As trends in investment in agriculture in poorer countries edge up, the combined effects of climate change, energy scarcity and water paucity now demand that we radically rethink our agricultural systems.
Business as usual will not do. An unprecedented combination of pressures is emerging to threaten the health of existing social and ecological systems. Population and income growth, urbanization, changing consumption patterns, stagnant yields, demand for land, feed, and biofuels, and the impact of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation are driving limited resources of food, energy, water and materials towards critical thresholds.
The combined effects of climate change, land degradation, cropland losses, water scarcity and species infestations may cause projected yields to be 5-25% short of demand by 2050, and 600 million additional people could be affected by malnutrition as a direct result of climate change by 2080.
The current food system is failing to feed the world adequately, and widespread poverty and inequality mean that many are too poor to access the food that is available. Despite there being enough food for everyone, an estimated 925 million people are hungry and another billion suffer from 'hidden hunger' and micro-nutrient deficiency, while 1.5 billion people are overweight and obese, and a third of all food for human consumption is lost, spoiled, or wasted.
Productivity gains from the Green Revolution have not always been sustainable over time and often came at a high social and environmental cost, including the depletion of soils, pollution of groundwater, biodiversity loss, high household debts, and increased inequality among farmers.
With case study evidences from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia and Pakistan, and citing global studies and surveys, this report argues that agro-ecology – or ecological agriculture – offers tools that can help the poorest communities to develop new, affordable, dynamic, low-carbon and locally-adaptable models of agricultural development to meet these multiple challenges. Recent research shows that agro-ecology is highly productive and holds great promise for the roughly 500 million food-insecure households around the world.
Agro-ecology is the application of ecological science to the study, design, and management of sustainable agriculture, and it is based on practices such as recycling biomass, improving soils through green manures, mulches and bio-fertilisers, minimising water, nutrient and solar radiation losses, intercropping, mixed farming with a variety of crops and farm animals, and minimising the use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. We highlight:
Pakistan Ecological agriculture enabled 172,000 poor inhabitants in the remote Allai Valley in the Pakistani Himalayas rehabilitate and transform the environment, food security, livelihoods, incomes and social and gender relations following a devastating earthquake in 2005. Some 437 village committees trained thousands to adopt bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides, cultivate organic vegetables, set up 35 women-run seed banks, plant a million soil-binding native trees, and establish commercial organic horticulture and floriculture enterprises.
Farm profits and productivity, food security, nutrition, health and education outcomes, employment opportunities, livelihoods, the environment and soil health all improved considerably.
Vegetable cultivation expanded by 1,000 acres in the Allai Valley, 80% of households now cultivate their own vegetables, and rice and maize yields increased by 15-20%.
Bangladesh Over 21,000 poor men and marginalised women benefited considerably under a grass-roots scheme to tackle poverty and hunger through ecological agriculture in six remote districts of Bangladesh.
The Food Security for Sustainable Household Livelihoods (FoSHoL) project used participatory methods to market locally-adapted seeds, set up women-only rice grain banks, used integrated crop and pest management systems (mixed cropping, bio-insecticides), diversified into mini-fruit orchards, fishponds and tree nurseries, grew high-value vegetables on dikes, roadsides and embankments, set up homestead gardens and poultry rearing, established rice-fish culture, and established biodiversity centres and village-level savings and credit groups.
As a result, rice production increased by 5-10%, vegetable and fruit production rose by 25-40%, poultry and livestock production improved by 30-40%, fish production enhanced by 20-30%, and average net returns grew by 20-30%, because of higher value addition and cost savings from spending less on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
Cambodia About 50,000 resource-poor smallholders in Cambodia with plots of land of 0.2 to 0.6 hectares adopted a farmer-led and farmer-propagated ecological agricultural system to boost yields, incomes and self-reliance. Based on local knowledge, seeds, and varieties, and known as the Multi-Purpose Farm through Farmer (MPF-FA) initiative, the system includes the low-input production of rice, fruit trees, multi-purpose trees, perennial crops, seasonal crops, vegetables, fish, and farm animals. A recent survey of 107 farmers that adopted the low-input System of Rice Intensification (SRI) shows rice yields increased by 61%, the amount of costly rice seeds reduced by 53%, while the use of chemical fertilisers dropped by 72%. Other research over the last decade shows an increase in rice yields of 30-150%, and increases in farm profits by 300%.
