Agriculture is at a crossroads. Since the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008, foreign investment has soared as a means to lower costs and ensure the long-term viability of worldwide supplies. At the same time, a growing chorus of experts and activists is questioning the sustainability of a status quo approach. The industrial production system favored by major agribusiness players has failed to address the challenge of chronic hunger, nor account for adverse environmental impacts – is ‘agroecology’ the future of food?
Regina Tchelly grew up in a poor household in the hinterlands of Paraiba, a tiny coastal state in the tropical northeast of Brazil. While her childhood was far from easy, Tchelly never experienced the pangs of povertydriven hunger. She was imbued from a young age with a particular form of rural resourcefulness that teaches one not to let any food go to waste, as well as how to cook delicious and healthy dishes from ingredients others would discard. When Tchelly turned 20, she followed the well-travelled path south to Rio de Janeiro to become a maid. Working for wealthier families, she could not believe the amount of food being thrown away. More importantly, Tchelly came to realize that if people were educated in how to make full use of every available ingredient, poverty could be reduced as a barrier to a satisfying and nutritious diet.
With start-up capital of less than $100, Tchelly ultimately launched Favela Orgânica in 2011 – an organic catering business and cooking school run from her tiny kitchen in the recently ‘pacified’ favela of Morro da Babilônia. In weekly classes for a rapidly expanding community clientele, Tchelly teaches fellow favela residents how to use natural food scraps like banana peel and carrot leaves to eat well on an extremely limited budget. As a successful social entrepreneur – the initiative has influenced a burgeoning movement well beyond her immediate neighborhood – and leading voice on waste and food recycling, Tchelly has become a regular and passionate advocate at international food fairs and conferences focused on sustainability, gastronomy and agriculture.
The growing attention to food waste is more than justified. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has calculated that we lose 1.3 billion tons of food between field and table every year. To put that figure into perspective, this equates to approximately one-third of all food produced globally, with a value of almost $1 trillion. As United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director, Achim Steiner, declared recently, “wasting food makes no sense – economically, environmentally and ethically.”
Food waste, however, is only one part of a larger, structural problem. Between 2006 and 2008, global prices increased by 83 per cent. Yet despite the price-reducing effect the subsequent economic downturn has had on other internationally traded commodities, food prices are not declining. In fact, 2012 saw the cost of wheat increase by almost 30 per cent, with soybeans following a similar upward trend. Corn, another crucial staple in much of the developed world, has reached an all-time high due to extreme weather in key producing areas, including the Midwest of the United States (US), Ukraine, Kazakhstan and parts of Latin America and the Black Sea region. This surge in food prices, when combined with insecurity in relation to production and stocks, has led prominent analysts to issue dire warnings about a looming food crisis in the year ahead.
The FAO, meanwhile, forecasts a future that could be even gloomier. The earth’s population is estimated to grow from just under seven billion to over nine billion by 2050 – equivalent to adding another two Europes to the world. Based on this projection, in order to maintain the current food-to-people ratio, productivity will have to increase by approximately 70 percent in the next 40 years. The solution may appear self-evident: intensify production to replenish the world’s granaries and find new ways to increase yields to avoid future crises. Yet, such logic only holds if we are facing a scarcity problem – in other words, insufficient food for everyone. This is not the case.
Based on FAO data, the world produces enough food to feed the entire global population. The problem is this food does not reach everyone in the same way. According to prominent author, professor and activist, Raj Patel, the ratio of chronically hungry to overweight individuals is currently one billion to nearly two billion – a substantial increase from the figures of 800 million to one billion cited in the first edition of his influential book Stuffed and Starved upon its release in 2007.
The problem of distribution then, is critical. It is also fundamentally rooted in the logic of market capitalism: food is treated like any other commodity and is sold to the highest bidder. This makes perfect sense from a profitmaximization standpoint – less so if you cannot afford to feed yourself or your family. Distribution and access is an issue not only for food insecure citizens and small-scale farmers in the developing world, but also for those in developed countries that have lost their purchasing power and livelihoods in the wake of the global recession. Think of the approximately 46 million people in 2011 that lived under the poverty threshold in the US (there were less than 40 million in 2008), or of the 250,000 Greeks that line up everyday to receive a free meal from the Greek Orthodox Church.
The sad irony is that while the poor (new and old alike) are going hungry, nearly half of the world’s cereal production is used to feed animals to satisfy an increasing demand for meat products. In an official report to the Human Rights Council in December 2010, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, estimated meat consumption would increase from 37 to 52 kilograms per person between 2000 and 2050. The report also noted that reallocating cereals used in animal feed to human consumption was “a highly desirable option in developed countries where excess animal protein consumption is a source of public health problems.” Similarly, even accounting for the energy value of the meat produced, the loss of calories resulting from feeding cereals to animals instead of humans “represents the annual calorie need for more than 3.5 billion people.”
