I’m not an expert on farming. [Edit 2015: I’ve done and learned a lot in 4 years.] I’m just starting to learn about it through gardening, saving seeds, working at a farmers’ market, and as in this case reading and writing about it. Probably most of my readers fall into this category as well, although some have more knowledge than I do.
But I think propagating and discussing knowledge is one of the key elements of our movement, so part of the way I’m trying to learn about what we’re trying to do is to educate myself as much as possible on the state of the agronomic science, and report on how the evidence supports Food Sovereignty in every way. That’s why I wrote my earlier posts on farming, and that’s why I want to continue analyzing the best stuff I’ve read.
Today I’m going to summarize the recent Report
from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter. This position is not in the UN’s mainstream; the Special Rapporteur is, I gather, more like a marginalized Elizabeth Warren type. It also contains several reformist concessions to the corporatist status quo. Nevertheless, on the whole it presents an alternative to corporatist agriculture. It explicitly enshrines agroecology as the desired paradigm for food production, and implicitly exalts food sovereignty as the desired ideology and mode of social organization. It also does a great job of assembling all the recent science and scholarship on the issue, which proves the superiority of agroecology to corporate agriculture in every way – productivity, nutrition, resiliency, accessibility, stability, democracy.
The introduction describes how, after decades of neglect, the food stagflation which started in 2007 has triggered an increase in agricultural investment. But this isn’t the old style public interest investment which worked so well; it’s neoliberal “investment”. What’s more, investment as such isn’t sufficient to deal with the food crisis, since this crisis is part of a much greater civilizational crisis. The food solution must also be a socioeconomic, political, and environmental solution. It must not only maintain quantity of production but greatly improve quality, be more ecologically sound, and improve the position of small and mid-size farmers. The science proves agroecology can do these.
It is possible, however, to significantly improve agricultural productivity where it has been lagging behind, and thus raise production where it needs most to be raised (i.e. in poor, food-deficit countries), while at the same time improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and preserving ecosystems.
It’s just a matter of political will. This will require a comprehensive transformation, a philosophy and a set of practices which will obliterate neoliberalism. The philosophy is Food Sovereignty and the set of practices is agroecology.
The report starts out describing how even corporations and neoliberal agencies are starting to pay attention to agroecology (2) (which is a bad thing in the short run; but I think in the long run it’s still a good thing when they move beyond the “ignore you” stage to the “try to co-opt you” stage Gandhi forgot to mention). It says that continuing to increase gross yield (if that were possible) isn’t sufficient (3-4). Thus it implicitly admits that the necessary transformation cannot occur under capitalism. Agroecology and food sovereignty are directly opposed to neoliberalism, in philosophy, intent, and practice (3-4).
Schutter gives a Diagnosis (5-11); food systems must achieve Availability, Accessibility, Adequacy. I agree with these serviceable measures, since once we apply the principle, You Will the End, You Will the Means, they sum up what we need.
Availability: Sufficient food to meet human needs. We have more than sufficient physical bounty, but commodified agriculture generates artificial scarcity as its goal. We won’t have this physical cornucopia for long, however, because industrial agriculture will fail. Fossil fuels will fail, and GMOs will fail. So by the availability criterion, we must transform to relocalized smallholder agroecology.
Accessibility: Physical and economic. This implicitly means doing away with the commodification straitjacket. Food sovereignty has to mean access to the land for anyone willing to work it, with no squatting rights (propertarian “ownership”) for those who refuse to work. We must farm what we own and own what we farm. By the access criterion, we must transform to relocalized smallholder agroecology.
