Enabling a New Kind of Ag

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It’s been argued that promoting a type of agriculture that is more environmentally friendly threatens the food security of poor people all over the world. But a special “right to food” report submitted to the UN General Assembly comes to quite the opposite conclusion. Research like this could not come at a better time— it’s become clear that lack of access to food was one of the sparks behind the recent revolutions in places like Egypt.

Farming systems based on agroecology—fewer chemicals, more biodiversity, a focus on building the organic matter in soils with homegrown fertility—offer the best opportunity for boosting food production enough to feed the estimated nine billion people that will populate the planet by 2050, concludes the UN study. The report, which was submitted by Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (“special rapporteur” is a fancy phrase for someone who investigates, monitors and recommends solutions to specific human rights problems), is based on a review of the scientific literature published in the past five years.

The report argues that simply utilizing chemical- and energy-intensive farming methods to increase yields even more is not the long-term, sustainable solution to feeding everyone. Industrialized farming systems threaten to undermine the very ecosystems—our soil, for example—needed to raise food long into the future. “…short-term gains will be offset by long-term losses it it leads to further degradation of ecosystems, threatening future ability to maintain current levels of production,” concludes the report.

In addition, increasing yields does little good if the world’s poorest people—often small-scale farmers in developing countries—don’t see an increase in income. How can they afford to buy all that high-tech seed and the inputs that come with it? And how can their neighbors afford to buy the food produced by this expensive technology?

The UN report cites numerous examples all over the world of farmers with minimal resources utilizing sustainable methods to produce food in an economically viable manner.

One ingenious example cited is out of Kenya, where a “push-pull” chemical-free strategy is used to control parasitic weeds and insects that damage crops. Such a system “pushes” pests away from corn by inter-planting it with insect-repellent crops such as Desmodium, while “pulling” them towards small plots of Napier grass. This type of grass excretes a sticky gum which both attracts and traps pests. Since Desmodium can be used for livestock fodder, the push-pull strategy offers a trifecta of benefits: increased corn yields, more milk and better quality soil. Such methods not only preserve and build the agroecosystem, but keep wealth circulating locally.

The challenge, De Schutter argues, is “scaling up” these experiences and expanding their presence to more regions by creating “an enabling environment for such sustainable modes of production.” (The report also calls for small farmers to join cooperative supply chains so they can gain more value from their production via the processing, packaging and marketing of what they raise).

Whether or not we enable such a future is becoming less and less a choice, and more of a necessity. As E. Ann Clark, a retired professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph in Ontario, argues, agriculture has evolved over the decades in response to “drivers.” The dominant drivers in the recent past have been cheap oil and the willingness of society to tolerate costs externalized by industrial-scale production and processing.

Just drive by any gas station and it becomes clear the era of cheap oil is fast coming to an end. Problems such as the Gulf Dead Zone and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are making it tougher to justify all the externalized costs of industrialized agriculture.

“Post-oil realities will advantage small-scale, organic, locally-sourced, seasonal, and minimally processed food, just as cheap oil selected for bigness, resource-based production, globalization, and processing/packaging/refrigeration,” concluded Clark in a recent presentation.

Creating an “enabling environment” for a new era of food and farming is what initiatives like LSP’s Farm Beginnings program are all about. Such farmer-to-farmer education models are just what we need if we are to see knowledge-intensive farming systems become more the norm.

“The participation of farmers is vital for the success of agroecological practices,” argues the UN report. It makes it clear that since such a model is a public good, it will require a public investment to enable it: “Agroecology is highly knowledge-intensive, based on techniques that are not delivered top-down but developed on the basis of farmers’ knowledge and experimentation…It requires the development of both ecological literacy and decision-making skills in farmer communities. Investments in agricultural extension and agricultural research are key in this regard.”

That’s true here in Minnesota as well. That’s why it’s so troubling when”enablers” like key sustainable/organic Minnesota Department of Agriculture programs end up being slashed by a combined average of over 75 percent.

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