Building a New Agricultural Future: Supporting agro-ecology for people and planet

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Agro-ecology applies ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that globally, more than 800 million people worldwide are undernourished. Shockingly, half of these are small-scale farmers and their families, for whom a failed harvest due to drought, or the loss of land caused by irresponsible large-scale land investments, can have a devastating effect on their livelihoods. Climate change and the injustice of hunger require urgent attention, and investment in a model of agriculture that is truly sustainable. This briefing makes the case for investment in agro-ecology to achieve food security for some of the poorest farmers in the world. It shows how an agro-ecological approach can provide a range of social, economic, and environmental benefits that, with the right policy support and associated investments, can be scaled up to enable smallholder farming communities to achieve sustainable livelihoods.
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  OXFAM ISSUE BRIEFING APRIL 2014 www.oxfam.org BUILDING A NEW AGRICULTURAL FUTURE Supporting agro-ecology for people and the planet Sopheap Meas in her rice field, Cambodia 2012. She uses the system of rice intensification (SRI), an agro-ecology approach which improves yields. Photo: Simon Rawles/Oxfam Climate change and the injustice of hunger require urgent attention, and investment in a model of agriculture that is truly sustainable. Agro-ecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture. An agro-ecological approach provides a range of social, economic, and environmental benefits that, with the right policy support and associated investments, can be scaled up to enable smallholder farming communities to achieve food security.  2 INTRODUCTION The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that globally, 842 million people are currently undernourished. 1  Shockingly, half of these hungry people are small-scale farmers and their families, 2  for whom agriculture is a livelihood, providing food for their own needs and generating income. 3  A failed harvest due to drought, or the loss of land caused by irresponsible large-scale land investments, can have devastating effects on the livelihoods of farmers. The 2008 food price crisis triggered renewed investment in agriculture. But the key question is: what type of agriculture is being promoted? In 2013 the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 5  noted that current priorities are still heavily focused on increasing production, mostly under the slogan „ more with less ‟ .   This approach is still very much biased towards the expansion of „ somewhat less polluting ‟  industrial agriculture, rather than more sustainable and affordable diversified food production in rural areas. 6  Generally, the focus is on high levels of use of inputs and the concentration of a handful of dominant crops in monocultures. This „ solution ‟  does not acknowledge the limited assets that small-scale farmers have available. It fails to account for the real-world heterogeneity and complexity of agriculture or for farmers‟  increasing need to adapt to the challenges of greater climate variability. It does not tap into the knowledge that farmers possess, and it also bypasses women farmers, who historically have been marginalized from agricultural investment in spite of the work they do. 7  In other words, an approach of this nature will fail the farmers who most need support. This briefing makes the case for the need to invest not in industrial-style farming but in agro-ecology to achieve truly sustainable agriculture and food security for some of the poorest farmers in the world. Agro-ecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture.  An agro-ecological approach provides a range of social, economic, and environmental benefits that, with the right policy support and associated investments, can be scaled up to enable smallholder farming communities to achieve food security. WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE,  AND WHAT ARE THE IMPACTS OF INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE? Sustainable agriculture refers to the capacity of agriculture over time to contribute to people‟s well -being by providing them with sufficient food and other goods and services in ways that are economically efficient and profitable, socially responsible, culturally acceptable, and environmentally sound. 8  A key idea is stewardship  –  preserving the resources that allow us to meet current needs, so that future generations can meet theirs too. The implications of this are far-reaching: we cannot continue to farm in ‘  Simply distributing seeds and fertilizer, if that’s the plan, will   fail long term. ’ –  Howard Buffett  4     3 ways that deplete soil, pollute water, reduce biodiversity, and impoverish rural communities. Indeed, the industrial agriculture model needs an overhaul, given the impacts it has. Briefly, these include: 1. Eroding soil nutrient quality and health, with implications for future productivity The use of synthetic fertilizers has helped to increase yields, but excessive or inappropriate fertilizer use has also led to significant soil degradation and water pollution. Of all the components of the agricultural ecosystem, soil condition is the most crucial, and healthy soil offers the most direct benefits to farmers. The declining soil quality experienced in many regions of the world severely limits productivity. 