The food crisis and agroecology

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“With agroecology we can produce enough food to feed the world, but if the inequalities and structural forces that cause hunger are not resolved, then hunger will continue, whether or not we produce enough.”

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“With agroecology we can produce enough food to feed the world, but if the inequalities and structural forces that cause hunger are not resolved, then hunger will continue, whether or not we produce enough.”

by Sally Burch

Republished with permission from Sally Burch and America Latina en Movimiento. Originally published in ALAI in Spanish in July 2013. Translated by Jordan Bishop.

A dialogue with Miguel Altieri and Marc Dufumier

There is a growing interest, not only in the rural world but also among urban populations, in ecological agriculture, due to its potential to ensure food supplies that are both healthy and entail less environmental impact.  Nevertheless, this has been seen up to now as a marginal option for the food supply system, while the vision still prevails that large scale agriculture is the only way to guarantee feeding the world.  But how true is this?

The first thing to note is that the chronic hunger that people suffer in this world is not due to a shortage of food. In this the numbers are quite clear.  Every person should ingest some 2200 kilocalories daily, for which it is necessary to produce some 200 kilos of cereals per inhabitant annually, or its equivalent in the form of potatoes, manioc or similar products.  Annual production amounts to some 330 kilos per inhabitant, that is to say there is overproduction of food, enough to feed some nine thousand million people, the population estimate for the year 2050.

These data come from two researchers, in interviews we made in order to further our understanding concerning the causes of the food crisis and the alternatives offered by agroecology.  They are Miguel Altieri, professor at the University of California at Berkeley and president of the Sociedad Científica Latinoamericana de Agroecologia — SOCLA –; and Marc Dufumier, professor in the Institut National Agroeconomique de Paris, AgroParisTech.

Dufumier indicates that though the food crisis has become more critical in the last four years, “already in 2006 there were 800 million people who went hungry. Now there are a few more, but the problem is structural, this is not a short-term crisis”, he says: “this is a problem of poverty in monetary terms. People do not have purchasing power.”  In the same sense, Altieri emphasises: “a third of the human population earns less than two dollars per day, and because of this they cannot buy food.  In Europe and the United States, each year approximately 115 kilos of food per person is thrown away, enough to feed all of Africa.”

Other factors that contribute to the food crisis, pointed out by our interviewed sources, include the increase of agricultural production to feed automobiles instead of people and greater meat consumption (which is now extending to heavily populated countries such as China and India), when three to ten food calories from vegetable sources are needed to produce just one animal calorie.  Also, there are structural problems with the food distribution system or related to the control multinational corporations hold over the food supply system.

For Altieri, the food crisis, together with the social crisis and that of energy and of the ecology, “is a crisis of capitalism, of an industrial model of agriculture based on premises that are no longer valid.” He explains it in these terms:

“When the green revolution was launched in the 1950s and 1960s, a Malthusian model of agriculture was created, which saw the problem of hunger as a problem of growing population and stagnant food production, and that this problem had to be resolved by bringing northern technologies to the south, such as improved varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.

“They assumed that the climate would be stable, that petroleum would be cheap and abundant, that water would always be plentiful, and that natural limits to agriculture, such as plagues, could easily be controlled.

“So today we find ourselves with a type of agriculture that takes up some 1.400 million hectares in monocultures highly dependent on external products in which the costs of production vary with oil prices; and where we have more than 500 kinds of plagues that are resistant to more than one thousand pesticides.”

One of the results is that today in the world there are “approximately a billion hungry people, while on the other hand there are around a billion obese people, who are direct victims of the industrial model of agriculture.”

It is true that this highly mechanized model significantly lowers the direct costs of production per acre; hence this allows the sale of food at a lower price even as it increases profits.  Nevertheless, as Dufumier points out, this is a trap, since it does not take into account the indirect costs: social, environmental, public health, etc. He cites the example of cheap powdered milk, which “is extremely costly, because of soil contamination, the excess of nitrates in water tables, hormones in the milk.  These are what economists call negative externalities,” resulting in lower life expectancy and health problems for people.

Altieri estimates that in the case of the United States, if these costs were internalized, they would amount to some $300 per hectare of land in production (or $120 per acre).

Agroecology as an alternative

In the face of this model, the question arises: to what extent can agroecology offer viable solutions; also whether these are partial or marginal solutions, and whether they have the capacity of resolving the problem of hunger.  Miguel Altieri clarifies his position:

“I do not like to engage in the argument as to whether agroecology could feed the world because, as I said, this is not a problem of production.  With agroecology we can produce enough food to feed the world, but if the inequalities, the structural forces that explain hunger are not resolved, then hunger will continue, no matter whether or not we produce with agroecology.”

Agroecology, he recalls,

“is a science that is based both on the traditional campesino knowledge and that also employs certain advances made by modern agricultural science (excepting, of course, transgenic biotechnology and pesticides), but it does utilize elements from contemporary ecology, soil biology, biological control of pests, all of which is incorporated into agroecology, and thus involves a knowledge dialogue.

“There are in the world approximately 1.5 billion peasant farmers who occupy some 380 million farms on 20% of the land, but produce 50% of the food which is consumed in the world at this time.  (Industrial agriculture produces 30% of food on 80% of agricultural land).  Of these campesinos, 50% practice agroecology.

“That is to say, they produce 25% of world food production on 10% of agricultural land.  Imagine what would be if these people had fifty per cent of the land through a process of agrarian reform: they would produce food in great abundance, and indeed with surpluses.”

