As the great battle escalates in Africa, I should review what agroecology is, and why it’s the necessary and bountiful path forward for Africa and for all of humanity. I’ve written about it before many times, including here
, and here
. I also gave a basic account of the clash of agricultural corporatism against humanity in this post from a year ago on the plan for the recolonization of Africa.
To sum up, agroecology, a synonym for organic agriculture in the original sense of the term (not the degraded US government sense), is the practice of agriculture in imitation of nature. It strives to work within the rhythms of nature rather than against them, with it rather than against it, using natural features as reinforcements or remedies, keeping actions within the natural cycles of a regional ecosystem. All this makes for an agriculture which is most sustainable in producing the most nutritious food (and the most calories, acre for acre) using no artificial poisons, and doing so in a way which enhances ecosystems, economies, and communities, rather than destroying all these the way industrial ag does.
The term “agroecology” indicates its basis in the combined sciences of agronomy and ecology. It is truly scientific in the best sense of the term
, in that its practitioners are constantly experimenting, and based on the results modifying and repeating their experiments, all toward the goal of sustainably producing sufficient calories and nutrition. Combined with the political philosophy of Food Sovereignty, AE then seeks to distribute this food, more than enough to feed everyone, so that everyone actually gets enough to eat.
(By contrast, science condemns the industrial ag experiment as having failed at everything it ever promised it would do, with the exception of using the temporary fossil fuel surplus to produce more gross calories. But it’s been an absolute failure in terms of ending hunger, food’s denuded nutritional value, food toxification, the destruction of the environment (including greenhouse gas emissions; the industrial ag sector is the worst emitter by a considerable margin), and the destruction of economies, polities, and communities. Food corporatism and its “Green Revolution” promised to solve all these problems, all of which industrialization generated or exacerbated in the first place. By any scientific standard it’s a proven failure. To wish to continue the experiment, now extending it to Africa in a more virulent form than hitherto, is proof that the experimenters were lying about their proclaimed goals all along. We know these facts: Corporatism is purely wasteful and destructive, does nothing for humanity, and accomplishes nothing but to enable a small group of criminals to further concentrate wealth and power and exercise domination. In the end power and domination are their only goals and their only reasons for being.)
Agroecology or organic agriculture is highly skilled work. It requires intimate knowledge of of the ways of the soil (building it with organic matter), weather, climate, plants (crops, other beneficial plants, potentially harmful plants called “weeds”), animals (livestock, other beneficial animals, potentially harmful ones called “pests”). AE’s innovative and highly productive techniques, eschewing monoculture and synthetic fertilizers and other poisons, include natural nutrient-cycling and soil-building, the use of manure, compost, and cover crops (AKA green manures), crop rotation, intercropping, alley cropping with leguminous trees, infusion of free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the soil, biological pest control (often called “integrated pest management”), agroforestry, better water management, rotation of livestock with annual crops, the whole art of integrating grass-fed livestock pasturage with vegetable production. It also requires the most efficient and effective use of energy and other resource inputs. All this knowledge is primarily built by the farmers themselves and distributed among them horizontally. (With some supplement and aggregation help from agronomy schools and NGOs.) All of it’s done with emphasis on the most appropriate specific application of general principles within a particular region/locality. All these factors will require even more precise knowledge as the fossil fuel crutch, required for each and every part of industrial ag, from the inputs and financing to the growing to the processing and distribution and preparation, is removed once and for all.
Agroecology is proven to be the most nutritionally productive form of agriculture as well as the most calorically productive, acre for acre. Peter Rosset testifies
In fact, data shows that small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms, do so more efficiently, and produce food rather than export crops and fuels. This holds true whether we are talking about industrial countries or any country in the third world. This is widely recognized by agricultural economists as the “inverse relationship between farm size and output.” When I examined the relationship between farm size and total output for fifteen countries in the third world, in all cases relatively smaller farm sizes were much more productive per unit area—2 to 10 times more productive—than larger ones.
A team at the University of Michigan led by Catherine Badgley did a survey of hundreds of organic trials
and found that agroecology/organic production, using the same amount of land under cultivation right now, can maintain and improve upon current conventional bulk and caloric production for all significant food groups, and can do so while replacing synthetic fertilizers with natural nutrient cycling. They analyzed the data according to two models, one a best-case scenario and the other more conservative, and found that even by the conservative parameters organic agriculture would produce calories, including in grain production, comparable to today’s industrial output, and therefore more than enough to feed everyone on earth. By the best-case model, agroecology could produce over 50% more than the current industrial production.
