The Agroecological Revolution
'By their nature,
n the debate over the future of agriculture, one
school of thought holds that only industrial farming,
enhanced and made less polluting by technologies
such as genetically engineered crop varieties, can
produce enough food to feed future populations.
But many agricultural analysts and scholars argue
that this reasoning is fundamentally flawed — that
industrialized farming and its associated technologies
not only degrade natural resources and accelerate
climate change, they also exacerbate and in many cases
create the poverty and unequal distribution of land,
water, and seeds that are the primary causes of hunger
around the world.
Among the latter group is ESPM professor Miguel
Altieri (above), who argues that food systems should
be transitioned away from fossil fuel–based industrial,
large-scale production of commercial crops for export,
toward small family farms designed to be biodiverse,
climate-change resilient, and highly productive.
"By their nature, small-scale agroecosystems or small
farms conserve natural resources and help reduce
rural poverty by allowing small farmers and rural
communities to become more self-sufficient," says
Altieri, who has served as an advisor to the United
Nations and partnered with academic research
institutions and nongovernmental organizations
to facilitate the spread of these farming systems
Agroecology is rooted in traditional peasant
agricultures, which make multiple uses of natural
resources, creating landscape mosaics of rich biological
diversity. Agroecologists combine knowledge gleaned
from these traditional practices with modern ecological
science to design farming systems that produce a
variety of crops, trees, and livestock.
"These polycultures result in synergisms that create
optimized ecological processes or services, such as
natural pest control, pollination, and soil biological
activity, which sponsor the functioning of farming
systems without the need for external inputs," Altieri
Studies have shown that agroecological farms produce
more food overall than monocultures — from 20 to 60
percent more food per hectare, according to Altieri.
Not only do they free small farmers from dependence
on inputs like chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and
transgenic crop varieties; because the inherent
biodiversity increases resilience, farmers are less
vulnerable to losses from drought, flooding, or the
failure of any one crop.
Altieri has documented many existing sustainable
agroecosystems, from heritage systems like Peru's
Andean agriculture and the Maasai pastoral systems
of Kenya and Tanzania, to Cuba's urban farms and the
complex coffee and cacao agroforests maintained by
farmers in Meso-America. There are thousands of such
examples throughout the developing world, he says.
And, in Latin America in particular, Altieri says, small
farmers have joined forces with nongovernmental
organizations and some academic institutions to
spearhead what amounts to an agroecological
revolution — for improving food security and health as
well as the environment — a development he says is
spreading around the world.
"In the future there will be less land, water, and
nitrogen available to produce crops, and in a
context of climate, food, and energy crises, it is now
largely proven that agroecology is the only path to
significantly increase production and improve farmers'
income and livelihoods," Altieri says. "It is imperative
that institutions like CNR invest heavily in educating
the agricultural professionals of the future, so they
are well versed in agroecology and can tackle the
challenges that lie ahead."