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Going beyond organic: Agroecology as the next step

Third World Network and Aliansi Petani Indonesia (Indonesian Peasants Alliance) recently organised the Southeast Asian Training Course on Agroecology, from 5 to 9 June in Solo, Indonesia.

This article reports on the training course, which was organised to build the capacity of farmers, farmers' organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on sustainable agriculture, in order to equip them with a comprehensive understanding of agroecology, its principles and concepts, and the evidence base of its successes, as demonstrated by examples from all over the world.

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Going beyond organic: Agroecology as the next step

By Nina Somera

In the vast sugar plantations in the central islands of the Philippines, the hacienderos are picking up lessons from small farmers who resisted the Green Revolution. Many are turning to organic agriculture. This is also an emerging trend in some Latin American plantations whose leadership and control suggest the endurance of colonialism.

But if just a few companies practising organic agriculture dominate 70% of the market, as in California, is there enough reason to consider this a step forward with the environmental and climate crisis as a backdrop? With social justice as a primary benchmark of change, indeed this may well be a step backward.  

Agroecology, as consistently articulated by progressive scientists led by Miguel Altieri and Clara Nicholls, is an emerging alternative in sustainable agriculture. Indeed, it goes beyond organic agriculture because at its core lie the leadership of farmers and interests of communities.

Altieri and Nicholls were joined by more than 40 participants from Indonesia and the rest of the region at the Southeast Asian Training Course on Agroecology, organized by Third World Network and Aliansi Petani Indonesia (Indonesian Peasants Alliance) from 5 to 9 June in Solo, Indonesia.

The course was organised to build the capacity of farmers, farmers’ organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on sustainable agriculture, in order to equip them with a comprehensive understanding of agroecology, its principles and concepts, and the evidence base of its successes, as demonstrated by examples from all over the world.

Agroecology as a concept

As a science, agroecology is deemed the most balanced approach in addressing food security and at the same time ensuring environmental integrity. In fact, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), currently regarded as the most comprehensive and independent assessment of agriculture to date, has dubbed agroecology as a way forward in food security and in rectifying the damage wrought by the Green Revolution. As it asserts, “An increase and strengthening of agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST) towards agroecological sciences will contribute to addressing environmental issues while maintaining and increasing productivity.”[i]

Agroecology mimics nature, its diversity in terms of landscape, species and synergies as well as high levels of recycling. Hence in an agroecological farm, a field is surrounded by trees, which, like a forest, act as a buffer for winds and rains while providing food, fodder and natural fertilisers. Meanwhile the field mixes different varieties of different plant species including those in the hedgerows, and integrates animal species such as eels which shake off the pests in rice paddies, chicken which hunt for snails in corn fields, and beneficial insects which act to control pests. Indeed an agroecological landscape features balanced relationships that are complementary, antagonistic and neutral. “Agroecology copies a natural ecosystem and its inherent strengths include interdependency, self-regulation, self-renewal, self-sufficiency, efficiency, and diversity,” Altieri explained.

Otherwise bothersome species like weeds play a critical role in agroecology. As Nicholls, herself an entomologist, remarked, “One way to diversify farms is to introduce ‘weeds’, which also have an ecological role. They are trap crops which are capable of repellent action, attracting pests and are a source of alternative food for beneficial insects.” The same principle explains why Latin American farmers plant maize together with lupin, a weed that pests prefer. In Brazil, farmers planted cabbages with wild brassica, while in Colombia, it was observed that when beans are surrounded by a grass that has a certain odour, pests can be repelled.

Agroecology is a modern science that pays homage to traditional knowledge and the expertise of farmers. “Agroecology acknowledges the role of farmers and at the same time considers ongoing trends such as the realities of climate change, that farmers cannot predict the weather unlike before. Agroecology marries different approaches without interfering in a natural ecosystem’s operations,” Altieri remarked.

A native of Chile, Altieri highlighted innovative methods which have been perfected by indigenous peoples but have been overshadowed by the imposition of modern science. “In Latin America, farmers have organised themselves to protect their crops from frost by planting waru-waru several thousand kilometres above sea level. Through this, they managed to recover some 4,720 hectares which are vulnerable to frost,” he shared. Waru-waru is a technique in the Andes designed to control water and prevent soil erosion.