Indonesia 114 smallholders recently established their own alternative markets and started selling organic vegetables directly to consumers and local supermarkets after setting up four village- based agro-ecology production co-operatives in Bogor district in Indonesia in 2010. Working with the Indonesia Peasant Union (Serikat Petani Indonesia, or SPI) villagers have clubbed together to form an organic compost network (using local chicken manure, sheep's dung and micro-organisms), a farmer shop, transport network, and an organic retail outlet to sell crops like spinach, rice, bok choy, lettuce, long beans and cucumbers directly to locals and urban consumers in Bogor city and Jakarta. Costs are down and incomes are up under the profit-share scheme, and livelihoods, skills and knowledge have improved markedly, says SPI.
We found little attention has been paid to the most cutting-edge ecological farming methods – approaches that improve food production and farmers' incomes and livelihoods, while also protecting the soil, water, biodiversity and environment, and with a very low carbon footprint. Highly effective alternatives do exist, but the best options are not being promoted sufficiently at the highest political levels.
Recent high-level research shows agro-ecology or ecological agriculture:
Increases yields crop yields increased by an average of 79% in a survey of 286 ecological agriculture projects in 57 countries covering 37 million hectares on 12.6 million farms. Yields increased by 116% in projects in all of Africa, and by 128% in East Africa. A 2011 survey of 40 ecological projects in 20 African countries on 12.8 million hectares found yields increased by a factor of 2.13, and over a period of 3-10 years, resulted in an increase in aggregate food production of 5.79 million tonnes/year, equivalent to 557 kg per farming household.
Improves food and nutrition security 12,500 farm households in drought-prone Cheha in Ethiopia benefited from ecological agriculture on 5,000 hectares of land by introducing new varieties of vegetables and fruit and forest trees, organic manure for soil fertility, natural pest controls and affordable veterinary services. This resulted in a 60% increase in crop yields and a 70% improvement of overall nutrition levels. Other surveys show more diverse sources of food led to increased nutritional security for children and all members of the farmer household.
Reduces rural poverty for every 10% increase in farm yields, it is estimated there is a 7% reduction in poverty in Africa and more than a 5% poverty-reduction effect for Asia. Low cost 'push- pull' pest management systems have more than doubled maize yields from below 1 to 3.5 tonnes/hectare, and 30,000 smallholders have adopted them in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania through town hall meetings and farmer field schools. Some 1.3 million Malawian smallholders have adopted agro-forestry by using local nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs and increased maize yields from 1 tonne per hectare to 2-3 tonnes. Young men have gained employment rehabilitating degraded land through building tassas and zai planting pits in the West African Sahel.
Builds resilience co-construction and participatory research to improve local 'orphan' crops adapted for local conditions and climates are proving highly effective and adaptive to local growing conditions. Some 14,500 smallholders are benefiting from higher yields (up from 4.4 to 10 tonnes/hectare) and improved micro-nutrients in 19 new locally-adapted varieties of orange, sweet potato in Uganda and which can suit various local soil types and rainfall conditions. A pesticide- free and participatory-bred variety of tef (known as Quncho) has spread from 150 hectares to 50,000 hectares in four years through smallholder farmers' co-operatives and extension networks.
Has multiple benefits the revolutionary System of Rice Intensification (SRI) has spread via farmer-field schools, peasants' networks and led farmer field-based knowledge exchanges through 40 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Substantial increases in yields and farm profits are achieved with 80-90% reductions in seed requirements, substantial reductions in the use of synthetic fertiliser and agrochemicals, and 25-50% less irrigation water.