At the same time, agroecology has other advantages that the green revolution lacks. “For example,” Altieri points out, “it is socially activating, since in order to practice agroecology, it must be participative and create interchange networks, otherwise it would not work. And it is culturally acceptable, as it does not try to modifycampesino knowledge and attempts to create a knowledge dialogue.

Agroecology is also economically viable because it employs local resources, without depending on imported resources. The green revolution looks to change this system and impose a western knowledge base on the campesino culture.  Because of this,” he concludes, “it has had considerable repercussions in the terrain.”

An important factor to consider is that agroindustrial production on a large scale is less when one considers total production. That is to say, monocultures are more productive in terms of human labour; but campesino agriculture produces much more per acre.

“If you make a graph of total production in relation to the area cultivated,” says Altieri, “the production curve goes down in relation to the area of the exploitation.  We are not comparing the production of maize with maize, we are comparing the total production of the area cultivated.  And what does the peasant farmer produce?  He produces maize, beans, fruit, raises pigs, chickens…And when we analyze the system, we realize that it is approximately 20 to 30 times more productive.  This gives us an important basis to think in terms of agrarian reform.”

Another advantage is greater resilience to climate change. Not only because it does not generate global warming — as differentiated from industrial agriculture, with its high consumption of fossil fuels — but there is evidence that it is more resistant to major phenomena such as drought.  Monoculture, which tends to dominate world agriculture, “is highly susceptible because of its genetic and ecological homogeneity,” as was evident in last year’s drought in the Mid-West of the United States, the most severe one in fifty years, when thirty per cent of total production of transgenic maize and soya was lost, according to Altieri.

Public policy

What, then, would be the key public policies for a country to seriously promote and develop agroecological production?  Our interviewees coincide in recognizing that agroecological production, since it is artisanal and employs more human labour, has higher production costs and should be better paid; hence it would be necessary to introduce policies of promotion and subsidies that protect agroecology and small producers.

In this way it is possible to make healthy food available to a majority of people, and for such food not to be just a product for luxury consumption for the moneyed classes (as happens, for example, with organic products that are exported to the north).

Miguel Altieri underlines the experience of Brazil in this field.  A programme of the Ministry of Rural Development purchases thirty per cent of campesino production, recognizing its strategic role.  This healthy food is destined for social consumption, in schools, hospitals or prisons. “Family agriculture in Brazil involves 4.7 million farmers who produce 70% of the food on 30% of the land; this is fundamental for food sovereignty.”  They have understood that in order to protect them, they cannot expose small producers to competition, either with the big producers or with production from the US or Europe “which is a completely disloyal competition.”

The researcher considers a sensible decision that this country has created two ministries in the sector: that of agriculture, for the big producers (which will obviously continue to exist) and that of rural development for the small producers, with projects of research, extension, and specific agricultural policies for campesino agriculture.  In fact this ministry –he says- has more resources than does the ministry of agriculture. “What does not work is when you have a ministry of agriculture with only a small office or secretariat for family agriculture,” something that happens in most countries.

Supporting agroecological practices with research and agricultural extension is a key element for Altieri.

“Many people ask: could agrecological production feed the world, could it be that productive?  But look, for 60 years, all the national institutes of agricultural research, the international research centres, the universities, have funded research in conventional agriculture.  What if we were to provide 90% of this budget to support agroecology?  History would be different.”

He points out the case of Cuba, as the most advanced country in this area, because of the situation encountered during the “special period”.  One advantage was that they had the human resources to do this, they had people trained in agroecology; and through the National Association of Small Agriculturists — ANAP — 120 thousand farmers, in ten years, incorporated the practice of agroecology, with high levels of production and energy efficiency.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle is the lack of political will, combined with the interests of the multinationals “that are always pushing in the wrong direction”.  Altieri believes that climate change is what will finally put limits on industrial agriculture.  In the case of countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia, whose constitutions establish food sovereignty, this researcher thinks that they have “a historic opportunity: if not now, when?”

He has proposed that these countries establish a territorial pilot project, since “territorial management implies the ecology of the countryside and other dimensions that go way beyond the design of a particular small farm.  If there are campesinos who practice agroecology, but are dispersed, it is impossible to achieve territorial conversion.  This way we can learn, since we do not have all the answers.”

Small scale agriculture?

Can agroecology be applied on any scale, we wonder, or is it something that is basically for small agriculture, and if so, is this is a limiting factor?  Marc Dufumier believes that essentially, it is applicable for family agriculture, although he recognizes that it is more accessible to the medium family unit than to the smallholder, because of their scant capacity to save and invest in animal traction, carts, producing manure and organic fertilizer.  Middle size family units would in addition be best for generating employment and limiting rural exodus.

The big agricultural producers, on the other hand, “have the capacity for investment, but they don’t have the interest [in the project], because they want to maximize profits on invested financial capital, and amortize investment over large areas, hence their interest is in monoculture which is wholly contrary to agroecology.”

For Miguel Altieri, on the other hand, agroecology is a science that provides principles for the design and working of agricultural systems on any scale, but with different technological responses, according to the individual cases.

“I have shown examples of farms between 500 and 3000 hectares that can be run on an agroecological basis.  I am talking of a redesign of an agroecological system with functional biodiversity, rotations, polyculture, that take on other forms on a large scale, since one has to employ machines, one cannot farm 3000 hectares with hoes and animal traction.  Hence there are many cases in which this can be done on a large scale.

“However, what is happening in Latin America is that, given the strategic importance of small-scale agriculture, agroecology has been dedicated to resolving the problem of family farms, campesinos, but this does not mean that it could not be applied on a large scale.”