Agroecology as part of social movements

But agroecology is more than a science that attempts to mimic nature and restore its diverse species and relationships. It is informed by a collective need for change in a context that is dominated by industrial giants and resource-intensive agriculture. Next to ensuring environmental integrity, agroecology aims for food sovereignty, where small farmers take control over their land, enrich traditional knowledge, keep and diversify their seeds and provide food for their families.

Agroecology is a foil not only against the Green Revolution, which entails significant inputs, but also to similar quick fixes such as genetically modified (GM) crops. As Jack Heinemann in reviewing the IAASTD observed, “Any general claim that GM crops will reliably produce more than conventional crops in the same environments is not scientifically substantiated…The authors of the Assessment thus had reason to step back from endorsing bold claims of enhanced yield and/or revenue gains from existing commercial GM crops.”[ii] Besides, as several studies have suggested, the problem has never been the availability of food but rather its skewed distribution that has consequently led to a wastage that amounts to some 1.3 billion tons.[iii]

As Altieri pointed out, “When the food prices peaked due to speculation in 2008, the profits of Bungee, Cargill and ADM soared. The food empire controls the food that will be produced, the technologies to be used and the food and its quality and quantity that consumers will eat. Agroecology is one way to bypass this empire.” He further noted that apart from food, companies have secured lands, in several cases through massive land-grabbing, in the global South for the production of biofuels.

The bias of agroecology towards farmers likewise informs its participatory method of research. In fact, when new technologies are introduced, especially in rehabilitating damaged lands, the following principles are followed: that a technology is based on indigenous knowledge; is economically viable, accessible and based on local resources; is socially, culturally and gender sensitive; is risk-averse and adaptable to the changing environment; and enhances total farm productivity.

This method has also been extended in more political formations which support agroecology. In Latin America, the campesino y campesino programme, which features farmer field schools where traditional knowledge on farming can be enhanced, also aims for a political mandate for their members. This way, their members can influence policy processes and effect political change. 

Agroecology in Southeast Asia

In the Southeast Asian region, governments have become close followers of the Green Revolution, at times gravely compromising indigenous and traditional approaches. Gatot, an 82- year-old Indonesian farmer, still recalls the many times he spent in prison during the Suharto dictatorship because he kept his seeds and refused the package of new varieties and inputs from the government.

“Once I planted traditional paddy and the government took it out and I was detained for one week. After I was imprisoned, I replanted the paddy. After that I invited the government to take my paddy. I told them that ‘this is the paddy that you burned’.  I have been in and out of prison.

In any case, what we do is called sovereignty. This is the power for us to create among ourselves. We do not have to kill other species, unlike Monsanto, which all have to fight against,” he shared. Today, Gatot has been going around the country teaching seed banking even to university students. Back in his home, he has kept and enriched some 35 varieties of rice.

Like Gatot, scores of small farmers have resisted industrial agriculture and have turned towards organic farming. In the Philippines, the provincial governments of Negros Island forged an agreement towards making the entire island an organic zone. With supporting ordinances, these provinces can benefit from the subsidies allotted through a national law on organic agriculture. Today, a public-private partnership formation called the Negros Island Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Foundation (NISARD) supports 10 “organic villages,” providing training and opportunities for marketing.

Meanwhile in the Mekong, similar initiatives are undertaken to foster traditional breeds. Thailand’s Alternative Agriculture Network sells its members’ produce to a green market and at the same time conserves about 180 varieties of rice, both traditional and improved. Within the group, there are 1,000 farmers who are engaged in organic farming. Similarly, Cambodia’s Farmer and Nature Net (FNN) has been promoting small-scale farmer households, botanical pesticide and composts, natural resource conservation and reforestation.

