Paradigm Shift Urgently Needed in Agriculture

Mae-Wan Ho

by Mae-Wan Ho

UN Agencies Call for an End to Industrial Agriculture & Food System

A rising chorus from UN agencies on how food security, poverty, gender inequality and climate change can all be addressed by a radical transformation of our agriculture and food system Dr Mae-Wan Ho


Agriculture the problem and the solution to climate change

Record breaking heat waves sweeping over both hemispheres this summer have put global warming back into the headlines, and with it, the problem of survival under climate change. The most urgent item on the agenda is how to produce food without adding even more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which can also withstand the increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

It is generally acknowledged that industrial agriculture and our globalized food system is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, up to 50% if proper account is taken of emissions from land use change and deforestation, most of which are due to agriculture, and for food-related transport, processing, storage, and consumption (see Figure 1) [1]. Nevertheless, it is also generally recognized that agriculture holds tremendous promise for mitigating climate change, and much else besides.

Figure 1 Agriculture & food system contribute 50 % of ghg emissions

Figure 1 Agriculture & food system contribute 50 % of ghg emissions

UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) – the developing nations’ equivalent of OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) – joins a rising chorus of UN agencies in its latest Trade and Environment Review (TER) [2]. The solution for food security under climate change is a radical transformation of the agriculture and food system that would at the same time eliminate poverty, gender inequality, poor health and malnutrition. The 320 page TER – the work of 63 authors from organisations around the world – provides a coherent, closely argued case backed up by evidence from numerous case studies and surveys showing that these interrelated problems could all be solved by a paradigm shift away from the current industrial agriculture and globalized food system to a conglomerate of small, biodiverse, ecological farms around the world and a localized food system that promotes consumption of local/regional produce. The TER proposal is not dissimilar to that made in ISIS’ special report [3] Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free  published in 2008, and in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) [4], which resulted from a three-year consultative process involving 900 participants and 110 countries around the world. The same message was reinforced in several key publications from the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) [for example, 5, 6] and UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) [7] to name but a few.

Why small farmers? Small farms predominate in the world today. Of the 1.6 billion ha of global croplands, 800 m ha are smallholder farms cultivated by 99 % of the 2.6 billion farmers; most of the farms are 2 ha or less. Together, smallholder farmers produce 70 % of the food consumed [7], and 70 % of these farmers are women. Small farms are known to be 2 to 10 times as productive as large industrial farms, and much more profitable, not just in the developing world, but also in the developed world [8-10].

Unfortunately, the perverse government agricultural subsidies in developed countries that favour large fossil-fuel intensive farms, the systematic dumping of subsidized export to developing countries, and structural adjustment programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on developing countries have all worked to destroy the livelihoods of small family farmers [11, 12]. Over the past decades, small family farms have all but disappeared in developed countries. In the developing world, some 1.4 billion people are undernourished and poor, 70%-80 % living in rural areas, who can no longer afford to buy enough food, even when food is available.

The successes of small agro-ecological farms
The successes of small agro-ecological farms are well known (see [3]).
Study after study has documented improvements in yield and income as well as environmental benefits from eliminating agricultural input and polluting runoffs, increase in agricultural and natural biodiversity, reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and most of all, improvements in water retention, carbon sequestration and resilience to climate extremes such as drought and floods. There is evidence of improved nutritional value in organically grown food, not just from reduction or elimination of pesticide residues, but from increased content of vitamins and micronutrients [13].

Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food is in no doubt that agroecology is a solution to the crises of food systems and climate change [14]. He cites a study [15] published in 2006 on 286 recent sustainable agriculture projects in 57 developing countries covering 37 million ha (3 per cent of the cultivated area), which found that crop productivity on the 12.6 million farms increased by an average of 79 per cent, while also improving the supply of critical environmental service.

Noémi Nemes from FAO point out that an analysis of over 50 economic studies demonstrates that in the majority of cases organic systems are more profitable than non-organic systems [16]. In developed countries, this is due to higher market prices and premiums, or lower production costs, or a combination of the two. In developing countries, greater profitability is due to higher yields and high premiums. The increased profits are accompanied by enormous savings due to reduced damages to the external ecosystems from polluting agrochemicals.


