The Benefits of Agroecology for Increasing Food Production

In a new report the UN’s special reporter on the right to food says that agriculture is at a crossroads and suggests that the way forward to increase yields depends not on industrial-scale farming but on sound ecological farming.

Olivier de Schutter says that food production and farming are in need of a revolution on the scale of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution if food production is to be increased and food prices are to be kept under contro.

But increasing food production to meet future need will not be enough without also making progress in improving the income levels for the poorest, particularly small-scale farmers, as well as making progress on reducing malnutrition.

Studies of eco-farming projects in more than 57 countries have demonstrated that average crop yields in poor countries can be increased by 80% by using natural methods for improving soil conditions and protecting against pests, his report says.

Agroecology combines the sciences of agronomy and ecology using a wide variety of techniques, many of which are based on knowledge of local conditions including the predators and indigenous plants that can keep pests and diseases under control.

It is, says de Schutter, a coherent concept for designing future farming systems, strongly rooted both in science and in practice, and has been shown to work well in projects in 20 African countries, where sustainable intensification has been developed during the 2000s.

Projects included crop improvements, integrated pest management, soil conservation and agro-forestry, and average crops yields doubled over a three to ten-year period. The systems used were more sustainable also, because they were not reliant on fossil energy (oil and gas).

His report argues that eco-agriculture is “knowledge intensive” and requires states to devote far more investment and resources that they currently do. It means bringing together the best of what scientists can offer and the valuable experience of smallholder farmers.

De Schutter’s report also makes clear that although agroecology methods are needed throughout food production to farm more sustainably the transition will be harder to make in the developed world which he argues is addicted to an industrial, oil-based model of farming.

Although the report focuses on the benefits to the world’s poorer communities some of the arguments are also applicable to farming methods in the developed world.

The UK’s Food and Drink Federation has just released figures showing that exports of food and drink had reached £10 billion in 2010. It is therefore becoming increasingly important to the economy and this arguably increases the importance of UK farming’s also increasing yields in a way that is sustainable given that there is a limited amount of land available on a small island.

There is an opportunity here for the efforts of the biopesticides research companies to develop a new range of low-chemical agricultural products (biopesticides, biofungicides and yield enhancers) to play a part in removing the dependence on the oil-based faming model in the UK as well as other parts of the developed world.

The science of biopesticides development depends on developing effective plant protection products derived from natural materials as animals, plants, bacteria, and certain target specific pests and diseases. They are effective in very small quantities and often decompose quickly so that they leave little or no residue in food or in the soil and water of the ecosystem where they are used.

Perhaps it is time for more state investment in this increasingly important sector of the UK economy to help farmers gain greater access to these new products and the information about how to use them to help them take advantage of this opportunity for economic growth.

Copyright (c) 2011 Alison Withers