UN report on agroecology

Whenever I hear claims about “feeding the world,” this UN report comes to mind.

From my 19 March 2011 P&P post, reprinted in full:

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The adoption of agroecological farming practices can double food production in critical regions, says UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter.

From the press release (pdf): “If key stakeholders support the measures identified in the report, we can see a doubling of food production within 5 to 10 years in some regions where the hungry live.”

De Schutter’s concise and readable report, ““Agroecolgy and the Right to Food” (pdf), was presented March 8th at the 16th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Agroecology, he writes, is both a science and a set of practices.

As a science, agroecology is the “application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems” (Altieri 1995). As a set of agricultural practices, agroecology seeks ways to enhance agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes, thus creating beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of the agroecosystem.

He describes three objectives of food systems:

First, food systems must ensure the availability of food for everyone, that is, supply must match world needs. …

Second, agriculture must develop in ways that increase the incomes of smallholders. Food availability is, first and foremost, an issue at the household level, and hunger today is mostly attributable not to stocks that are too low or to global supplies unable to meet demand, but to poverty; increasing the incomes of the poorest is the best way to combat it. Cross-country comparisons show that GDP growth originating in agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as GDP growth originating outside agriculture (World Bank 2007; Alston et al. 2002). …

Third, agriculture must not compromise its ability to satisfy future needs. The loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of water, and pollution of soils and water are issues which compromise the continuing ability for natural resources to support agriculture. …

The primary sources for De Schutter’s conclusion about a doubling of production yields are two papers lead authored by University of Essex Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Science & Engineering and Sustainability & Resources Jules Pretty.

From “Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries,” published in 2006 in Environmental Science & Technology:

Here we show the extent to which 286 recent interventions in 57 poor countries covering 37 M ha (3% of the cultivated area in developing countries) have increased productivity on 12.6 M farms while improving the supply of critical environmental services.

The average crop yield increase was 79% (geometric mean 64%). All crops showed water use efficiency gains, with the highest improvement in rainfed crops.

From “Sustainable intensification in African agriculture,” published 2011 in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability:

Foresight (UK Government Office of Science Foresight project) commissioned analyses of 40 projects and programmes in 20 countries where sustainable intensification has been developed during the 1990s-2000s.

The cases included crop improvements, agroforestry and soil conservation, conservation agriculture, integrated pest management, horticulture, livestock and fodder crops, aquaculture and novel policies and partnerships. By early 2010, these projects had documented benefits for 10.39 million farmers and their families and improvements on approximately 12.75 million ha.

Food outputs by sustainable intensification have been multiplicative – by which yields per hectare have increased by combining the use of new and improved varieties and new agronomic-agroecological management (crop yields rose on average by 2.13-fold), and additive – by which diversification has resulted in the emergence of a range of new crops, livestock or fish that added to the existing staples or vegetables already being cultivated.

De Schutter identifies five principles for scaling up agroecological practices, yet cautions that “the following principles should be applied with flexibility,” and “the move towards agroecology should be based on the farmers themselves – its main beneficiaries.”

The five principles (descriptions shortened, without ellipses):

Prioritizing public goods: Agroecological practices require the supply of public goods such as extension services, storage facilities, rural infrastructure (roads, electricity, information and communication technologies) and therefore access to regional and local markets, access to credit and insurance against weather-related risks, agricultural research and development, education, and support to farmer’s organizations and cooperatives.

Investing in knowledge: Agroecology is knowledge-intensive. It requires the development of both ecological literacy and decision-making skills in farmer communities. Investments in agricultural extension and agricultural research are key in this regard.

Strengthening social organisation by co-construction: Agroecological practices are best adopted when they are not imposed top-down but shared from farmer to farmer. Extension services play a key role in favouring the scaling up of agroecology. An improved dissemination of knowledge by horizontal means transforms the nature of knowledge itself, which becomes the product of a network.

Gender empowerment: Specific, targeted schemes should ensure that women are empowered and encouraged to participate in this construction of knowledge.

Organizing markets: Farmers should also be encouraged to move up the value chain by adding value to raw products through assuming increased roles in packaging, processing, and marketing their produce. Cooperatives can help them achieve economies of scale to facilitate adding value.

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