One of the key challenges confronting farmers in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand lies in the state of the Mekong River, where more dams are being built and water is increasingly diverted for the use of industrial farms, among others. As the Community Development and Environment Association (CDEA) of Laos lamented, “Water source is poor so many projects fail. The water is also not that clean.” Likewise, the Sustainable Agriculture and Environment Development Association (SAEDA), which also promotes a market for the produce of small farmers, added, “farmers are faced with concerns such as the dominance of businesses in controlling agricultural policies, high volume of imports, infertility of the soil, loss of traditional culture, pesticides, lost biodiversity, health impacts, high investment, and low yields.”

Women and agroecology

The role of women in agriculture, especially in keeping traditional knowledge, is quite significant. In some cultures, certain seeds and varieties are used in rituals which are often performed by women on behalf of communities. Anecdotal stories about the Green Revolution refer to women as among those who resisted the new varieties of potatoes and rice, and as a result kept traditional seeds which became useful when it was clear that such conventional farming was a failure.   

The preference of women to stick to traditional and indigenous methods in maintaining small farms allows them to embrace agroecology easily. Such preference is not only an outcome of women’s doubt over the Green Revolution. In fact there is a strong link between violence against women and low yields in conventional farms, whose failure to produce expected yields leads men to vent their frustration on women and girls in the household.  

In Vietnam, the Center for Sustainable Rural Development (SRD) involves women in its projects in more than 10 provinces, where it promotes the system of rice intensification (SRI) to reduce pesticides and water needs. In some SRD-supported projects, the farmers surround their corn or rice fields with wild trees and sunflowers to repel pests. The tillage area uses rice straw to keep the cattle house’s floor clean. Wild peanuts surround the tea crops to save on water and improve tea quality.

Meanwhile in the Southern Philippines, the METSA Foundation specifically caters to women farmers, who are trained in organic farming, organising communities, collecting traditional seeds and developing natural fertilisers. Despite these women-focused programmes, much remains to be done in terms of the cultural context of METSA’s members. As METSA described, “We still have a patriarchal culture, where women are often regarded as helpers, who do not have decision-making power. Sometimes our members even have difficulty in applying what they have learned from our seminars.”

It is important to note that women are also among those immediately rendered vulnerable in issues around access to land. In other Asian contexts, many women do not own the land they till. These issues are further compounded by cases of contamination by GM crops and mining.

Moving beyond organic agriculture

While there is an increasing interest among small farmers in organic farming, a shift is not easy especially in lands that have absorbed pesticides. On the one hand, the interest in organic farming tends to counteract the sales pitches of GM crop producers. An increasing number of consumers now prefer organically grown crops as much as possible. On the other hand, the shift to organic farming by plantations has not been comforting for social movements.

Organic agriculture omits the use of pesticides and, in the marketing of its produce, requires a certification process which can be done by producers, buyers and an independent body.

This process entails cost for the small farmers, who need to pay the same amount of resources as plantation owners as the standards are silent about the size of the land. 

According to Altieri, there are about 35 million hectares of land devoted to organic farming globally. However, 80% of these are monocultures. In California, 3% of organic farmers control 70% of the market.

These situations hardly reflect farmers’ food sovereignty and even social justice. As Nicholls pointed out, “The problem is that we are greening plantations which have displaced communities. It’s like ‘sustainable soy production’. The principles of agroecology can be applied in big farms but maybe not in thousands and thousands of hectares of oil palm.” 

Altieri affirmed, “Agroecology consists of social, economic and environmental goals. The features of a new biodiverse organic agriculture are family- and community-based, supported by land reform, just prices to farmers, fair trade and primacy of local markets, and conducive policies.”

This is the agricultural paradigm shift that the world needs to face the challenges ahead.

Nina Somera is a researcher with Third World Network.

Endnotes


[i] Greenpeace (2008). “The UN Agriculture Assessment: Results and Recommendations.” URL: http://www.greenpeace.org/belgium/PageFiles/16954/iaastd-recommendations.pdf

[ii]Jack A. Heinemann (2009). Hope not Hype: The Future of Agriculture Guided by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Penang: Third World Network, pp. 59-60.

[iii]United Nations Environment Programme (2012). “Food Waste Facts.” URL: http://www.unep.org/wed/quickfacts/

 


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