Increases climate resilience a farmer-led organic composting, water harvesting and crop diversification approach in the arid and overgrazed Tigray region in Ethiopia has significantly increased yields for smallholders, increased climate resilience and brought multiple benefits to 18- 20,000 small farmers and 100,000 poor beneficiaries, particularly female-headed households. Benefits include an improved hydrological cycle with raised water tables and permanent springs, improved soil fertility, rehabilitated degraded lands, increased incomes, increased biodiversity, and increased mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Zai pits, water harvesting, and agroforestry in Burkina Faso and Niger have re-greened 3 million hectares of land, restored soils, raised water tables and increased food production and climate resilience during dry spells.
Mitigates climate change agro-ecology can mitigate climate change by acting as a carbon sink and by reducing dependence on fossil fuels and other energy requirements, especially by reducing the use of nitrogen fertilisers. Ecological and organic agriculture reduces carbon dioxide emissions by between 48% to 60% and reduces energy requirements by 25-50% compared to conventional farming.
Empowers small-scale producers the active participation of small-scale farmers and producers is vital for the success of knowledge-intensive agro-ecology practices. Agro-ecology has been developed by grassroots peasants' groups and farmers’ movements, and farmers’ organisations, networks and co-operatives have demonstrated how they can rapidly 'scale up' successful agro- ecology initiatives from Brazil to Kenya and Cambodia, especially through forging links and developing trust with research institutions and extension bodies.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests an additional investment of 0.16% of global GDP – equaling $198 billion – needs to be invested annually until 2050 in ecological agriculture, better storage, and smallholder-focused rural development to make a successful transition to an ecological agricultural system that will increase food availability to around 3,200 kcal per person per day by 2050 and be able to feed 9 billion people. FAO estimates it would cost $209 billion a year in such ecological approaches and rural development to achieve increases needed by 2050.
Beyond recognising informal and customary tenure rights and ensuring access to land, water, seeds, forests and fisheries for small-scale farmers, peasants and the landless in the face of an unprecedented modern-day land grab, governments have a key role to play in curbing the concentrated market power of multinational food and agribusiness corporations and in regulating food and agricultural markets.
Governments must also ensure key public goods, such as effective rural extension services, access to plant genetic resources and biodiversity, storage and transport facilities, rural infrastructure (roads, electricity, information and communications technologies), access to local and regional markets, affordable credit and crop insurance, and smallholder-focused agricultural research and development, rural education and support to farmers' organisations and cooperatives.
Over 1,400 civil society organisations from 32 countries in the International Food Security Network (IFSN) and partner organisations such as the Indonesia Peasant Union (SPI), the Sungi Development Foundation, and the Centre d'Etude et de Development Agricole Cambodian (CEDAC) are calling for major new investment and support to scale-up smallholder-focused agro- ecology and ecological agriculture to help tackle poverty, hunger and climate change. We urge the world leaders to:
Support and strengthen small-scale farmers', peasants' and producer groups and cooperatives to enable them to further advocate for and scale-up agro-ecology and ecological approaches
Make reference and incorporate agro-ecology and ecological agriculture into comprehensive national strategies for the realisation of the right to food and ensure they are devised through the participation of small-scale producers and civil society stakeholders and that they prioritise the needs of women and men small-scale producers.
Ensure references to agro-ecology and ecological agriculture are included in the agriculture sector of national adaption plans of action (NAPAs) and in the list of nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs) adopted by countries to tackle climate change.
Significantly increase and re-orientate public spending in agriculture towards agro-ecology and ecological agriculture and towards the provision of public goods, such as small-scale focused extension services, agricultural research and rural infrastructure.
Support participatory research and plant breeding that combines indigenous and traditional knowledge with science and modern technology. Include schemes designed specifically for women and support its dissemination through existing farmers' organisations, movements and networks.
Phase out input subsidy schemes for agro-chemicals (such as fertilisers and pesticides) in favour of subsidies to promote ecological agriculture.