9  The application of synthetic fertilizer is subject to diminishing returns, 10  with increasingly high input rates required to achieve the same levels of plant growth. In addition, the natural resources used to make synthetic fertilizers are finite (e.g. phosphate rock). The practice of industrial agriculture has also led to a dramatic decline in the nutrient content of food and animal feed. For example, mineral levels in fruits and vegetables in the UK fell by up to 76 percent between 1940 and 1991, and a similar trend has been seen in the USA. 11  This decline has been attributed to the unintentional selecting out of high-nutrient crop varieties when breeding crops for high yield potential; the use of shallow-rooting annual crops that are unable to tap into soil nutrients at deeper levels; and the failure to return a full complement of nutrients to the topsoil. 2. Contributing to climate change and a loss of resilience  Agriculture is both a source of carbon emissions and a carbon sink, and it both contributes to and mitigates climate change. Major agricultural sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions include the use of fossil fuels and fertilizers and the loss of organic matter in soils resulting from intensive cultivation practices. Estimates vary, but if changes in land use are included in the calculation, 14  – 24 per cent of total emissions of anthropogenic GHGs can be attributed to agriculture. 12  Most of those emissions are attributable to industrial agriculture. 13  In the United States, the biggest contributors to GHG emissions are nitrogen fertilizer, followed by enteric fermentation (i.e. methane produced in the digestive process of animals, chiefly cattle). 14  Even without accounting for deforestation, it is clear that the current system of industrial agricultural production is a key cause of climate change. 15   3. Loss of biodiversity and decline in human health due to indiscriminate use of pesticides The use of synthetic pesticides, as practised throughout the developing world, poses significant risks to human health and to biodiversity, which is an important source of food and livelihoods for many of the world‟s poorest people. We have hardly scratched the surface concerning the  4 ways in which biodiversity contributes to the nutrition, health and livelihoods of man y of the world‟s poorest people. It is clear however that broad-spectrum pesticides that impair floral biodiversity, reduce species richness and shorten food chains in agricultural systems limit the capacity of that system to provision the people who live within them. For example, a study using the most recent risk assessment models to provide the first detailed analysis of pesticide risks in West Africa revealed a number of specific pesticides that pose widespread and significant threats to human health and to wildlife, both terrestrial and aquatic throughout this region, affecting a large proportion of the area under irrigated agriculture. 16  The study found that farm workers and family members, including children, are routinely exposed to high concentrations of toxic organophosphates such as methamidophos and dimethoate while working on crops. 17  Over-use of pesticides makes food supply vulnerable due to the emergence of „ super-weeds ‟  and the severe impacts on natural enemies and pollinators. It also reduces availability of plants for gathering and the animals hunted for food that takes place throughout the developing world. Crop productivity itself is also threatened, for example, nearly one-third of our food supply is linked to pollination: 39 of the leading 57 crops globally benefit from natural pollinators, which are threatened by extensive use of synthetic pesticides. 18  Genetic variability is the raw material on which breeding for increased production and greater resilience depends. Further loss of genetic diversity in plant crops and animal breeds is dangerous, because it makes our food supply more vulnerable to outbreaks of pests and diseases and to loss of capacity to adapt to changing climatic conditions. For instance, in the 1970s a lack of genetic diversity in US corn varieties resulted in losses of over $1bn as crops lacked resistance to leaf blight. 19  Poor and vulnerable people mostly rely on both on and off-farm biodiversity to protect against food insecurity and risk. 20  By simplifying systems and restructuring them by repeated pesticide use, we may be limiting vital nutritional resources among at-risk populations. 4. Perpetuating dependency and failing to meet the needs of the poorest farmers For many small-scale farmers, the purchase of manufactured fertilizers and pesticides is constrained by the high costs of these relative to output prices, or simply by their unavailability. Also, the farmers who buy pesticides would still be at risk because the information on how to use them properly is simply not available. 21  Those who buy such inputs often do so by taking out loans, which can push them into a cycle of debt and dependency, especially if their harvests fail. This risk is further increased because oil prices affect agricultural input prices directly and indirectly (through the price of fuel and fertiliser, and the use of petroleum and natural gas in manufacturing the inputs, for example). 22  
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