Agroecología: única esperanza para la soberanía alimentaria y la resiliencia socioecológica The scaling up of agroecology: spreading the hope for food sovereignty and resiliency
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A contribution to discussions at Rio+20 on issues at the interface of hunger, agriculture, environment and social justice


Why industrial agriculture is no longer viable?


The Green Revolution, the symbol of agricultural intensification not only failed to ensure safe and abundant food production for all people, but it was launched under the assumptions that abundant water and cheap energy to fuel modern agriculture would always be available and that climate would be stable and not change. Agrochemicals, fuel based mechanization and irrigation operations, the heart of industrial agriculture, are derived entirely from dwindling and ever more expensive fossil fuels.


Climate extremes are becoming more frequent and violent and threaten genetically homogeneous modern monocultures now covering 80% of the 1500 million hectares of global arable land. Moreover industrial agriculture contributes with about 25-­‐30% of GHG emissions, further altering weather patterns thus compromising the world’s capacity to produce food in the future.


The ecological footprint of Industrial agriculture


In some of the major grain production areas of the world, the rate of increase in cereal yields is declining as actual crop yields approach a ceiling for maximal yield potential (Figure 1). When the petroleum dependence and the ecological footprint of industrial agriculture are accounted for, serious questions about the social, economic and environmental sustainability of modern agricultural strategies. Intensification of agriculture via the use of high-yielding crop varieties, fertilization, irrigation and pesticides impact heavily on natural resources with serious health and environmental implications.


It has been estimated that the external costs of UK agriculture, to be at least 1.5 to 2 billion pounds each year. Using a similar framework of analysis the external costs in the US amount to nearly 13 billion pounds per year, arising from damage to water resources, soils, air, wildlife and biodiversity, and harm to human health. Additional annual costs of USD 3.7 billion arise from agency costs associated with programs to address these problems or encourage a transition towards more sustainable systems. The US pride about cheap food, is an illusion: consumers pay for food well beyond the grocery store.


Due to lack of ecological regulation mechanisms, monocultures are heavily dependent on pesticides. In the past 50 years the use of pesticides has increased dramatically worldwide and now amounts to some 2,6 million tons of pesticides per year with an annual value in the global market of more than US$ 25 billion. In the US alone, 324 million kg of 600 different types of pesticides are used annually with indirect environmental (impacts on wildlife, pollinators, natural enemies, fisheries, water quality, etc.) and social costs (human poisoning and illnesses) reaching about $8 billion each year. On top of this, 540 species of arthropods have developed resistance against more than 1000 different types of pesticides, which have been rendered useless to control such pests chemically (Figure 2).


Although there are many unanswered questions regarding the impact of the release of transgenic plants into the environment which already occupy > 180 million hectares worldwide, it is expected that biotech crops will exacerbate the problems of conventional agriculture and, by promoting monoculture, will also undermine ecological methods of farming. Transgenic crops developed for pest control emphasize the use of a single control mechanism, which has proven to fail over and over again with insects, pathogens and weeds. Thus transgenic crops are likely to increase the use of pesticides as a result of accelerated evolution of ‘super weeds’ and resistant insect pest strains. Transgenic crops also affect soil fauna potentially upsetting key soil processes such as nutrient cycling. Unwanted gene flow from transgenic crops.



Proposals and abstracts


Peasant agriculture: the basis for the new XXI Century agriculture


There is no doubt that humanity needs an alternative agricultural development paradigm, one that encourages more ecologically, biodiverse, resilient, sustainable and socially just forms of agriculture. The basis for such new systems are the myriad of ecologically based agricultural styles developed by at least 75% of the 1,5 billion smallholders, family farmers and indigenous people on 350 million small farms which account for no less than 50 % of the global agricultural output for domestic consumption (ETC, 2009). Most of the food consumed today in the world is derived from 5,000 domesticated crop species and 1.9 million peasant-­bred plant varieties mostly grown without agrochemicals (ETC, 2009). Industrial agriculture threatens this crop diversity through the replacement of native varieties with hybrid strains and the contamination of crop and wild species from the introduction of genetically modified organisms.


As the global food supply relies on a diminishing variety of crops, it becomes vulnerable to pest outbreaks, the breeding of superbugs, and climate disruptions.


