Farming for the Future is dedicated to the education of environmental and social impacts that come with sustainable agriculture, and how food insecurity affects us all.
When the Green Revolution of the 1960s started to address the issue of global malnutrition, agricultural production increased rapidly as industrialized farming practices were adopted by the developing world. By the end of the 20th century, agriculture was a scientific and technological miracle: the global harvest of maize, wheat, and rice almost tripled from 640 million tonnes in 1961 to 1.8 billion tonnes by 2000.
But now, agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Our global food system is responsible for 21% to 37% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, with agricultural activity producing around “half of all anthropogenic methane emissions and around three-quarters of anthropogenic N2O.”
A solution is needed — now more than ever — as we teeter between sustaining our planet and creating irreversible damage. What we need is an environmental intervention that is implemented on a global scale: agroecology.
What is agroecology?
The Food and Agriculture Organization defines agroecology as “an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems.”
In simpler words, agroecology attempts to optimize the relationships between plants, animals, humans, and the environment while taking into account essential socioeconomic factors to create a resilient, sustainable global food system.
Why It’s Needed
Between 1948 and 2017, the spike in agricultural production allowed for low prices around the world and helped avert potential food shortages. Unfortunately, this level of agricultural industrialization and productivity has come at the expense of the environment. Here’s just a couple of examples of how industrial agriculture has caused great detriment to Earth’s natural resources:
1. Nutrient Runoff
Synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizer has been a major factor driving the industrialization of agriculture in the past century, infusing soil with nutrients that allow high yields even on overtaxed land. But these beneficial fertilizers have serious downsides for our water supplies and climate.
“Nutrient runoff” composed mainly of nitrogen and phosphorus harms several terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems by loading them with way too many nutrients. When excess fertilizers are swept away from fields by rain or overwatering, algae growth proliferates faster than aquatic ecosystems can handle, blocking sunlight, depleting oxygen, and releasing toxins that cause irreversible damage to all aquatic organisms.
About 80% of estimated global deforestation is the result of commercial agriculture — it has become the number one driver for deforestation worldwide.
The global agriculture system continues to expand its terrestrial footprint, mainly to mass-produce livestock feed that meets the growing demand for meat and dairy products or crop-based biofuels. The pressure being placed on these forests is only leading to the increased destruction of several critical ecosystems. (Think of the Amazonian rainforest, which inhabits about 10% of Earth’s known species.)
An incredibly common industrialized agriculture practice is monoculture: the cultivation or growth of a single crop or organism especially on agricultural or forest land. While monocultures may seem harmless, the continuous planting of a single crop on the same farmland is very detrimental for soil health. Monoculture — popularized by the Green Revolution — leaves soil vulnerable to rapid erosion, rendering the widespread depletion of soil nutrients. As a result, it has ruined rural diets. The consequences of monoculture is something many regions around the world are still grappling with.
Albeit, unrestricted agriculture is definitely a part of the climate change problem right now, but it could be a very important part of the solution. When agricultural operations are focused on sustainable management, they can foster biodiversity, conserve important habitats, aid in the protection of watersheds, as well as ameliorate soil and water quality.
And this is where the need for agroecology comes in.
What Agroecology can do for the Environment
Agroecology could be the key to sustainable farming; it not only improves our agricultural processes but enhances them:
The diversification that comes with agroecology could be key to improving food security while also sustaining and protecting natural environmental resources.
Out of the six thousand to seven thousand crop species, humans have cultivated for food, only 170 crops are grown on a commercially significant scale, many of which are simply clones — most of the bananas we eat, for instance, are genetically identical. The rapid loss of genetic diversity amongst crops, livestock, and aquatic organisms, generates an increased risk for irreversible environmental damage.
Agroecology, however, can help reverse these trends by preserving biodiversity and responding to the increasing demand for a diversity of products that are eco-friendly. Look at ‘fish-friendly’ rice, an alternative to monoculture, produced from irrigated, rainfed and deepwater rice ecosystems, which values the diversity of aquatic species and their importance for rural livelihoods.
Agroecology’s reliance on indigenous farming knowledge encourages increased genetic diversity as opposed to the monotony that comes with industrial agriculture. This becomes extremely significant to the diverse nutrition of human diets. In Micronesia, the reintroduction of an “underutilized traditional variety of orange-fleshed banana with 50 times more beta-carotene” than the white-fleshed banana cultivated commercially, “proved instrumental in improving health and nutrition.”
With agroecology, these effects could be seen worldwide.
Continued use of agroecological practices enhances the use of natural resources, such as solar radiation and atmospheric carbon and nitrogen. By enhancing biological processes and recycling biomass, nutrients, and water within agricultural systems, farmers are able to use fewer external inputs (chemical fertilizers and pesticides), reducing costs and the negative environmental impacts of their use. Ultimately, reducing dependency on external resources empowers these farmers by increasing their autonomy and resilience to climate or economic shocks that could impact the agricultural sector.
Waste is decidedly a human concept – it simply doesn’t exist in natural ecosystems. Agroecology, defined by its own name, is the application of ecology to agriculture, utilizing biodiversity to maximize the impact of ecosystem services on farms. Thus, it optimizes and closes resource loops by recycling existing nutrients, water, and biomass in farming and food systems, reducing waste pollution, and ameliorating resource efficiency.
Agroecology and Climate Change
Achieving a world without hunger and malnutrition calls for urgent action to make agriculture more sustainable, productive, and resilient. The impacts of climate change are increasing the uncertainties and vulnerabilities facing farmers and BIPOC low-income communities.
Nations around the world that majorly rely on rain-fed agriculture as a source of income and food are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. With shifting precipitation cycles and unpredictable weather patterns, countries that are dependent on agriculture would essentially be left defenseless against extremely dry and extremely wet spells, effectively destroying their economies.
We can’t just reverse the effects of climate change; that would take decades, possibly centuries. However, integrated, cross-sectoral approaches like agroecology are an important element in the transition process of reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint to guarantee healthy ecosystems that can ensure food and nutrition security for all.
Agroecological practices have been shown to increase factors such as farm productivity, yield stability, and food system sustainability. In regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, research implicates that agroecological methods such as the “incorporation of animal and plant residue into soils” aid in improving soil fertility and reducing vulnerability against climate variability and environmental degradation.
Using agroecology, we aren’t working to reverse the effects of climate change; we’re working on creating a strong foundation that makes agriculture both increasingly resistant and resilient.
A Dedicated Solution
Agroecology could be the solution to achieving sustainable agriculture but for it to be integrated into global agriculture, there is a clear need for dedication and effective governance to support the transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems; one that enables an environment to support producers as they transform their food systems following agroecological concepts and practices.
And this governance will be needed on all scales.
For instance, national legislation should market regulations that incentivize crops produced with agroecological techniques or create subsidies directed towards ecosystem services. On a more local scale, small-scale governance should foster cooperation between agriculture input suppliers, to ensure stock levels are adequate and price levels are fair.
The implementation of agroecology on such a large scale may seem infeasible but with governments that collectively take a strong stand to motivate farmers to utilize these practices and incentivize consumers to buy their products off the market, we can make sure that agroecology not only becomes a key to sustainable agriculture but the key to achieving social justice.