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Agriculture

Industrial Agricultural Needs To Be Replaced By Agroecology — Soon

Farming with nature rather than against it seems like common sense, but industrial agriculture has a hard hold on global food production. It’s time to break the systems that perpetuate harmful growing practices.

Agroecology is a method of farming with nature rather than against it, applying ecological principles to agricultural systems and practices. It promotes diversity, resilience, social values, cultural practices, and circularity.

It’s also causing a lot of turmoil in the industrial agriculture world, because if it’s widely adopted, agroecology would change the existing systems of power and destructive corporate interests. How?

  • It questions industrial agriculture’s claims that it can feed the whole world.
  • It interjects into a Eurocentric idea of scientific data the value of farmers’ embodied, long-held understandings.
  • It looks at agroecological research and holds dialogue between different approaches to growing.
  • It respects contemporary science and Indigenous farmers’ knowledge.
  • It welcomes farmers of all genders — as well as young people — into farming communities.

It seems simple, right? Then why is something so compelling so contentious? Emily Payne, Food Tank‘s editor, posed this question in a recent editorial. It made sense for CleanTechnica to investigate and answer the question as part of its sustainability mission.

Among all sources of emissions, the agricultural sector accounts for nearly 25%, mainly because of the intensification of food production systems necessary to supply the growing demand of the population. Our current food and agriculture systems are the primary drivers of global biodiversity loss.

Every community on Earth faces food system challenges. We’re all confronting, to larger and smaller degrees, biodiversity collapse, flooding, soil degradation, malnutrition, and/or obesity.

Intensive farming systems — with their vast tracts of land, monoculture, pesticides, and barns filled with thousands of animals — contribute to these problems. By focusing on short-term gains rather than long-term sustainability, they exhaust natural resources and fail to nurture the land, wildlife, and local communities. The Factory Farming Awareness Coalition offers a list of intensive farming characteristics which harm animals, humans, and ecosystems.

  • Pasture Expansion: Increasing the amount of land being used can have serious consequences for biodiversity, which is lost when native plants and grasses are cleared to make room for grazing. Rather than planting or grazing more land, economic land use studies indicate that levels of intensification of the grazing system — higher rates of pasture intensification — result in smaller losses of natural vegetation and reduce pressure on biodiversity hotspots and intact forest landscapes.
  • Traditional Grazing: Cattle are allowed to free graze throughout an entire pasture, which destroys the plant life and does not provide adequate time for regrowth. In contrast, rotational grazing areas can be broken into smaller paddocks. The practice contains and moves animals through pasture to improve soil, plant, and animal health. As the Rodale Institute explains, only one portion of pasture is grazed at a time while the remainder of the pasture “rests.” Resting grazed paddocks allows forage plants to recover and deepen their root systems.
  • Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations: Concentrated animal feeding operations place large numbers of animals on relatively little land. Instead of grazing and gathering their own food, the animals have food brought to them. The animals are confined in small spaces with little room or opportunity to express natural behaviors. It’s downright cruel.
  • Crop Irrigation: Water scarcity is already an issue on every continent with agriculture, presenting a major threat to food security. When human-created systems control water in areas that are not able to naturally sustain them, risks and challenges result. Agricultural water scarcity is expected to increase in more than 80% of the world’s croplands by 2050. Agroecology incorporates more drought-resistant species.
  • Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Seeds: Many of the most abundant crops in the US are species that have been genetically modified. GMO crops are broadly classified as herbicide-tolerant (HT), insect-resistant (Bt), or stacked varieties that are a combination of both HT and Bt traits. Most GMO seeds are planted to produce 3 major field crops: corn, cotton, and soybeans. Then again, there are more than 120 varieties of GMO crops that have been regulated in the US, so it’s difficult to find processed foods that don’t include a GMO ingredient.
  • Use of Agrochemicals: Contemporary industrialized intensive agriculture uses large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers. They are intended to prevent crops from degradation caused by insects, pest infestation, and diseases. Agrochemicals include synthetic fertilizers, chemical growth agents, and concentrated stores of raw animal manure that are manufactured either synthetically or biologically. These chemicals wreak havoc on ecosystems, polluting water and killing off important species such as bees and ladybugs. The agrochemicals market size was valued at $218 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $286.93 billion by 2030.

Agroecology: A Necessary Alternative to Industrial Agriculture

Instead of the conventional, monoculture-based industrial approach which relies on external inputs, we need to develop sustainable, regenerative farming systems that improve the well-being of small-scale farmers, create diversity to make food production resilient to a changing and unpredictable climate, and produce sufficient food while enhancing biodiversity. Instead of marginalizing sustainable local food producers, we need to put sustainable local food at the center of our food supply, with small-scale producers feeding local communities, rather than being squeezed by industrial-scale global supply chains, according to Payne and others.

The alternative farming system that is truly sustainable is agroecology, which has practices that contribute to goals within sustainable agriculture:

  • to provide sufficient food for a growing world population;
  • to safeguard the environment and natural resources;
  • to use little to no fossil fuel-based energy; and,
  • to ensure economic viability for small and large farmers and their communities.

Organic farming, diversified crop rotations, biological pest control, extensive agropastoral systems, and agroforestry are all farming methods using agroecology. As an example, think of what happens when we incorporate ancient grains into our diets. Many methods contribute to such sustainable agriculture, a type of knowledge that is developed by the farmer through understanding local conditions and experimenting:

  • recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than using external inputs;
  • integrating crop and livestock farming;
  • diversifying species; and,
  • focusing on the ways in which crops and livestock can mutually benefit each other, rather than on individual species.

The Soil Association describes farming practices associated with agroecology.

  • Mitigate climate change — reducing emissions, recycling resources and prioritizing local supply chains;
  • Work with wildlife — managing the impact of farming on wildlife and harnessing nature to do the hard work for us, such as pollinating crops and controlling pests; and,
  • Put farmers and communities in control — they give power to approaches led by local people and adapt agricultural techniques to suit the local area — and its specific social, environmental and economic conditions.

Using a methodology called Tool for Agroecological Performance Evaluation (TAPE), FAO researchers found that agroecological farms achieve better outcomes on food security, dietary diversity, soil health, family farming benefits, increased biodiversity of pollinators and animals, and more. The Global Alliance has assembled a compendium called “The Politics of Knowledge.” It has several goals:

  • showcase the global knowledge on agroecology;
  • tackle some of the misleading narratives and questions about agroecology; and,
  • make transparent the systemic barriers leading people away from adopting these more resilient and nourishing approaches.

Final Thoughts about Agroecology

Governments have to take responsibility for the consequences of industrial agriculture and reexamine to whom funds are distributed.

The biggest climate bill that the US has ever passed also addresses food and agriculture. Several areas of conservation, food protection, and financial insulation for at-risk farmers are bundled in climate-friendly farm practices. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) contains a multitude of provisions within the Senate bill and includes a subset of nearly $38 billion for agricultural conservation, credit, renewable energy, and forestry.

To route such funds to agroecology, it will be important for the federal government to acknowledge existing power relations, decision-making processes, and opportunities for local participation in food systems. To reach beyond the lobbyists that come with industrial agriculture, funders can look to ways to strengthen the role of citizens and consumers in food systems, to celebrate a diversity of knowledge from local and traditional sources, and find ecologically-sound and viable solutions.

 
 
 
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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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