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
Today we need to build new food systems in light of this knowledge. Where the age-old organic practices persist, as in Africa, farmers need to sustain them and enhance them in light of modern agroecological knowledge. Where these have been marginalized or obliterated, they need to be rebuilt.
In the past public sector agricultural investment worked well to support farmers, although in emphasizing industrial ag it was building on sand, for farmers and for itself. But in principle there’s no reason there couldn’t be a “New Deal for Agroecology”, which would have to start with land reform. As Rosset explains,
In order to reverse these trends and provide a life with dignity for farming peoples, protect rural environments, and correct the structural causes of the food crisis, we need to revitalize family and peasant farming. That means restoring the public sector rural budgets that were cut under neoliberal policies, restoring minimum price guarantees, credit and other forms of support, and undertaking redistributive agrarian reform. The peasant and family farm sectors in most countries cannot be rebuilt without land reform, which redistributes land from export elites to food-producing peasants and family farmers. This is a central pillar of the alternative proposal for our food and agriculture systems that is put forth by the international farmers’ movement.
This could be the basis for a general program of farmer assistance, public credit, public sector research and education on organic practices and public domain plant varieties, policy favoring local/regional inputs and natural demand-based markets, storage of the harvest and maintenance of grain reserves, doing all of these with full farmer input and participation in decision-making. All this would recognize the fact that the basis of a healthy economy, polity, and society is the ability of the productive class to buy everything it needs for a decent life. So given the premises of modern civilization and the middle-class aspiration, agroecology is the most fruitful and healthful basis of agriculture. As always, where it comes to food issues the answer to any problem is along the same vector regardless of whether one’s a sincere reformist or a revolutionary. Either way one must be an anti-corporatist.
No such revival of public sector investment seems to be in the offing for much of the world. (It’s still working in parts of Latin America.) The system’s disaster capitalist response to the food price crisis of 2007-08 (NOT physical scarcity, which doesn’t exist) and the social unrest it provoked wasn’t to call for new investment, but new “investment”, meaning an escalated corporate agricultural assault, using the global financial crisis the banks themselves triggered as the pretext to accelerate and intensify corporate enclosure and domination. (That’s the definition of neoliberalism in this context: Corporatism’s use of globalization to seek and enforce total domination.*)
As Rosset put it, corporate agriculture has an “export-producing vocation”, what’s also called commodification, while real farmers have a “food-producing vocation”. In the end this is the clear criterion by which to judge the benevolent or evil character of a type of agriculture: Does it seek to produce food, or does it seek to produce commodities, toward the goal of corporate power? This is also the measure by which to judge anyone who claims to care about “feeding the world”. As we already see with biofuels (for which there is no demand and no market; the sector is 100% the planned-economy creation of government subsidies and mandates), corporate agriculture has literally zero concern with producing food for anyone. If the most profitable thing to do would be to burn the crops in the fields instead of harvesting them, it would do so. (This would actually be less destructive than harvesting industrial crops for fuel.)
Corporatism offers nothing to humanity but destruction, and humanity can find no path forward on the same Earth with corporatism. We have what might be called a “clash of civilizations”, or the final conflict of humanity against the depraved corporate “civilization”. Or we can keep the best of the word civilization and call corporatism a post-civilizational Hobbesian barbarism.
However one connotes it, the denotation is that this is a struggle between agroecology, as the basis of a steady-state economy of, by, and for the people, with Food Sovereignty as its companion political philosophy, vs. the totalitarian “growth” economy, and the neoliberal anti-politics which is its appendage. (It’s totalitarian because it recognizes nothing but its own imperative.)
This is a global struggle, and the front line is everywhere. Today the continent of Africa is the site of an escalating battle which promises to be the most critical of all.
[*Just as corporatism cynically regards country, government, and property
as tools and weapons to be exalted or disregarded according to convenience, so in the end it will be the same with money and profits themselves. They understand that money is a fiction, and that for those who greedily seek it power is the only thing that’s real. The only thing corporatism wants, like prior forms of totalitarianism, is total power and total control.]