Agroecology can be our new food system

Pesticides spraying in Thailand. 

The Ecologist
Corporations fear losing profits but going chemical-free in farming will be unavoidable to save our living planet.

Ending hunger and stopping the climate breakdown is not about increasing productivity but redistributing profits, regulating corporate power, and realizing human rights.

We are under constant pressure today to optimise – our bodies, the way we work and how we produce food. Uniformity is the rule, instead of diversity. But this industrial way of intensive food production is killing our living planet and locks people up in poverty. It’s time for a radical sustainable agricultural turnround.

So what is the worry about being fully sustainable in our farming? It is the lack of political consensus on what sustainable farming really means. This ambiguity creates room for greenwashing of intensive farming while suppressing and co-opting alternative approaches such as agroecology.

Low productivity is a common argument used against agroecology - but growing evidence in research proves its potential to increase yields – without any chemical inputs.

Unsustainable

The truth is that the radical agroecological pathway is a threat to the core business of agrochemical corporations – a fear that became obvious at the corporate-backed UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September 2021. Sooner or later, intensive agriculture will be brought to its knees because its dirty past will finally catch up with it.

Instead of arguing about what kind of farming practices can pass as ‘sustainable’, we should start to explain what practices are unsustainable and why they put further harm to people and our living planet.

Ending hunger and stopping the climate breakdown is not about increasing productivity but redistributing profits, regulating corporate power, and realizing human rights.

Simply put, all practices that rely on external or toxic chemical inputs - such as fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds, heavy machinery based on burning of fossil-fuels, large-scale monocropping and highly concentrated livestock raising are unsustainable.

Plenty of studies approve that these industrial farming methods have been major drivers of increasing biodiversity loss and poisoning of the natural world since their introduction in the 1960s.

Yet, it is genetic diversity that makes food systems resilient to threads such as pests, pathogens, extreme weather, and the climate breakdown. Can we really afford to continue destroying the immune system of our living planet, unknowingly, if we can still restore it?

Chemicals

Every year, the world loses about 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil. The extensive use of mineral fertilizers is a major cause of this shocking depletion of soils. The production of one tonne of ammonia (nitrogen fertilizer) needs one tonne of natural gas – which is a significant amount of fossil fuels.

The application of nitrogen fertilizers also produces nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, a 310-times more climate-damaging greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Over four million tonnes of chemical pesticides are applied in industrial farming every year to get rid of weeds and pests on crops. But its collateral damage to the natural world and wildlife such as insect mortality seems to have little importance.

Essential pollinators such as bees lose their sense of navigation and bumblebees their sense of smell. Herbicides also eliminate not only the targeted weeds but all nearby plants. Some pesticides that are banned in the European Union (EU) since decades are still applied in other parts of the world.

Greenwashing

Still today, taking serious steps away from this destructive industrial food production model is moving only at snail’s pace. Strong political influence from corporations, investors, and those people who are benefiting from the sale of chemical inputs is prolonging real change from happening.

A look at the solutions that were put on the table at the UNFSS and UN Climate Conference (COP26) in 2021 confirms their resistance to abandon the idea of turning these crises into capital.

Either called climate smart agriculture, nature-positive production, digital agriculture, regenerative farming or carbon farming, in the end, they are all just one and the same, “greener” versions of intensive farming.

Repacked as nature-based solutions (NbS), they still aim above all for productivity increases without forgoing the profitable chemical inputs.

Productivity

The US’ outcry against the EU’s Farm-to-Fork (F2F) sustainability strategy at the G-20 Agricultural Ministerial Meeting in September 2021 reveals the fear of agrochemical corporations to lose profits.

In their logic, the EU strategy could lead to massive productivity losses, thus more global hunger. At the UNFSS, the US also used this argument to gather supporters for its ‘Sustainable Productivity Growth for Food Security’ coalition that should attack the EU’s sustainability ambitions.

Such powerful alliances create distraction and prolong urgently needed decision-making processes.

In fact, the F2F strategy makes a momentous move against intensive agriculture with its objectives to half the use of pesticides by 50 percent and reduce excess fertilization by at least 20 percent by 2030 while increasing organic farming by 25 percent. It’s no wonder, the US study that was used to weaken the F2F policy process has not included a shift to chemical-free production systems.

Powershift

Agroecology is often drowned in the pot of market-based NbS as its fundamental differences in application and effect are not officially acknowledged. There is no lack in good reports, practices, or studies but political will to commit to radical change.

Because agroecology is not only a transition to ecological growing practices but a shift in power from big agrochemical corporations to small-scale communities – who make up 70 percent of the global hungry. Thus, it redesigns agricultural systems by “reshuffling the wealth produced and regaining of control” for small-scale communities.

Agroecology improves crop resilience to climate shocks and maximizes biodiversity through the practices of diversification - e.g., crop rotation, intercropping and mixed farming. It replaces chemical inputs by integrated methods to deal with pests and weeds and recycles waste for long-term soil fertility.

It realizes the human right to food and nutrition of small-scale communities by breaking them free from their stringent dependencies on pricy chemical inputs - meaning the logics and structures of industrial agriculture that often keep them in a poverty spiral.

What’s more, agroecological farms sustain productivity over time because they keep their life support systems healthy and still perform well under environmental stress.

Whereas industrial farms’ productivity becomes at times more unstable, as a 2012 study shows: Yields of intensive farms either failed to improve, stagnated, or even collapsed in 24 to 39 percent of staple crops’ areas worldwide from 1961 to 2008.

Hope

The UNFSS and COP26 in 2021 have again been more ‘blah, blah, blah’ of the same old and failed stories of a sustainable intensive agriculture.

But the evidence is clear: a defective system cannot be constantly rebooted until it destroys itself and everyone around it.

Ending hunger and stopping the climate breakdown is not about productivity but redistributing profits, regulating corporate power, and realizing human rights.

This productivity dilemma can be overcome if agroecology is advanced as a new food system.

Fingers crossed 2022 brings new hope for civil society movements around the world and will make their voices for radical actions louder.

This Author

Astrud Lea Beringer is a political writer and advocacy expert in food sovereignty, peasants’ rights, and environmental justice.

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