The importance of local knowledge and practices and diverse polyculture for resilience to climate change
Miguel Altieri at University of California Berkeley and Parviz Koohafkan from FAO stress the importance of biodiversity in agroecological farming for resilience [17], as revealed by three recent studies. In Central American hillsides after Hurricane Mitch, farmers engaged in polyculture with cover crops, intercropping and agroforestry, suffered less damage than their neighbours who practiced conventional monoculture. The survey, spearheaded by the Campesino a Campesino movement, mobilized 100 farmer-technician teams to carry out paired observations of specific agroecological indicators on 1 804 neighbouring sustainable and conventional farms in 360 communities and 24 departments of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. It found that plots where farmers adopted sustainable farming practices had 20 to 40 % more topsoil, greater soil moisture and less erosion, and experienced smaller economic losses than their conventional neighbours. Similarly in Sotonusco, Chiapas, coffee systems with high levels of vegetation complexity and plant diversity suffered less damage from Hurricane Stan than simplified coffee systems. The same in Cuba; 40 days after Hurricane Ike hit the country in 2008, a farm survey in the provinces of Holguin and Las Tunas found that diversified farms suffered losses of 50 % compared to 90 or 100 %  in neighbouring monoculture farms.  In addition, agroecologically managed farms showed faster recovery of productivity (80–90 % 40 days after the hurricane) than monoculture farms.

All three studies highlight the importance of enhancing plant diversity and complexity in farming systems in reducing vulnerability to extreme climatic events. As many peasant farmers commonly manage polycultures and/or agroforestry systems, their knowledge and practices could provide a valuable source of information for agriculture in times of climate change. It is important for scientists to work with farmers to preserve and enhance this indigenous knowledge. Restoring biodiversity also is the best strategy to resist disease and pests.

Another remarkable example of productive and resilient polycultures innovated by farmers is described by Roger Leakey at James Cook University, Cairns, Australia [18]. This involves a three-point action plan to improve and rehabilitate marginal lands, many of which are unproductive or no longer suitable for agriculture.

The first step is to use legumes to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Nitrogen-fixing species such as Sesbania seban,  Desmodium intorum and D. uncinatum are planted to provide green manure for cereal crops as well as fodder for livestock. These plants can control root parasites of cereal crops such as Striga hermonthica by triggering their ‘suicide germination’ before the cereals are planted. Desmodium spp also act as repellent for insects pests of cereals like the stem borers Buseola fusca and Chila partellus. Similarly, planting Napier grass (Pennisetum purpuretum) as an intercrop or around small fields attract the insect pests away from the crops.

The next step is to integrate trees within the farming systems. Cash crops such as coffee, cocoa and rubber are increasingly grown by small holders in various combinations; also bananas with fruit trees like mango and avocado and local indigenous trees that produce marketable products. Another innovation in the tropics especially South-East Asia led by farmers who used to practice shifting agriculture is to plant a wide variety of commercially important tree species among food crops species on the valley slopes. These trees become productive successively in later years, creating a continuous supply of marketable produce such as cinnamon, tung nut, damar (edible gum), duku (edible fruit) and rubber for several decades, often ending in a timber crop. Apart from generating income, the trees enhance biodiversity and promote agro-ecosystem functions that monoculture crops cannot provide: protecting sloping land from erosion, improving water infiltration into the soil, sequestering carbon and mitigating climate change (see above). In a further initiative over the past 20 years, agroforesters have taken this strategy to a higher level by starting to domesticate some of the very wide range of forest tree species that have been the source of food and non-food products. Well-known horticulture techniques of vegetative propagation have been used to develop cultivars within local communities rather than in a research station, thus ensuring that farmers participating in the projects who have the indigenous local knowledge are the instant beneficiaries of the domestication. As a result, highly productive cultivars yielding good quality produce required by market are rapidly and easily obtained. As the multiplication process is done vegetatively from mature tissues that can readily flower and fruit, trees become productive in 2-3 years.

A tree domestication project in Cameroon started 23 years ago grew from four villages and a small number of farmers to over 450 villages with 7 500 farmers. Benefits such as income started within 5 years.  The third step, says Leakey [18], is to further expand the commercialization of the new tree crops, to create business opportunities and employment.

Rehabilitation of degraded land has the potential to double the amount of agricultural land globally. As pointed out by David Pimental and Michael Burgess at Cornell University, New York [19], decades of unsustainable industrial agricultural practices have resulted in massive loss of top soil and land degradation. Worldwide, the 1.5 billion ha of land now under cultivation are almost equal in area to the amount that has been abandoned by humans since farming began.