Adequacy: Dietary/nutritional, safety, culture. Industrial agriculture has stripped food of its taste and nutrients, while pumping it full of toxins and slathering it with poison. On a more macro level, it has stripped and poisoned the soil, the water, the air, and ravaged natural and socioeconomic systems. It has culturally impoverished us, cutting us off from our land, from knowledge of our earth and our food that grows from it. It has perpetrated sublimated genocide through the forced extinction of most of the cultivars which were bred over tens of thousands of years. Seeds are vectors of culture. To forcibly prevent their cultivation, economically or by other means, is a crime against humanity. By the adequacy criterion, we must transform to relocalized smallholder agroecology. (And jettison the “intellectual property” tyranny.)
The report states (7) that first of all we must transform away from cereal production for animal feed (“nearly half of the world’s cereal production”). This in itself could feed 3.5 billion more people than are fed already, even accounting for less meat in the food supply. (Under corporate agriculture, ten grain calories are required to produce one calorie of beef; think of the vastly greater efficiency of letting people eat this grain. But this would require us to measure things according to a realistic definition of efficiency, not the Orwellian corporate definition.)
There are plenty more economies to be realized through upgrading agricultural practice (corporate ag wastes immense amounts of potential food in the field, albeit in ways which increase its profits and socialize the losses) and eradicating ethanol subsidies and mandates (7).
This transformation will improve the economic position of small farmers (8). To this day, the cause of hunger is never insufficient physical stocks but artificially induced poverty among the very people who grow the food or would be growing it if they hadn’t been illicitly excluded from the land. It’s a self-evident calculus: The more people who redeem their rightful food sovereignty by becoming autonomous and cooperative producers, the fewer who will be hungry. (For the reformists, the report discusses how studies have proven that “GDP growth originating in agriculture” is twice as effective in reducing poverty as any other GDP growth, and that “the multiplier effects are significantly higher when growth is triggered by higher incomes for smallholders” than for any other kind of income increase. So those guys should be on board with food sovereignty as well.)
Section 10 states:
Most efforts in the past have focused on improving seeds and ensuring that farmers
are provided with a set of inputs that can increase yields, replicating the model of industrial
processes in which external inputs serve to produce outputs in a linear model of production.
Instead, agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking
nature instead of industry. This report suggests that scaling up agroecological practices
can simultaneously increase farm productivity and food security, improve incomes and
rural livelihoods, and reverse the trend towards species loss and genetic erosion.
The rest of the report describes how agroecology will accomplish these goals where industrial agriculture failed.
Agroecology is both a science and a set of practices. It was created by the
convergence of two scientific disciplines: agronomy and ecology. As a science,
agroecology is the “application of ecological science to the study, design and management
of sustainable agroecosystems.”
It’s the best for soil, for nutrition, energy usage, integration of crops and livestock, crop diversification, self-sufficiency for farmers and communities, the interaction and productivity of the entire system rather than isolated (monoculture) species.
Agroecology is knowledge-intensive. (We recently talked
about the importance of propagating knowledge.) The emphasis is on the horizontal, decentralized development and spread of knowledge. As much as possible it’s farmer-driven (12, 38). Enough practical and scientific knowledge has already accumulated to prove that agroecology is the most productive system and is in harmony with the democratic principles of food sovereignty (14).
Although the Oil Age is ending, the agricultural knowledge we’ve amassed during it is the key to maintaining a higher level of production than in pre-oil times, and doing so in a democratic rather than feudal way. (Of course, neoliberal corporatism wants to restore the worst of feudalism in both the physical and political senses.)
A wide panoply of techniques based on the agroecological perspective have been
developed and successfully tested in a range of regions. These approaches involve the
maintenance or introduction of agricultural biodiversity (diversity of crops, livestock,
agroforestry, fish, pollinators, insects, soil biota and other components that occur in and
around production systems) to achieve the desired results in production and sustainability.
These practices include integrated nutrient management, agroforestry (20), water harvesting, integration of livestock into farming systems, and the push-pull system (19). I’ll add that the full virtue of these will be realized to the extent they’re deployed by the people rather than through corporatism (the report seems to have a temporizing tone in some places).
