill two birds with one stone when you can kill three while you’re at it.
ANCIENT AGROECOLOGY IN THE AMERICAS
In a recent study led by Amazonian paleoecologist, Yoshi Mazumi, researchers from the University of Exeter in England have discovered what is possibly the largest example of agroecology in world history. Dating back 4500 years, indigenous peoples in South America have been employing permaculture techniques within the Amazon rainforest making it a rich, biodiverse man-influenced grocery store. Rather than clear cutting the forest to make room for farmland, South American tribes left the forest canopy intact and planted within the understory of the rainforest. Some of the more prominent crops planted in the understory of the forest include maize, sweet potato, manioc and squash. The canopy of the forest was left intact by the indigenous for they understood the role the canopy played in protecting the soils fertility by limiting excessive sunlight, maintaining soil fertility (nutrients, moisture), and preventing erosion. Rather than depleting the soil and moving onto another plot of land, the indigenous were able to reuse the same soil over and over again without any special additions save for manure and compost. The success of their permaculture techniques, which are no longer maintained on a large scale, are why the Amazon is still teeming with a plethora of edible plants. The idea of man made forests in the America’s has been hypothesized in the past by the permaculturist Toby Hemenway in the past and now theres is legitimate evidence that this was indeed a reality before Europeans came to the Americas. There is no evidence yet of this in North America and it would be hard to prove given the enormous impact Western civilization has had on the land.
It is known that Native Americans did use permaculture techniques as well but probably not on the same scale as South American tribes in the Amazon. The three sisters is the most widely known example of Native American permaculture. The three sisters refers to the symbiotic crop pairing of corn, squash, and beans. The corn provides structure for pole beans to wrap around, the beans fertilize the soils with nitrogen, and the leaves of squash and/or melon shade the soil to keep it moist and cool while their thorns deter pests such as raccoons and deer. In addition to being a sustainable farming strategy, this ingenious crop pairing also facilitates a well balanced diet as the three crops provide ample protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. It makes ecological sense as well as most plants in natural settings grow better within diverse plant communities which is the driving thought process behind permaculture. Mimicking the structure of natural ecosystems is the driver behind permaculture and agroecology.
Given the mounting pile of research citing the benefits of agroecology, the international community is starting to take notice and invest in further research with the intent of moving away from current unsustainable methods. This year representatives from over 70 countries congregated in Rome to discuss the benefits of agroecology and how to make our food systems healthier and more sustainable worldwide. The UN’s top food official, Jose Graziano da Silva, director of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture organization necessitated the need for “transformative change toward sustainable agriculture and food systems based on agroecology”. The United Nations is still brainstorming how to effectively proceed in pushing agroecological concepts however many nations have moved forward on their own in funding agroecology not waiting for the green light from the UN.
India is investing $200 million in the province of Ankara Pradesh (50 million residents) to convert its farmers to zero budget natural farming, an agroecological practice that uses from the farm nutrients rather than pricey chemical fertilizers and pesticides that can push poor farmers into debt. Already 100,000 farmers have made the switch with another 500,000 farmers projected to follow suit by the end of the year. India’s government plans to invest $2.3 billion to spread this practice to another 6 million farmers within the next 5 years. In Africa, the African Centre for Biodiversity is advising the Tanzanian government to discontinue subsidies for chemical fertilizers to accelerate a move towards agroecology through supporting small farmers. In Ghana, the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development (NGO), is teaming up with local chiefs to implement sustainable forestry techniques to combat desertification and restore soil health. France, taking note of these developments has announced plans to invest 8 millions euros for the development of agroecology in West Africa. France has also invested 1 billion euros within its own borders to help French farmers adopt agroecological practices by 2025, via training, support, research, and development programs.
In the Americas, Mexico’s recently elected president Andres Manueal Lopez Obrador has endorsed a plan to redefine Mexico’s agriculture based on agroecological principles. In Ecuador, the Agroecology Collective is building a network of municipal farmers markets to achieve the stated Constitutional goal of establishing national food sovereignty. In the United States, the Good Food Purchasing Program has created a system to help cities and large institutions purchase locally, sustainable grown food. This program has been adopted in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago so far with New York likely the next city to adopt the program. Given the U.S's wealth, this is a drop in the bucket in comparison to other nations but progress is progress.
This is just a quick spitball summary of some of the efforts around the world being made to convert to more sustainable farming practices. It's too early on to make any concrete projections on the positive impact Agroecology will have in reducing our carbon footprint and helping restore biodiversity but its tantalizing in itself to imagine a future food system dominated by sustainable, agroecologically based models as opposed to the current corporate driven monoculture model. There will be more articles on Agroecology to follow up this one as it's too large a topic to do proper justice in one take. This is merely an introduction to the vast possibilities of Agroecology.