Beyond distribution issues, capital and technology-intensive industrial agriculture also requires massive areas of land to be cultivated via monoculture planting. This specialization, in order to maximize production per hectare, demands large amounts of water, chemicals to fertilize crops and control weeds and pests, significant energy and the development of a supporting infrastructure – from research to storage, transport to markets. It also has a deleterious environmental impact. Cultivating the same crop on the same land year after year increases erosion, depletes the nutrient reserves in soil (decreasing fertility), increases salinization and alkalinization, drastically reduces biodiversity, exploits and pollutes local water resources and contributes to the resurgence of pests that have developed a genetic resistance to pesticides.
De Schutter has warned that increasing food production to meet future needs is insufficient as a strategy in itself. Expanded production will “not allow significant progress in combating hunger and malnutrition if it is not combined with higher incomes and improved livelihoods for the poorest.” Similarly, short-term gains will be offset by long-term losses if they are achieved while further degrading ecosystems, threatening the ability of the global agricultural sector to maintain required levels of production in the future. A growing chorus of voices has begun to stress the need to find a better way. De Schutter himself has made a cogent case for ‘agroecology’ – praising the virtues of a system that would facilitate the “transition towards a low-carbon, resource-preserving type of agriculture that benefits the poorest farmers.”
Agroecology was conceived as a convergence of agronomy and ecology. In practical terms, the approach draws upon ecological principles to design and manage agricultural systems that are productive, but also resource conserving. That is, which sustain yields and optimize the use of local resources while minimizing the negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of modern technologies. Although first coined in the 1920s, the concept began to take shape in parallel with the rise of the environmental movement of the 1970s and has assumed an increasingly prominent role in global policy discussions around the ‘right to food’ (the FAO, UNEP and Biodiversity International are all supporters). Core agroecological principles include: recycling nutrients and energy, rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than on individual species. But how could we both increase production and advocate for systemic change along agroecological lines? “There is nothing contradictory there,” explains Patel. “Small-scale production can produce more food than industrial agriculture.” He adds, “that’s one of the big myths that needs to be cleared away. Industrial agriculture is about growing a monoculture. When everything works out perfectly in laboratory conditions, those crops can outperform similar crops. But that is not the real world, where there is variability and climate stress – where ground water is less predictable, where pests are variable. What you need is not a magic crop, but a portfolio of crops.” Studies on multiple cropping systems conducted in Mexico as early as the mid-1980s already indicated that a corn monoculture had to be cultivated on a plot of land of 1.73 hectares to produce the same amount of food as a smaller one hectare plot planted with a mixture of maize, squash and beans. Agroecology champions can point to similarly encouraging data drawn from a large University of Essex study completed in 2006, which identified 286 projects of resource conserving technologies in 57 developing countries encompassing a total area of 37 million hectares. The average recorded crop yield increase was 79 percent, with one quarter of the projects reporting a 100 percent increase in relative yields.
The UN is not the only institution backing systemic change. The European Union (EU) has also begun to look in a similar direction. With discussions launched over a new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – a set of programs currently accounting for approximately €50 billion, or almost half, of the EU budget – the EU could be on the verge of a radical reform of the way agriculture is done in the old continent. “Until now, the CAP has invested a large amount of money in the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund, whose role is to support farmers’ income through market measures and direct payments tied to agricultural production,” says Michele Antonio Fino, a professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. “These subsidies would end up in the pockets of farms or businesses that maximized production through industrial agriculture and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.” Fino sees an opportunity to divert a larger portion of CAP funds to the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, where “payments will mainly be allocated to those farmers that green-up their businesses and produce sustainably.”
But things are not so simple in Brussels. Various interest groups are working to retain their market share. “Lobbies are trying to influence the vote so as to block or at least re-write the majority of the measures that should make the European productive system more sustainable,” says Carlo Petrini, Founder and President of Slow Food International. Described as the Don Juan of the food world – and more importantly, as someone who has single handedly changed the way we think about eating – Petrini remains skeptical about the possibility for genuine change embodied in the reform process. “With the most recent amendments, we passed from greening to green-washing: 82 percent of European farms and producers would, in fact, be exempted from greening-up their companies.”
Predictably, progress has been swifter outside the EU institutional logjam. In 2009, Ecuador passed a framework law that placed special emphasis on provisions targeting small scale farmers. In particular, by promoting access to capital and investment for small and medium sized agricultural enterprises, alongside a participative approach to food sovereignty laws and integrated educational initiatives. In Brazil, a net food exporter where the right to food is now enshrined in the Constitution, a 2010 law establishing a national program of technical assistance and rural extension for family farming and agrarian reform focused its support on the expansion of agroecological activities. While agribusiness accounts for 62 percent of the country’s agricultural production value and is largely responsible for Brazil’s monocultural export-led sector, family farms employ approximately three-quarters of all rural labor and produce most of the population’s basic foodstuffs. Support to this group has been critical for food availability and access.