These are the answer to the scoffers who cite the Maya, Anasazi, Hohokam and others who malfarmed themselves out of existence in the pre-oil age. Their self-defeating practices were the unwise pre-oil equivalent of industrial agriculture. Today we have the knowledge to do much better. Again, it’s simply a matter of political will.
Sections 17 and 18 detail the improved yields to be gained by agroecology.
17. Such resource-conserving, low-external-input techniques have a proven potential to
significantly improve yields. In what may be the most systematic study of the potential of
such techniques to date, Jules Pretty et al. compared the impacts of 286 recent sustainable
agriculture projects in 57 poor countries covering 37 million hectares (3 per cent of the
cultivated area in developing countries). They found that such interventions increased
productivity on 12.6 millions farms, with an average crop increase of 79 per cent, while
improving the supply of critical environmental services. Disaggregated data from this
research showed that average food production per household rose by 1.7 tonnes per year
(up by 73 per cent) for 4.42 million small farmers growing cereals and roots on 3.6 million
hectares, and that increase in food production was 17 tonnes per year (up 150 per cent) for
146,000 farmers on 542,000 hectares cultivating roots (potato, sweet potato, cassava). After
UNCTAD and UNEP reanalyzed the database to produce a summary of the impacts in
Africa, it was found that the average crop yield increase was even higher for these projects
than the global average of 79 per cent at 116 per cent increase for all African projects and
128 per cent increase for projects in East Africa.
18. The most recent large-scale study points to the same conclusions. Research
commissioned by the Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project of the UK
Government reviewed 40 projects in 20 African countries where sustainable intensification
was developed during the 2000s. The projects included crop improvements (particularly
improvements through participatory plant breeding on hitherto neglected orphan crops),
integrated pest management, soil conservation and agro-forestry. By early 2010, these
projects had documented benefits for 10.39 million farmers and their families and
improvements on approximately 12.75 million hectares. Crop yields more than doubled on
average (increasing 2.13-fold) over a period of 3-10 years, resulting in an increase in
aggregate food production of 5.79 million tonnes per year, equivalent to 557 kg per farming
Section 21 describes how agroecology helps break the cycle of debt by liberating farmers from synthetic fertilizer, through sound practices of livestock integration (including keeping their manure on the farm) and cover crops (“green manure”). Section 22 cites the Badgley study which proves that “on a global scale, leguminous cover crops could fix enough nitrogen to replace the amount of synthetic fertilizer currently in use” (Footnote 37). Imagine the economic and democratic savings from that!
Agroecology is labor-intensive (23). While kleptocracy intends to deploy us all as slave labor, a human community could turn this labor-intensiveness into a full-employment boon of meaningful work. Human beings love working the land, growing their own food, where they’re truly doing it for themselves and their communities rather than for some alien boss. Agroecological practices also make for more pleasant work. There’s more shade (from trees planted for many purposes) and no smell and toxicity from pesticides and herbicides. And once we achieve the social revolution, it’ll all be our work. That’s the most important thing of all. (For the reformists, I’ll add that according to section 23 the cost of creating agricultural jobs has been found to be much less than in other sectors. So sincere trickle-downers should also be on board with this.)
Section 25 (not Peak Oil-aware) describes how “agroecological practices are fully compatible with a gradual mechanization of farming”. The need for new machines for no-till agriculture and direct seeding will generate new manufacturing jobs, if societies choose to host these jobs. Agroforestry is also a proven job creator.
