From “good to great”: ecological farming is coming!

Organic Farming in Negros. © Andri Tambunan / Greenpeace

2014 has been a good year for ecological farming. Also called agroecology, this knowledge-rich type of farming which protects and sustains the diversity of life on earth is gaining recognition as farmers struggle to adapt to a changing climate and the out-dated, chemically intensive model of farming – including GE crops – increasingly comes into question.

A special acknowledgement has come from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. In his final report he called for food democracy and agroecology:

“We cannot continue in this impasse of an oil dependent food production system. … Agroecology is really common sense. It means understanding how nature works, to replicate the natural workings of nature on farms in order to reduce dependency on external inputs.”

In her first public speech, his successor Hilal Elver continued along the same lines:

“The 2009 global food crisis signalled the need for a turning point in the global food system. … New research in agroecology allows us to explore more effectively how we can use traditional knowledge to protect people and their environment at the same time.”

More support for ecological farming has also come from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General, José Graziano da Silva. Speaking at a high-level roundtable closing the International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security in Rome, he said:

“Agroecology continues to grow, both in science and in policies. It is an approach that will help to address the challenge of ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms, in the context of the climate change adaptation needed.”

And while more voices are joining the call for agroecology, seen as critical to address climate change and water shortages, more robust evidence is emerging from scientists analysing the performance of ecological farming.

A new study from the University of California Berkeley shows that farming with ecological practices – which build on biodiversity (rotations, polycultures, etc.) – is an effective way to increase yields and reduce the ‘yield gap’ between organic farming and conventional farming.

The first important finding is that the difference between organic and conventional yields is less than some previous estimates: 19% lower yields for organic farming. Even more importantly, when biodiversity-based practices are applied in the best way, organic yields can be much closer to conventional, and, in some cases of a negligible difference.

These groundbreaking results prove how close ecological farming – i.e. diverse organic farming – is to delivering both: high food productivity and high virtue for the planet. Something that chemical-intensive farming will never be able to deliver.

If ecological farming received the same level of investment as conventional farming, in terms of Research & Development, training and extension, it could produce yields as high as those in conventional agriculture.

Where the yield gap is larger for organic cereals, such as wheat, it is also where most of the investment in conventional agriculture research has been focused. Imagine the potential for organic yields if agroecology received similar levels of investment in R&D to identify best practice, develop seeds suited to organic farming and so on.

This additional evidence that agroecology can help feed the world has prompted the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists to start a petition calling for increased public investment in agroecological research in the US, already signed by nearly 300 scientists.

Feeding the world is of course a big concern but we all know that simply increasing yields will not end hunger in a world that already produces 1½ times more than enough food for everyone but wastes one third of it and sends edible maize to refineries for biofuel production.

The current food system is broken.

It’s the way this food is produced that makes a difference. The key to ending global hunger is not to produce food for hungry people (who aren’t able to afford it), but to allow people to feed themselves.

Globally, the world’s smallholders produce 70% of the world’s food on 25% of the land. Yet these are also the poorest people. We don’t need to produce more food to end world hunger. We need to create an equitable food system for the people who actually produce the world’s food.

Smallholders need more land, better access to knowledge, water, and basic infrastructure, more education and health services – not GMOs, chemicals, and global markets!

And agroecology will suit them down to the ground because it builds on biodiversity and works with local resources.

Let’s shift those investments to agroecology! That would make 2015 a great year both for the planet and for our food!

Fruits and Vegetables at Pahiyas Festival in the Philippines © Jed Delano / Greenpeace

Iza Kruszewska is Ecological Food & Agriculture Campaigner at Greenpeace International.

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