UN Rapporteur On Food Offers Long-Term Answer To Food Crisis: Agroecology
By Catherine Saez
The annual report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, to the sixteenth session of the UN Human Rights Council yesterday is unequivocal. There must be a global agricultural shift toward more productive, environmentally friendly, sustainable modes of production, using natural resources to remediate world hunger, away from industrialised agriculture. In short, the world needs a shift to agroecology.
The “œreal reason people are hungry” is poverty, he said, because “œwe have impoverished” small-scale farmers. Policies have favoured a small number of large producers, and now is the time to stray away from an unbalanced agricultural system that maintains poverty, leads to pollution and is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, he said.
The global food crisis which began at the end of 2010 mirrors the one in 2008 and the usual reaction to recourse to growing outputs in the hope that prices will go down is insufficient and short-sighted, said De Schutter at a press briefing yesterday.
Agroecology suffers from a lack of faith, although the international scientific community is showing growing interest, he said. There is a prevailing argument saying that only with the help of chemical fertilisers and pesticides can enough food be produced to feed the planet. But this is “œa sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” De Schutter said. “œWe never believed in other types of agriculture,” but the results described in the report show how productive agroecological methods are.
Based on a number of submissions received from region-based experts, and an international seminar, the report [pdf] advocates agroecology as the most likely solution to face a growing population. Agroecology is defined by De Schutter as both a science and a set of practices, created by the convergence of two cousin scientific disciplines: agronomy and ecology.
As an example, he said the push-pull strategy is a good alternative to pesticide use. This strategy, described in the report, was developed by Kenyan researchers and farmers. The strategy consists of “œpushing” away pests from crops by inter-planting corn with insect repellent crops, while “œpulling” the pests towards small plots of Napier grass, a plant that attracts and traps pests because of it sticky gum.
De Schutter said he is worried that at the policy level, agroecology is insufficiently recognised and used, and he recommended that the high level panel of experts established by the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization compares the types of agriculture and their effects on development and long-term food security.
The High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition [pdf] includes governments, nongovernmental organisations, international agencies and the private sector, he said.
Agroecology should be discussed within the CFS, he said, as it is a forum that can benefit from shared knowledge and collective learning on the basis of successful experiments, and where this kind of knowledge can gain ground and acceptance.
Core principles of agroecology, the report said, include: recycling nutrients and energy on the farm rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources rather than focusing on individual species. Agroecology is described as being based on farmers”™ knowledge and experimentation rather than techniques delivered “œtop-down.” Crop breeding and agroecology are complementary, but agroecology is “œmore overarching as it supports building drought-resistant agricultural systems, not just drought-resistant plants,” the report says.
Past approaches have been based on boosting cereal crops, however this led to population having an inadequate diet only based on carbohydrates, the report says, and nutritional diversity is of particular interest to children and woman.
Too Much Attention on GMOs
De Schutter said yesterday he would not recommend genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a solution and also said that GMOs had received too much attention in recent years. GMOs have never really fulfilled their promise, he said, and one of the major problems for countries whose farmers are using GMOs is the extreme dependence of producers and countries themselves on the very concentrated economic power of some multinational companies, such as Monsanto.
He said he was extremely worried about a system where the food chain would depend on an economic power that is extremely concentrated and without any control, and in particular based on one US company.
On climate change, the report says that agroecology improves resilience to climate change because resilience is strengthened by agricultural biodiversity, and it also delinks food production from the reliance on fossil fuel, a major cause for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Poor Research on Orphan Plants
Not enough research has been carried out on orphan plants, those receiving little scientific research, such as sorghum, millet, or sweet potatoes, De Schutter said. He called for more public investment.
Since there is little hope of getting patents on good agricultural practices, the bulk of current agronomic research is focused on patentable biotechnologies, he said. Research should focus on good practices developed by farmers themselves, who invented and discovered adequate solutions in a context of scarce resources and repeated climatic shocks, he said.
Moreover, private research has favoured financially solvent markets, namely the richest farmers of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, who have been the beneficiaries of this research, he added.
Inputs Replaced by Knowledge
Farmers”™ participation in agroecology is vital for the success of agroecological practices, as such techniques are best spread from farmer to farmer, the report says: “œFarmer field schools have been shown to significantly reduce the amounts of pesticides use, as inputs are being replaced by knowledge.” Agroecology requires the development of ecological literacy and decision-making skills for farmer communities.
Public policies should give priority to public goods, such as infrastructure, storage facilities, easing access to regional and local markets, rather than on private goods such as fertilisers or pesticides that farmers can purchase only because they are subsidised.
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Catherine Saez may be reached at email@example.com.