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The Agroecological Revolution


Photo: Courtesy of Dirt! The Movie

'By their nature, small-scale agroecosystems ... conserve natural resources and help reduce rural poverty.'

In 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 worldwide.

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 explains.

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."

-By Eileen Ecklund