Assessing the performance of agroecological projects


There are many competing visions on how to achieve new models of a biodiverse, resilient, productive and resource efficient agriculture that humanity desperately needs in the immediate future. Conservation (no or minimum tillage) agriculture, sustainable intensification production, transgenic crops, organic agriculture and agroecological systems are some of the proposed approaches, each claiming to serve as the durable foundation for a sustainable food production strategy. Although goals of all approaches may be similar, technologies proposed (high versus low input) methodologies (farmer-­‐led versus market driven, top down versus bottom-­‐up) and scales (large scale monocultures versus biodiverse small farms) are quite different and often antagonistic.


However when one examines the basic attributes that a sustainable production system should exhibit (Box 2), agroecological approaches certainly meet most of these attributes and requirements (Altieri, 2002; Gliessman, 1998; UK Food Group, 2010; Parrott and Marsden, 2002; Uphoff, 2002). Similarly by applying the set of questions listed in Table 2 to assess the potential of agricultural interventions in addressing pressing social, economic and ecological concerns, it is clear that most existing agroecological projects confirm that proposed management practices are contributing to sustainable livelihoods by improving the natural, human, social, physical and financial capital of target rural communities (Koohafkan et al., 2011).


The spread and productive/food security potential of agroecological systems


The first global assessment of agroecologically based projects and/or initiatives throughout the developing world was conducted by Pretty et al (2003) who documented clear increases in food production over some 29 million hectares, with nearly 9 million households benefiting from increased food diversity and security. Promoted sustainable agriculture practices led to 50-­100% increases in per hectare cereal production (about 1.71 Mg per year per household – an increase of 73%) in rain-­‐fed areas typical of small farmers living in marginal environments; that is an area of about 3.58 million hectares, cultivated by about 4.42 million farmers. In 14 projects where root crops were main staples (potato, sweet potato and cassava), the 146,000 farms on 542,000 ha increased household food production by 17 t per year (increase of 150%). Such yield enhancements are a true breakthrough for achieving food security among farmers isolated from mainstream agricultural institutions. A re-‐examination of the data in 2010, the analysis demonstrates the extent to which 286 interventions in 57 “poor countries” covering 37 million ha (3 percent of the cultivated area in developing countries) have increased productivity on 12.6 million farms while improving ecosystem services. The average crop yield increase was 79 percent.


Agroecology and resiliency to climatic extremes


Of key importance for the future of agriculture are results from observations of agricultural performance after extreme climatic events which reveal that resiliency to climate disasters is closely linked to the level of on-­‐farm biodiversity, a major feature of agroecological systems. A survey conducted in Central American hillsides after Hurricane Mitch showed that farmers using diversification practices such as cover crops, intercropping and agroforestry suffered less damage than their conventional monoculture neighbors. The study revealed that diversified plots had 20 to 40% more topsoil, greater soil moisture and less erosion and experienced lower economic losses than their conventional neighbors (Holt-­‐Gimenez 2000). Similarly in Sotonusco, Chiapas, coffee systems exhibiting high levels of vegetational complexity and plant diversity suffered less damage from Hurricane Stan than more simplified coffee systems.


Diversified farming systems such as agroforestry, silvopastoral and polycultural systems provide a variety of examples on how complex agroecosystems are able to adapt and resist the effects drought. Intercrops of sorghum and peanut, millet and peanut, and sorghum and millet exhibited greater yield stability and less productivity declines during a drought than in the case of monocultures (Natarajan and Willey 1986). In 2009 the valle del Cauca in Colombia experienced the driest year in a 40 year record. Intensive silvopastoral systems for livestock production combining fodder shrubs planted at high densities under trees and palms with improved pastures, not only provided environmental goods and services for livestock producers but also greater resilience to drought.


Scaling up agroecological innovations


The cases reported above show that in Africa, Asia and Latin America there are many NGO and farmer led initiatives promoting agroecological projects that have demonstrated a positive impact on the livelihoods of small farming communities in various countries (Altieri et al 2011). Agroecological production is particularly well suited for smallholder farmers, who comprise the majority of the rural poor. Resource-­‐poor farmers using agroecological systems are less dependent on external resources and experience higher and more stable yields enhancing food security. Some of these farmers, who may devote part of their production for certified organic export production without sacrificing food security, exhibit significantly higher incomes than their conventional counterparts.


Agroecological management makes conversion to organic production fairly easy, involving little risk and requires few, if any, fixed investments.