Sections 26 and 27 describe how agroecology will solve the malnutrition problem generated by cereal monoculture. Commodity cereals contain mostly carbohydrates; they lack protein and are denuded of vitamins and minerals. Crop diversity, as is provided by agroecology, is necessary for human nutritional needs. Women and children will especially benefit (27). This diversity of grown species will also be resilient in the face of natural challenges and the ravages of our environmental vandalism. Sections 28-30 detail how agroecology will be the most resilient practice in the face of climate change, particularly its increasing incidence of extreme weather events and migration of pests and weeds. (Climate change assists vermin everywhere. I’ll add that corporate agriculture and husbandry in general, GMOs and CAFOs in particular, intentionally drive a biological arms race with intentionally fostered superweeds and superbugs. This is the business plan of these biotech and pharmacological “industries”. It’s obvious that humanity must lose this struggle, unless we purge ourselves of our own indigenous vermin.) This resiliency will be a primary value if the human race is to continue to physically exist at all.
Agroecology also uses less fossil fuel energy (31), which is perhaps the most critical issue of all. Either we’re going to figure out how to feed ourselves without cheap, plentiful fossil fuels, or we’re going to starve. (The report thinks climate change is more important than Peak Oil, but in fact only the latter can possible mitigate the former. Even with my can-do political attitude, I regard voluntary GHG mitigation as a lost cause.) That implies the political solution as well, since neoliberal corporatism intends to expend through starvation as many people as necessary to construct its neo-feudal slave agriculture, while it uses the residual fossil fuels to maintain its luxuries and enforce its police state. Getting back to the importance of knowledge and education, Cuba provides the classic example
of the importance of knowledge in transforming food production from an environment where oil is taken for granted to one where it’s scarce.
What can be done to achieve wide application of agroecology, toward food sovereignty? The report emphasizes democratic farmer participation toward dissemination of the best knowledge (32). Section 33 details how farmer field schools have been proven to teach farmers how to significantly reduce pesticide use while increasing yields, and do all of it in an environment which empowers them, helps organize them, and always furthers their education. Sections 32-3 list many organizations involved in this work. Even existing governments like that of Brazil are incorporating agroecology and farmer participation in their investment programs (34). Even where this investment remains predominantly corporatist, wherever it helps gather agroecological knowledge and gives farmers democratic experience, it helps food sovereignty toward its goal.
Section 35 describes two types of “scaling up” of agroecology: Horizontal (acreage) and vertical (expansion of education, finance, distribution networks, etc.). The report focuses mainly on the vertical expansion. (Previous reports, as cited in footnote 66, discussed horizontal expansion, for example issues of access to land, water, and seeds. I haven’t read these reports yet but I’m going to.)
The report calls for old-style public interest investment (37), which I doubt is going to happen. (To give credit where credit is due, the extinct developing-country investment programs were an example of a New Deal-style government program that worked to spread prosperity and freedom. That, of course, is why the IMF targeted those programs for extirpation. And that attrition is why reformism can’t work. Even if we could get such programs back alongside the rackets, they’d just be wiped out again by those rackets. Why do people want to continue fighting this endless fight?) Section 37 does give a good account of how reformist investment programs could work if we weren’t already under the thumb of kleptocracy.
Section 38 returns to the emphasis on knowledge. Again, the report calls for public investment in horizontal agricultural education, which is proven to have the most important impact on poverty in developing countries. While we may not have much faith in governments undertaking this education, we can agree with the need for this education, and the need to find a way to achieve it ourselves.
The report goes on to call upon governments, corporations, and NGO donors to work on all this (43-7). But the meaningful prescription is implied in sections 39-42, which envision a democracy of food emphasizing the primacy of small farmers and co-ops.
I think the importance of a report like this isn’t its intrinsic call for reform, which I think is in vain, but its implicit call for revolution. Physically, morally, politically, the corporate status quo in food stands for the ultimate death of humanity. Certainly politically, as food tyranny is imposed. And probably physically as well, as we shall not be able to withstand the end of oil as well as the incipient pest afflictions, pandemics, and crop failures nature will impose on our unresilient monoculture system.
I add to those the tragedy of our bottlenecked economic prospects.
But there is one path and only one path out of our physical, economic, and political predicament. This is the path of Food Sovereignty and agroecology. These comprise a unit, and they unify with democracy and humanity. Our course is clear.