Yet the debate between status quo industrial agriculture versus the mainstreaming of more sustainable practices does not always tilt in favor of the latter. The public consultation process intended to feed into Australia’s first-ever National Food Plan has been marked by conflict between the entrenched interests of powerful agribusiness and retail players and an increasingly combative coalition of civil society stakeholders. Following the release of an interim ‘Green Paper’ in July, which discussed potential policy directions focused largely on boosting exports and realizing Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s vision of Australia as a future “food bowl of Asia,” the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance launched a counter project titled the People’s Food Plan. This document – based on the Canadian People’s Food Policy Project – is being developed through the input of consumers, farmers, community organizations and food businesses with the aim of providing bottom up, shared alternatives prioritizing resilience, sustainability and equity.
While state support can bolster or obstruct efforts towards agroecological reform, the debate over the future of food is not only being played out in plush parliamentary offices or the multilateral corridors of power in Brussels, New York or Geneva. It is also taking a non-institutional form in the often-heated discussions between those advocating for a polished and rebranded version of the 1960s Green Revolution – which succeeded in improving yields in Mexico and South Asia, though with high social and environmental costs – and those pushing for a more fundamental rethinking of production systems. The cause of sustainable, healthy and quality food is not only being taken up by NGOs, civil society actors and analysts, but also by peasants, farmers, consumers and chefs.
Take La Via Campesina, for instance – an international network bringing together approximately 200 million peasants, small and medium-sized farmers, indigenous people and agricultural workers from 70 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. The organization was responsible for introducing the influential idea of ‘food sovereignty’ – the right of populations to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods, as well as to define their own food and agriculture systems. Other similar networks promoting sustainable and equitable agriculture include the Réseau des Organisations Paysannes et des Producteurs Agricoles de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, the Eastern & Southern Africa Farmers’ Forum, the Assessoria e Serviços a Projetos em Agricultura Alternativa and Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra in Brazil.
Proponents of an alternative production system can also be found in more industrialized nations. Slow Food was founded in 1986 in Piedmont, Italy. Since its inception, the movement has advocated for locally-sourced, healthy and good food, combined with environmentally-conscious production. Located at the crossroads of sustainable agriculture and gastronomy, in 2000 Slow Food began planning and developing an initiative that could encapsulate its approach to production and consumption. The result – a rapidly expanding suite of ‘Presidia’ projects aimed at maintaining biodiversity, boosting producer income and local employment in rural areas and improving the social role of producers while strengthening organizational capacity. In pursuing the Presidia initiative, Slow Food hopes to at the same time make a cultural contribution by promoting forgotten products, crops and producing regions.
According to the first long-term evaluation study released last year, the results have been “remarkable from an economic point of view,” confirming the existence of a growing number of high quality products, which at the same time have “strong cultural and environmental value.” In fact, despite some difficulties linked to implementation, the number of Presidia has grown in almost a decade to over 400 projects in 50 countries. Products like Aged Asiago cheese from the Italian region of Veneto – which was on the verge of disappearing in 2000 – have been preserved, along with traditional techniques of ageing. Reflecting the broader goals of the project, the Presidium also helped safeguard the local high mountain pastures and revitalize a dying sector.
Slow Food’s emphasis on products and producers points to perhaps the final piece of the agroecology puzzle – namely, consumers. While the place for the consumer in the debate over sustainable agricultural practices is crucial, the room for maneuver is relatively small. On the one hand, it is true that by shopping differently we send a clear message of the products we want in our shopping basket. On the other, these issues are primarily structural and systemic, making genuine change complicated. Fortunately “consumption is only a small part of what we can do every day,” insists Patel. “It is one of these myths of green-capitalism that the only thing we have to do to change the world is to shop. Historically, all the big changes that have happened in the world have come not though shopping differently, but through protest and standing in solidarity with the people affected by these systems. We are affected too. So we need to explore possibilities other than eating sensibly, shopping as locally, seasonally and sustainably as possible, and making sure workers are paid a fair wage. We need to move beyond that.” While fair-trade and green certification schemes can appear to re-frame personal food preference as political choice, they in reality only represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to deep, systemic impact shaping global agricultural practices. What supermarkets and other parts of the retail web can represent, however, is the first step in our engagement with the challenge of food insecurity. A step towards the understanding that by advocating for agroecology, by taking part in urban community gardening associations, by reducing food waste, by paying attention to dietary choices and by asking questions and caring about products beyond their pricetag, established processes can change. Ultimately, the way the agricultural system is shaped and run at the global level – despite the ease with which one can feel remote or insulated – impacts all of us three times a day, everyday.
Photo © Paola Viesi