Sustainable agriculture expert calls for widespread adoption of agroecology
Friday 06 July 2012
A sustainable agriculture expert from the UK Centre for Agriculture and Food Security this week called for more widespread adoption of agroecological practices in farming. Speaking at the Royal Geographical Society’s Annual International Conference in Edinburgh, Dr Julia Wright made her case for how the barriers currently preventing the widespread implementation of agroecology can be overcome to help ensure global food security and reduce the sector’s impact on the environment.
Dr Wright delivered a presentation on 'Mainstreaming agroecology - the joy of paradigm shifts and uncertainties' to delegates on Wednesday. According to Wright agroecology is the scientific field underpinning sustainable agriculture, and has been adopted by many food policy, agricultural and development organisations; she said, "We consider agroecology to be the scientific basis of sustainable agriculture, as opposed to chemistry, which was the scientific basis of increasingly obsolete industrialised agriculture.”
Agroecology is broadly the application of ecological principles to food production and the management of ‘agroecosystems.’ The approach takes a context or site-specific approach to studying agroecosystems and aims to achieve favourable results in four main areas; productivity, stability, sustainability and equitability. Adherents to the approach tend to see an agroecosystem’s health as interconnected with these four properties and, as such, use interdisciplinary studies to form their decisions.
These include using natural sciences to understand physical elements of agroecosystems such as soil properties and plant-insect interactions and social sciences to understand the impacts of farming practices on rural communities, economic constraints to developing new production methods and cultural factors determining farming practices.
The school of agriculture has found advocates among the United Nations’ development and food and farming programmes, farming groups including Via Campesina and even the UK government, featuring in reports on sustainable food and becoming the subject of an All Parliamentary Group on Agroecology, which was set up last year.
Dr Wright, a lead researcher in Coventry University's Grand Challenge Initiative for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security, explained the impact its uptake has had upon practitioners of agroecology. She elaborated “With this, its definition is continually re-interpreted, and myths and misperceptions increase. Basing our production and food systems on ecological principles does not mean self-sufficiency, but rather self-reliance. It does not mean small scale, but rather appropriate scale. And it does not mean 'no growth', but rather increasing complexity. Attempts to change the system in a piecemeal fashion - through tinkering with individual techniques and technologies - are insufficient because underlying this is a need for a paradigm shift from the predominant industrialised mindset to an ecological mindset."
She continued, "We cannot predict what might happen if agroecology were mainstreamed, because we do not know what the impact a rehabilitated 20cm deep topsoil would have on crop growth or hydrology, and neither can we predict the spontaneous interactions between culture, terroir and other regional factors that would influence the emergence of more localised and diverse food systems. However, some hints can be drawn from history, including the Cuban experience of transitioning its food and farming system in the late 1990s."
Globally, policy makers including the UK government, following its National Ecosystem Assessment published last year, and the United Nations delegates at the recent Rio +20 Earth Summit have called for the environment to be given equal consideration in policy decisions going forward. Making natural and social considerations increasingly important in decision-making is at the core of an agroecological approach, or any other focused on delivering long-term sustainability.
Dealing more specifically with implementation, Dr Wright stressed, “For an agroecological approach, we need to start from principles that can be applied in any given region. These principles include working in harmony with nature, biomimicry, building complexity and biodiversity, and so on - and we can look to permaculture for inspiration. The actual practices and techniques that follow from these principles would differ according to each location and situation and include non-certified organic techniques."
However, there are methods which she believes could be widely implemented and have marked benefits. For parts of Europe such measures could include ’holistic grazing management,’ or mob grazing, which mimics the grazing patterns of herd animals on savannahs, whereby animals are grazed in high densities for a very short period of time and then moved on, leaving the grazed plants to shed their roots thus releasing carbon into the soil and giving them time to regrow almost to maturity before the livestock return.
Dr Wright commented “This creates a very healthy sward that requires no external fertilisation, stocking rates can be doubled on the same land area, and soil can be build up at a rate of over 1" per year. It’s a win-win situation economically and ecologically as well as being climate friendly and producing high quality meat and milk products.”
The method is already in use in the USA and Australia, but its uptake elsewhere has been curbed, in Dr Wright’s opinion, by “the limited extent to which those in the livestock sector really look for sustainable alternatives,” and the requirement for “small paradigm shifts to entrenched conventional practices" the practice entails.
Although much of the focus by global organisations to research and implement agroecological practices has taken place in areas where yields are currently lower for a range of reasons, including parts of Africa and Asia, Dr Wright believes any global region could stand to benefit from a shift towards agroecological methods and that often blinkered and belligerent ideologies, rather than measurable results, prevent the spread of new ideas in many regions where industrial methods are more established. She elaborated, "Some regions that are vulnerable and looking for alternatives may be responsive, and we need to ensure that the knowledge is available to apply approaches that will meet their local food security demands over the short as well as medium terms.
“In Europe in general there is a lot of talk of 'sustainable intensification' - producing more food on the existing land area - and this would be a good approach if only it really were sustainable. Unfortunately, however, the term is being used to further industrialise agriculture and this should really just be called what it is - pure intensification with no sustainability. For real sustainable intensification we need only to employ permaculture style approaches - it’s not technically difficult but the challenge remains in people's worldviews and belief systems."
Multifaceted approach critical in shift towards sustainability
A number of large policy organisations and governments have become increasingly accommodating of agrocology, but Dr Wright said the focus of changing attitudes and practices in a more sustainable direction remains something which should be encouraged to occur on all levels, rather than purely top-down; she said, “I think that people have become rather blasé over what Rio+20 and other events can actually achieve. On the positive side this means that more groups are taking things into their own hands, as can be seen by the forthcoming civil society event on Food Sovereignty in London on 8-9 July."
Several food policy experts have echoed Dr Wright’s sentiments in recent months. In March, London City University professor Tim Lang called on the government to develop a cohesive food policy, with an environmental and social focus. The noted professor warned that the concept of food security in the UK has been tainted by nationalism and co-opted by business interests; he suggested that too much government support has been given for producing and exporting unsustainable goods including alcohol, meat and dairy.
Professor Lang said action is needed to redress this process. He declared; “We need a food policy; we have to think long-term; what would a decarbonised, water reduced, socially just food system look like? We have to invest in colleges of agriculture, which have been turned into equestrian fantasy lands for the middle classes escaping the city. Actually, these are about a basic element of the economy, growing food for people. We have to invest in skills.”
Agroecologist Dr Wright, who is deputy head of the Coventry University-based Centre for Agroecology and Food Security, said that, although an approach to agroecology with designs for both mainstream and alternative agriculture is yielding positive results, there must be an increased focus on sustainability in research. Speaking to Farming Online in February, Dr Wright warned against government cuts to research funding which she, along with a number of institutions and individuals, warned would risk driving agriculture in an unsustainable direction.
Critics suggested business would fill the vacuum left by government funding into research and development, the purpose of which was previously social – feeding the population – but which would become commercial – developing a product – often working against the public interest.
Dr Wright said, “The private sector is not going to fund research for the public good unless there is a product or service it can sell from it. It can also hide research results that are unfavourable to its business, as seen in the tobacco industry and as I have personally experienced. The organic and agroecological farming subsectors are not 'big business' and don't have the funds to undertake research that is in their interests.”
Nevertheless, she remains hopeful that dedicated groups and individuals can bring about greater sustainability through influencing shifts in ideology and undertaking research, such as is occurring at CAFS. She concluded, "CAFS is going strong, we have recently won European funding for work on local food initiatives for example, and the term agroecology is still being used in alternative and conventional circles."